". . . those who risked their lives, and some who gave their lives"
by Tim Lussier
Buddy Mason, Gene Perkins, Harvey Parry, Al Wilson, Dick Grace.
Not names that were well-known to movie-goers of the 'teens and twenties but names that were very well-known to the stars of the silent cinema. These were the stunt men . . . those who risked their lives, and some who even gave their lives, to bring audiences the action and thrills for which the films of that era were so famous.
Actors, Not Stunt Men
In the early days of filmmaking, there was no cadre of professional stunt men from which to draw. Dangerous scenes were shot by the actors and actresses themselves. Pearl White, the serial queen, was famous for doing her own stunts. Tom Mix performed his stunts from the time he entered films in 1914 all the way through the silent era. All of Mack Sennett's Keystone troupe were expected to take risks.
Sennett relates several examples of the rough and tumble existence Keystone comedians were subjected to in his autobiography (King of Comedy, Doubleday & Company, 1954). One such story concerned Hank Mann, referred to by Sennett as his "toughest" comedian. "Once when Hank was working with (Fatty) Arbuckle and Al St. John . . . he was supposed to be yanked out of the driver's seat of a wagon and land spread-eagled on the landscape," Sennett said.
"Al St. John was to jerk the pin from the singletree and the horses were to pull Hank Mann off the wagon. St. John had trouble with the pin, sweating and bawling. This delayed the action until the horses had picked up too much speed for such a stunt. When Al did get the pin out, the horses cut loose like runaway ghosts and snatched Mr. Mann thirty feet through the air, like a kite, until the law of gravity remembered him.
"By this time, Mann and the horses were almost out of Los Angeles County, certainly at least three whoops and a loud holler out of camera range. Hank, descended into a plowed field, chin first, and furrowed a belly-whopping trench for ten yards before, with considerable common sense, he let go the reins."
Grace McHugh lost her life performing in a scene that should have been done by a stunt double, although she, herself, was considered an accomplished horsewoman. In 1914, while filming "Across the Border" for the short-lived Colorado Motion Picture Company, she was required to cross the Arkansas River on her horse. The horse stumbled throwing her into the water. Cameraman Owen Carter tried to save her, but he and McHugh both lost their lives.
Circus Performers, Cowboys, Race Car Drivers, Etc.
It wasn't long before stunt men became a regular part of the movie scene. These stunt men were quite often former circus performers, cowboys, and race car drivers or just daredevils willing to take risks to make a dollar. It was not a polished art, and many learned as they went, oftentimes with disastrous results.
While filming Charles Ray's "Percy" in 1925, a young stunt man named William Harbaugh from Virginia, along with another, more experienced stunt man, was being swept down the Colorado River near Yuma, Arizona. The locks had been opened to portray a flood scene for the picture. Harbaugh, being smaller and less experienced than his companion, had a rope tied to his waist for safety.
Finally, the stunt men neared the shore, the shot was finished, and the director was able to shout over the roar of the water, "Cut!" However, just as Harbaugh loosened the rope from his waist, an unexpected whirlpool swept him away. His body was found six weeks later buried in silt.
Westerns were always in need of those who could ride, rope, fight, jump from a speeding horse, transfer from a horse to a stage coach or perform dozens of others tricks. Chick Morrison was considered to be one of the best horsemen on the west coast and a popular stunt man in westerns.
He was asked to stage a fight between two horses in "Rex, the King of Wild Horses," a 1924 Hal Roach production, which he did without incident or harm to either one of the horses. However, shortly after the picture, he took an Arabian stallion from the Roach stables to teach him quick turns for appearance in a polo game. The horse fell on him, and Morrison died from the injuries.
Cowboy star Fred Thomson, who, like Tom Mix, did most of his own stunts, broke his leg in two places filming a stunt for one of his movies in August, 1924. A leap from his horse to the wheelhorse of a stage coach went awry and laid the actor up for almost four months before he could go back to work.
Airplanes, Automobiles . . . Speed!
Experienced airplane pilots and race car drivers were constantly in demand to satisfy the public's obsession with speed as airplanes, automobiles and motorcycles became more ingrained in the culture of the day. Barney Oldfield was an icon in the sport of automobile racing while Wallace Reid popularized it on the screen. Then, toward the end of the silent era, Charles Lindbergh earned immortality because of the generation's fascination with both daredevils and flying.
The same year as Lindbergh's trans-Atlantic flight, "Wings" appeared on movie screens with some of the most spectacular flying stunts of the silent era. Veteran aerial stunt man Dick Grace had an unfortunate mishap while working on this picture.
In order to crash a plane and emerge alive, Grace wore a wide leather belt that extended from his buttocks to his armpits. This belt was encircled by a series of steel springs to protect him during the impact.
In one shot, Grace was to turn the plane completely over and have it crash upside down. The stunt apparently came off fine, and Grace even posed to have his picture taken along side the wrecked plane (see photo at right). However, as soon as the picture had been snapped, he collapsed. Grace had broken his neck. Nevertheless, he went on to his next job with his neck still in braces.
There was one incident involving an aerial stunt which, for all its sadness, is humorous in its own way. A stunt flyer was asked to crash a plane for one of the larger studios. He knew he would get hurt, so he told the studio he would have to have $3,000 for the job to take care of his wife while he was in the hospital. The studio agreed, he got the $3,000, gave it to his wife, and did the stunt. Just as he predicted, it required a stay in the hospital, six months to be exact. However,when he came out, he found that his wife had run off with another stunt man and the $3,000!
Timing Is Everything
The most difficult stunts to "pull off" were those that required the coordination and precision timing of two men.
