Three Seconds from Death (Nov, 1938)
Wow, it’s hard to imagine that in 1938 Hollywood only had 17 stunt men and and 6 stunt women. I wonder what the count is now?
Three Seconds from Death
THERE are seventeen men and six women in Hollywood who live entirely by seconds, seldom being more than a count of three from disaster while working. Among the highest paid individuals in the world per employed minute, they are seen daily by millions, yet are unknown except to friends and fellow workers.
This little group composes the “stunters” of the movies. Their job is to manufacture thrillsâ€”to cash in on hairbreadth escapes.
In their work, a second generally spells the difference between safety and tragedy. “Timing” is their religion. They work entirely by count, a count that becomes almost subconscious with them, but which, if they forget it, may mean death.
Let’s go on location with Cliff Lyons, one of the stunt men. He has been called by Warner Brothers to do two stunts for $1,200 in the picture, “The Valley of the Giants.” Each stunt will take about a minute and will be flashed on the screen for a few seconds. One is a cable swing and a bump, the other a “Brodie,” or fall.
In a fight scene, where a lumber crew attacks the guards and blows up a dam, Cliff’s job is to “bump” a guard stationed on top of a big boulder at the water’s edge. To accomplish this, a cable is stretched from the top of a rock to the ground at the far side of the river, passing about eight feet above the rock on which the guard is standing.
Traveling by pulley, Cliff is to sweep down from the larger rock, dump the guard into the river and continue across the water. But what will happen when Lyons reaches the end of his improvised speedway? Traveling down a forty-five degree angle he has every prospect of reaching the ground at eighty to ninety miles an hour. That is where the special effects department of the studio comes in.
“I don’t think there is anything a major studio won’t do to protect stunt men,” explains Lyons. “They will build any sort of gadget you want. A piano wire “holdback” was attached to the pulley I was to ride, and wound around a drum with a brake on it. This wire could be unreeled at any speed desired. And as a secondary safety, they spliced a heavy wire into the cable about fifteen feet from the ground. This wire slanted upward, so no matter how fast the pulley was traveling, the tension of the separated cables would bring it to a gradual stop.”
But how about the fellow who was to be bumped? The script said the attacker was to kick him in the back with both feet. The speed of Cliff’s descent, plus the force of a two-footed kick, could break his back. The answer is “timing,” working by seconds and split seconds.
Three trial slides established the elapsed count required to put Lyons over the spot where his victim was to stand. The same time, in counts, was used by the man on the rock to get himself ready to plunge into the water at the slightest touch. This permitted him, when Cliff called just before kicking, to relax and give way as the feet struck.
“Whether it’s bulldogging steers, taking riders out of saddles, tipping stage coaches, doing plane stunts, crashing automobiles or going through a fist fight, timing is everything,” says Lyons. “If one fellow gets out of time in a fast fight before the camera, somebody is going to get hurtâ€”and half a second spells the difference between a smooth scene and a bro-ken nose.”
Leaping from trees and roofs into saddles and upon passing automobiles calls for split-second timing. Misjudging the position of a horse by inches in such a leap is liable to end a “stunter’s” career. Ione Reed, one of the best known stunt women, almost lost her life because a scene was not timed. “The scene,” she relates, “called for three of us to jump off a moving freight in the path of an oncoming passenger train. We were to run forward along the tops of the cars, climb down, jump off and scurry across the tracks in front of the approaching locomotive. Had we rehearsed and timed it, all would have been simple. But it looked too easy. And it would have been, if the two who jumped first had given me sufficient lime. But they didn’t and I had no time to climb down to the bottom step, but had to jump while half way up the side of the car. I fell and rolled off the track. The locomotive was so close I felt the rush of the passing wheels.
“Another time, while doubling for Gracie Allen in a scene involving riding the back of a bear that is climbing a tree, a slip in timing gave me an embarrassing moment. The bear was going up the tree, after hot cakes the trainer was holding. I climbed on his back and the wire from my belt to the catwalk overhead was supposed to carry most of my weight. But the operator of my line wasn’t in step with the bear, and soon my full weight was on his back. This interfered with his progress toward lunch and he turned to give me a nip.
I let go and fell backward, expecting to be brought up by the wire. But the man above was out of step and I hit the stage floor with a jolt.”
