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Are they real or fake? Silent movie stunts (1920)

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Harold Lloyd Safety Last hanging from the clock

The sensational feats of motion-picture stars

Are they genuine or faked? A frank discussion of a question that has been asked by thousands of people in the audiences before the screen

Hanging from the clock

by Dorothea B Herzog

“Oooh! What a jump!” cried the breathless girl, leaning forward, all excitement, and clasping and unclasping her hands. “Aww, say now,” her companion replied with patronizing kindliness, “where do you get that stuff? That kid’s faking it. Don’t you know another poor simp made that leap — someone that needs the dough but don’t give a hang for his life?”

She faced him, fairly sputtering. ” You know too much,” she observed witheringly. “Marley Schwab ought to have you help him run his business. You don’t know a darn thing about that movie guy. I say he did make the leap!”

He eyed her askance, shrugged, and was silent.

But the girl was right. The “movie guy” did make the sixty-foot leap from a moving freight-car to the waters below. It was in the second episode of the thrilling serial, “For Better or for Worse,” and the leap saved the hero from the merciless clutches of his pursuing enemies.

How few people in the audience of five hundred gave the young star credit for this sixty-foot jump? Rather, how many gave the credit to a dummy or to a double?

This skepticism toward the genuineness of motion-picture “stunts” finds its origin partly in the early pictures, where daring deeds were performed by a so-called extra, who doubled for the star for a mere pittance of five dollars a day. Partly, too, it arises from a not unreasonable reluctance to believe that anyone can be so foolish as to risk his life to make a picture.

Motion pictures today are on a higher plane than those of six years ago. Today, they are at least in the adolescent stage of their growth. Every detail is cared for with artistic skill, and realism is everywhere the key-note. From the standpoint of realism, it is interesting to view three different types of pictures that are extremely popular — the serial, the two-reel slap-stick comedy, and the five-reel comedy or drama.

Photo: An acrobatic feat on an airplane that may or may not be as perilous when performed before the camera as it will appear when flashed upon the screen

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The serial is the physical type of picture. It is usually a wild, harum-scarum series of thrilling scenes that show the hero and the heroine courageously battling against their many enemies in an effort to wrest from them the precious stone, or the bit of printed information relative to a marvelous invention, which the villains have stolen, and to return the object to its rightful owner.

Through fifteen episodes — two reels making an episode, and a new one appearing each week — the hero and the heroine perform hazardous and hair-raising feats, flirt fearlessly with death, are tortured by their captors, and are always in a most precarious position when “continued next week” is flashed on the screen. And after all the thrills and exhilarating escapades, the fifteenth episode shows the hero and the heroine trapping their cowering enemies, returning the treasure to its rightful owner, receiving a fitting reward for their labors, and, in a final close-up, clasping each other close.

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In this type of picture are found the man and the woman in whom slumbers that love of the adventurous which characterized the knights of old; for serial work is physical action pure and simple. Herein, perhaps, lies the answer to the question whether any one can be so foolish as to risk his life to make a picture. It is this element of adventure and clanger that lures newcomers into the serial field.

There is a story of a circus acrobat who went to California and secured a position in a studio. He started as a “prop,” won his way to small to a villain in a serial. The exhilaration work enraptured him, and excitement of the his gymnastic ability, his experience, and his physical fitness, in addition to an utter indifference to danger, interested a director. Now the man is starring in his own right. He laughs defiance at the scenario-writer, and taunts him to conceive situations more perilous than preceding ones; and the scenario-writer racks his imaginative brain in vain. Every feat is performed with almost fiendish agility and ease, and the idea of engaging a double to do them is never for a moment entertained.

Photo: Too close to the edge for comfort’s sake, but such a scene is quite in the day’s work of the motion-picture hero (Universal Film Manufacturing Company)

In the two-reel slapstick comedy there is, to a milder degree, the same unconcern for personal safety. Comforts and conveniences are passed up in the effort to provoke mirth from a critical audience.

A slap-stick comedian stood on a water tank forty feet above a slowly moving train. It was his duty to jump and land on top of a car. He did it. His monkey make-up and the linking of this scene with the ludicrous ones preceding and following put the action across and won the precious approval of the fans.

But how many people give the cinema stars credit? Like the young man who patronizingly informed the girl that a double did the “dirty ” work, so declare the majority of motion-picture enthusiasts.

Merciful Providence, or some mysterious power of nature, must take special pains to protect these death-defying daredevils. Statistics show that the accidents they suffer are very few. In California, the home of motion pictures, where more than thirty-seven companies produce, the accident rate in the studios and on locations runs between five and twenty a month.

Picture a studio set being erected. Picture the carelessness of carpenters in leaving boards full of nails in conspicuous places. Follow the hasty progress of the property men in and about the set. See them skirt the boards — there, one has stepped on a nail. He is at home for a week. Herein lies the cause of many minor accidents. A law of the State of California requires an employer engaged in a hazardous occupation to insure his employees, so that in case of accident the injured man will receive a sum of money enabling him to subsist during his convalescence. In case work on a picture, and several thousand feet of film bad been shot” the company might stand to lose as much as fifty thousand dollars, or even twice that sum.

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Film’ is expensive, costing four dollars per hundred feet. On the face of it, this may seem a trifle, but in the long run, such an item mounts up to an impressive sum. To be sure, the loss of forty dollars for a wasted’ thousand feet does not create a stir iii production circles; but when a director “shoots” eight hundred thousand feet of negative from which to select twelve thousand feet for a twelve-reel special, his costs sky-rocket heavenward. A thirty thousand-dollar waste in films is not to be overlooked; and this was the debit figure of one of our prominent directors who recently released a big and costly feature.

There are other large items to consider. A skilled director probably receives at least twelve thousand dollars a year. A clever cameraman is another consideration, drawing perhaps as much as eight thousand dollars. The scores of property-men who erect the sets designed by a highly trained technical department mean a large payroll.

Furthermore, much care is devoted by the technical department and the art director to the lighting effects of the picture, to the costumes, decorations, and the many little touches which stamp the seal of the artist on the finished product. Hundreds and hundreds of dollars’ worth of valuable time is spent by the company’s executives in deciding on the picture in which the star shall appear. Considering all these items, it is easy to see that the company might lose fifty or even a hundred thousand dollars on a picture cut short by the permanent injury of the star.

No one can take the place of a popular film star. The discerning eye of the keenly observant public is far too eagle-like!

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Below: This is truly a sensational-looking leap, but it is not too perilous a feat to be actually performed in a thrilling serial

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Below: A motion-picture episode that is real stuff — an acrobatic hero leaps from the top of a moving train and grasps the telltales that warn of the approach to a tunnel or low bridge (Photograph by the Fox Film Corporation)

 

Below: His escape cut off on both sides, the serial star threatens to drop the girl to the street below unless his enemies promise not to molest him

 

Below: Eddie Polo, a serial star who was once a circus acrobat, maxes a thrilling escape from a high building by swinging through the air on a long ladder

 

Below: Another episode of a sensational serial, in which the hero and heroine swim ashore together through the surf

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Top photo: Harold Lloyd hanging off a clock on the side of a building in Safety Last! (1923)

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