Safety Last (1923) is the classic thrill comedy, famous for its hair-raising climax: a reckless, ‘safety last’, humorous stunt on the side of a twelve-story skyscraper above busy city streets.
Harold Lloyd (The Boy) heads to the big city to seek success, promising to send for 'His Girl' (Mildred Davis, Lloyd's real-life wife) after he has 'made good' with fame and fortune. While working as a clerk in a department store he talks the manager into offering $1000 to anyone who can bring more customers to the store.
Harold organises a contest to climb the outside of the building but circumstances conspire which force him to make the perilous climb himself. In a remarkable, daredevil set of sequences Harold Lloyd climbs the skyscraper, encountering new difficulties at every floor, the most memorable of which is an enormous clock.
This leads to one of the most famous cinematic images of all time when Harold hangs from the minute hand of the collapsing clock, dangling dangerously above the street.
Carl Davis, a conductor and composer of music for feature films, television, silent films, ballets and musicals has been associated with silent cinema since 1976. He’s composed 50 ‘silent’ scores, which include the comedies of Harold Lloyd, Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and Harry Langdon.
Davis turned to Gershwin, Kern and other composers from the 20s when working on Safety Last to capture the brightness and buoyancy of America at that time. Davis says ‘'The man seemed to suggest the music. Lloyd nearly always played his own character - sometimes he even called himself Harold in films. I tried to express this throughout Safety Last.’
The motif Davis has created features in his score for Safety Last. 'Harold Lloyd is a descendant from the 1920's. An average American, forever optimistic, always a winner. I wanted to reflect that feeling of optimism in the music, that uplifting, college dance, showbiz type of feeling'.
To tackle 'the climb' scene (which we've taken a clip from above) Davis has used techniques of classic melodrama, matching the suspense of the climb note by note. Every nerve racking incident that takes place on each of the twelve floors is echoed in the score, which enhances the atmosphere of danger in the build up to the final climax. Watch the clip and see whether you can hear:
- The string technique used when 'The Girl' (Mildred) finds out that it is 'Her Boy' climbing the skyscraper.
- The dissonant harmonies as 'The Boy' hangs from the clockface.
- The descending scales as 'The Pal' throws the rope out of the window
- The syncopation (off beat music) as 'The Boy' is desperately trying to catch the rope as it swings out of his reach.