(Photo by Pathé)
Stars like Tom Cruise, Johnny Knoxville, and Michelle Yeoh are known for doing their own stunts, but the biggest stars on the silver screen have been performing their own stunts since the earliest days of cinema. In the silent era, serials and westerns — and even slapstick comedies — wowed audiences with daredevil stunts performed by the stars they loved. Unfortunately, a lot of silent films have been lost, and stunts like Ormer Locklear jumping from one plane to another in 1919’s The Great Air Robbery are lost with them. But many of these films do survive — a prime example is Safety Last!, the Harold Lloyd silent comedy that features one of the most iconic scenes in all of cinema. The film celebrates its 100th anniversary today, and to commemorate the occasion, we look back at 10 of the most daring stunts from the era that you can still watch today.
Debuting exactly 100 years ago, Safety Last! features one the most iconic stunts of all time, culminating in star Harold Lloyd hanging from the face of a clock as traffic whizzes below him. In the film, hapless store clerk Lloyd is so desperate for money he decides to climb a 12-story building for $500. Lloyd and directors Fred C. Newmeyer and Sam Taylor achieved this stunt using a mixture of façade sets built on actual buildings in downtown LA, mechanical effects, forced perspective, and Lloyd’s comedy-tinged stunt work. He was also assisted in some of the more dangerous aspects of the stunt by a few stuntmen, including Bill Strother and Harvey Parry. The result is one of the most thrilling — and funny — moments in all of cinema.
“Why the human race should be supposed to find entertainment and not torture in seeing another human on the point of falling to certain death is a mystery to what intelligence I possess. However, there are six reels of it, and it proved vastly entertaining.” — Inez Cunningham, Chicago Tribune, May 28, 1923
Mabel Normand, who is credited with launching Charlie Chaplin’s career in America, was one of the biggest stars in the 1910s. Produced by Normand and Mack Sennett, 1918’s Mickey features a breathtaking stunt in which Normand hangs onto the eaves of what was the Castle Towers Apartments in the Bunker Hill section of Los Angeles. According to SilentLocations, Normand achieved this stunt through forced perspective and match cuts. The building had two corner towers, one far off the ground and the other close to it. Using the language of cinema to trick viewers, Normand climbed the taller tower in one scene, but in a tighter match cut hangs off of the shorter one, all the while maintaining the suspense of an impending fall. Mickey became the highest-grossing film of the year.
“Whether she is falling down a well, leaping through an upper window in a ball gown or visiting New York, [Mabel Normand] is startling, vivacious, girlish, and always funny.” — Julian Johnson, Photoplay, April 1919
Of the silent film comedians, Buster Keaton was the biggest daredevil of them all, with each of his films filled with jaw-dropping stunts. The 1928 film Steamboat Bill, Jr. features perhaps his most iconic — during a cyclone, Keaton survives the façade of an entire house falling on him via the outline of the attic window. Keaton had done iterations of this same stunt in his shorts Back Stage (1919) and One Week (1920), but here he used a genuine, two-ton building façade. If he’d missed his mark by an inch, he’d likely have been crushed. Keaton later claimed filming this scene was the thrill of his life, but that he “was mad at the time, or I would never have done the thing.”
“Buster, hardly more dazed during the cyclone than at any other time, walks out of buildings as they collapse, stands in others that blow away, gets his pants caught on an uprooted tree and is deposited in the river and has a score of other sensational experiences.” — Edgar Waite, San Francisco Examiner, May 21, 1928
Louis Feuillade’s French serial Les Vampires stars Musidora as a black catsuit-clad criminal named Irma Vep who carries out her nighttime criminal activities on the rooftops of Paris. Musidora, born Jeanne Roques, was a former acrobat and performed many of the serial’s stunts herself, including a sequence in which she tumbles down the side of a tall building wrapped in an unfurling length of rope — a stunt mimicked by no less than Jackie Chan. A strident feminist, Musidora saw her work in film as a way to defy conventions. Writing for Cinémagazine years later, she stated, “No one can say I used a stand-in for the scenes that my sex entitles me to turn down.”
“Most of the stunts were performed by the actors themselves. One scene shows Musidora lying on her back between railroad tracks while 52 freight cars pass over her; another has her plunging head over heels down a rope from a ninth-floor attic to the ground… The fall is seen in a single, unbroken trajectory, and whether or not this was accomplished through trickery, it is an awesome sight to behold.” — Jonathan Rosenbaum, Chicago Reader, Oct. 8, 1987
The debonair star Douglas Fairbanks swashbuckled his way into the hearts of movie audiences around the globe in the 1920s. It’s hard to pinpoint one film as the pinnacle of his action-packed filmography, but biographer Jeffrey Vance cites 1926’s The Black Pirate as the most controlled stunt work of his career. In one sequence, Fairbanks slides down the sails of a pirate ship while solely holding on to a knife. The sequence has been referenced in everything from the Marx Brothers’ 1935 comedy A Night at the Opera to the 80s classic The Goonies. While the exact mechanics of how Fairbanks pulled off the stunt remain debated to this day, the result is as thrilling now as it was nearly a hundred years ago.
