The Evolution Of Stunts - Part One

The History of Stunts is very much like the history of cinema itself. It starts off scrappy and makeshift, but as the technology improves the stunts become more and more sophisticated and integral to the stories being told, until you enter the modern age where the fear that technology will take over is very real. (It will never happen). 

When doing research for The Action Reel Podcast: The First Stuntman, it was incredibly hard to pin down who the first stunt performer was. I ended up settling for Frank Hanaway, he is down in the Guinness Book Of World Records as the first stuntman, and by all accounts is the first man cast in a film specifically to do a stunt. The argument remains though, that people had performed stunts or dangerous activities on films before.

They weren’t particularly professional stunt performers, they were just people willing enough, or crazy enough to agree to do the stunts.

1900-1910

This is where stunt performing in cinema began. If a scene required someone to hang off a building, then production would find someone who was willing to go and hang off a building whilst they filmed it. Frank Hanaway was the first official use of a stunt double, and it’s no surprise that the film he doubled in was The Great Train Robbery, a proto-western.

Entering into the 1900s, the Wild West shows which used to be so popular were beginning to fade, which meant there were a lot of talented horse riders and performers looking for work. The first paid actor who was actually paid for a stunt was in 1908, during the filming of The Count Of Monte Cristo, where an acrobat was paid specifically to jump from a cliff into the sea.

1910-1920

In the beginning, action films weren’t that popular and stunt work began to rise in comedy. The first mainstream stunt performers were usually clowns and comedians. Silent film was the perfect medium for slapstick comedy, and The Keystone Kops ran through 1912-1917. 

This was a series of films about hapless cops, who would perform a huge range of stunts and pratfalls. The Kops started off as prize-fighters, acrobats, clowns, race car drivers, and vaudevillians and are widely regarded as the first stunt team.

As their success grew they moved from background work to their own features and even starred alongside Charlie Chaplin.

Charlie Chaplin was not only one of the most famous performers in film, but could also be considered as Hollywoods first real star!

Born in England, Charlie Chaplin had a background in circus and Vaudeville, and it was whilst touring the US that he got scouted for the movie business by Keystone Studios, the same studios who hired The Keystone Kops.

Chaplin brought his slapstick routines and character of The Tramp to audiences across the world.

In 1917, another young vaudevillian performer started making waves in the movies. Buster Keaton met Charlie Chaplin’s partner Fatty Arbuckle, and they soon became friends.

Keaton started to write gags for Arbuckle and even claimed that he was Arbuckle’s second director.

1920-1930

As Hollywood rushed towards the golden age, both Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin established themselves as huge stars. Buster Keaton landed his first starring role in a feature called The Saphead and soon began directing his own two-reel comedies, before moving on to direct his own feature-length pictures.

He was still doing all his stunts himself though and usually at great risk to himself. The famous scene in Steamboat Bill, Jr. where Keaton runs into the shot as the facade of a building falls over, and Keaton goes straight through an open window, required absolute precision. If Keaton had got the stunt even slightly wrong, the result would’ve been catastrophic, the prop house weighed over two tons.

Keaton wasn’t so lucky on Sherlock, Jr. During the railway scene where a water tank opens on him, the gush of water actually broke Keaton’s neck!

Chaplin also entered a new era for his career. He had played a part in forming United Artists and under their banner started releasing his first directorial features. In this decade he would release The Kid, A Woman In Paris, The Gold Rush and City Lights.

The 1920s didn’t just expand the popularity of both cinema and stunt performances, it was also a time of pioneering within the film industry. As technology improved, more ingenious ways to create stunts were developed. The safety for all those involved was greatly improved.

The first film which is credited with using safety devices is ironically enough Safety Last! A silent rom-com from 1923 starring Harold Lloyd. In the films most iconic moment, Lloyd is seen dangling off a clock face, high up on a building. This was achieved a number of different ways. First, was the use of stunt doubles for all the long shots.

Hollywood had started to realise the worth of their stars and were less likely to let them risk their own lives. The other safety features deployed included placing a mattress on a platform under the performer, as well as heavily padding the performers under their clothes. They also utilised safety harnesses which were attached to the buildings via strong wires.

This heralded in a new age of cinema, and a new era for stunts. With new safety techniques and film trickery, cinema would no longer be held back by practical capabilities, but could now broaden its imagination. The possibilities were endless.

Find out more The Evolution Of Stunts Part 2 - coming soon.

If you fancy joining the next step of the stunt evolution check out our B.L.A.S.T. course HERE.

You can find all our course dates right HERE.

Created by Sam on 6 Dec 2018

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