Centenarian film. A "thrill picture", as they called it when it came out back in 1923. There's no special effects, so Harold Lloyd1 climbing the exterior of a 12-story building is part stunt work (from him and a "human fly" stuntman) and part ingenious optical tricks:2

Here's how they did it.

First, they selected a building on North Spring Street in Los Angeles. It is a brick building, twelve stories high, and constructed in such a way that it has easy footholds on which to climb.

The entire climb of that twelve-story building was made—during the sequence. And in part of it, the long shots, Harold used a double.

Then they found three other buildings, of differing heights, all shorter than the main building. On the tops of these, they built sets exactly producing and paralleling the real building. Thus, the set where Harold was working corresponded exactly in height and position to the story where he was supposed to be on the real building.

But these sets were built several feet in from the edge of the roof, thus making it possible for him to work only two or three or four stories above the roof, instead of six, eight or twelve stories above the street.

They were built in just far enough so that the fall could be broken and so that a platform could be erected for the camera. Yet they were close enough to the edge so that by shooting with the camera at a proper angle the drop to the street looked absolutely straight down.

The climbing sequences made me feel a bit like when I watched Free Solo, sweaty palms. Maybe Safety Last! is the first climbing film. The first part of the film is slapstick comedy in the vein of Chaplin.

Safety Last! is in the public domain and you can watch it on Wikipedia (silent) or on YouTube (with Carl Davis' orchestra score).



  1. Note: Harold Lloyd didn't direct the film, the directors are Fred C. Newmeyer and Sam Taylor. But this is best described as a Harold Lloyd film so I'm making an exception in the name of this note.

  2. The passage is from the July 2023 edition of Photoplay Magazine, page 113 (continued from page 33 linked above). The digitized magazine issue is worth a quick look, if only for the funny ads on page 113.