Silent movies remain famous for their outrageous physicality and for the chances their stars took in production. The truth is that stunt people were used even from the very early days (no one really did “all of their own stunts”), but certain actors, like Charlie Chaplin and Douglas Fairbanks, were remarkable athletes in their own rights and did do some pretty amazing stuff onscreen. In the real world of the Academy Awards, we don’t have an award honoring the best stunts seen in movies, but one of the benefits of the Century Awards is that I can rectify that and honor the work of these long-dead daredevils.
The aforementioned Fairbanks had established his style of athletic, all-American comedy by this point, and we have two examples of his work from 1917 on the roster of nominations. In “A Modern Musketeer,” he’s at pains to prove that chivalry isn’t dead to the girl of his dreams. Probably his best stunt here comes at the beginning, when he scales a church steeple bare-handed, but most people remember his handstand at the precipice of the Grand Canyon better (that was probably totally safe, but it looks death-defying!). In “Wild and Woolly,” he’s a Western-obsessed Easterner who tries to fight off the baddies single-handed when the townsfolk replace his bullets with blanks. In that one, we see him hanging to the rafters while kicking his way through the ceiling to get to some live rounds! Stunts involving trains always impress me as a former train-hopper, and we get some pretty risky-looking scenes in “Teddy at the Throttle” with Gloria Swanson and Bobby Vernon. Charlie Chaplin is in fine form as usual in “The Adventurer,” and he does some interesting stunts both in the water (where he rescues Edna Purviance and more reluctantly Eric Campbell as well), and in a two-story mansion in a manic chase sequence. And newcomer to the screen Buster Keaton showed off some of the prowess that would make him the king of comic stunts in the years to come in “The Rough House,” along with veteran Roscoe Arbuckle. “Fatty” sets fire to his bedroom, he and Buster both slip around a wet floor, and Buster gets hung up on a fence wearing an oversize policeman’s uniform.
The nominees for Best Stunts in 1917 are…
And the winner is…”A Modern Musketeer!”
I’ll be honest, I was tempted to go with Keaton this year, and “The Rough House” genuinely was one of the funniest movies I watched (see it if you haven’t), but Fairbanks did outdo himself this time around. I have no doubt that Buster will be returning to this category in future years. “A Modern Musketeer” however, really gives Doug a chance to show off everything he can do, from climbing sheer surfaces to swordplay to leaping over people to smashing up rooms in brawls. Some other actors show some pretty good moves in the “cyclone” scene depicting his character’s birth as well. The only problem the movie has is maintaining all of this frenetic action and still managing to get across a plot! It does slow down a bit in the second reel, but only to end with a suspenseful abduction-and-rescue.