Silents are Golden: 4 Fearless Movie Stuntmen Of The 1920s
One of my recent columns talked about the dangers early studios often faced to capture “authentic” weather and hair-raising stunts. That inspired this month’s piece, which takes a closer look at some of the courageous folks who literally risked their lives to bring thrills to the big screen.
One fascinating aspect of films from the 1910s and 1920s was the preference for real, death-defying stunts, often performed without any professional equipment. Cliff jumping, planes crashing into barns, cars rolling down hills–early movie stuntmen were eager to do anything to make an audience gasp.
4. Leo Nomis
Described by historian Kevin Brownlow as “one of the few veterans of the business,” Leo Nomis got his start in traveling carnivals where he performed bicycle stunts and did long drops into safety nets. A “never say die” sort of fellow, he tended to take stunts to their limits before switching to new ones. After breaking bones when he tried dropping into a net from a 100-foot ladder, he started parachuting from hot air balloons. After getting set on fire by the kerosene stove inflating the balloon he switched to auto racing for county fairs. Finally he turned to airplane stunts – it paid better than auto racing – and ended up stunting for the movies.
Nomis’s most familiar stunt today was for Cecil B. DeMille’s Manslaughter (1922), which had a scene where Leatrice Joy is pursued by a cop for speeding. The scene called for her car to spin around (with Richard Arlen doubling for Joy) and collide with the cop’s motorcycle, sending him flying. Nomis agreed to the stunt and reportedly asked DeMille to “keep an eye on the wife and kids” if anything happened. A large crowd was allowed to watch as Nomis slammed into the car at 45 miles per hour and flew through the air. Accounts of the aftermath vary, but some say he only broke his collarbone while Joy said he broke his pelvis and several ribs. He would live to stunt many more times until passing away in a plane crash while working on Sky Bride (1932).
3. Dick Grace
Probably the most famous stunt man in the industry, Grace’s specialty was literally crashing planes. Born in Morris, Minnesota, as a kid he built a glider in his family’s barn and as a young man he served as a pilot during World War I, earning a Purple Heart. More interested in flying than a prosaic career, he became a barnstormer at country fairs then decided to try his luck in Hollywood.
At first, Grace was an all-purpose stunt man for both actors and actresses, gamely diving off cliffs, spinning cars, and even jumping into cages of lions. One film required him to double for a woman whose ballet dress was supposed to catch fire. The costume, soaked in gasoline, blazed out of control so quickly that Grace suffered massive third-degree burns – fortunately, a doctor’s quick action saved him from horrible scarring.
Finally, Grace was being paid to do aerial stunts, which quickly made him famous. In the mid-1920s he starred in a series of thrill pictures for Sunset Productions and his daredevil skills were sought out for prestige pictures like Wings (1927). It was during Wings that he suffered another major injury. After doing a tricky crash where he flipped the plane upside down, he crawled out of the wreck and posed for photos with the director before suddenly collapsing. He had broken his neck.
In spite of everything Grace lived to the age of 67 and wrote often about his aerial adventures. One of his books was drily titled: I Am Still Alive.
2. Helen Gibson
America’s first professional stunt woman for the movies, Gibson was raised in Cleveland where her father encouraged her tomboyish exploits. After seeing a Wild West show when she was a teen, she answered an ad for female horseback riders and learned how to ride and do stunts. She performed for the 101 Ranch Real Wild West Show until it folded when the company was in Venice, California, and from there, she naturally broke into the movies.
While not working in western films she and her husband “Hoot” Gibson performed in rodeos. In 1915 she started stunting for star Helen Holmes in Kalem’s popular The Hazards of Helen adventure-series. She was so successful that she eventually replaced Holmes as the star. In the dozens of films that followed Gibson swung onto trains from ropes, did motorcycle jumps, and raced horses. One of her most daring stunts involved standing on a team of running horses and then jumping onto a moving train.
Gibson’s starring career waned after she suffered a ruptured appendix in 1921. She starting working in circuses and rodeos again and by the late 1920s was a stunt double for numerous famous actresses, from Louise Fazenda to Ethel Barrymore. In the following decades, she stayed busy with extra roles and character parts, and she passed away in 1977 at age 85.
Dick Grace himself thought Jean Perkins was the best stunt man in films. A self-possessed young man with extraordinary physical skills, he, unfortunately, wouldn’t share them with the world for very long.
A stuntman for serials like The Hazards of Helen and the early 1920s Do or Die, Perkins was hired to do a tricky aerial feat for The Eagle’s Talons (1922). The hero was supposed to climb from a small airplane and down a ladder onto a moving train, where he’d have a showdown with a villain. This required Perkins to be hanging onto the ladder as the plane descended, and the pilot would have to account for the train’s speed (about 55 miles per hour).
Unfortunately, a combination of having an inexperienced pilot and a strong side wind made the stunt even trickier than expected. They failed to make the transfer twice, and the third time Perkins hit the side of the railroad car. As the airplane looped around for yet a fourth time, Perkins was seen trying to climb back up the ladder, but his strength finally gave out. Grace had witnessed the whole thing: “…With a hopeless shake of the head, his hands slid from the ladder. He fell probably fifty feet, but the speed of the airplane increased many times the force with which he hit.” He was only 24 years old.
It’s hard to pinpoint what made people like Nomis, Grace, et al. willingly risk life and limb for a few frames of film. Some said they did it simply to earn money, others as a way to find fame. And perhaps most were simply attracted by the sheer challenge and adventure of it all.
I found the Silents are Golden’s article “Stunt Men” by Tim Lussier and Mary Mallory’s article “Dick Grace, Hollywood’s Daredevil Sky Pilot” very helpful while researching this column – and of course, Kevin Brownlow’s seminal book The Parade’s Gone By.
–Lea Stans for Classic Movie Hub
Lea Stans is a born-and-raised Minnesotan with a degree in English and an obsessive interest in the silent film era (which she largely blames on Buster Keaton). In addition to blogging about her passion at her site Silent-ology, she is a columnist for the Silent Film Quarterlyand has also written for The Keaton Chronicle.