Harold Lloyd in Safety Last

An icon of the silent film era, Harold Lloyd first appeared on the silver screen in the short film The Old Monk’s Tale. Its release in February 1913 means this is the 100th anniversary of the start of Lloyd’s movie career.

A decade after that not-at-all-illustrious beginning, he would star in Safety Last!, which is almost definitely his most famous film — an unbelievably funny film where a simple store clerk organizes a contest to climb a tall building and ends up having to do it himself. Like Buster Keaton, Lloyd was a master of stunt work, making it look so effortless that audiences could be simultaneously stunned, awed and relieved. Laughter often followed gasps.

He was also a director and producer with a unique perspective on the birth of a popular art form. The question is whether his viewpoint can still teach us a few things about the process of filmmaking. I think there is, so here’s a bit of free film school (for fans and filmmakers alike) from a man we’ve known for a hundred years.

Comedy is Tension

“The more trouble you get a man into, the more comedy you get out of him.”

There’s been a tendency among some films (and certainly in the amateur film world) to take it easy on characters. If they get into any trouble at all, they’re whisked away from it too quickly. There’s an ease there that makes everything safe and fatally injures the ability to craft strong humor.

The truth is, there’s danger to be found in the synopses of many of the best comedies ever made. In Dr. Strangelove, the world is on the brink of nuclear annihilation with idiots in front of the big red button. In Blazing Saddles, a black sheriff is sent to protect a racist town that’s repeatedly been ransacked and brutalized. In Lloyd’s own Grandma’s Boy, a cowardly young man is tricked into facing a violent criminal in order to prove his courage and win the heart of the woman he loves. Done differently, all of these films could just as easily have been dramas or thrillers. They tackle difficult subject matter, adult situations and life-ending threats. Their characters are in very real danger, and that makes them far, far more funny.

Be The Best At What You Do

Lloyd got his start playing a character named “Lonesome Luke” who bore a striking resemblance to Charlie Chaplin’s Tramp. He made over 60 shorts featuring the character between 1915 and 1917, but then he did something unexpected. He retired the character, later citing Chaplin’s perfection of the style as his reason for leaving it behind. Instead of coming out the loser in the situation, Lloyd focused on his everyman Glass character and found huge success in the following years.

Instead of being thought of as a second-rate Chaplin, he evolved as a film persona and ended up being prolific and wealthy. Plus, you know, he’s remained a movie icon for a century.

A Gimmick Creates an Image, But Humanity Creates a Legacy

Lloyd once noted that his famous glasses created a notable trademark for only 75 cents. But it took removing them to make him the relatable figure that solidified his career:

Create Your Thrill First, Worry About the Rest Later

“About using scripts. In Safety Last, prob­a­bly one of our most pop­u­lar films, we did the final scenes of that clock climb first. We didn’t know what we were going to have for the begin­ning of the film.  We hadn’t made up the open­ing. After we found that we had, in our opin­ion, a very, very good thrill sequence, some­thing that was going to be pop­u­lar and bring in a few shekels, we went back and fig­ured out what we would do for a begin­ning and worked on up. We tried out the same thing in The Fresh­man.”

This probably only works if you’re a towering talent, but there’s something to the truth that crafting the water cooler moment gives you some leeway with the overall feel of the rest of the film. Obviously few audiences now will tolerate an hour of their time wasted simply to get to the jaw-dropping part (we can just YouTube it…), but having a great idea and building a centerpiece to start with aren’t such bad methods.

Comedy is Naturalism

“The man who tries to be funny is lost. To lose one’s naturalness is always to lose the sympathy of your audience.”

There are a lot of things that people mistakenly think are funny, but we can all hopefully recognize that there are few things as un-funny as someone trying hard to get a laugh. In fact, proclaiming that you’re funny may be the easiest way to turn off an audience (unless you’ve already shown that you have the skills).

Comedy works either as normal people adjust to an insane situation or insane people invade a normal setting, but that dichotomy has to exist. They magnify one another and create, you guessed it, tension.

“The spectacle of a fat man slipping on an icy sidewalk never fails to get a laugh. The same is true of a man attempting to drive a nail and mashing his finger in the process, or a man with his arms full of bundles attempting to keep his hat from blowing off. These things are funny because they have happened to all of us and probably will happen again. They are trying experiences for the individuals involved and we sympathize with them. But we laugh, nevertheless because they are human touches.”

Be Able to Do Something Extraordinary

This one’s a bit unfair, but just look at this guy:

With due respect to stunt work by Harvey Parry too. The question is this: if you can’t climb a building, what can you do that’s just as amazing? How can you utilize that in your filmmaking?

What Have We Learned

Film is a young art. It may not feel that way at times, and the atmosphere of today’s market might seem alien to those who first propelled Lloyd to stardom, but there are a few mainstays that keep the core of the art form looking as it did all those years ago. That one good idea can blossom into a wonderful movie, that hard work and raw talent can spell success, that putting someone beyond the safety of peace and comfort is the best start to building comedy.

Imagine that you made something as thrilling as the Clock Scene in Safety Last! was to audiences at the time. Audiences would have almost no choice but to stand up and take notice. That takes becoming the best at something – just as Lloyd did – and dedicating yourself to its further perfection.

But don’t climb any skyscrapers without safety gear or anything.

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