It is a common theme in discussions about the craft of filmmaking. Why is there no Oscar for best stunt? Why are the stuntmen and women, who risk their lives to make us believe, not seemingly recognized around Hollywood’s top table? It is perplexing. So in this edition of Hollywood History, we look back at the very early days of the craft.
Read some previous Hollywood History installments, such as our run-down of spookiness across the area, or how The Mob and Hollywood have always gone hand-in-hand. Or learn how the studio system came to dominate Hollywood.
Like many of you, I was born in the 1970s and cut my movie-going teeth in the 1980s. This was a serious time for stunts. I watched Arnold at the height of his powers, destroying an army single handily. I watched John McClane save Nakatomi Plaza. I watched James Bond ski off a mountain. My entire movie-going experience was pretty much shaped by stunts. So I have such sympathy for the argument they need more recognition.
Throughout Hollywood history, stunts have become increasingly complicated. Entire teams have to balance elaborate and innovative scenes while trying to guarantee the actors’ safety. Even if that actor is Tom Cruise on a Mission: Impossible movie, there is an insurance company that needs to be kept happy. When the actor cannot take part in the stunt, the stuntman is called.
While it may be tempting to think that the highly technical craft of stunt work is relatively recent, stunts have always combined technology, innovation, and brave people placing themselves at risk. But how did it all start?
Vaudeville theater is often considered as the very spark that created Hollywood. It frequently used physical comedy and slapstick in its acts. In these acts, performers had to know how to perfectly time their movements to avoid injury, how to fall without getting hurt and how to punch without connecting.
The man regarded as the Godfather of stunt performers, Joseph Frank Keaton, came from this background. According to a frequently repeated story, an actor friend of Joseph’s parents named George Pardey was in the house one day and he saw young Joesph fall down the stairs without picking up a single injury. Pardey remarked:
“He’s a regular buster!”
The legend of Buster Keaton was born. Keaton’s father kept the nickname and by the time he was three, Buster was performing with his parents on the stage. As part of the act, Buster Keaton would goad his father by disobeying him. Father would throw Buster into the scenery, into the orchestra pit, or even into the audience via a suitcase handle sewn into Buster’s clothes for his father to grip.
Imagine that for a second, an act that involved a three-year-old child being thrown around? Proving that even back then, Karen would like to speak to the manager, accusations of child abuse were made and the police were called.
Buster was always able to prove he had no broken bones or permanent injuries so he became billed as The Boy Who Can’t Be Damaged. Many years later, in an interview with the Detroit News, he declared:
“The secret is in landing limp and breaking the fall with a foot or a hand. It’s a knack. I started so young that landing right is second nature with me. Several times I’d have been killed if I hadn’t been able to land like a cat. Imitators of our act don’t last long, because they can’t stand the treatment.”
As he grew up in the industry, Buster Keaton eventually found himself at an Actor’s Colony in the Bluffton neighborhood of Muskegon, along with other vaudevillian. Through contacts here he eventually met with Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle and he was asked to stand-in on a scene in The Butcher Boy. Impressing all around him, he was hired on the spot.
Keaton came to impress by bringing his knowledge of stunt performance to the movies. It was not without risk. During the railroad water-tank scene in Sherlock Jr., Keaton broke his neck when the water was released on his head from a water tower, but he did not realize it until years afterward.
One of the most famous stunts of all time came during this period of his career for Steamboat Bill, Jr. Buster Keaton had to stand while a two-ton facade of a house was dropped on him, only escaping injury because of a window. How he maintains his trademark deadpan and doesn’t flinch is beyond comprehension.
The studio system would go on to eat Keaton. A disastrous spell under contract at MGM would lead to the break up of his marriage and his descent into alcoholism. Eventually, he rebuilt his life and career, remarried, and recovered.
Over the course of his career, he ran on top of moving trains and hung from waterfalls. He jumped from great heights and carried out feats of daring that would simply not be replicated in movies today, even by the power of Cruise. The CGI department would get the call.
I Might Jump From A Tall Building…
Another critical moment in film history was Harold Lloyd’s character’s breathtaking climb up the side of a building in Safety Last (1923). No green screens or CGI, no way to paint out the safety equipment, it’s all real. The scene where he famously hangs off the clock may have been established using camera trickery, but the climb to get there was genuine and carried out by stuntman Harvey Parry.
Harold Lloyd, along with Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, is regarded as one of this holy trinity of movie stars, physical comedians, and stunt performers.