An example of how the failure to be perfectly in sync leads to disaster occurred when stunt man Buddy Mason was asked to drive a motorcycle through a bridge's guardrail and onto the top of a moving train in a serial he was working on. Mason explained, "They had part of the roof of one of the freight cars cut out and covered with thin laths and cardboard. In the car, beneath the opening made in the roof, were mattresses for me to land on."
Mason said the stunt would have transpired flawlessly, except the engineers "got the speed bug." His motorcycle went half in the opening and half out. Mason slammed against the motorcycle's handlebars, then did a nosedive into the train car missing the mattresses below. He ended up with a broken shoulder, five broken ribs and a dislocated hip.
Quite often, there was no explanation for the tragic outcome. Stunt man Dick Kerwood was asked to perform a stunt for a Franklyn Farnum movie that he had done several times before - switching from a moving airplane to a moving automobile. He made his way over the fusilage and down the rope ladder, but no one saw what happened after that. He was found at the bottom if Pico Cañon. He had fallen 500 feet to his death.
Still others had no one to blame but themselves. During the filming of "The Great Circus Mystery" in 1925, a scene called for a race between an airplane and an automobile along a mountain road. Cameramen were told to keep on cranking as the car was to skid and turn over. It did, however, but at the wrong point. Former circus acrobat Frank Tully and his companion, Tony Brack, were both killed.
"Speed" Osbourne was called on to race a motorcycle off a cliff. He wore a parachute which he was to open when about 30 feet from take-off. Cameraman J.B. Scott was filming the scene and described what happened. "About the time 'Speed' should have pulled the parachute, the motorcycle developed carburetor trouble. Instead of pulling the chute, the nut reached down and primed the carburetor.
"By the time he straightened up, he was out in the air. He crashed and busted himself all up. (see photo at left). I was the first one to him and his shin bones were sticking straight out through his boots. All he said was, 'Cut those damn boots off, will you, Scotty?'"
One magazine article from the silent era speculated as to why the stunt men did what they did. It suggested that they could be divided into three categories: "1. Those in the game for the money, 2. Those who see in it a chance to break into the movies, and 3. Just the plain nut who does it."
From Stunt Man to Star
Two who did break into the movies and gain a certain level of star status because of stunting ability were Richard Talmadge and Al Wilson.
One of Talmadge's starring vehicles, "The Prince of Pep" (1925) is available for viewing in abridged form, and it gives Talmadge a chance to show off some of his athletic prowess as he scales the sides of city apartment buildings, jumps from fire escape to fire escape, and generally looks very much like Douglas Fairbanks in motion (Talmadge supposedly would perform stunts for Fairbanks to see and then perform himself). In one stunt, he leaps from a rooftop across an alleyway to a window of the next building, making it look almost too easy.
Probably the more spectacular stunts, however, are done by Wilson in his 1928 feature "Won in the Clouds" which is also available for viewing. The opening title calls him "The World's Most Sensational Stunt Flyer," and this film shows why.
Early on in the story, Wilson makes a transfer from the top of a speeding car to the wing of an airplane. Later he saves his guide from being killed by the natives by hanging from an rope ladder on an airplane, swooping down, snatching the guide and flying away as the two of them hang high above the ground on the ladder.
The most spectacular stunt, though, is saved for the climax. Wilson's girlfriend has been kidnapped by the bad guy who steals her away in his biplane. Wilson and his sidekick give chase. For this stunt, Wilson walks out on the top of the wing and grabs, after several unsuccessful tries, the wing of his rival's airplane. And that's not all. Once on the bottom wing of the biplane, he and the rival stage a fight that is not only realistic, but extremely frightening. Wilson is hanging by one hand or only by his legs a couple of times during the fight, and, yes, this is frightening because of some superb camera work that clearly shows the planes to be high above the ground with no trick photography involved (outside of the a few close-ups that were staged at ground level).
Trick photography was used during the silent era, although it mostly involved misleading perspective. For example, Harold Lloyd built a set for "Safety Last" on top of another building, and, with the camera placed at the proper angle, it looked to the moviegoer that he was really several stories of the ground.
Although such trickery was closely guarded from the public, fans were becoming increasingly aware of the ingenuity of the movie makers in motion picture fakery. And, because of this, stunt men were quite often not given credit for the risks they took as cynical movie goers questioned even the most realistic-looking stunts.
Grace recalled going to the movies and viewing one of his stunts in which he made a dangerous transfer from a speeding automobile to an airplane. "I must admit that I probably received as much thrill as anyone in the theatre, for I alone knew that I had caught that rope ladder with three fingers and for seconds did not think that I was ever going to be able to gain the cockpit of the airplane," he said.
However, as the movie ended, he overheard two ladies talking about the stunt. "That certainly was clever photography," one of them remarked to the other. "I wonder if it was double exposed or whether they used a dummy." Grace remembered, "I sat rather limp, feeling keenly disappointed."
Why Did They Do It?
So why did the stunt men do what they did? Certainly there was no glory involved. For the thrill? What about the chance to become stars themselves? Well, some of them probably did. How about the money? Cameraman J.B. Scott probably had the most incisive answer to that question. Immediately after filming "Speed" Osbourne's ill-fated motorcycle stunt, he was asked why his daredevil friend had attempted a stunt that not only failed, but resulted in compound fractures of both legs. Scott simply replied, "For twenty-five dollars."
Note: Kevin Brownlow has paid tribute to the stunt men of the silent era in two books and one documentary, all of which are essential reading and viewing. They are:
The Parade's Gone By (University of California Press, 1968) Chapter 27 "Stunt Men of Silent Pictures"
Hollywood: The Pioneers (Alfred A. Knopf, 1979) Chapter 13 "The Iodine Squad"
Hollywood (13-part documentary, produced by Kevin Brownlow and David Gill, 1980) Episode 5 "Hazard of the Game"
copyright 1998 by Tim Lussier. All rights reserved.
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