Letting a stunt man work out every detail of his “action” is an unwritten law in a studio, and failing to keep in time in such instances is unforgivable. Lyons once was called upon to drive north on a road paralleling a double-track railroad. He was to race a passenger train, also going north, and beat it to the crossing. Immediately after he crossed in front of this train, another train, traveling south, was to pass the north-bound train at the crossing.
Cliff and the director worked out the timing and rehearsed it with the trains. But an assistant director decided that if the engineer from the south stepped his speed from twenty to thirty miles an hour, it would still give Lyons time to beat him and would make the race look better.
He probably thought Lyons would just step on the gas. But to get his timing right, the stunt man traveled by watch and speedometerâ€”not by keeping his eyes on the train. So instead of beating the train, he tied it. He made the turn to cross the tracks when he saw the engine bearing down.
With a whirl of his wheel, he headed down the railroadâ€”between the two tracks. But now he was driving toward the south-bound train, less than 300 feet away. To jump one way would put him under the wheels of the train by his side. To jump the other would hurl him in the path of the approaching train. To stay in the car would be suicide.
“Grab a car window,” Lyons yelled to a companion, who was doubling for a girl in the picture. “Get out of this!”
He held the bouncing automobile beside the train while his companion pulled himself out of danger. Then it was Cliff’s turn. How he got from under that wheel, smashed a closed window of the railway car and jerked himself out of that trap, he doesn’t know yet. But his feet left the seat of the automobile just as the trains met. There was a grinding crashâ€”and the two trains rolled the light car between them.
That was perhaps the most spectacular stunt ever filmed, and would have been worth much to the studioâ€”except for one thing. When they saw the car between the trains and coming their way, director, assistant director and camera crew ran. The camera was smashed and not an inch of the film was salvaged. The whole thing was a total loss because of interference. Such interference, however, doesn’t crop up once in a thousand stunts.
In the runaway scene in, “In Old Chicago,” where the father of the O’Learys is killed, Fox built a complicated device that pulled the pins to release the tongue from the wagon, and send the horses away, dragging Cliff after them. Ordinarily a tongue is released when wooden pins that hold it are broken by driving the wagon into a bump. Fox, however, devised a gunlike release in which a dynamite cartridge exploded and threw a lever which automatically pulled the pins.
“All I had to do,” boasted Lyons, “was to touch a button and the whole thing was set off electrically. They even made a light steel sliding plate that fastened along my chest and stomach, so I could be dragged along the ground without injury.”
“Unexpected quirks in the disposition of animals are the most dangerous elements in our calling,” Ione Reed says. “Nobody ever knows exactly what an animal is going to do. And that goes for the meekest old saddle horse in Hollywood. The time a trained lion turned on me, ripped my leather coat, nipped me and then pulled me down with him, I faced no worse possibilities than when my gentle little pinto suddenly went cold-jawed and started to smash me against some big rocks. In the first case, the trainer reached us before the lion started chewing. In the other, when my pinto was headed, apparently crazy, straight for two enormous boulders, nothing but good luck saved me. Just as he reached the rocks he wheeled, whirling me from the saddle. Somehow, I was able to ward myself off the rock and bounce back in the saddle again.
“But if you want a really interesting story, ask Cliff about the haircut he got when he bulldogged the steer.”
“Oh, that,” Cliff grinned. “Because it was done on a stage, the steer was pretty wild and we didn’t have much room to prance about. So when I threw him, I found myself on the ground in front of him, with the side of the arena about four inches behind me. He was down, but I didn’t have room to twist him off his knees. Also I didn’t have room to jump back.
“I called to the men on the stage to take him when I let go. But when I released his horns he began hooking. So I flattened out, trying to burrow into the dirt on the floor. Then I saw the steer twist down and whisk a piece of paper off the floor. He could certainly use those horns.
“I flattened closer to the floor and closed my eyes as I saw his head twist again. I felt a little sting on my ear and something brush my hair. How long I lay there, with him over me, I don’t know. But finally they got him away. A bit of skin was taken off my ear and a rough path was cut through my hair above the ear. The hair wasn’t pulled out, it was cutâ€”ragged and uneven, but cut.”