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Danger on the Silver Screen
50 Films Celebrating Cinema's Greatest Stunts
By Scott McGee
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Buckle in and join TCM on a action-packed journey through the history of cinema stunt work in Danger on the Silver Screen. This action-packed guide profiles 50 foundational films with insightful commentary on the history, importance, and evolution of an often overlooked element of film: stunt work. With insightful commentary and additional recommendations to expand your repertoire based on your favorites, Danger on the Silver Screen is a one-of-a-kind guide, perfect for film lovers to learn more about or just brush up on their knowledge of stunt work and includes films such as Ben-Hur (1925 & 1959), The Great K&A Train Robbery (1926), Steamboat Bill Jr. (1928), The Thing from Another World (1951), Bullitt (1968), Live and Let Die (1973), The Blues Brothers (1980), Romancing the Stone (1984), The Matrix (1999), The Bourne Supremacy (2004), John Wick (2014), Mission: Impossible—Rogue Nation (2015), Atomic Blonde (2017), and many more.
Danger on the Silver Screen is the quintessential book on action films that every movie enthusiast requires.
Not only is it an entertaining and fascinating read, but the book manages to chronicle a wide variety of some of the best films in the genre.
The extensive research and in-depth interviews with the stunt players who helped to create these iconic films create a rare look into the action heroes of the past and present.
Thanks to Scott McGee’s level of commitment to go where no writer has gone before, many of the action pioneers and groundbreaking events in the stunt industry are now preserved forever.
In the stunt business we have a saying: “Go big or go home!” Scott McGee just went HUGE!
Buddy Joe Hooker
Vice President, Stunts Unlimited
PERFORMING STUNTS FOR movies at the end of the second decade of the twentieth century was a very risky and foolhardy endeavor. Men and women put their lives in danger for extra cash and a spot in the “flickers.” There were some, like Harvey Parry, Paul Malvern, and Bob Rose, who made a lifelong profession of it, while others like serial queen Helen Holmes, notable for performing her own stunts in The Hazards of Helen (1914–1917), eventually left Hollywood. Regardless, performing stunts, or “stunting,” was a make-it-up-as-you-go type of work. If the script called for a leap from a moving car, you leapt from a moving car. If you got hurt, you got hurt. And if the director needed the star to actually perform these stunts, oftentimes the actor or actress did what they were told. One such director insisted for realism from one of Hollywood’s top actresses, Lillian Gish.
With monumental pictures like the highly controversial The Birth of a Nation (1915) and the epic Intolerance (1916), D. W. Griffith was America’s first brand-name filmmaker. In 1919, Griffith began production of Way Down East, an adaptation of a melodramatic stage play of the same name.
The plot revolves around a young woman’s affair with a playboy who then abandons her after learning she is pregnant. The climax of the film has the woman, Anna, cast out in shame into a blizzard. Stumbling through the gale, cold and alone, she collapses onto the breaking ice floes of a frozen river only to head for a deadly waterfall. Griffith’s favorite actress, Gish, was cast as the young woman, and Richard Barthelmess played David, the hero attempting to rescue the damsel in distress.
Filmgoers at this time were well attuned to the dramatic nature of last-minute rescues and the allure of seeing actual danger enacted on screen. Trade papers called this “sensationalism,” the need for audiences to see risky “between-this-world-and-the-next stunts,” as one director put it in Motion Picture Magazine in 1916. Because filmmakers upped the ante so well, audiences expected bigger and better with each trip to the matinee. To meet the demand, filmmakers would often shoot authentic dangers on location, many involving the earthly elements.
For the hair-raising climax in his picture, Griffith insisted on absolute realism.
This celebrated sequence, still one of the most famous in film history, was largely done in the winter environs of White River Junction, Vermont, in March 1920. Publicist Harry Carr wrote of the harsh setting, “That blizzard scene… was taken in the most god-awful blizzard I ever saw.… Lillian stuck out there in front of the cameras. D. W. would ask her if she could stand it, and she would nod. The icicles hung from her lashes, and her face was blue.”
With temperatures never rising far above zero, the Connecticut River was frozen so solid that Griffith and his crew had to make their own ice floes, either by sawing them off or using dynamite to blow up sections of ice. Once they had pieces to work with, steel cables were used to keep them grouped together until the cameras were ready.
