When Tom Cruise scaled the Burj Khalifa in Dubai for a scene in Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol, it got a whole lot of attention, and rightly so. At 2722 feet off the ground, it's the tallest building in the world, and the fact that Cruise was willing to do the entire stunt himself likely enticed audiences to see the movie in large numbers. It was a rare feat achieved by one of the world's biggest stars who, by many accounts, is a great perfectionist and diligent worker. It was a stunt that was heavily prepared for in advance, and Cruise was protected by a harness and cable. What if, however, the film required him to climb the whole thing from the ground up?
That's not very likely, no matter what kind of movie one was making or who's in it. However, over ninety years ago, a stunt nearly as death-defying, in its own small way, was made by another big Hollywood star for a very different kind of movie - and it looks every bit as miraculous today as it did then.
Safety Last! starred Harold Lloyd as a guy named, by an amazing coincidence, Harold Lloyd, who goes to the big city to become a success so he can marry his small-town girlfriend. When the only job he can get is as a department store clerk, he lies to his girl in order to make himself seem like a big shot. In the climax, he gets his friend to climb the department store building from the ground up, as a promotional stunt, but when said friend runs into cop trouble, Lloyd is forced to do the stunt in his place.
Lloyd is considered one of the comedy giants of the silent era, along with Chaplin and Keaton. This was the first time I'd seen him, and while he wasn't bad, I gotta say I didn't think he was terribly distinctive from either of those two. He seemed to have Chaplin's innocence and playfulness and Keaton's daredevil streak. I suppose I was looking for something a bit different from either of those two, something more cutting edge, perhaps. Maybe if I saw more of his films I'd find what distinguished him from his peers.
So about that building-climbing stunt: while most of what you see in the finished product is Lloyd, what he actually scaled, according to the 1980 documentary Hollywood, was a fake facade built over the rooftop of a different building. The camera was positioned so that the street below could still be in the shot. Lloyd saw co-star Bill Strother climb a building in LA and was inspired to not only do the same for his movie, but to bring Strother on board as well.
Regardless of how it was done, I was fooled completely. It looks quite convincing, and seeing Lloyd do it without benefit of a harness or cable that could be digitally deleted in post looked strenuous enough. And of course, this scene has been copied and paid homage to in many places since. The rest of the movie is okay. There were some genuine laugh-out-loud moments. I liked it, although it ends without a resolution to his dilemma with his girlfriend, who still doesn't know the truth about his job. Poor storytelling there. Definitely worth seeing, though, if you've always wanted to know the context for that scene.