Before CGI, variously colored screens and insurance agents changed the game, stars risked life, limb and future income in daring stunts to dazzle movie audiences. Sure, actors still get hurt. Halle Berry broke her arm on the set of Gothika, George Clooney injured his spine making Syriana, Jackie Chan probably has damaged every part of himself, even once getting a shard of his skull embedded in his brain. But now as the pyrotechnics have gotten louder and the choreography more convoluted filmmakers don’t seem to have to break an actual sweat to achieve verisimilitude. They can simply graft Natalie Portman’s head onto a ballerina’s body. Tricks, or better, illusions, have always been employed to achieve stunts, in the form of mattes and wires and double exposure, but in the celluloid era if you had to leap from one horse to another or jump out of a moving car and wanted it to look real, you merely did it, even if you had to do it very carefully.
Standing Perfectly Still: Steamboat Bill Jr.
Tossed around the vaudeville stage as part of his family’s act since the age of three, Buster Keaton was twice inspected by New York doctors who, he recalled years later, “stripped me to examine for bruises and broken bones.” As an adult he might have gone to the doctor more often but kept on working even after fracturing his vertebra during a stunt in 1924’s Sherlock Jr. He didn’t realize until fourteen years later when a physician happened to take an X-ray for an unrelated problem. He only once used a stuntmen, for College, when he sensibly contracted an Olympian to pole vault through a window—“I mean, you’ve got to get someone who knows what they are doing.” He even doubled for another actor on a motorcycle stunt in the same perilous Sherlock Jr. Still, today, his fans marvel at the absence of a smile on the Great Stone Face when they should rather wonder how he managed not to grimace considering the strain he endured. In Steamboat Bill Jr. alone he falls off a plank onto an adjoining boat then finally hits the water, lands on his head in a fierce storm, jumps out of a moving car and clings for dear life on the trunk of an uprooted tree cast about by the wind. In this 1928 masterpiece of comic timing, his gags escalate in complexity and daring. Each sequence is seamless, arduous and hilarious. It seems almost a shame that for his most renowned stunt he is actually doing nothing—only standing, on the exact right spot. Watch the entire gasp-inducing sequence, from the façade of a house falling around him through another house entirely engulfing him:
Some Carefully Placed Help: The Thief of Bagdad
Like Keaton, Douglas Fairbanks was a do-it-yourselfer when it came to stunts. The King of Hollywood employed a double, but instead of having a substitute on camera, he watched him work out the stunt in rehearsal then stepped in when it came time to shoot, mimicking the routine. A health nut (despite his chain-smoking!) and advocate for temperance, Fairbanks exercised everyday at a studio gym and used his celebrity to promote physical fitness. But his ease onscreen is not solely because of his practiced athleticism. According to frequent collaborator Allan Dwan who directed three of Fairbanks’s swashbuckling films, A Modern Musketeer, Robin Hood and The Iron Mask: “Every set that we built I measured for handholds. They were always there and he would automatically feel for them. If he jumped it was just exactly the distance he could gracefully jump. Never a strain.” More known for its elaborate stunts and special effects—a flying carpet (dangling off an eighty-foot crane), a flying horse and a rope-climbing trick—1924’s The Thief of Bagdad also includes a relatively uncomplicated stunt, achieved with the kind of carefully placed help Dwan described. Early on, Fairbanks swipes the magic rope of Jinn and eludes capture by leaping through a series of outsized jars with the aid of some small trampolines. It’s just a few seconds of screen time but astonishes nonetheless. At less than ten minutes in of this two-and-a half-hour movie, Fairbanks’s agile thief is just starting to roll:
Hanging on for Dear Life: The Outlaw and His Wife
