• Email
  • Print

Safety Last

Harold Lloyd: The Man on the Clock

by Tom Dardis
Viking, 357 pp., $19.75

Harold Lloyd charmingly explored the possibility of simple hopes at a time when technologies of transport and communication, including the cinema itself, were making those hopes especially absurd. His screen figure shared with his audience worries about matters like getting a job, going to college (when this meant crossing lines of social class), and conducting romance according to the rules prevailing in small American towns. The boy-man whose beglassed face could pass abruptly from shy to earnest and who could move across the screen with artful clumsiness or reluctant agility was more popular at the box office than Chaplin or Keaton.

Tom Dardis’s book Harold Lloyd: The Man on the Clock attempts to characterize the success of Lloyd’s career and his economic if not artistic survival after the arrival of talking pictures. By stressing technique, the “how he did it,” in Lloyd’s life as well as in his movie-making, Dardis subscribes to a mythology that comes into serious question in his subject’s film creations. The character Harold Lamb, in The Freshman, consults books on cheerleading, football, etc., before setting off to college, where he discovers the limitations of a how-to approach (of this particular venture into higher education, more later).

These sentences by Dardis could have been a title in a Lloyd feature:

By the beginning of 1935 Harold was aware that he had lost a great deal of his popularity and that only a miracle could arrest his decline. But he was not going to give up without a fight.

We can imagine a girl’s rousing pep talk, some hesitant tries in the right direction, then a hair-raising predicament calling forth bursts of energy and luck.

No career is like this, but Lloyd’s may have come close. The youngster from several small towns in Nebraska got into theater and then movies through much persistence, hard work, and occasional hunger. There must have been times of considerable self-doubt—among the most affecting scenes in Lloyd’s films are those when he confesses cowardice and helplessness.

Whatever the connection between events in his life and these sympathy-eliciting film scenes, Lloyd and his team were able to move cinematically from such scenes to sequences that caricatured success and fulfillment. While Dardis discusses how Lloyd’s comedies brought him worldly success, he does not consider the implications of the fact that success was their subject.

Nor does he bother to deal with the aesthetic basis for such comedies. The first audiences for Lumière’s 1895 film of a train pulling into a Paris station (toward the camera) and for Edison’s 1896 film of waves breaking at the seashore (again toward the camera) were astonished. Kevin Brownlow writes that these early responses were “childlike,” and that something similar also occurred in a Rumanian town as late as 1931 when movies were first shown there.1 What astonished was not, of course, the subject matter of a train arriving and waves breaking, but that these familiar happenings had been lifted, along with their viewers, far from their active surroundings. What is kinetic in cinema is the audience’s imagination, playing upon compressed and accelerated time. Today most moviegoers forearm themselves in the knowledge that to go to the movies is to sit looking at people (movie stars!) doing things out there on the screen. We tend to think about movies referentially, not as the kinesthetic experiences they are.

By around 1914, the spontaneous motion of the chase had become common in film comedies, especially those made at Mack Sennett’s Keystone Studio. Viewers were fascinated by the turns of a chase and where they led, especially if the police, those official symbols of virtue, were included. The image of uniformed, bobby-hatted Keystone Kops rounding a corner at high speed, each holding another’s coattail while the line flexes like a whip, lets viewers feel themselves snap past the corner, as if they were Kops in the line, or objects of the chase just ahead of them. While such scenes may appear anarchic, they also suggest something about the relations of order to anarchy: the Kops chase and are chased, while the audience joins yet another chase, veering back and forth between the risks of escape and pursuit.

