Harold Lloyd’s Sleight of Hand
The backstory of how the silent-film star—the guy in the glasses, hanging from the clock—decided to “climb” a building while wearing a prosthesis.
The American comedy genius Harold Lloyd rivaled Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, and today, even if people don’t know his name, he is internationally recognized as “the man in glasses, hanging from the clock.” That picture from his movie Safety Last! has come to symbolize silent film. And while Lloyd became a multimillionaire, owned his own pictures as well as one of the grandest estates in Beverly Hills, his was a career that tragedy almost ended before it began.
It is still a relatively unknown story. But from his late 20s onward, Lloyd went through life—and hung from that clock—missing half of his right hand due to an explosion at the movie studio in 1919. In fact, the Academy Museum of the Motion Pictures—due to open this fall—will have in its collection not only Dorothy’s red slippers from the Wizard of Oz and the high-tech gizmo used to make the T-Rex come to life in Jurassic Park, but also a long-overlooked artifact of film comedy: the prosthetic glove that recreated Harold Lloyd’s thumb, forefinger, and part of his palm (along with his glasses and makeup case). With the museum’s unveiling just months away—and the Oscars ceremony set for April 25—it seems an appropriate time to explore the fateful tale behind Lloyd’s 1923 classic, Safety Last!
Below is the backstory, told in treatment format.
Harold Lloyd, 27 (sans eyeglasses), is in a makeshift studio screening room watching his latest one-reel film, Jazzed Honeymoon (in which he appears wearing the spectacles that would become his trademark). After several years playing “extras” and trying out different characters, Harold is making short films with the producer Hal Roach and fine-tuning his role as cinematic comedy’s “Everyman.” Sitting next to him is his girlfriend and co-star Bebe Daniels, along with Roach and two others. The scenes on the screen establish Harold as an athletic comic actor and experienced dancer. Harold and Hal are clearly pleased, but Bebe is quiet. So after congrats all around, the couple leave to walk through what is clearly a low-cost studio of the period, with actors in myriad costumes passing by.
Bebe tells Harold that she believes she has the potential to be a big star, but to be honest, doesn’t see him being successful beyond his little comedies. For her to move on, she has to break off with him—both personally and professionally.
Harold is crushed, but Hal cajoles him out of his funk and schedules a photo shoot. Harold is indeed getting into it: in character, he digs through the prop boxes, donning hat and glasses, and practices various poses as the photographer is setting up. Harold lights a cigarette and, as the camera flashes, he playfully puts his lit cigarette to what he assumes is a toy bomb. The fuse, however, starts to burn. He drops the bomb, but a huge explosion overwhelms the flash coming from the camera, blowing a hole through the roof.
Harold is in bed with his head wrapped, his eyes patched, his arm in a cast. His right hand is bandaged. Doctors tell him he might be able to see again, but his hand will never function properly. Maybe he could be a photographer or a director, but not an actor. Visitors come in and out, and they include Samuel Goldwyn, who was a glove salesman before founding his own production studio. He suggests that his relatives, still at their New York glove factory, can come up with a prosthetic that will hide the injury. Encouraged, Harold is determined to be in front of the camera again within months. He and Hal agree to slow down the release dates of the three films they have in the can so his fans won’t notice the lag time as he recovers.
Harold, with his arm still in a sling but his eye patch gone, is walking in downtown Los Angeles. Head down, clearly in his own thoughts, he bumps into several people who are stopped in their tracks, looking upward. Finally shaking himself out of his self-absorption, Harold sees what they see: a “human spider” about a third of the way up the Brockman Building. Harold is mesmerized and petrified at the same time. He looks away, and looks back. He starts to walk on, but then stops again, giving in to the impulse to take in the curious spectacle. He watches, mesmerized, as a daredevil, using his gangly arms and legs, slowly makes it to the top of the 12-story Beaux Arts department store.
The crowd—which has gradually filled the street—bursts into applause. And that gives Harold an idea. He has been watching something completely alien to him, but he knows applause when he hears it, and that sets him into action. He goes into the building and talks his way into the boss’s office, where the young man is being congratulated for calling so much attention to the store. Harold introduces himself and tells the young man to come to the studio—he has work for him in the movies.
Harold, much less consumed with his injury, is full of ideas again. Back at the studio, he and Hal watch film clips to find a new leading lady. Maybe someone very different from Bebe. Maybe someone with light hair and a personality that is sweeter and more angelic. Such a face comes on the screen, and the assistant says her name is Mildred Davis. Hal and Harold agree they should audition her in person and send word to bring her in. The news comes back, though, that she has already given up on Hollywood and has returned home to Tacoma, Washington. They keep looking at other clips, but Harold can’t forget Mildred; a cable is sent urging her to return to Los Angeles as soon as possible.
The “human spider” comes to the studio, and Harold starts to work on a story line. He channels Bebe’s recent rejection and turns it on its head—as the romantic premise for the script with “the boy” going to the big city to make good because his girl won’t marry him until he proves he is a success. “The girl” follows him to the city to surprise him after, unbeknownst to her, he has gone through a series of embarrassing failures. He manages to persuade her—through various antics and near misses—that he is a department store’s general manager. He is running out of ways to win over his sweetheart when he learns that the department store’s boss is offering $1,000 to whoever comes up with a great publicity stunt. Harold musters the gumption to march into his office and convince him that he is his man and sets out to find “the human spider” to climb the towering department store. All is going well until a cop starts chasing the human spider and shooing him away. Harold, in a panic, has to climb the building himself, floor by floor, overcoming a series of comic obstacles. The script almost writes itself.
