August 27

Slapstick 12 Stories Up: Why It Can’t Be Done Today

What I found amazing about a recent screening of the comedy Safety Last! (by Harold Lloyd) was that, nearly 100 years later (it was released in 1923), the audience still laughed. The highpoint is the final scene where Lloyd scales a building. It’s worth watching the whole thing:

We laughed, in part, because we feared at any moment he could fall. After all, in 1923 Hollywood didn’t have 3D effects or green screens. In the film, it doesn’t look like he’s wearing any safety harness or that there’s any netting below. There are plenty of shots of him with the same buildings in the background and we assume that he didn’t film any portion in a studio. Part of what makes this so masterful is that we believe there’s real danger, and we wonder how he did it. This article helps shed some light:

Lloyd wrote:

“There was no back-projection in those days, of course, so when you see me climbing, I’m really climbing. We had platforms built below the skyscraper windows–they were about 10 to 15 feet below, covered with mattresses. After the picture, we dropped a dummy onto one of the platforms, and it bounced off into the street. I must have been crazy to do it.”

I doubt this production would have passed safety tests today.


On a side note, here’s how Harold Lloyd lost a few fingers:

Lloyd’s career was not all laughs, however. In August 1919, while posing for some promotional still photographs in the Los Angeles Witzel Photography Studio, he was seriously injured while holding a prop bomb thought merely to be a smoke pot. It exploded and mangled his hand, causing him to lose a thumb and forefinger. The blast was severe enough that the cameraman and prop director nearby were also seriously injured. Lloyd was in the act of lighting a cigarette from the fuse of the bomb when it exploded, also badly burning his face and chest and injuring his eye. Despite the proximity of the blast to his face, he retained his sight.