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Thursday, October 21, 2010

MENTAL MONTAGE: Life and Death in the Movies

Doug Fairbanks and Julanne Johnston
fearless and fancy free in The Thief of Baghdad

It only makes sense that a few accidents occur in the ramshackle process of turning a script into a film. As in any workplace, there are mishaps and mistakes, but there are also some outright dangers. The early silent days were the most fatal. Renegade filmmakers at the very advent of cinema knew nothing about stunt doubles, safety harnesses, or trick photography. They would simply point and shoot. For this reason, it was not an uncommon phenomenon for neighborhood people in New York or Los Angeles to see a cameraman treacherously dangling from a truck as it rushed past. Actors too were put in constant peril. Back in the days prior to special effects, in order for a thing to look real, it had to be real. People dove off cliffs, ran through fire, fell off horses...Mary Pickford recalled performing a scene in the water where she nearly lost her life when a boat came speeding at her head. Douglas Fairbanks also had his share of troubles, of course he looked forward to all of the death-defying feats he would become famous for.

Though these incidents often produced entertaining and wild stories to recall after time had replaced fear with laughter, there have been numerous tragedies involved with film. Florence Lawrence, the "First Movie Star, "Biograph Girl," and "IMP Girl," knew this better than anyone (right). During one of her first major films, The Despatch Bearer of 1907, Flo had to ride rapidly on horseback through a forest. She nearly ran straight into a thick tree trunk, missing it by mere inches! It left her shaken up, but the sassy Flo was an experienced horseback rider and actually enjoyed the thrill somewhat. Another incidence would not be as gratifying. When she was filming The Pawns of Destiny in 1914, there was a scene in which she was forced to carry her incapacitated lover, Matt Moore, down the stairs and out of a fire. No big deal for a dainty woman scaling in at about 5'. During this scene, which she had to perform three times, Flo actually did catch on fire and suffered minor burns that left her hospitalized for a brief period. Because her career faltered after this setback, many rumors were started suggesting that she had received horrible scarring that marred her appearance and left her unable to perform as before. This is false. Flo's beauty remained and the burns, once healed, did not hamper her acting chances. Her back, however, had been injured when suffering a fall while trying to lift Moore, and she would suffer painful aches and spasms for the remainder of her too short life, which did affect her ability to work.

Another person who had issues with her back was Linda Blair. The set of The Exorcist was said to be cursed, and several accidents occurred either while filming or off set to others somehow related to the film. Coincidence or demonic intervention? Who knows. Linda (left) was put through the ringer in this movie in more ways than one, but it was the scene where she is being flung up and down on the bed that still haunts her to this day. The special effects wizards devised a contraption that would send Linda flying forward, so that it seemed her body was uncontrollably bending up and down over her supine legs. The only problem was that to do so, Linda was constantly hit on the back with the apparatus, which repeatedly smacked her violently forward. As a young child, she didn't complain and thought nothing of it, but she still has severe back pain to this day.

There too have been outright deaths in cinema. John Gilbert (right) was quickly made accustomed to the rigors of filmmaking when he reported for his first projects as an extra at Inceville. He was doused with water for "rain scenes," which chilled him to the bone, he was physically beaten in action sequences where he would have to fall, battered and bruised, over and over again, and of course he endured the too-close-for-comfort contact with fire. His hunger for his work made him get through this, but not everyone was so lucky. A girl that John had been in love with, Effie Stewart, was killed on the set of Civilization when the set piece she was standing on collapsed right out from under her. She was not the only casualty. John was devastated, even more so because he had decided to end their relationship on the bus ride to the set that day! It's one thing to break a girl's heart, but to have to live with the knowledge that you did so right before she lost her life??? He never really got over it.

These accidents became such common occurrences during the silent days, that actors began suing their studios for their constant injuries. So frequent were such mishaps that newspapers and magazines would report on them under casual headlines such as "This Week's Crop of Accidents." In the early 1910s, silent players such as Charles Murray, Herbert Brenon, Ruth Hoyt, and Eugenia Besserer were all hurt during filming. Certain performers enjoyed the thrill of the physical work, women included, such as Helen Holmes, Cleo Madison, and Helen Gibson, however the adrenaline wasn't always worth the aftermath. Go-getter Gibson, for example, was nearly killed when she fell from a speeding train during filming and was hospitalized for a month! So too were there deaths. In 1914, both Grace McHugh and Owen Carter drowned during the filming of Across the Border in Colorado. Talk about sacrificing for your art...

