Film academy marks 90th year of ‘Safety Last,’ Hollywood sign
Back in 1923, silent-film clown Harold Lloyd had one of his greatest successes with “Safety Last,” which features the iconic sequence of him dangling off a clock on a high-rise in downtown Los Angeles. That same year, the symbol of moviemaking — the Hollywood sign — was erected in the hills above the city.
On Friday, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ Oscar Outdoors screening series is holding a 90th birthday party for “Safety Last” and the sign, both of which have endured thanks to restoration and preservation efforts.
The Hollywood sign, which originally read “Hollywoodland,” wasn’t created to promote the major studios that had set up shop in Los Angeles after years in New York and New Jersey. It was actually an advertisement for a local real estate development and was only supposed to be up for 18 months.
But as the film industry grew, the sign came to symbolize the power, panache and influence of cinema. And so it became part of the landscape.
The sign lost the “land” suffix in 1949 when the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce started a contract with the City of Los Angeles Parks Department to repair and rebuild the sign.
Randy Haberkamp, the academy’s managing director for programming, education and preservation, has put together a clip reel for Friday night of 35 films that have used the Hollywood sign, from the 1930s to the recent Oscar-winning best film, “Argo.”
“It’s a lot of fun because, as you know, the Hollywood sign gets destroyed and changed in the movies,” Haberkamp said. “There is everything in the clips from the sign blowing up at midnight to Mighty Joe Young jumping through the ‘O’ to a ransom being left under the ‘W’.”
Audiences will be treated to a new digital restoration of “Safety Last,” two 35mm Harold Lloyd home movies and a clip of “Safety Last” that his granddaughter, Suzanne Lloyd, converted into 3-D.
Harold Lloyd came up with the idea for “Safety Last” while walking down Broadway in downtown Los Angeles one day.
“He looked up and he couldn’t believe it,” his granddaughter said. He saw Bill Strothers doing a “human fly” act on one of the highrise buildings.
“He saw the crowd’s reaction, where the people were screaming, yelling and fainting,” she said. “He thought, ‘I’ve got to put him on screen. I want this reaction.’ He introduced himself to Bill and said, ‘Come to the studio. I want you to meet Hal Roach, my producer.’ ”
Lloyd cast Strothers in the film as Limpy Bill, his character’s roommate and a construction worker who has human-fly capabilities. In the film, Limpy Bill is supposed to climb up the wall of a building as a publicity stunt for the department store where Lloyd works. But because he has to hide from a cop, Lloyd is forced to do the stunt.
Thanks to clever angles and movie magic, it appears that Lloyd was dangling way, way above the streets of downtown Los Angeles. Still, said Suzanne Lloyd, he was often up “five stories high. If he took a fall, it would be a pretty decent fall. In fact, when they showed some of the [footage] to the insurance broker, he refused to give him life insurance.”
Lloyd’s stunts in this film and his other comedies, including “The Freshman,” are even more remarkable because he basically had the use of only one hand. In 1919, a prop bomb he was holding exploded, temporarily blinding him, burning his face and causing him to lose the thumb and one finger from his right hand. He masked the loss with a glove and the public never knew.
“He found a way to cover it up and keep going. It’s remarkable,” Suzanne Lloyd said.
“Safety Last” also marked the last time Lloyd worked with his leading lady, Mildred Harris.
“They got married right before the film premiered,” Lloyd’s granddaughter said. “In the movie he got the girl, they got married and he gave her a home. In true life, he married the girl and gave her a home.”
The 90th anniversary celebration of “Safety Last” and the Hollywood sign is sold out, but there will be a stand-by line. For more information, go to www.oscars.org.
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