After several months, sight returns to Harold’s left eye. Several months after that, to his right eye as well. (Throughout his life, Harold’s right eye revealed black specks, which were tiny bits of shrapnel from the bomb.) Over time, he teaches himself to write with his left hand and gradually becomes ambidextrous. His prosthetic glove creates a new right thumb and forefinger, filling in the missing skin and muscle from his palm. However, he only uses it when he is in front of the camera. When he isn’t filming, he keeps his right hand in his pocket, and, when encountering fans or people he doesn’t know, he shakes hands with his left.
Mildred Davis, back home in Tacoma, is thrilled to get the cable asking her to audition at the Roach studios. However, she has convinced herself that it was her sweet and innocent look that caused her to be rejected by Hollywood, and, determined not to make that mistake again, she arrives at the studio dressed to the nines and looking so sophisticated and mature, Harold doesn’t recognize her. The misconceptions are sorted out. There is laughter all around and Mildred is hired to play his onscreen love interest. They soon begin working on the new feature, now entitled Safety Last!
Real life and reel life are intertwined as Mildred becomes taken with Harold but goes out with others, hoping to spark his jealousy. The filmmaker, however, is so focused on his movie he barely seems to notice. He takes her to a prim and proper Sunday afternoon tea, but when she overhears him talking about a party at William Randolph Hearst’s—at which the co-host is Hearst’s mistress, the actor Marion Davies—Mildred asks him about it. Harold professes that he would never take a “good girl” like her to a home where the couple isn’t married. Craftily, she gets Irving Thalberg, a rising studio executive, to take her instead.
When Harold runs into her there, he sees her in a new light. At first taken aback, he is increasingly more intrigued. Mildred soon becomes the first “Maybelline Girl,” appearing in ads that he starts to see in magazines. Gradually, he realizes that there is much more to this woman than he first thought.
Fade to: the making of a movie within the movie. Harold, Hal, and the human spider, in a series of vignettes, try different scenarios as they attack the challenge of climbing a building. They use pigeons, nets, ropes, construction workers. They also work on how to hide Harold’s injured hand with its new prosthetic glove. As the story progresses, we see how different scenes are shot using platforms, mattes, long shots, trick photography, different camera angles, and more, making it clear that Harold is much more than an actor; he is a versatile and multi-talented filmmaker. We also know if he is acting or not by whether he is wearing his spectacles. With glasses, he is transformed into the man in the street, a salt-of-the-earth character with whom moviegoers can identify; offscreen, without his specs, he is Hollywood handsome and sophisticated.
Friends—such as Thalberg, Goldwyn, Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, and Frances Marion (Hollywood’s highest-paid screenwriter and Mildred’s best friend)—come to downtown L.A. to watch the filming, which is taking place between 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. only, so shadows can be matched in the editing room. Doug is supposed to be the swashbuckler, but Harold is doing stunts that have never been attempted before. He is raising the bar for the industry. Each visitor responds to what Harold is doing in his or her own way: Fairbanks (encouraging but a bit threatened), Thalberg (amazed by what Harold is able to accomplish with an injured hand), Goldwyn (pleased that his glove idea is actually working), and Pickford and Marion (making sure that Harold is a suitable suitor for their friend Mildred).
The filming proves perilous. The demands of the shoot—actor and crew hanging out of windows, scaling balky structures, cameras dangling from mounts, the scenes repeated in order to capture them from various angles—present real physical danger to Harold and the Roach team. He successfully hangs from the clock but pulls his shoulder out. While the plot calls for Mildred—once Harold finally reaches the top of the building—to help him onto the roof, in real life, she is terrified of heights.
In fact, over the preceding weeks, Harold has dropped all resistance to her charms. They are becoming a prominent Hollywood couple, and so when he promises her a major gift at the film’s completion, she gets it in her mind that once the scene is over, he will actually get on his knee and, as his character does in the movie, present her with a real-life engagement ring.
Filming is completed. And at the wrap party, Harold gallantly presents Mildred with a small square jewelry box. Is it the ring she is longing for? Her expression reveals her disappointment. It turns out to be a diamond starburst pin—exquisite and expensive, but not the real deal. (It turns out that Harold wanted to propose in private, not in front of the crew.)
Cut to the premiere of Safety Last!—in grand Hollywood style, with roving floodlights, crowds, a gaggle of press, and a big sign that reads “Starring Harold Lloyd: THE AMERICAN Comedian and Mildred Davis.” The obligatory radio interviewer with a big mic greets the pair as they arrive, introducing them as Mr. and Mrs. Harold Lloyd.
Credits roll over home movies of the couple’s estate, their children, et cetera.
A coda. At Harold’s urging, Mildred leaves acting for the role of full-time wife, mother of three children, and overseer of the spectacular 14-acre Beverly Hills estate, Greenacres. Harold goes on to become one of the preeminent comedians of the ’20s and ’30s, and then gains prominence as head of the fraternal organization, the Shriners (helping to create and promote the organization’s hospital) as well as a pioneering stereoscopic photographer, known for his portraits of landscapes, famous friends, and nudes.
The Academy approaches Lloyd’s granddaughter Suzanne Lloyd, seeking memorabilia for its new museum and she agrees to donate the artifacts that—just shy of a century ago—were so central to Safety Last!
Title card reads THE END.
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