Silents are Golden: “For the Sake of the Picture” – The Dangerous Era of Silent Filmmaking
Most of us are familiar with the incredible stuntwork done for the 1910s and 1920s films – often by the main stars themselves, such as Douglas Fairbanks or Harold Lloyd. The extremes they were willing to put themselves through for the sake of a laugh or a gasp was extraordinary. But when it came to some productions, the risks didn’t end when those cameras stopped rolling. Whole camera crews and casts trekked to remote locations to make a picture, and often endured extreme heat or bitter cold. Extras put their bodies through the wringer for realistic battle scenes and large-scale stunts–often for little pay. When it came to endangering life and limb to make a film, we can say that the silent era truly had no peer.
Keep in mind that in the early 20th century, cinema wasn’t merely a new form of entertainment or a new, unusual way for performers to make a living. It truly opened up an entire world of creative possibilities. Buster Keaton recalled how exciting it was to realize that motion pictures could go far beyond the confines of the stage: “The camera had no such limitations. The whole world was its stage. If you wanted cities, deserts, the Atlantic Ocean, Persia, or the Rocky Mountains for your scenery and background, you merely took your camera to them. In the theater, you had to create an illusion of being on a ship, a railroad train, or an airplane. The camera allowed you to show your audience the real thing.”
So perhaps it’s understandable that this fervor about filming actual locations and capturing real stunts became almost a mania in silent Hollywood. The earliest studios started slowly, perhaps by sending a small crew to capture a local parade or to get shots of actors in natural scenery. Studios like the Keystone Film Company might send their crew to a public event and have the actors adlib their way through a simple comedy (Charlie Chaplin’s Kid Auto Races at Venice (1914) was famous for this).
But these easy-access locations were only satisfying for so long–studios wanted to wow audiences with sweeping scenery. They were also swept up by the adventure of location shoots, even when they were difficult or even dangerous. Westerns were shot out in the desert, where actual cowboys often lent their horseriding skills to thrilling chase scenes and squirmishes in winding canyons. Films with wintery scenes might be shot up in a snowy mountain range–not always easy to access in those days. Crews might journey by train for several days to a remote location, where they might be hours away from any assistance. While filming the satire Moonshine (1918) in a deep river valley, Roscoe Arbuckle and his crew woke up one morning to discover that rain had caused the river to rise several feet. They waited over a week for the river to recede before they could head home.
One of the most dramatic stories about dangerous locations shooting involved star and director Nell Shipman and her director husband Bert. Around 1923, while filming by a frozen lake in snowy northern Idaho, they were separated from the rest of the crew and had to make a twenty-mile hike to get to the nearest ranch. Bert, who had a foot injury that had become infected, began suffering from delirium. Equipped only with a sledge–which frequently fell through the lake’s thin ice–they struggled through the snow for mile after mile. Nell’s feet would suffer frostbite, and Bert would have his infected foot amputated.
Going to great lengths for amazing shots could be accomplished in the studio, too. A prime example is the mighty Babylon set from D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance (1916), an amazing achievement to this day. Its broad floors and ninety-foot walls were packed with extras for the battle scenes–around 2000 people in all for some sequences. One of Griffith’s assistant directors, Joseph Henabery, recalled that during the filming of the most intense battle scene there were 67 on-set accidents in one day. Another time, one unfortunate man got an arrow shot into the side of his head.
While stuntmen were used in those days, extras were sometimes allowed to volunteer to do a long fall or other stunt-like work for some extra pay. In Cecil B. DeMille’s drama The Woman God Forgot (1917), a battle taking place on an Aztec pyramid was supposed to show men falling and sliding down the steep side. The pyramid’s surface was paper-covered wood that was coated in sand to look like stone–thus, extras that took the fall got their skin thoroughly scraped by sandpaper.
Several films became legendary for the hardships the cast and crew endured in the name of realism. Greed (1924) would film a key sequence in the blistering heat of Death Valley, where the temperature would rise to 120 degrees (actor Jean Hersholt needed several weeks to recover). Way Down East (1920) had its climactic scene on a frozen river, where Lillian Gish’s character collapses on a real ice floe (Gish trailed her hand in the water for dramatic effect and suffered permanent nerve damage). And Ben-Hur (1925) was renowned for its difficult, lengthy shoot, with one sea battle sequence that even today is rumored to have caused the deaths of several extras.
It’s easy to gawk at the daring, practically devil-may-care nature of some early filmmakers, and to wonder just what drove them. The great historian Kevin Brownlow had a unique insight. In his seminal book on silent film The Parade’s Gone By, he wrote: “For many of them, the fact of working at something enjoyable was a new sensation. Some had known great poverty. While they earned thousands a week in California, their families still struggled, refusing assistance. It is no wonder that Hollywood cut itself off from the rest of the world, becoming a sort of…dream factory, which was a bit dreamlike itself…“
“To allay the guilt which furtively gnawed at certain souls, technicians and players often endured the most incredibly rigorous conditions ‘for the sake of the picture.’ For some such an experience was an adventure, a challenge. To others, it was a purge.”
–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.