Movie Stunt Men Risk Their Lives to Thrill Millions (Nov, 1935)

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Movie Stunt Men Risk Their Lives to Thrill Millions

By John E. Lodge

NINE times, a movie stunt man plunged into the swirling rapids of a Washington river, swimming forty-five minutes in water twenty degrees below the freezing point. In Southern California, another demolished nine new automobiles in spectacular crashes within a week. A third member of this strange fraternity jumped an untrained farm horse sixty feet into a pool of water; three others walked leisurely in asbestos suits through seven gallons of flaming oil, scattered over a steep stairway. Still another pulled the pin to unloose the tongue of an old-fashioned western stagecoach and plunged down a mountain canyon in the runaway vehicle.

Every day, somewhere on location or within the walls of a Hollywood sound stage, dare-devils who follow the world’s most bizarre and dangerous occupation, tempt fate with their courageous feats. Although hundreds of young men offer their services to the studios, willing to undertake the wildest stunt that any director may conceive, seven ”old-timers” —veterans in their middle thirties—perform nine-tenths of all the hair-raising episodes you see on the screen.

They “double” for famous actors and actresses whenever the stars’ safety is threatened. In Hollywood there are, too, a number of “bump men,” athletes who undertake less hazardous swims, fights, falls, and rides. But when any of these “doubles” declines some job which means death if he misses, the casting director calls for one of the veteran stunt men.

These seven are a small remnant of the scores of stunt men who have come and gone with the years, 130 of whom have met death during the performance of difficult stunts for the screen.

Their names—Duke Green, Bob Rose, Gordon Carveth, Cliff Lyons, Yackima Canutt. Frank Clark, and Matt Gilman— you never see on the screen. They appear on a set for a day or two, thrill actors and technicians with their daring, and move on to another job, frequently without knowing even the name of the picture they have helped to make.

Yet, the veterans in the game have evolved a science by which they face serious injury, or perhaps death, a hundred times a year. “Timing and nerve” is the formula a stunt man will offer for his freedom from hurts. He applies principles as exact as is possible to make sure he will emerge unscathed from a four-story fall, an underwater struggle with a man-eating shark, or a plunge off a trestle in a locomotive.

Yet the best-laid plans, skill, and experience do not always save a performer from injury. For instance, consider Gordon Carveth’s experience when he answered a call to make a scene at a beet- sugar factory in Chino, Calif., recently.

The director led him up to the fourth floor. “See that open well behind the fence?” he said. “You fight on this side; you take a punch in the jaw and drop backward through the fence. Cameras will catch you falling past each floor, and the net will break your fall below—I hope.”

It happened the property man had forgotten to bring along the breakaway fencing, made of fragile balsa wood or desert yucca, so Carveth ordered a carpenter to cut the regular fence in four places. The fight began. Carveth and a professional boxer pounded each other, the pair moving gradually toward the well. When Carveth reached the fence, the boxer struck Carveth on the chin, carrying the punch through to give him added momentum.

The fence gave way like paper and the stunt man rolled himself up for the fall, his knees and hips bent slightly. Instead of landing on his back, as he had planned, the momentum caused him to strike the net feet-first, the force of the blow driving his left knee against his forehead. Within a few minutes a bump the size of an egg rose on his head, but the make-up man “erased” the bump with appropriate shades of grease paint, and Carveth repeated the fall twice before the factory whistle blew at noon.

It was Bob Rose, a wiry little man of 125 pounds, who faced the man-eating shark. He arrived at the studio not long ago, to see property men holding the shark in a portable tank while a muzzle was tied ‘ over his mouth. The shark then was dropped into a larger tank, into which the camera peered through a plate-glass window. Five minutes later, the strange battle commenced.

“Never have I experienced a more weird sensation,” Rose told me. “I felt sure I could rely on my hands and the clear water for protection, but the creature gave me everything he had in the first round. He tried to ram me with his nose, while I could see his jaws moving in a frantic effort to open. His tail swished every time I dodged, and threatened to knock me through the side. After a half min- ute, I came to the surface, gulped fresh air, and returned to the battle. Bubbles began to fill the water. While this gave a fine camera effect, it clouded the water so I could hardly see. When I ducked after my fourth trip up, I saw that his muzzle had slipped. No more time for pictures then! I grabbed the ladder and pulled myself over the edge of that tank quicker than a cat climbs a tree.”