Before Hollywood changed his name to Seastrom, Victor Sjöström was already a force in international cinema, impressing the world with affecting and restrained performances and on location shooting that integrated the Swedish countrysides and wilderness as part of the story. Along with the Finnish-born Mauritz Stiller and the rarely cited Georg af Klercker, Sjöström ushered in Sweden’s Golden Age of Cinema, which sadly burned out by the mid-twenties. But before then he had been directing six to seven films a year, acting in many of them. 1918’s The Outlaw and His Wife marks a turning point. Thereafter, the studio that had nurtured these directors’ talents invested further in their ideas, producing films based on Nordic literature and paying for location shoots to take advantage of the striking Nordic landscapes. When Outlaw came out, critics rhapsodized: “Here without a doubt is the most beautiful film in the world,” wrote French filmmaker and critic Louis Delluc. “Victor Sjöström has directed it with a lavishness that transcends all analysis.” That lavishness is the result of painstaking setups and photography and Sjöström, already known for his perfectionism, was such a stickler for authenticity that he did his own stunt work in the leading role. When the fugitive couple take refuge in the mountains of Swedish Lapland, Sjöström’s character finds himself hanging perilously off an unforgivingly high cliff and the actor/director nearly fell to his death. Sjöström recalled in his diary: “…the hook that was holding me had straightened out as a result of rubbing against the cliff edge—and the next instant…yes, I have never been in such mortal danger as I was then.” See a man risk it all for his art:
Save Our Stunts: S.O.S. Iceberg
German director Arnold Fanck had pioneered extreme location filmmaking with his silents featuring real-life slope-jockey Luis Trenker performing his own ski stunts. Sought out for their combination of adventure, drama and documentary style shooting in actual mountain ranges, Fanck’s films were an immediate sensation and spawned a subgenre of popular bergfilmes. For his final silent picture, S.O.S. Iceberg—sound was added later but mute it and rely on the subtitles for a more satisfying experience—he chose a different but no less challenging setting, western Greenland’s frozen fjords (in German, a different kind of “berg”) and enlisted explorer Knud Rasmussen and local Inuits to help him. He imported “three airplanes, forty tents, two motorboats, a couple tons of luggage and two polar bears from the Hamburg zoo” for the production. But he was ultimately unable to film the actors traversing the fjord on actual icebergs as he had wished. The Inuit wisely refused to put their canoes among them, knowing how quickly the unstable formations can capsize anything in their wake. Once, Fanck almost lost a man, hopping from one to another in a trial run. He had to retreat to the Swiss Alps (and later the studio) to get much of the necessary shots. Still, the footage early in the film of mighty glaciers shedding enormous chunks of themselves lend a verisimilitude to the adventure. If you aren’t yet inured to seeing our world melt, the awesome “birth of an iceberg” sequence should thrill as much as it did audiences back then. If that seems humdrum, two airplanes get trashed. German dare-devil and future Luftwaffe test pilot Ernst Udet did all the flying and the cast includes Nazi poster girl and filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl, making her final appearance as an actress (and stuntwoman). She smartly came away with innovative S.O.S. camera assistant Hans Ertl, who later shot her Olympia films.
Mabel Normand Wheels Around
“In those days,” writes Michael Sragow in an early chapter of his biography of Hollywood director Victor Fleming, “knowing how to drive a car was as crucial to the makers of outdoor adventures as knowing how to ride a horse.” Fleming, who got his start in the movies fixing Allan Dwan’s complicated car—“one of your tappet valves is stuck,” he said to the director in 1912 after hearing his Mitchell Six pull up—recalls that “few actors knew how to drive and not many cared to attempt it. As a result, those of us who could drive were invariably used to double for the stars in those early thrill scenes when automobiles were in the picture.” That a woman, comedienne Mabel Normand, was at the wheel of a car in 1914 for Mabel at the Wheel was probably a sufficient source of comedy to American audiences of the time. That she was racing for Santa Monica’s Vanderbilt Cup, side-splittingly revolutionary. Though it might not be her (we can’t see her face, the telltale sign) spinning out in the racetrack oil slick, she is clearly seen driving in and out of the pit, cruising around and, in this sequence, racing another auto. Pause for a moment, too, to reflect on Charles Chaplin as a bumbling villain.