“[Fairbanks] climbs to the cross-arms and slits the big sail by jabbing it at the top with his sword and letting his own weight carry it right through to the very bottom. The execution of this feat is one of the high lights in the star’s performance.” — T.M. Cushing, Baltimore Sun, Jan. 4, 1927
Long before television, there were serials. These weekly features with recurring characters – often in perilous situations – were usually one- or two-reelers, or roughly 10 to 20 minutes long, and often ended with a cliffhanger. Many of the most popular serials during the 1910s starred actresses who did their own stunts, like Helen Holmes, whose series The Hazards of Helen ran for 119 episodes. Although Holmes only starred in about a third of the installments, her episodes include some of the most daring stunts, including a sequence in episode 13 where a skirt-clad Holmes leaps from a bridge onto the top of a moving train. Holmes did so many train-related stunts she was nicknamed “The Railroad Girl.”
“The thirteenth of The Hazards of Helen Railway Series is an unusually thrilling episode, and presents several dangerous ventures, such as Helen dropping an apparently dangerous height from a bridge to the top of a moving freight train.” — Moving Picture World, Feb. 20, 1915
After Helen Holmes left to set up her own production company and a few temporary replacements were tried, stuntwoman Rose Wenger Gibson — later renamed Helen Gibson — took over The Hazards of Helen for the remainder of the series. In one episode called “A Girl’s Grit,” Gibson leaps from the roof of a train station onto a moving train. Although she practiced the jump with the train in a standstill, when the cameras rolled she made the leap with the train in full motion, having calculated its accelerating velocity to the second. For her stunt work in this and many other serials, Gibson earned the title “the most daring actress in pictures.”
“The title of this one-reel addition to the ‘hazard’ series is not misleading. The audience is given its accustomed amount of thrill by the girl telegrapher, and the entire picture is cunningly devised to lead up to the big stunt.” — Moving Picture World, Oct. 2, 1915
(Photo by John Springer Collection/Getty Images)
Although not as well remembered today as some of her fellow serial queens, writer-director-producer-editor-actress Grace Cunard (born Harriet Mildred Jeffries) and collaborator Francis Ford (elder brother of acclaimed director John Ford), starred in five of Universal’s most popular serials, including The Purple Mask. The duo became some of the first internationally acclaimed action stars, with their films topping the box office in countries around the globe like Australia, Czechoslovakia, Mexico, Japan, and India. In episode 13 of The Purple Mask, Cunard, clad in head-to-toe black velvet (and a cape!), climbs a tall building via its drain pipe, fights off a gang of revolutionaries, then makes a dashing exit back down the pipe. Although she was one of the few women directors at the time, she preferred writing and was known as “The Master Pen.”
“Realism is served a la Ford and Cunard. With its fights, its Paris sewers, its abbreviated feminine costumes and its action which is furious if not always progressive, The Purple Mask looms up as a big box-office attraction.” — Peter Milne, Motion Picture News, Dec. 30, 1916
Dubbed “Queen of the Serials,” actress Pearl White began appearing on stage at the age of six and worked as a bareback rider in the circus at age 13. She’s probably best known now for starring in the 1914 box office smash The Perils of Pauline. This incredibly popular serial consisted of 20 two-reel installments and made White an international celebrity. In one installment, White finds herself aloft in a wayward hot air balloon, later having to climb out of it via rope before it collides with a cliff. In a 1921 interview, White said of her daring stunt work, “I’m not ashamed of feeling fear. But I would be ashamed if I let my fear rule me.”
“It is hard to class thrills which allow only a small margin for safety, but if there is such a thing as supremacy in them, the sixth episode of The Perils of Pauline offers some likely-looking candidates.” — Motography, June 13, 1914
Born in 1896 in Colfax, Washington, Yakima Canutt worked as ranch hand from his early childhood and began breaking horses at age 12. Before coming to Hollywood in the 1920s, he broke horses for the army during WWI and was a five-time winner of the title World’s Champion All-Round Cowboy. Although best known today for his stunt double work in westerns like John Ford’s 1939 epic Stagecoach, during the silent era he starred in several films, including 1926’s The Devil Horse, about a man-killing black stallion named Rex. The horse, known alternatively as “The Wonder Horse” and “The King of the Wild Horses,” was so ornery that Canutt reportedly had its wranglers tie his wrists and ankle around the horse’s body so he wouldn’t be bucked.
“The Devil Horse, reel for reel, is as filled with thrilling situations and incidents as possible. Yakima Canutt, the world’s champ cowboy and a riding fool, is the young hero. What he lacks in movie looks he makes up for in his rough riding.” — Robert F. Sisk, Variety, June 9, 1926
Safety Last! was released on April 1, 1923.
Archival curation and additional research by Tim Ryan.