In Cops (1922), Buster Keaton brought the comic police chase to stunning formal expression. Here is a gag: the tiny Keaton figure runs through the streets pursued by masses of blue uniforms for having thrown an anarchist’s bomb. The chase goes here and there, suddenly turning down a street—down the screen and toward the viewer. Keaton comes first, growing larger in approach; the cops follow from the far corner. Now the chase explicitly presses upon the audience: if it doesn’t change direction it will run us down. Keaton abruptly stops in a foreground intersection and turns around to face his pursuers. With his back to us, we can now share his point of view, looking up the block “into” the screen at onrushing cops. Which way can he go now? Has he decided to give up? Then a car flashes across from the side, whisking him off the screen the way trains used to pick up mail bags. The gag’s release plays with the horizontal dimension of the screen itself: Keaton streaks off, taking with him our point of view, and we are then thrust back into the twists and turns of the chase.

Of course all these films, whether by Lloyd, Keaton, or Chaplin, can look distant to a present-day viewer, not only technically—they are full of old cars and clothes, quaint manners and attitudes. Keaton sometimes throws women around like heavy props, Chaplin often treats them as dolls. On this point Lloyd comes across better. In an awesome scene the grandma in Grandma’s Boy beats up a thug who menaces her front yard. And the interesting, energetic face of Lloyd’s leading lady in most of his features, Jobyna Ralston, is clearly not that of a typical Twenties sweetheart.

However, to me the silent comics retain their deepest and lasting appeal through gesture and motion that take us beyond the different social conventions of their time and ours. So, for instance, Chaplin trying to impress a fancy lady mimes all mannered pretense more than he caricatures a certain kind of manners. And Keaton’s Seven Chances, whose plot depends upon now-dated conventions about proposing marriage, opens out into an archetypal chase with crowds of women seeking revenge upon Keaton (for having misled them into thinking that he would marry whoever met him at the church). The chase moves through the city, across field and stream, and then along a high ridge where the women are joined by nature itself as huge boulders tumble down a hill after him. This image is as little tied to the era of its production as were the ancient maenads to the days when they first performed.

Lloyd’s case is interesting because his main theme, a young man’s striving for conventional success, would seem very much in danger of being outdated. Do his comedies about the pursuit of success engage us as deeply as they did his audiences in the 1920s, who were more concerned about how city-defined (and also cinema-defined) forms of success could be compatible with small-town virtues?

Safety Last (1923) contains Lloyd’s best-remembered image, of Harold hanging from the hands of a clock high on the building he is trying to scale. This episode still produces thrills, largely because it is so carefully prepared in the preceding scenes. Characteristically, Dardis concentrates on details of the sequence’s production and fails to notice its form.

The movie begins with the girlfriend’s harsh ultimatum to Harold, off to the big city to get a job: “It would just break my heart if you failed.” The first shot includes an ominous visual pun on a hangman’s noose and a piece of railway apparatus. Indeed Harold fails immediately—while enthusiastically waving goodbye he boards a horse-drawn wagon instead of the departing train.

The chase after success in the city begins in sequences dealing—comically, of course—with difficulties about loyalty to friends, paying the rent, keeping up appearances in letters home. Then we have a look at the rat race, with overloaded streetcars that change direction arbitrarily, and several gags about the need to get to work on time. Having feigned illness, Harold rides to work in an ambulance, where, in a reversal of the typical driver’s-eye view of the speeding vehicle, the street is seen rushing away as Harold looks out the back, the effect more dizzying because the view is gained through large reversed letters on the lurching window.

Harold’s lateness in getting to his department-store clerk’s job sets up a gag where he dresses as a mannequin. When carried past the time clock he reaches out, opens the glass, moves the hands back, punches his card, returns the hands, and closes the glass in time to be borne further into the store. There follow some scenes of chaos, culminating in Harold’s battle with a horde of women at a fabric sale. People tug and tear at the merchandise and then at each other’s clothing and limbs.

Harold’s glowing reports of success bring the girl to the city ready to marry him. Harold then makes use of the store manager’s office to pose as the manager. On the verge of being found out, he desperately proposes a stunt to solve the store’s publicity problems: he will get his friend Bill, who does things like this, to climb the store building’s facade. But Bill has had his own problems. He is being pursued by a cop. The solution is that Harold will climb the first story while Bill, hoping to escape, will take over the climb from inside the building. So the climb up the facade is accompanied by the chase of Bill by his pursuer up through the inside, Bill always seeking an opening to replace Harold.