Double Dare, or How to Be Set on Fire and Live to Tell the Story
Women have been performing stunts since the early days of cinema. The serial queen Pearl White rode on horseback to the rescue more often than not without use of a double. Real-life flyer Pancho Barnes enhanced the authenticity of Howard Hughes’s aviation saga, Hell’s Heroes, which cost the lives of three stunt pilots and injured Hughes himself. (You can learn about this unconventional woman first reclaimed from history by Tom Wolfe’s novel Right Stuff in The Legend of Pancho Barnes and the Happy Bottom Riding Club.) Michelle Yeoh has kicked a lot of Hong Kong ass. Still today, however, women stunt performers have a harder time and are much rarer than their male counterparts. Amanda Micheli’s documentary Double Dare profiles two Hollywood stuntwomen, pioneer Jeannie Epper and up-and-comer Zoë Bell, showing us not only the challenges of making it in a sexist profession but also how damned hard it is to do the stunts, whatever the performer’s gender. Watch the beginning of the documentary to see Bell being set on fire as she spins horizontally from a rope on the set of Xena the Warrior Princess to get the idea. Following Bell as she pursues a Hollywood career, Micheli goes behind the scenes of Quentin Tarantino’s martial arts epic Kill Bill and viewers come away with the sensation, perhaps spot on, that, in the finished film, we will watch much more of Bell’s bloodied bride than we will of Uma Thurman’s. The documentary also provides a good primer on the history of the stunt performer in American movies and their fight for recognition.
The Cameraman as Stunt Artist
Sometimes it is the person behind the camera performing the derring-do in order deliver the gasp-inducing image. The dangers of shooting either fiction or documentary was painfully illustrated earlier this year with the death of camera assistant Sarah Elizabeth Jones on location at a Georgia railroad track. Setting aside any carelessness on the part of the production in this instance, risking life and limb has been the hallmark of shooters since cinema’s inception. Down to the Sea in Ships (1922) was heavily promoted using cameramen Paul Allen and Alexander G. Penrod’s stories about photographing a whaling expedition out of New Bedford. (Sadly, none of the exciting footage made it into the film. One historian speculates it was fogged up once developed. The reshoots in the Caribbean are tame by any standards.) Penrod himself later died shooting B-roll for 1931’s The Viking when that ship exploded among the Labrador ice floes. Among many other imprudent acts, Herbert Ponting tied himself off the bow of the Terra Nova to capture the vessel breaking the mighty Antarctic ice for The Great White Silence, released in 1924. As audiences became accustomed to cinema’s dramatic arcs their demand for greater and greater action led filmmakers and their cameramen to take greater and greater risks. Watch the angle this unnamed cameraman (I assume) gets in 1933’s Around the Horn in a Square Rigger. The storm is surging, the hatches all battened down and no other personnel can be seen on deck. It’s bold, stupid and, from a viewer’s vantage, well worth it. Still, it makes you grateful for digital technologies that, 80 years later, allowed the Leviathan filmmakers to transfer physical risks to the tiny cameras attached to the ship and its fishermen.
A Truly Wondrous Horse: The King of the Wild Horses
I wrote about Rex before in “They Trip Horses, Don’t They,” but he clearly merits another mention here among stars as stunt performers. Cowboys and trick riders are appreciated (at least now) for their performances in the early westerns, but this magnificent black stallion deserves better renown, as his rewards were more ephemeral than a weekly paycheck. A rescue living at a detention center for boys in Colorado, he was used as a getaway by a runaway who later turned up dead—the horse took all the blame and Rex was marked as a killer. Producer Hal Roach’s animal wranglers discovered him before he was put down, recognized his appeal and began to promote him as Rex the Wonder Horse. In his first picture, The King of the Wild Horses (1924), he proves himself worthy of the gamble, making a spectacular leap across a ravine with what appears to be zero prompting (and certainly no trampoline!). Maybe this temperamental animal responded to offscreen direction. Or maybe he just loved to jump. But whatever. He simply leapt. And far. Rex did have doubles, not for stunts but for close shots with human actors, as he was fussy about his company. Watch the chase scene here, which culminates in the jaw-dropping stunt.