The Evolution Of Stunts - Part Two

Welcome back to The Evolution Of Stunts, where we are delving into the history of stunts, recognising groundbreaking advancements and iconic performances. In Part One, we journeyed from the beginning of cinema to the end of the 1920s.

Here we continue the journey…


Up to this point, the presence of stunt performers was a Hollywood secret. Studios wanted their audiences to believe that their stars were performing their own stunts, but these stunts were getting more and more perilous to perform, and studios didn’t want to hype up stars and push them to top billing only for a dangerous stunt to put an end to that career. Even performers like Harold Lloyd utilised stunt doubles, although they had it written into their contracts that no-one could reveal this. The repercussions for this though was that Studios and directors demanded more and more dangerous and demanding stunts, and fatalities up until the 1930s were incredibly common.  The 1930s bought with it a series of innovations which improved the safety of stunt performance forever.

The 1930s also saw the renewed interest in the western. With the advent of talkies in 1927, the major studios abandoned the western, and it became a form of pulp cinema made by smaller studios, however by the end of this decade new stars were emerging and were helping to develop safer methods for the stunts on screen.

The biggest of all these stars was John Wayne. John Wayne landed his first starring role in 1930 with The Big Trail. A huge budgeted western. It was a flop. Wayne was then relegated to b-movie status and spent the decade making low-budget weapons and serials. He spent this decade well though and took an interest in stunt performance, being mentored in both horse riding, and other western skills. It was also during this period that he became friends with stuntman Yakima Canutt.

Canutt and Wayne met when Canutt was doubling Wayne for a motorcycle stunt in 1932’s  The Shadow Of The Eagle.

John Wayne owed much of his onscreen persona to Canutt, even admitting to having studied him and practising his mannerisms. For his part, Canutt was impressed with Wayne’s willingness to get involved and do his own stunts. Together they pioneered a new way of screen fighting, creating techniques which are still used today. They wanted to make fight scenes more realistic whilst keeping them safe, together they realised that by standing at a certain angle to the camera you could throw a punch at an actors face and trick the audience into thinking that contact had been made.

Canutt was instrumental in the development of modern-day stunt techniques. As rodeo riders invaded Hollywood, Canutt saw an opportunity to expand and develop their techniques. He primarily worked in horse falls and wagon wrecks, and developed ways of making these stunts much safer than they had ever been in the past.

One of his most famous inventions was the L-stirrup, which is still used today and allows the rider to fall off his horse without getting caught in the stirrup. He also developed a cable technique which allowed for incredible on-camera wagon crashes, whilst releasing the team on board just beforehand. This technique could be deployed at the same time and the same spot on each take. It helped prevent a huge amount of injuries, and more importantly for the studios saved a lot of time and money.

These techniques and Canutt’s relationship with John Wayne reached a pinnacle in 1939 with Stagecoach. The western, directed by John Ford would be the film that made John Wayne a star and featured one of Canutt’s most daring stunts. A thrilling sequence where he transfers from one horse onto a group of horses and then drops underneath them.

The other big trend seen in cinema during the 1930s and into the 1940s was swashbucklers and in particular the films of Errol Flynn. Starting with Captain Blood in 1935 Errol Flynn, took on a number of adventurer roles which all used similar fencing for screen technique which had been developed by Doulas Fairbanks in the ’20s.



As the ’30s came to a close, and Hollywood entered the '40s, Stuntmen also started coming together over studio insurance policies and pay rates. Tom Steele was one of the stuntmen who formed a collective known as The Cousins. The Cousins also included David Sharpe, Carey Loftin, Eddie Parker, Ken Terrell, Bud Wolfe, Louis Tomei and Loren Riebe. This group all helped each other develop their stunt work and techniques, whilst also persuading studios to use professionals instead of “Bump Men”, extras who directors chose to do dangerous stunts.

Tom Steele is also recognised as being the first stuntman to use stunt pads, where previously stuntmen took pride in how much damage their bodies could take, some realised that by wearing padding they could do more stunts each day. Steele was the only stunt man to be signed to a long term contract by the studio Republic, and they even chose their leading men by their resemblance to Tom Steele. Unlike some of his colleagues, Steele was declared unfit to fight in World War II due to an old injury.

Jock Mahoney also rose to prominence in the late 1940’s, and further developed the techniques that Canutt and Wayne had started. Jock emphasised preparation in stunt work, and timing in fight sequences. He was able to believably and safely fight off multiple opponents, which can be seen in the various films that Jock starred in from various westerns to the two Tarzan films he eventually starred in.

“Neglect, carelessness and not clearing the stunt area are usually what causes accidents. Preparation is absolutely essential to any successful stunt. You have to go through a stunt in your mind--over and over again as if you've already done it. The stuntman must keep his mental separation from all that's going around him. If it's a nervous set and people are aggravating you, it's best to not perform the stunt. If you take the attitude of it's a piece of cake and I've done it a hundred times before, you're going to get hurt. Preparation, good physical condition and a healthy state of mind are the ingredients for successful stunt work.” - Jock Mahoney

If Hollywood had progressed in terms of its professionalism in the stunt world, it still went back to the circus now and again, hiring specialist roles such as lion tamers, as can be seen in 1949’s Samson and Delilah, where circus lion tamer Pat Anthony doubled Victor Mature to fight a lion on screen. It was clear as we reached the mid-point of the century that stunts in cinema had grown at an incredible rate, but there was still a long way to go.

Find Out More in The Evolution Of Stunts Part 3 - Coming Soon.

Go back to the beginning with The Evolution Of Stunts Part 1 - Click Here

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