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How Old Hollywood Stunts Were Actually Pulled Off

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Vote up the behind-the-scenes stories about real-life stunts that make them even more impressive.

Movies in the 21st century are rich with cinematic effects and special stunts. We know that CGI has changed movies forever, from Independence Day to Solo. Beyond the computer-generated imagery, directors also take advantage of camera angles, optical illusions, and lots and lots of explosions. Not to mention the impressive makeup work that can be done now; just take a look at the orcs in The Lord of the Rings, or the zombies in The Walking Dead. 

But before computers and graphics, and even before color and sound, some of the most iconic movie magic tricks still appeared on screen. We're talking about terrifying leaps onto galloping horses, and jumps off of buildings onto moving trains. Fire was involved at times, as well as sets and props that weighed thousands of pounds. Whether Westerns or older silent films, the 20th century was rich with Hollywood stunts. You'll be surprised to find out how some of these stunts were completed, and more than likely impressed with a lot of Hollywood's earliest stuntmen and stuntwomen. 

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  • One of the earliest stuntmen in Hollywood, Yakima Canutt put his rodeo experience to work choreographing and executing stunts in the 1920s and '30s. To some, Canutt is considered the original stuntman. According to modern-day stuntman Vic Armstrong, "He was the first person to make a science of it. Yakima Canutt was the daddy of us all - the greatest there's ever been."

    He is also considered to be the first person to complete a stunt from a galloping horse to another moving object. In the breathtaking scene from Stagecoach, Canutt leaps off his running horse, passes over one horse, then lands onto the wagon tongue to stop the coach. He falls to the ground when his character is shot and the team of six horses plus the stagecoach, traveling at 45 miles per hour, pass over him. He then wrangles another horse and takes off after the coach. 

    To preserve life and limb, the stuntman had installed metal bars to keep each pair of horses 3 feet apart. This allowed him to complete the jump successfully, and then fall to the ground without actually being trampled. After the scene was filmed, the cameramen weren't sure they got it all. Canutt was happy to repeat the stunt, but the director replied, "I'll never shoot that again."

    354 votes
  • Helen Gibson Measured Her Train Jump Distance In 'The Hazards of Helen' Carefully, Then Risked It All While Improvising
    Photo: Kalem Company / General Film Company / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    A truly fearless leader, Helen Gibson is considered by many to be the first stuntwoman in Hollywood. Like many of the stuntmen, she grew up riding horses and got her start in rodeo shows. As she moved into stuntwork for films, her most frequent role came as the stunt double for Helen Holmes in a show called The Hazards of Helen

    In the episode titled "A Girl's Grit," Gibson was slated to make a daring jump from the roof of a train station onto a moving train. The distance was accurately and repeatedly measured, and Gibson practiced the jump onto a stationary train numerous times before filming the shot. Recalling the filming of the scene, Gibson later said, "I was not nervous as it approached and I leaped without hesitation."

    Although the speed and distance of the train had accurately been accounted for, the motion of the train had not. Gibson successfully made the leap, but was then thrown off balance by the rocking of the train. She rolled towards the end of the car and was able to grab an air vent just in time. She was safe, but decided to push her luck even further; she then let her body dangle out over the edge "to increase the effect on the screen."

    396 votes
  • Popular in the 1920s, Buster Keaton became known not only for the comedy in his films, but also for many of the stunts, which he performed himself. One particularly infamous scene was in Steamboat Bill, Jr.: Keaton's character is standing in front of a house, marveling at the storm that just passed through. Then, out of nowhere, the entire front of the house falls down, barely missing the unsuspecting man who happens to be standing in the exact spot of the pane-free window.

    The facade of the house weighed thousands of pounds, and the scene required absolute accuracy. In fact, Keaton's location had to be so precise that the crew made their measurements and then actually nailed his shoes to the ground to make sure he wasn't off by even an inch. 

    Although Keaton didn't seem to be nervous, plenty of the cast and crew were; several crew members turned away or simply walked off the set, fearing they would otherwise watch a man die in front of their eyes.

    491 votes
  • Dick Grace was one of the most famous, and successful, stunt pilots in early Hollywood. He was the best at what he did, and escaped with very few serious injuries (although he did break his neck once). According to him, it wasn't by chance that he was this good; he put a lot of thought and planning into each of his stunts. 

    In an article originally published in Modern Mechanics in 1930, Grace wrote:

    Whatever the nature of the location, I must accept it as part of the problem I must solve. Before the stunt I must know every inch of that territory and the ground surrounding it for several hundred yards...

    The next thing I note is the prevailing wind, presupposing that in all likelihood conditions on the appointed day will be normal...

    One of the little details which plays a most important part in the successful completion of a thrill is the time of day at which it is done. I have always tried to crash at 11:45 a.m. Such a statement sounds absurd - ridiculous. It would almost seem as if I were superstitious. But when consideration is given to this angle it becomes quite the sensible thing to do.

    At that time of day the sun is highest in the skies and so there is less likelihood of being blinded as I dip a wing or tear off a landing gear. Equally important as the sun are the general wind conditions. I have found that the best prevailing weather for my purpose occurs at high noon.

    Clearly, there was much more to it than just hopping in a plane and crashing it minutes later. 

    236 votes
  • One of the most impressive stunts in the history of Western movies relied not on camera trickery but on the nerves of steel of famous stuntman Hal Needham.

    Playing a Native American attacking the stagecoach in Little Big Man, Needham proceeded to successfully jump from his moving horse onto the rear-most horse of the coach train. He then stood on the back of the horse and jumped to the horse directly in front of him (still running, by the way). And then, he did it one more time, all while risking falling and being crushed by the team of horses or the coach.

    Needham reflected on the stunt many years later:

    We had to do a standing broad jump from the back of one horse to the back of the next one of 14 feet. And I'll tell you what: There's no athlete, I think, that can do that standing still... It was the toughest physical stunt I ever did in my life, the toughest.

    238 votes
  • Margaret Hamilton was thrilled to play the Wicked Witch of the West in The Wizard of Oz, a story that had been her favorite since she was a child. However, she may have been less than pleased with some of the scenes in the movie (and certainly with the mark her character left on children).

    During a scene in Munchkinland when the witch disappears in a burst of flames, Hamilton was meant to drop through a trap door. However, in one take, the door dropped just a second too late, and Hamilton was burned by the fireworks used to create the flame effect. She suffered second-degree burns on her face and third-degree burns on her hands, requiring six weeks of recuperation afterwards.

    Upon her anticipated return to the set, she said, "I will return to work on one condition - no more fireworks!"

    242 votes