Later, these accidents seemed to occur much less often as we became more knowledgeable about the dangers and how to protect ourselves. But sometimes, the unexpected still happened. On the set of Mogambo, three men were killed when their land rover went over a mountain cliff. One of the deceased was a 26-year old production assistant and the others were local African guides. Star of the Month Ava Gardner seemed to get out of this movie unharmed, despite the fact that she was interacting with wild animals (see left). She was nearly overturned in her canoe by a hippo one day, and she and Clark Gable were rammed in their jeep by a rhino on another! The worst she got was being pushed over by an elephant-- an unplanned moment that John Ford captured on film and used in the final cut. But the aforementioned debacles and some future disturbances surrounding Ava's movies make it seem like those who worked with her were cursed!

When making The Snows of Kilimanjaro, there was a scene where Ava's truck turned over in the midst of battle. Her long lost lover, (and real life pal), Gregory Peck swooped in to save her and drag her from the twisted metal (right). Ava wasn't a heavy woman, but when Greg tried to lift her, he somehow twisted his leg and tore a ligament. He struggled through the rest of the take like a pro before letting anyone know that he was in intense pain. He had to recuperate for awhile, which put a hitch in filming. Perhaps it helped his character, who was ironically chair-bound due to a leg injury for the majority of the film, which is told in flash back.

Ava's bad luck also wore off on co-star and drinking buddy Richard Burton during The Night of the Iguana (together, left). At one point during the shoot, Richard was electrocuted! His character was symbolically supposed to set an iguana free into the Mexican wilderness. All went well, except that when the lizard was untied, it didn't run away. John Huston decided to add a little juice, shocking the iguana with a 110-volt charge to send it scurrying away. It worked, but unfortunately, Dick was touching the iguana when it was electrocuted! He was sent into the air and landed on his back on the hard ground. He eventually shrugged it off like the tough Welshman he was, but he was... well, shocked! Not only this, but assistant directors Tom Shaw and Terry Morse were both hurt when they fell from a crumbling balcony and landed on their heads on the earth below! Morse awoke with his head in Deborah Kerr's lap, and Shaw was at first assumed dead! Luckily they both recovered. The shoot was so arduous, drunken, and chaotic, that the entire cast and crew was going crazy. At one point, Dick passed out for a nap. When an assistant came to wake him, he asked, "Where am I?" When the assistant told him he was still in Mismaloya, Dick replied, "God, no!"

These days, directors don't ask their performers to do anything too risky. After all, if they lose one of their leads, they would have to start the film all over again with another actor! Sometimes they do take chances, and there are certain actors that like to do their own stunts. During the filming of True Romance, Dennis Hopper was not one of these people. During the scene where Christopher Walken is supposed to shoot Dennis, dir. Tony Scott asked that the prop gun be held right up to Dennis's head when fired. Dennis was not having it. He didn't like the feeling of a gun being held to his head, let alone a dummy gun that would literally be fired. Tony, to calm his nerves, told him not to worry, that it was harmless, and even volunteered to do the stunt first himself for assurance. So, he sat, the gun was fired into his temple, and out trickled a line of blood from a new dent in his forehead. Dennis's response, "See, I told you."

Perhaps the most recent tragedy has been the death of Brandon Lee, son of Bruce Lee and star of the cult phenomenon The Crow. There was a lot of buzz surrounding the film and its leading man, who many agreed was on his way to super-stardom. Unfortunately, the "Lee family curse" would follow him to work one day. While filming his murder scene, a piece of a dislodged bullet became wedged in one of the prop guns. When the blanks were fired, it propelled the actual bullet forward, striking Brandon in his right side and killing him. Everyone thought he was just acting when he fell, and they didn't realize that he was truly injured until he remained lying on the floor after "cut." Fortunately, enough of the film had been made so that it could be released, for a double was used to finish shooting the remaining scenes. The Crow was sadly Brandon's swan song, but it remains a macabre masterpiece.

The stories go on and on: stunt man (and Errol Flynn buddy) Buster Wiles nearly drowning when he got stuck upside down in a lake after a faulty dive, Jennifer Aniston allegedly being saved by Jim Carrey on the set of Bruce Almighty when she was nearly crushed by a toppling crane, Josh Hartnett and Harrison Ford getting into a car crash on the set of Hollywood Homicide... Buster Keaton, the unbreakable clown, would literally break his neck during the filming of Sherlock Jr, though he wouldn't discover it until years later.The things people did and do to keep us entertained is mind-boggling! No wonder they make the big bucks. At least the most fatal cases are less frequent these days. But as this ghoulish month comes to a close, let's tip our hats to our fallen soldiers, who literally forfeited their lives to get one "in the can." May they rest in peace, may their films flicker on, and may we always remember them and their brilliant work.

Buster Keaton in Sherlock Jr:
His middle name is Danger!


  1. I'm surprised you didn't mention Vic Morrow. Great article. Thanks!

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