Today, no one would go through this much trouble and risk, not when CGI (or computer-generated imagery) is available. But back then, Lillian Gish, in a skimpy dress, needed to actually float on pieces of ice in the dead of winter. Both Gish and Richard Barthelmess did have doubles on standby, but neither one contributed to the scene. A local girl named Katherine Johnston spent only one day on the production, merely giving Gish a break from the cold, while Allan Law was called in to double Barthelmess for some long shots of David jumping from one ice floe to the next. Law refused, saying the stunt was too dangerous. So Griffith’s assistant, or what is known today as the second unit director, Elmer Clifton, ended up doubling the double for these long shots.
Through it all, Gish and Barthelmess never wavered in meeting the demands of these breathtaking shots. Gish floated on the often unpredictable ice floes for three weeks, sometimes as much as twenty times in a day. The danger to Gish was brutal and uncompromising, not just the risk of falling into the icy water, but because of her exposure to the punishing cold without warm clothing. Barthelmess at least had a raccoon coat and spiked boots, but they made him that much heavier. In one shot, an ice floe is not quite large enough to hold his weight, and he begins to sink—the reaction on the actor’s face was genuine surprise and fear.
Griffith spent thirty-five days shooting the ice floe climax with fourteen cameras. It was a scene he knew audiences would remember. As Anna drifted closer and closer to the waterfalls (actually an insert shot of Niagara Falls), Griffith attempted to shoot the last-minute rescue on the ice, but it was too perilous, because dangerous rapids were only a short distance downriver. So those few shots were created later in Connecticut on floes manufactured from wood and set atop a decidedly calmer river. Ironically, despite his confidence in that climactic scene, Griffith was fearful that his film would be a disappointment when compared with the sweeping historical epics like Intolerance.
In an unpublished open letter to a New York newspaper, Griffith explained the lack of “massive or spectacular effects,” which were seen in Intolerance, was due to the costly nature of capturing the ice floe sequence. At the time, it apparently did not occur to him that the ice floe scenes were dramatic enough on their own. After Way Down East, contemporary filmmakers adopted the practice of harnessing Mother Nature; producer Thomas Ince engineered a way to bottle up a portion of the Colorado River near Yuma, Arizona, to film his actors in an actual flood for The Galloping Fish (1924), while Clarence Brown sent stuntmen down a swollen river for a scene in The Trail of ’98 (1928). But Way Down East set the industry gold standard for creating real danger with real people in real places, pushing the limits at the risk of life and limb in the process.
Years later, Gish shared a detail, perhaps apocryphal, that suggested the anxiety audiences felt in watching the scene. “So many people fainted that Mr. Griffith had a trained nurse in the ladies’ room. But he didn’t want word to get out about the fainting. It would have been bad for business.”
“TO DOUG, CHASMS WERE BUILT TO JUMP OVER.”
—screenwriter Anita Loos
THE EVOLUTION OF the modern action screen hero, whether they are from the pages of pulp magazines or from Marvel Studios, began with Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. In the silent era, no one was more dashing and athletic than Fairbanks. Starting in feature films during the late teens and the costumed period spectacles of the 1920s, Fairbanks personified the derring-do of heroes doing the impossible while making it look easy. Fairbanks set the template of a star whose reputation in the industry and in the hearts and minds of moviegoers was tied irrevocably with stunt work. Fairbanks played characters who thrive on challenge, who need danger.
In 1932, when shooting Mr. Robinson Crusoe in Tahiti, the penultimate film of his lively career, the local inhabitants of the island nation called Fairbanks “the Man the Devil Fears.” In films like Manhattan Madness (1916), In Again, Out Again (1917), and many others, Fairbanks proved his mettle as the stuntman-star par excellence. For one stunt in The Knickerbocker Buckaroo (1919)—a lost film—Fairbanks exited a speeding train through a window, ran along the top, jumped onto the arm of a water feeder, and landed on the back of his horse. Throughout this phase of his career, Fairbanks engaged in action that called attention to himself, a sense of “look at what I can do!” It was very much in keeping with Fairbanks’s youthful spirit of adventure and thrills.
During the 1920s, though, Fairbanks looked to historical adventures for the next phase of his career. In classics like The Mark of Zorro (1920) and The Three Musketeers (1921), Fairbanks sought to merge his beaming personality with the character as written, and decided that any stunts were to be in strict support of the character. As he told one publication in 1922, “Never were these things (stunts) intended for an exhibition of physical prowess or as feats attractive in themselves.” With Douglas Fairbanks in Robin Hood, there would be plenty of stunts and action befitting the character. There would also be a new element for stunts in this phase of Fairbanks’s career: scale. The mammoth size of the production, from the number of cast members to the enormity of the sets, was unlike anything Hollywood had seen before.