He managed to perform many stunts despite picking up a serious handicap earlier in his career. On Sunday, August 24, 1919, Lloyd was posing for some promotional pictures in Los Angeles Witzel Photography Studio. He picked up what he thought was a prop bomb and lit it with a cigarette for a photo.
The bomb wasn’t a prop and exploded. The prop man standing next to him was seriously injured and Lloyd lost a thumb and forefinger. He also had a badly burned face and chest. Talking about the incident later, he recalled:
“I thought I would surely be so disabled that I would never be able to work again. I didn’t suppose that I would have one five-hundredth of what I have now. Still I thought, ‘Life is worth while. Just to be alive.’ I still think so.”
Although played for comedy was Although the first stunts were used for comedic effect, the precedent was set. Moviegoers now expected exciting life or death moments. Just 10 years after Buster Keaton’s famous house falling scene in Steamboat Bill, Jr. a legendary stuntman named Yakima Canutt would change stunts forever.
Born Enos Edward Canutt in the Snake River Hills, near Colfax, Washington, he was one of five children of John Lemuel Canutt, a rancher, and Nettie Ellen Stevens. Growing up on the ranch he became one of the greatest horsemen who ever lived.
Taking the nickname “Yakima” after the Yakima River Valley in Washington he would go on to become rodeo world champion, a horse trainer for the US Army and for the French. He became an actor, and then a stunt performer. His greatest stunt is still held up as one of the greatest pieces of Hollywood stuntwork of all time. The legendary slide under a racing horse carriage in Stagecoach (1939). This stunt was so famous and groundbreaking that Steven Spielberg created the entire truck scene in Raiders Of The Lost Ark as an homage to this stunt.
Yakima survived his career and lived to the ripe old age of 90. His contribution to the motion picture industry was recognized with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 1500 Vine Street and, in 1967 an Academy Honorary Award for achievements as a stunt man and for “developing safety devices to protect all stunt men everywhere”.
One of today’s greatest living stuntmen and now one of the most sought-after stunt co-ordinators in Hollywood is Vic Armstrong. Here is what Armstrong had to say about this stunt.
…I Might Roll A Brand New Car
During the 1960s, stunt technology improved dramatically on the back of technological advancements elsewhere. Air cannons, a pneumatic piston that gave filmmakers the ability to flip cars and trucks, were first deployed. With computers becoming more readily accessible, and stunt sequences getting bigger all the time, it wasn’t long before these were harnessed to allowed for simulations and precise calculations to aid stunt design.
The first-ever extensively computer-modeled stunt came in 1974 for what is still regarded in movie-making circles as the greatest car stunt of all time.
The US racing driver Jay Milligan conceived this stunt and even performed it in 1972 at the Houston Astrodome in an AMC Javelin, christening the stunt The Astro Spiral Jump.
Milligan contacted the Bond producers with the stunt. They were so impressed they aid up, and protected it to prevent it appearing in any other movies. They rolled out this stunt to amazed audiences in The Man With The Golden Gun (1974). Raymond McHenry designed the bigger stunt on a computer inspired by his work on a simulation of single vehicle accidents.
The mathematical calculations for the computer were provided by the Calspan Corporation in New York. The car had to be perfectly balanced so the driver and steering wheel are exactly in the middle. It also had to hit a curved ramp at exactly 48 miles per hour meaning a long run up was essential.
On June 1, 1974, day 35 of production, the crew was guided by stunt co-ordinator W.J. Milligan Jr on the canal at Klong Rangsit, Thailand where the ramp was disguised as a derelict, broken bridge.
Loren “Bumps” Willert was at the wheel of an AMC Hornet X Hatchback. Two dummies of Bond and passenger Sheriff JW Pepper were positioned either side of Willert, who was dressed in black so he wouldn’t register on camera.
Willert, staggeringly, got the stunt right the first time and completed it in just one take. Famously there was a big crowd watching. As Marketing Executive Hy Smith tells it:
“Some people didn’t believe we actually did the stunts. We took about 100 press from Europe in a rented 747 to Thailand. Despite that they saw the car corkscrew 360 degrees from one side of the river to the other, when the picture came out, many of them said it was the most wonderful special effect they’d ever seen.”
After witnessing the astonishing jump, a gobsmacked Roger Moore told the stunt team:
“You fellas make me look good.”
I wonder if he still felt that way after the producers made the idiotic decision to undermine the greatness of the stunt with that penny slide whistle sound effect? But make him look good, they did.
Just like they make everyone look good. From John Wayne to Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, these performers really are the unknown stuntman who, in the immortal words of Colt Seavers, made Eastwood look so fine. Sing along, you know the tune.