Old movies | Celebrating early stunt performers

1903 The Great Train Robbery
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The Fall Guy may be celebrating the art of stunts and stunt performers – but it’s an art that dates right back to the start of the 1900s.

With the release of action-romance The Fall Guy, the world is quite rightly celebrating the incredible work of stunt performers. Since the inception of Hollywood, and even before then, stunt performers have been utilised in order to perform dangerous and death-defying tricks that have wowed audiences (and protected the Hollywood star.)

The art of stunts was popular long before the invention of cinema. Of course, it is well known that circuses established acrobatics and gymnasts as well as fiery stunts and people leaping through hoops to appease the audience. However, the term stunt was adopted in the 19th century with vaudeville acts. The most popular during the Victorian era were wild west shows where they used battles, guns, and arrows to show a glamourized version of the American West. Stage combat was also popular within the theatrical world, where performers were using rapiers and swords to dazzle and delight with instructors such as George Dubois and Alfred Hutton using historical fencing in shows.

As with a lot of things in early cinema, these techniques and skills transferred over to film. Even short films within the Victorian era had a showcase of, albeit small, stunts and tricks.

An early example of this is Cecil M. Hepworth’s 1900 short film How It Feels To Be Run Over. The title pretty much says what the film goes on to cover.

The director, Hepworth, places the camera on the side of the road and plays into the Victorian fears of a horseless carriage i.e. a car. The fun element of this is the initial couple of seconds where Hepworth shows a calm horse pull a man forward as far away from the camera as possible. The horse and cart gently trot by, all being well.

It is swiftly followed by an automobile with a panicked sect of people trying to get the camera – serving as a POV for a fictional person – to move out of the way because their car is out of control. Too late, the vehicle plumets straight into the camera and the audience are treated to the visual sensation of being run over.

During the 1900s, there were plenty of young men who were willing to do difficult and dangerous shots for cinema, as well as perform with firearms, for little to no pay. It is often debated, however, as to who the first movie stunt performer was.

This is largely attributed to Frank Hanaway, especially with his work in the 1903 film The Great Train Robbery.

Hanaway had a really good ability of falling off a horse without injuring himself which meant that he was hired to do these daring stunts.

In Edwin S Porter’s film, Bandit is played by Justus D. Barnes who commits the titular crime and leads authorities on the wild chase. Hanaway appears in a later sequence where the Bandit is being pursued on horseback. As he is shooting behind him, someone falls from a horse and, yep, you guessed it, that’s Hanaway who was able to fall unharmed.

In 1908, the first ever paid stunt was committed in the adaptation of The Count Of Monte Cristo when an acrobat was paid $5 to tumble from a cliff into the sea. During this time, there was also Rodman Law who did a lot of parachute tricks, and they were often filmed like newsreels and shown to audiences.

Following this, action movies became really popular in the 1910s which meant that directors were champing at the bit to get riskier stunts to wow and amaze audiences. Especially with cowboys and riding sequences. For these scenes, production often turned to the rodeo performers such as Helen Gibson, who doubled as Ruth Roland in Ranch Girls On A Rampage. Gibson was hired as Helen Holmes’ double in The Hazards Of Helen film series. The most dangerous stunt Gibson performed was leaping from the roof of a station onto a moving train with the distance and velocity measured. Whilst she was successful, she did roll forward and suffered only minor bruises within the tussle.

When you think of the first stunt performances in cinema, however, then most will think of the comedians of the silent movie realm such as Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, and Harold Lloyd. These physical performers would daringly leap from falling buildings or attach themselves to the front of moving trains, such as Keaton in The General, in order to get big laughs and bigger gasps.

Lloyd gave us one of the first films to have effectively deployed safety-devices and pre-planning in order to execute the stunts. The film revolves around a country boy who is swept up into the technology and bustle of the city. With Lloyd performing some of his own stunts in the film, it is famed for having some breath-taking shots and sequences, including the most iconic moment where his character climbs a skyscraper and suddenly the clockface falls forward, leaving our hero clutching onto the hands for dear life.

In order to film the vertigo-inducing scene, Lloyd had mattress underneath each performer whilst the actor would wear padded corsets and a harness to keep the actor safe.

This is just a small look at stunts and stunt performers in early Hollywood. Now with the cinema market saturated with blockbusters from fantasy epics, sci-fi adventures, and a whole bunch of superheroes, stunts are absolutely the backbone that keep the move business leaping from new heights. Rightfully so, stunt performers are finally getting their props with the craft being celebrated by the recent blockbuster. Hopefully, with this newfound focus, these players can be properly recognised.

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