The Fairbanks crew, headed by director Allan Dwan, the star’s brother Robert Fairbanks, and supervising art director Wilfred Buckland, erected a life-sized castle on the Pickford-Fairbanks Studios lot at the intersection of Santa Monica Boulevard and Formosa Avenue. At 620 feet long, the castle set was said to be the largest ever created in Hollywood, dwarfing the three-hundred-foot Babylonian set from Intolerance. The interior of the castle was so large that it could only be lit by sunlight and reflectors. The construction of the castle was already underway and quite a sight on the Hollywood skyline when Fairbanks returned from a lengthy trip. Seeing it for the first time, Fairbanks almost shelved the project, fearing his bigger-than-life personality could not compete with ninety-foot-high castle walls. But Dwan demonstrated how Fairbanks’s persona could take advantage of hidden handholds, trampoline-assisted leaps, and other tricks that would show the hero taming the daunting dimensions of the castle. One ingenious device that sold Fairbanks completely was a hidden slide underneath a tall, flowing drape that allowed Robin Hood to quickly descend from the upper echelons of the castle to the ground floor with grace and ease.
Dwan told filmmaker and Hollywood chronicler Peter Bogdanovich that Fairbanks did all of his own stunts, but that “everything was gauged for him—we never made him strain. He never had to reach an extra inch for anything. Stuntmen have tried to imitate him and it always looks like a stunt when they do it.” Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., said, “My father’s stunts were as carefully planned and rehearsed as any Fred Astaire or Gene Kelly routine.”
Despite the modifications to help each stunt be executed as easily as possible, Fairbanks was not above taking real risks. When Robin Hood gallops to the castle for the climactic confrontation and climbs a massive chain that lifts the castle gate, brother Robert thought it was too dangerous. Scaling a chain to those heights negated engineered methods to make it safer and easier for the star. Doug reluctantly agreed to let a stuntman perform it. Then, on the morning of the shoot, the cameras rolled on the stand-in mounting the chain like a champ. He reached the top and flung out one hand in triumph. It was then that Robert realized that he’d been had—Doug doubled the double. It is probable that there were other instances where even Fairbanks realized he had to sit out a stunt, perhaps because he was physically incapable of doing it or because of the high risk of injury. For these reasons, Fairbanks very much valued the contributions to his craft of a handful of stuntmen, the most important one being Richard Talmadge.
When Fairbanks was shooting The Mollycoddle (1920), he suffered a sprained wrist, which prevented him from performing a stunt in the film’s climax. The hero was to leap from the edge of a cliff onto the villain, who is perched high on a tree. Tumbling down the branches, they land on the rocky ground below, continue to fight, then roll down a steep slope, falling off a smaller cliff and through the roof of a cabin. The fight continues through a wall, down another hill, off yet another cliff into a stream, and finally over a waterfall. For this breathless sequence, Richard Talmadge did the gag for Fairbanks.
Whether or not Talmadge continued to stunt for Fairbanks in films to follow is debatable, but his clear contribution was as a consultant and a proto-stunt coordinator to the star. Talmadge would perform the specified action for Fairbanks so the star could look for potentially hazardous turns as well as moments where he could show his usual panache, then would do the action himself for the cameras. Talmadge continued to assist in the stunt preparation for Fairbanks, leading to perhaps the most celebrated stunt from the Fairbanks playbook.
As the title hero in The Black Pirate, Fairbanks singlehandedly takes control of a pirate ship, culminating with the seaman hero scaling the ship’s masts, plunging a knife into the topsail, and sliding down the canvas, slicing the sails in pieces. Robert Fairbanks designed the stunt, while Talmadge worked it out with Doug on how best to execute it. Outtakes of this sequence revealed that Fairbanks performed the gag several times, until he got it right. From the very beginning, this stunt inspired legions of would-be swashbucklers. Future film director Robert Parrish tried as a child to emulate the ship sail stunt with a bed sheet attached to the limb of a tree and a butcher knife, but the stunt did not go as planned.
Since then, the stunt has been repeated in films, including Against All Flags (1952) and The Goonies (1985), while Australian stuntman Grant Page, famous for his stunts in Mad Max (1979), did it in The Pirate Movie (1982). In a 2007 episode of MythBusters, the team declared the act “busted,” implausible in real life, presumably for anyone not named Douglas Fairbanks.
With Douglas Fairbanks in Robin Hood and The Black Pirate, Fairbanks wrote the book for future stuntman-stars like Burt Lancaster and Tom Cruise. In epic adventures, fantasies, and contemporary action pictures, it was Fairbanks who made the impossible seem easy. A 1922 article recounted a young boy’s visit to the Robin Hood set. The child met the star and asked, “Are you Douglas Fairbanks?” The star answered yes. But the boy was skeptical, so he told Fairbanks to prove it by jumping over a studio building.
WHEN IT COMES to identifying the single most recognizable image from the silent era, even someone who has never seen a silent movie would know the sight of a man hanging from a clock building. What they may not know is the story behind the image, and the sequence that leads up to it in Safety Last! In the film, Harold Lloyd stars as a naïve lad in the big city who must try to impress his girlfriend (Mildred Davis) with a financial windfall. Lloyd’s only way to make bank quickly is to take advantage of a new fad in which daredevils climb tall city buildings. However, instead of a skilled friend doing the job, Harold ends up having to complete the vertiginous climb himself.
Safety Last! is considered to be among Harold Lloyd’s finest thrill comedies, solidifying the daredevil comedian’s reputation with the breathless public. The 1920s was called the Age of Ballyhoo, an era that saw barnstorming pilots, parachute jumpers, flagpole sitters, and other foolhardy souls doing anything for the thrill of danger, the crowd’s attention, the eye of the press, and possibly a career in show business. One such skill was that of the “human fly” or “human spider”—people who would climb skyscrapers without the use of ropes or climbing gear. Lloyd was walking in Los Angeles one day when he spotted one such “human fly.” His name was Bill Strother, and he was scaling the Brockman Building on 7th Avenue in Los Angeles. Lloyd introduced himself to Strother and discussed the idea of putting the extreme steeplejack under contract. Strother was eventually cast in Safety Last! as Limpy Bill, Harold’s friend who is originally hired to climb the building.
The effect of seeing this famous sequence was a delirious delight for audiences in 1923, and it remains so even today. From the way it was shot and the stunts performed, audiences today, even those jaded with too much CGI, gasp in delight when they realize that Safety Last! was the real deal. Well, sort of. While Lloyd wanted the gasps, he was no dummy. As gravity works just as well on movie stars, there was no way he was going to risk himself on the outside of an actual skyscraper. The way the filmmakers made it look real is thanks to expert filmmaking, as revealed in several contemporary reports, such as what Adela Rogers St. Johns wrote in Photoplay magazine in 1923, “How Lloyd Made Safety Last.” On the roof of a skyscraper—three actually, as there are three different backgrounds seen during the climb—Lloyd and Co. built façades that Lloyd would actually climb. Several feet away on the same skyscraper, they also built a tower that was a little taller than the façades. It was on that tower where the camera was placed, angled down to capture, in frame, Harold on the façades and, most importantly, in the background, the city streets below the actual skyscraper.
Though Lloyd was not in as much danger as it appeared, it was still a risk. The façades were quite high, and falling, even onto mattresses, was not something that could be easily done without injury. And while it wasn’t directly over the yawning city streets, Lloyd hanging on to the façades in the first place is even more impressive when you consider that he was climbing with a remarkable disadvantage. In August 1919, while posing for promotional photographs, Lloyd picked up what he thought was a harmless prop bomb and lit it with a cigarette. It exploded and mangled his right hand, causing him to lose his thumb and forefinger. So for the portions where Lloyd is climbing, he was doing so with a special prosthetic glove to retain the illusion of a whole hand. This all worked in Lloyd’s favor, though. He was not Douglas Fairbanks, scaling the edifice like a Greek god. Lloyd was the Everyman, struggling inch by inch, hanging by eight fingertips.
The vertiginous effect of the climb was so effective for audiences in 1923 that some doubted its authenticity, suggesting that trick photography was used. When film critic Harold Heffernan of the Detroit Press accused Lloyd of using double exposure, Lloyd sent him a telegram assuring him, “it is a matter of personal satisfaction with me to be able to inform you otherwise.” Lloyd was proud to have shot this sequence practically, using clever filmmaking and, yes, stunt doubles. “The only time, in those days, that I used a stunt man was to do something that I actually couldn’t do,” Lloyd later said. Indeed, in Safety Last!, Lloyd appears to have used three fill-ins. One instance is near the end of the climb, when a mouse gets inside Harold’s trousers, causing him to fall over the ledge, but still managing to catch it with his hands. Lloyd did not perform this maneuver, leaving it to a stuntman.
- On Sale
- Apr 5, 2022
- Page Count
- 288 pages
- Running Press