The film’s title is a play on the common expression, “safety first”, which places safety as the priority to avoid accidents, especially at workplaces. Lloyd performed some of the climbing stunts himself, despite having lost a thumb and forefinger four years earlier in a film accident.
Safety Last! is one of many works from 1923 that notably entered the public domain in the United States in 2019, the first time any works have done so in twenty years.
The film opens in 1922 with Harold Lloyd (the character has the same name as the actor) behind bars. His mother and his girlfriend, Mildred, are consoling him as a somber official and priest show up. The three of them walk toward what looks like a noose. It then becomes obvious they are at a train station and the “noose” is actually a trackside pickup hoop used by train crews to receive orders without stopping, and the bars are merely the ticket barrier. He promises to send for his girlfriend so they can get married once he has “made good” in the big city. Then he is off.
He gets a job as a salesclerk at the De Vore Department Store, where he has to pull various stunts to get out of trouble with the picky and arrogantly self-important head floorwalker, Mr. Stubbs. He shares a rented room with his pal “Limpy” Bill, a construction worker.
When Harold finishes his shift, he sees an old friend from his hometown who is now a policeman walking the beat. After he leaves, Bill shows up. Bragging to Bill about his supposed influence with the police department, he persuades Bill to knock the policeman backwards over him while the man is using a callbox. When Bill does so, he knocks over the wrong policeman. To escape, he climbs up the façade of a building. The policeman tries to follow, but cannot get past the first floor; in frustration, he shouts at Bill, “You’ll do time for this! The first time I lay eyes on you again, I’ll pinch you!”
Meanwhile, Harold has been hiding his lack of success by sending his girlfriend expensive presents he cannot really afford. She mistakenly thinks he is successful enough to support a family and, with his mother’s encouragement, takes a train to join him. In his embarrassment, he has to pretend to be the general manager, even succeeding in impersonating him to get back at Stubbs. While going to retrieve her purse (which Mildred left in the manager’s office), he overhears the real general manager say he would give $1,000 to anyone who could attract people to the store. He remembers Bill’s talent and pitches the idea of having a man climb the “12-story Bolton building”, which De Vore’s occupies. He gets Bill to agree to do it by offering him $500. The stunt is highly publicized and a large crowd gathers the next day.
When a drunkard shows “The Law” (the policeman who was pushed over) a newspaper story about the event, the lawman suspects Bill is going to be the climber. He waits at the starting point despite Harold’s frantic efforts to get him to leave. Finally, unable to wait any longer, Bill suggests Harold climb the first story himself and then switch his hat and coat with Bill, who will continue on from there. After Harold starts up, the policeman spots Bill and chases him into the building. Every time Harold tries to switch places with Bill, the policeman appears and chases Bill away. Each time, Bill tells his friend he will meet him on the next floor up. Eventually, Harold reaches the top, despite his troubles with a clock and some hungry pigeons, and kisses his girl.
Lloyd hanging from a giant clock on the corner of a building became an iconic image for him, but it was achieved with a certain amount of film trickery. Lloyd performed most of his own stuntwork, but a circus performer was used when The Boy hangs by a rope, and a stunt double – sometimes Bill Strother, who played “Limpy” Bill and was a steeplejack who inspired the sequence when Lloyd saw him climbing – was used in long shots. A number of different buildings from 1st Street to 9th Street in downtown Los Angeles, all of different heights, were used, with sets built on their roofs to match the facade of the main building, the International Bank Building at Temple and Spring Streets. In this way the illusion of Lloyd climbing higher and higher up the side of one building was created.
Fred C. Newmeyer and Sam Taylor [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons