Hollywood Stunters — Selling Danger by the Day (1939) 🇺🇸
Dodge City could not be better named for it has the biggest budget for stunts in movie history.
It sure was a hot session in the Gay Lady saloon. Errol Flynn with a cattle train had blown into Dodge City (on Stage 5), and some of his ranch hands, such as Big Boy Guinn Williams and Alan Hale, had dropped into the bar just as somebody mentioned the Civil War. In the year 1872, it was as well to keep off this subject if you were Texans, like Flynn’s outfit, and mingling with Kansans, like the group represented by Bruce Cabot and Victor Jory.
Bam! The Civil War started all over again with table legs and bottles flying thick as bullets. Amid a bedlam of yells and splintering wood and glass, Errol Flynn tossed Buster Wiles through a window in a door. Ann Sheridan kicked Sailor Vincent in the chest and knocked him silly. Bruce Cabot flung a couple of the boys down a flight of stairs.
At the height of the conflict (in which, incidentally, the South was victorious), three stunt men — Harvey Parry, Cliff Lyons, and Duke Green — performed one of the most difficult and ingenious stunts ever attempted in pictures. Locked in one another’s arms and fighting, they fell over the rail of a balcony 22 feet high, tumbled head first to another balcony 15 feet high, crashed straight through the floor of that balcony upon a group of men brawling around a roulette table, smashed the table to bits, and finally landed on the floor of the saloon.
If you think it’s easy to plan, to time, and to carry out that trick, then you’re worth $485, which is what each of the three men received. And you take your place among the ace stunters of the movies, which is where each of this trio happens to be.
“Dodge City” is a stunters’ holiday. It had a “stunt budget” of $31,500 for fight and roundup sequences, the biggest stunt budget in picture history. Besides the balcony fight, there are dozens of other stunts in which 44 bona fide stunt men, took part — that is, men who make their livelihood by selling danger.
Such action costs money. A stunt man isn’t an extra who has been told to heave a chair. He’s a trained athlete who can fall out of a chandelier without killing himself or anyone else in the process. He is paid a minimum of $35 daily, and a top notcher in this line does pretty well for himself because he gets bigger money for bigger stunts. Cliff Lyons received $15,000 last year, and he certainly earned it. He’s the man who jumped two horses off a 70 foot cliff into a lake in “Jesse James,” doing it so skilfully that neither rider nor horses had a bruise or a scratch.
That fight in the Gay Lady saloon cost $12,500 for the stunts alone. It is the most elaborate collection of indoor stunts in the movies thus far. The charge in “Charge of the Light Brigade” still holds top place for the most of the biggest outdoors stunts.
Warner Brothers and Director Michael Curtiz worked like mad for five days to film a shindig that runs three and a half minutes on the screen. The entire cost of the five days, with stars’ salaries, a daily $20,000 overhead, and this ‘n’ that, mounted to $112,500. In other words, the less than four-minutes fight cost about $28,000 a minute. In a million-and-a-half-dollar picture they felt it was well worth while.
Stunts and stunt men, you see, are vital to action films, and, as a rule, it’s the action films that make the most money. Stunts are a special province. Even with all the courage and good intentions in the world, nobody can perform them successfully week after week except the people who have devoted years to learning how. Therefore, when the script calls for a leap from a mountain top, or for the overturning of a car at high speed, the casting office summons one of these men — or women — who commit “suicide” every day and get away with it.
Stunts are hazardous stuff, but they are worked out beforehand to eliminate as much of the hazard as possible. “It isn’t just, ‘So help me, here we go!’ “ Harvey Parry explains, “we figure every angle.” A stunt man despises the hot-headed amateur who runs an unnecessary risk. Most of the A-1 stunters have refused, from time to time, to do jobs which involved almost certain injury. The experts won’t “take a chance” — at least, not what they consider such — and 18 of the top-notchers, banded together loosely in a semi-social organization, recently were granted insurance by Lloyd’s. They pay about the same rate as police or firemen. “Stunt men,” says Harvey Parry, capping it, “are the slowest-driving motorists on the road. They know what cars can do!”
The “Gay Lady” brawl wasn’t the only scene in “Dodge City” (well named!) which required the skill of stunt experts. Half a dozen of them went on location at Modesto and, among other activities, let themselves be shot off horses.
Sam Garrett was of this number. He is the world’s champion roper, and can rope cattle while standing on his head. So was George Williams, whose horse, Goldie, at a certain signal will fall down at full speed and roll over on its rider. Cute pet, eh? For an end-over-end — that is, he goes over the horse’s head and the horse somersaults over him — he draws $250. For letting the horse roll over on him he draws about $300, depending on whether the ground is sand or rock. Williams did 90 per cent of the falls in The Charge of the Light Brigade.
One of the most exciting “Dodge City” stunts out on location was the burning of a baggage car with several cowhands inside. Dangerous, but the stunt men moved fast, Tight through the flames, and made it without casualties. Another good moment was when Cliff Lyons, for $250, fell off a hearse that was careening over the prairie with a kidnaped marshal in it. Several of the men also jumped from moving trains to the backs of horses, for from $75 to $100. Naturally, the sums vary according to the importance of the feat. Sailor Vincent was paid $25 for letting Ann Sheridan kick him in the chest, Buster Wiles $50 for letting Errol Flynn throw him through that door.
It’s merely a matter of learning how, what and when, the experts explain. Of course there are few actors (stunt men don’t consider themselves actors though often they play “bit” parts) who have the training to do stunts although good gymnasts and athletes like Victor Jory, Guinn Williams and Alan Hale are adept at these things, and Jimmy Cagney in a recent picture made a flying leap to a horse’s back “just for fun.” Many of the regulation stunters are former rodeo stars, others were circus men.
For example, Yakima Canutt, one of the best, was a champion cowboy and rodeo king; Allen Pomeroy, a college athlete; Duke Green, a professional diver and acrobat. Otto, Victor, and Tom Metzetti, who did a majority of the falls down stairs and off roofs in “Gunga Din,” were circus stars. Paul Mantz, Tex Rankin, Fred Clark and Dick Grace have gained first rank reputations for “airplane stuff.” They do wing-walking, crashing planes, swinging by ropes, whatever you care to suggest. Paul Mantz did that terrific power dive in “Wings of the Navy.” Clark in Devil Dogs of the Air brought a plane down and bounced it gaily over two ambulances at the airport.
Hollywood admires the stunters tremendously, knowing they have saved many a picture from the curse of the commonplace, yet on the stages they are regarded with well-justified suspicion. Accustomed to danger, they are inclined to play sort of rough when several of them get together.
Some of these practical jokes have become famous. On location for the “Valley of the Giants,” his fellow stunt men tied Sailor Vincent — an unusually sound sleeper — to his bed, put smoke bombs around and waited. When Sailor woke to find the room full of smoke, he jumped right out the second story window with the bed strapped to his back. Even half awake, he remembered to relax as he fell and escaped unhurt, but he threw an awful scare into his playmates.
When the “Kid from Kokomo” was shooting, stunt man Harvey Parry was supposed to be knocked unconscious during a fight. By prearrangement, Parry pretended to be really unconscious. He remained all doubled up while they carried him to a spot on the sound stage near Joan Blondell.
“Is his back broken?” somebody inquired. “I’ll fix it!” said stunt man Allen Pomeroy. He seized Parry’s limp form and vigorously bent it backward, as if to straighten it. A most horrible creaking and crunching of bones was heard. The joke succeeded too well. Joan, who hadn’t noticed the apparatus from which the creaking came, passed out cold.
Ah, well. Just carefree pranksters. At that, each and every one of them admits you have to be “a little crazy” to make stunts your living.
Yet, if you met these people, you’d never think they were “a little crazy” or, for that matter, addicted to dangerous exploits. Harvey Parry, for instance, who plays the violin and has a young daughter in art school, lives sedately in San Fernando Valley. Outside working hours, he won’t even trip over a garden hose. Cliff Lyons, a six-footer, speaks in a gentle voice, likes early American furniture, and owns one of the most charming little homes in Hollywood.
Olive Hatch of the long, dark hair — for all the stunters are not men — is a graduate of U.C.L.A., a former newspaper woman, national champion in the 100 meter free-style swim, member of the Los Angeles Athletic Club team that holds the world record for the relay (swimming) race. Her specialty is leaping to the backs of horses ridden by Buck Jones, or falling over backward in chairs as she does in “The Girl Downstairs.” And there’s Mary Wiggins, poised and beautiful, who holds the women’s professional high diving championship of the world, flies a plane, and thinks nothing of dousing gasoline over herself, setting herself afire, in an ordinary garageman’s suit, and diving from an 86-foot platform into three feet of water, the surface of which is covered with flaming gasoline. She does this to amuse the customers at county fairs.
A mad crew, my masters! Yet ask them about their “most dangerous stunt” and they’ll tell you seriously that there isn’t such a thing. They’ve planned them all in advance with painstaking care and tried to eliminate every peril. So ask about the “most difficult stunt.” We-ell—
“Once,” said Harvey Parry, “in ‘The Eleventh Hour,’ I made a 110-foot dive into the sea. I had to clear 20 feet of protruding cliff and try to land when the wave was in. With the wave in, I had 12 feet of water. With the wave out, about 4. From that height, it takes you around three seconds to fall, and you’re hitting the water at 80 miles an hour. It needed figuring, but I made it okay. Only, at that, there was a piece of wood swirling around in the wave. It hit me in the chest and knocked me out.”
Most good divers, he explained, hate to jump from heights, instead of diving, “because they get the sensation of falling.” He has been national diving champion and national amateur boxing champion. And he is, by the way, a fatalist.
No wonder. Because after jumping and diving from masts and cliffs, after skidding and overturning cars and running locomotives off tracks, and coming out practically unscathed, he slipped from a six-inch high sidewalk in “Call of the Wild,” and broke three vertebrae. The greatest contrasts he’s known were his stunts in “Call of the Wild” and “They Made Me a Criminal.” For the first film, Parry and Duke Green had to break the ice to get into a river for a boat smash scene, with the temperature 22 degrees below. For the second film, Parry had to run the tops of box cars at Palm Springs in summer, with the thermometer at 135 in the shade. The rungs of the iron ladder on the cars were so hot they burned his hands, even through gloves.
Parry is a fine boxer, and is in great demand for fight scenes. He says that in pictures he has lost “three world championships! I knock ‘em down often, but I never win. I’ve been in over 100 fights and never won yet. In “The Irish in Us,” Cagney and I fought for three days under the hot lights. Both of us were in good condition, but Cagney lost 9 1/2 pounds and I lost 5.”
Many times Parry, like other stunt men, has missed disaster by a hair. But he never has been nearer it than in “The Conquerors” when, with Ann Harding, he did a runaway-team scene. When the wagon broke up and overturned, Parry got hit on the head. Somewhat dazed, he knew that he must race back along the railroad track and pull a dummy from the ruins of the wagon before a locomotive, coming at 40 miles an hour, struck it.
“I was confused and couldn’t judge the distance between the engine and myself,” he said, “I rescued the dummy, but I could have touched that engine as I jumped away from in front of it.”
And, still speaking of risks... “The amateur is the risk,” Parry added. “The youth who turns somersaults down on the beach and believes his friends when they say, ‘You ought to be in pictures.’ The biggest risk of all is the ambitious extra who tries to horn in on the scene and musses up a stunt you’ve spent weeks in making safe, like the extra who grabs a chair and throws it in a fight, not realizing that a stunt man will throw the right chair — a breakaway — or else not hit anyone. When a star makes a mistake, they do a retake. But if the stunt man makes a mistake, usually they have to get another boy.”
Duke Green, who among other accomplishments can fall off a horse at the right time and place, frightened Parry and the rest of them half out of their wits not long ago. He fell off the horse, but unexpectedly the horse fell on Duke. When they picked the stunt man up, he was making dreadful sounds: “Awrgh! Awrgh!” After a minute, with people bending anxiously over him, he gave a mighty wriggle and exclaimed: “Doggone it! I swallowed my tobacco!”
Two of the hardest stunts figured out by Cliff Lyons were a jump into an automobile, and a jump from the top of a dam. The automobile jump, from a roof to the car, was a fussy thing because Lyons had to jump at one angle while the car at 45 miles an hour was going at another. “If we’d both been traveling in the same direction, it wouldn’t have been anything,” he explained modestly.
The leap from the dam was tough. Lyons often had made higher leaps, but the rocks at the dam’s foot were a menace. By painstaking measurement he found a space — only one — between those rocks which would almost exactly fit his body. That’s what he aimed for, and if you suppose it’s a cinch...
Stunters say it’s the little, unconsidered things that make the hazards. The forgotten milk bottle on the ground when you put a car through a brick wall. A stray nail. An electric light globe that may drop on your head. Mary Wiggins says diving, afire, into a flaming pool isn’t so risky as crashing motorcycles into houses or overturning cars. She has overturned more cars — at high speed, too — than any man in the movies and she’s done it not only in the movies but at numberless county fairs. She has done 125 motorcycle wall crashes and 30 auto wall crashes. At one stretch in fairs, she turned over 77 cars in 11 weeks, one a day.
Yet, though they all say the hazards are eliminated as much as possible, they all echo Mary’s, “Definitely NO!” when asked if they advise other boys and girls to take up stunting, “Too much strain, mental and physical, for comparatively too little pay.” Come right down to it, nothing really can pay you for the stuff you do as a stunter. Not, you understand, that any of the stunt men or women crave any other sort of work.... No, siree!
Below, left, Olive Hatch, one of the most famous stunt women, as she jumps a horse ridden by Buck Jones.
Right, taking it on the chin is all in the day’s work for Buster Wiles.
Below, Mary Wiggins, who has over-turned more cars than anyone else in the movies, at work. Sailor Vincent earned $25 for this kick from Ann Sheridan in "Dodge City." Cliff Lyons goes over a high cliff.
Source: Hollywood Magazine, May 1939