This feature was published in conjunction with the centennial celebration of Safety Last! at A Day of Silents 2023
During the early 20th century, as fresh skyscrapers carved vertical skylines into America’s cities and more and more airplanes were flying overhead, there was a palpable sense of adventure and excitement in the air. The modern era had begun, with all its technolog- ical advancements, and audiences clamored for exciting new forms of entertainment. For the first time circus artists, vaudevillians, and stunt performers realized that the sky wasn’t the limit. Wing-walkers began dancing on biplanes, “human flies” crawled up ever taller buildings, escape artists dangled over vast heights—a whole new world of thrills had opened up for dare- devils willing to risk life and limb.
In 1900 Harry Houdini quickly rose to fame per- forming his gasp-inducing escapes on vaudeville’s stages and out-of-doors. From his well-known handcuff and straitjacket escapes to being locked in water-filled chambers and digging himself out of graves, he was foreveroutdoing himself to deliver spectator thrills. Some stunts he had mastered were given vertigo-inducing twists, such as wriggling free from a straitjacket while tethered upside-down to a crane. In the late 1910s, he added “film star” to his résumé, appearing in the action-serial The Master Mystery and features like The Grim Game and Terror Island, stunting for the camera and a much bigger audience.
STEEPLEJACKS AND “EXPLOTATION MEN”
The skyscraper stunt in Harold Lloyd’s Safety Last! had ample precedents in the real world. From 1905 to 1929 cool-headed steeplejacks—often nicknamed “human flies”—scaled tall buildings for rapt crowds below, usually only with their bare hands. One of the most prolific was Harry Gardiner, who conquered more than seven hundred buildings stateside then moved to Europe when New York passed legislation outlawing the climbing of “the outer walks of buildings.” What he did thereafter is lost to history, although some speculate it was his unidentified body found at the foot of the Eiffel Tower in 1933.
For his climbs “Crazy Jack” Williams often split any earnings with a local charity and during World War I raised money for the Red Cross. Working without any gear, Williams’s grip strength was so phenomenal that he could easily crush a raw potato with one fist. To add flair to his public feats he might stop halfway up a building for a casual smoke or shimmy up the flagpole at its top.
Hal Olver used his nerves of steel to become a go- to “exploitation man” for studios like Paramount, Goldwyn, and R-C Pictures, promoting the latest movies with his stunts. As described in Exhibitors Herald, Olver promoted the 1921 Sessue Haya- kawa film Where Lights Are Low by being hoisted upside-down in a straitjacket from the fifth floor of a building. He then “disengaged himself from his trappings and, it is natural to assume, unfurled the banner which gave out information of the picture engagement.”
“BIRD” ON A WIRE
Not all fearless building stunts involved climbing—in Bird Millman’s case skyscrapers served as anchors for her tightrope walking. One of America’s most renowned circus performers, Millman was a professional wire-walker at a young age and by 1913 was a center-ring performer for Barnum and Bailey. She was known for her exceptional grace and speed, and circus flyers would proclaim: “‘Wirewalker’ is a misnomer—she does not walk, she runs upon it, dances and swings in so fearless a fashion.” To help sell war bonds she performed on a wire strung across Broadway in New York City, suspended a dizzying twenty-five stories in the air. She also lent her breezy talents to two feature films in 1920, The Deep Purple and The Law of the Yukon.
BARNSTORMERS AND FLYING CIRCUSES
Thanks to a lack of regulations, risking death on a daily basis could be a full-time career for some in- trepid aviators who soon turned barnstorming into a nationwide sensation. Minnesota-born Gladys Roy was one of several pilots in her family. Initially a parachute jumper, she started barnstorming in the 1920s and was soon attracting attention for wing-walking feats like dancing the Charleston or playing tennis. Her turn in the movies ended prematurely after she was thrown from a horse during the production of 1925’s The Fighting Ranger. Sadly, her aviation career also came to a sudden end when she died after accidentally walking into a spinning propeller in 1927 at twenty-five years old.
The niece of Wild West show legend Buffalo Bill, Mabel Cody was the owner and promoter of Mabel Cody’s Flying Circus, one of the many roaming teams of aerial entertainers. She and her barnstormers performed at fairs and promotional events across the country. While Mabel wasn’t a pilot herself, she reportedly was the first woman to do a transfer from a speeding auto onto a plane via rope ladder, both moving at a heady seventy miles per hour.
One of the most famous barnstormers was the dashing Ormer Locklear, who some consider the pioneer of wing-walking. While serving in the U.S. Army Air Service, he began repairing airplanes midair, astonishing his fellow servicemen. After an honorable discharge in 1919 he turned to barnstorming full-time. Proclaiming “’Safety second’ is my motto,” he dangled from planes, did handstands on the wings, and jumped from one plane to another for adoring crowds. He also jumped over to Hollywood, starring in the 1919 feature The Great Air Robbery. Tragically, while filming a nighttime stunt for 1920’s The Skywayman, he was blinded by the arc lights and died when his plane went down. Ads for the posthumously released film shamelessly capitalized on “His Death-Defying Feats And A Close Up Of His Spectacular Crash To Earth.”