What makes Lloyd’s climb unforgettable? After the commuting rat race, the scrimmage of the cloth sale, the flitting impersonations in and out of the office, the audience understands that Harold, when he starts climbing, has nowhere to go but up. The first shots are from relatively close to the building’s side; only when the climb is further along are the heights more openly revealed, at first with side shots showing altitude relative to similar buildings, and then nearer the top, in views straight down upon moving people, cars, and buses.

The audience’s suspense is reinforced through its being shown other audiences watching Harold besides ourselves: secretaries applaud Harold from their windows, but the owner of a dog that nearly causes Harold to fall snarls at him for frightening the dog. A drunk shouts inappropriate instructions. The crowd below gasps at the daredevil Charleston dance that ensues when a mouse crawls up Harold’s pants leg, causing him to gyrate rhythmically on a lofty cornice. Earlier in the film Harold himself was shown as an enraptured spectator of a building climber (Lloyd got the idea for the movie stunt from watching such a climber in Los Angeles).

Up to a point in the climb the gags concern obstructions to Harold’s vertical progress—a bag of peanuts and other objects fall on him. Suddenly everything begins to go in circles: a big round clock looms overhead. Next to it a rotary window offers a chance for Harold to change places with Bill the stuntman, who is still being pursued, up flight after flight of stairs. Harold goes in the window over its axis of rotation, then continues around and out, mirrored by Bill. Now comes the encounter with the clock, perhaps time’s retribution for his having manipulated the punch-clock. He slips and falls, grabbing the minute hand, which quickly turns down to half past the hour. Then the clock face breaks loose in an are away from the building, revealing large coiled wires that entangle his feet. Harold soon is swinging at the end of a rope, and is given a bop on the head by spinning anemometer vanes. At one giddy point the girlfriend shrieks—silently, of course, and therefore resoundingly. Harold and his audience gain the top of the building amid a vertigo of contingencies.

The making of Safety Last began with the idea and filming of a daredevil publicity climb. The basic gags came before Lloyd had a story to support them. When he began to make feature-length comedies (in 1921 he was the first to do so), he ran into difficulty fitting the gags into a plot. The new format, which more than doubled the length of each film, demanded far more character development and a more plausible story than the two-reelers where plot formation had been casual or, in the case of Sennett, almost nonexistent. Like an aphorism in language, the visible gag could form a world unto itself, having rhythm and structure apart from surrounding conventions. While gags are the stuff of silent comedy, they tend to supersede, thus to attenuate, the motives and expectations established in a story.

For Chaplin’s and Keaton’s features this uneasiness of gags was less of a problem. Consummate mimes, they could rely upon inflections of gesture—in effect, tiny gags—to get from one situation to the next. In their best work gags are brought together so smoothly that the story seems to take care of itself. How was such unity achieved? Chaplin did it by sheer force of his marvelous physical presence. Whoever or whatever he encounters is transfigured by dialogue with his articulate wrists, shoulders, and derrière. “The little fellow” (as he referred to his comedy self) is virtually always the close- or medium-range subject of the Chaplin camera. This is why his films have an indoor look, with even their (relatively few) outdoor scenes looking like sets on a stage for a great performer.

Keaton, a supreme outdoor film maker, made gags out of the camera and the screen themselves, as well as the horizon, the weather, stampedes, and wars. He expanded gags until they completely took over his characters and events. In The Navigator (1924), what begins as a clichéd story about a boy and a girl unsure of their love is swept up into the stream of gag possibilities opened up by their being cast adrift alone on an ocean liner. In The General (1926), the Civil War is comically transformed into a vast dance of locomotives. Of course the figure of Keaton himself is very much a part of these gags; but he is not so much the appealing center of attention for the camera and audience, as Chaplin was, as he is a figure whose energetic activity (e.g., running, swimming, soaring, concentrated gazing) creates the space in which anything can happen. J.-P. Lebel observes that the difference between Keaton and other masters like Welles, Eisenstein, and Murnau is that “while they have a ‘world vision,’ he has a ‘world action.’ “2