Although a slip would have ended Rose’s career at that instant, he considers the plunge into a river in a locomotive actually more dangerous. An ancient coal burner had been rebuilt to duplicate a modern Goliath of the rails. A bridge had been weakened to make sure the engine and two box cars would plunge to their destruction. Dressed in a woman’s clothing, Rose took his place in the cab, opened the throttle, and roared down the rails. When he reached the bridge, the engine started to crash down through the wooden structure and Rose dived through the cab window into the running water fifty feet below. Timed to a split second, his stunt earned for him $750, and required no more than thirty seconds to complete.

Duke Green has braved the cold waters of many streams in perilous swims, but his nine plunges into the north fork of the Nooksack in four days provided one of the toughest experiences ever tackled by any stunt man. Although he was protected from neck to knees by an inflated rubber suit, intended to give him buoyancy, he lost fifteen pounds during the ordeal of remaining for a total of forty-five minutes in the stream; his clothing froze on his back, three fingers on each hand were frozen as stiff as boards, and he could not breathe normally for two hours after each plunge into the river.

“Cold water takes more out of a man than any other motion-picture stunt,” he told me. “Three doctors and two rubbers worked on me every time I came out. I lost my hearing and couldn’t understand a shout. For hours, I felt as though I was standing under a freezing shower. When blood began to return to my fingers, which had turned blue from the intense cold, I did not know whether to holler, stand up and cheer, or grit my teeth and bear it.”

Despite the skill required and the pain often endured, stunt men as a rule are poorly paid. Many risk their lives for as little as $50.

Prices vary because bump men compete for jobs, while the more experienced experts look on themselves as professional men who should receive adequate compensation for the grave risks they take.

Several men offered to crash a series of cars for a recent picture, but the studio finally called husky Matt Gilman to wreck nine new sedans in a series of nerve-tingling crashes. No chance to rehearse or shoot retakes—unless the studio wanted to pay for a new automobile each time. During six days of shooting, Gilman drove one car directly in front of a five-ton truck; shoved another through a garage door while the roof caved in on him; telescoped the third against an embankment at the blind end of a street; crashed the fourth into a stack of cases filled with canned goods, and ran another through a drug-store window. The next four he just “tore up,” in a series of collisions with other cars. His only protection from flying glass and splinters lay in a wire-mesh windshield, invisible to the cameras, and a strap beside the seat, which he held to avoid being tossed out of the car.

ONLY one car, the one sacrificed to the truck, was specially prepared. With an acetylene torch, the entire rear end, excepting the driving mechanism, was cut through immediately behind the rear seat. Yet, when Gilman was struck by the truck, the back end failed to come off. Instead, the front door flew open and the stunt man found himself on the fender, wedged in between the two vehicles. Only a heavy foot on the truck’s brake pedal saved him from being crushed to death.

The public suspects that many of these scenes are mere tricks—that dummies, not flesh-and-blood humans, perform the nerve tinglers. Yet in one recent picture, Rose not only planned the stunts and directed six other experienced stunt men, but performed as well. Protected only by knee pads and flesh-colored gloves, he jumped through a glass skylight, swung across a room on a chandelier which he caught to break the fall, and- landed on the floor thirty feet below; rolled down a twenty-foot stairway; drove an automobile into a cast-iron lamp post, through a plate-glass window, and against a building; fought with Green atop a jail, only to knock him off into the rear seat of an automoble thirty feet below, and jumped from the apex of a high roof into a tiny net fifty feet below as flames burned the supports away.

From a spectator’s viewpoint, the fire jump is quite thrilling. In fact, it is one of the most dangerous undertakings of the movie daredevils. Speed usually saves a stunt man when plunging through a glass window, the only danger coming from the possibility of glass splinters reaching the floor ahead of him and sticking on end, with sharp points projecting upward ready to impale the jumper as he lands.

BUT fire! No stunt man likes flames. The other day, Rose stood on the top of a tall, flaming set while Green swung across a gap on a rope in a pretended effort to snatch him from the burning building. Green was supposed to miss, while Rose disappeared into the heart of the fire. Old film helped build up intense heat. Rose watched the flames closely. Timbers started to sag. Below, nearly hidden under the beams, he could see sparks floating down onto the life net. Soon he must jump. The roof moved slightly. The stunt man gave the signal for action, and Green came across, dangling by one hand from the rope. Rose missed his outstretched fingers, jumped backward—and thanked his lucky stars he had taken the precaution to soak the life net with water.

Which stunt is the most dangerous? No stunt man can answer the question, for each has his own pet nightmare. Practically all their exploits are spectacular when viewed on the screen. Some are comparatively easy and relatively safe. Some bring more pain than the stunt men like to admit.

Many stunt men “burn out”—some literally. An African tree hut had been built atop a forty-foot pole on a cliff near Balboa, Calif., eighty-five feet above the pounding breakers, for several equatorial scenes. “Natives” chased Rose through the underbrush of the movie forest, and he climbed the pole to seek refuge from their spears.

