“Safety Last!” and the Draw of the Human Fly

silent film

Chances are, even if you haven’t seen a single silent film, you’re still familiar with this image. It’s an iconic shot that has been recreated by the likes of Christopher Lloyd in “Back to the Future,” Asa Butterfield in “Hugo” and Jackie Chan on several occasions, but the man who started it all, and is featured in the photo above, is silent film comedian Harold Lloyd.

silent film

You might remember Lloyd from last week’s post about actors and studios that cashed in on the popularity of Charlie Chaplin. Lloyd went through several character transformations, including the Chaplin-esque Lonesome Luke, before settling on his ‘glasses’ persona — the character that brought him silent film immortality.

Although Lloyd was considered the everyman, unlike Chaplin and Buster Keaton, his character seemed to find his way into the most bizarre situations. The best examples of which can be found in his thrill comedies like “Safety Last!” — the film that gave birth to the iconic image above. What’s interesting about the film is that it was born out of a marketing and publicity stunt.

silent film, man hanging off a building

In the 1910s and 1920s, department stores would often employ ‘human flies’ to bring publicity and attention to their businesses. Lloyd witnessed one of these stunts firsthand when he saw Bill Strother climbing the Brockman Building in Los Angeles as a stunt. Lloyd was fascinated and terrified, and hid behind a corner, occasionally peeking to check on Strother’s progress. When Strother reached the roof, Lloyd went up and introduced himself. After seeing the event unfold before him, Lloyd got the idea to translate that stunt into a film and gave Strother a role as his best friend.

silent film, Harold Lloyd, Safety Last

The climax of the film involves Lloyd hilariously and clumsily recreating the human fly stunt that he saw Strother perform. Of course, a number of obstacles get in his way, including a flock of pigeons and a relatively flimsy clockface. The climbing sequence itself represents a high point in silent film stunts and was such a hit with audiences that Laurel & Hardy, Buster Keaton and even Lloyd himself would recreate versions of it in later films. The fact that Lloyd wasn’t working in front of a matte painting or a rear projection, and really was as far up the building as he appeared to be, thrilled and terrified audiences, and continues to do so today. The fact that Lloyd did this stunt after losing his right index finger and thumb during an accident on the set of an earlier film is even more astounding.

You can watch the climbing sequence below.

Tell us your thoughts about our special series on silent film, and be sure to check out vintage tradepaper ads for “Safety Last!” on our Silent Film pinboard.

Want to dive deeper into the world of silent film? Keep up with my posts over on Curtains or on Chicago Nitrate.