A less ethereal figure than the characters Keaton and Chaplin played, Lloyd’s young go-getter was much closer to the audiences that first saw his films. His difficulty in working out gags that would not distract from the plot is revealed in the episodic quality of several of his films, and in our feeling that they don’t know how to end—for instance, Why Worry? (1923), Hot Water (1924), For Heaven’s Sake (1926). In his best movies, gag, plot, and character blend together. What, after all, could be more harmonious than a plot about climbing up the ladder of success that culminates in a tour-de-force gag where the main character unwillingly climbs up the outside of the building where he works?

Or take the pair of gags in The Kid Brother (1927). Kid brother Harold, losing his grip on things, hides in a big basket, afraid of the chaos resulting from a carnival fire. Moments later the girl, disappointed and disoriented, is shown from the back, sitting on the basket appearing to sob uncontrollably. Actually Harold is shaking the basket trying to get out. She lets him out and he holds her in his arms. A drop falls on his hand, then a few more, and his expression of pleasure that she is actually crying on his shoulder finally gives way to acknowledgment that it has begun to rain. While the girl has reason to cry, it is part of the story that she is made of stern stuff.

The story of The Freshman, about a boy’s crude determination to be popular at college, leads to a long sequence at the college dance where his popularity literally hangs by a thread. A drunken tailor who hasn’t finished Harold’s tux bastes it together hurriedly and goes’ along to the dance with Harold to be on hand for ad hoc mending. The many gags hung on this premise include some obvious ones like a public loss of trousers, but their delicate timing and the interest generated in how the other characters will respond to them hold the sequence together, sustaining an overall narrative about making a good impression. Moments like these in Lloyd’s films readily come across to us, but only a few films, Safety Last, The Freshman, and The Kid Brother, stand up today as sustained works.

After extensive research and interviewing, Dardis devotedly chronicles Lloyd’s life and films. He tells about a less than idyllic childhood and an early love of magic, he offers a fine gallery of photographs, a complete filmography, descriptions of Lloyd’s associates, his income and contracts, and he summarizes plots of major pictures, giving quotations from reviews. The result is pleasantly peripheral, showing little comprehension of the uniqueness of Lloyd’s art. Indeed; the book treats Lloyd’s career as if it were a talkie, that is, as if plot and ambition made all the difference.

The outward facts of Lloyd’s life make tepid reading: he had one wife and various girlfriends, bought lots of cars and dogs, built an ostentatious mansion, salted cash away in the books of his library, and in later years became a stereophonic-equipment buff and wondered why his films were no longer popular. Contrary to the impression Dardis leaves, Lloyd’s screen figure stands (like a gag) quite uneasily against the background plot of his life. He was loved by millions because he lightened the burden of their own wishes for success. When Harold gets to the top of the building his triumph is indeed crowned by the girl’s embrace, but it is also accompanied in the notable closing shots of Safety Last by the roof the couple walks across: no store manager’s penthouse, but a quite ordinary roof with ordinary workmen spreading tar.

At the end of The Freshman Harold Lamb plunges toward the goal to save the game and win popularity at last. The coach screams, “Did he make it?” Players get up from the pile revealing Harold on the ground, the football safely in the end zone and his face jammed squarely into the goal line. He looks up at the audience, his face whitened by the lime, and grins a mime’s pure, wide grin. With these endings Lloyd perhaps achieved something that in its way is as great as anything Chaplin or Keaton did: he allowed success to mime itself.

  1. 1

    The Parade’s Gone By (University of California Press, 1976), p. 2.

  2. 2

    Buster Keaton, translated by P.D. Stovin (A.S. Barnes, 1967), p. 75. This remains far and away the best book on Keaton.

  • Email
  • Print