As he neared the top, his pursuers touched torches to the grass and bamboo shacks. The pole had been planted too far back from the ocean’s edge to permit a jump into the sea, so it had to be pulled over. For this purpose, a piano wire, invisible to the cameras, had been run out to a boat, located outside the camera angle.

Meantime, instead of spreading gradually, the flames suddenly burst through the bamboo and licked halfway up the pole. The actor was being suffocated. The pilot of the boat, seeing his plight, started his little craft so suddenly that the wire parted.

The stunt man couldn’t climb down through the fire. He tried rocking the pole, hoping it would break at the base. Cameramen remained calm at their posts, grinding on the death scene. They knew there’d be no second chance at this.

Burying his face in his arms, Rose peered downward through the flames. Below, he saw a narrow channel which the sea had cut through the rocks. As a wave rushed in, water covered the hard bottom of the ribbon-like gorge. After ten minutes the pole toppled, falling toward the rocks. Rose leaped sideways as a breaker rolled in, and a ten-foot wall of water cushioned the stunt man’s body against the impact that seemed inevitable. The next wave tossed him like a splinter against the rocks. He was rescued a few minutes later, nearly dead.

IN A recent drama of the West, a cowboy star climbed an oil derrick, pretending to look for bandits in the surrounding country. An explosion was supposed to topple the tall structure into a house near-by. It fell to Gil-man’s lot to ride the derrick down. When it had fallen half way to earth, Gilman pulled himself over the small superstructure rising above the platform and leaped feet-first through a six-foot hole previously cut through the shingles of the roof and onto a net, while the derrick crashed loudly through the porch. Later, the star himself was shown hanging by his fingers from a beam inside the room, while carpenters showered splintered wood on him from above.

The stunt men usually work by twos. One skilled pair found themselves on the roof of a movie jail the other afternoon, each doubling for an actor of his own stature and weight. Costumed as a police officer, the lighter man fought with the “heavy” from one end of the sloping metal roof to the other, finally forcing him to loosen his grip on a weakening gutter by beating on his knuckles with an automatic pistol—made of rubber. The victim fell into a net forty feet below, landing easily on his back.

Some scenes do not permit the use of nets to break falls. On such occasions, the stunt men must rely upon their own agility or on the eager hands of other trained stunt men to catch them. Yackima Canutt fell thirty feet from a burning building and landed on the heads of a crowd, and hardly mussed his hair. On another occasion, a performer came within an ace of meeting death when he fell less than four feet into a crowd.

Instructed to fall over the infield fence from his mount during a movie horse race, he ordered the crowd to stand ten feet back. After placing five layers of green matting, resembling grass, on the ground, he started the race, galloped around the curve, and raised himself in the saddle for the plunge—only to see that the onlookers had moved up to the railing. Too far off his speeding horse to regain his seat, he catapulted headfirst into the mass of men and women. Fifteen extras were crowded into ambulances as a result of that plunge, but the stunt man escaped with bruised ribs.

THESE unsung performers do not look on a fall from a horse as offering any considerable threat to the soundness of their health, unless it is taken over water. More than one has suffered the agony of falling under a struggling horse after a long drop from a cliff into a pond or lake. The only way to escape the thrashing hooves is by swimming under water.

Cliff Lyons sat astride a farm horse, which the company had purchased the day before for $25, trying to urge him into a sixty-foot leap into a lime quarry at Sonora, Calif., not long ago. For some reason, the animal became skittish and refused to budge. Finally, Lyons walked the horse to the edge of the board chute prepared to fend him off the rocks, when suddenly the animal began to slide, turned a somersault, and threw Lyons from his back. Lyons suddenly found himself diving headfirst toward the water, his feet touching the horse as the animal plummeted down, feet in the air, behind him. The stunt man struck the water and the horse struck him. Result: a sprained back for Lyons, and surprise but no injury for the horse.

  1. John says: July 12, 201110:33 am

    Yakima Canutt really broke new ground as a stunt man. Its still amazing to see him do the drop in the 1939 John Wayne movie Stagecoach……

    A stunt later recreated using a truck as a tribute to Canutt in Raiders of the Lost Ark.

  2. Hirudinea says: July 12, 201110:35 am

    The unsung, totally f**king crazy, heros of the movies.

  3. David Moisan says: July 13, 201112:51 pm

    “Old film helped provide intense heat” Was it nitrate film? (I’d say so, in 1935.) That would flame a stuntman *without* benefit of a flame suit!

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