Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Tag: Stunts

Best Stunts 1917

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…

  1. A Modern Musketeer
  2. Wild and Woolly
  3. Teddy at the Throttle
  4. The Adventurer
  5. The Rough House

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.

Best Stunts 1916

Stuntwork is dangerous and has generally been underpaid and under-appreciated in movies. To this day, there is no category for “best stunts” in the Oscars, even though stunt workers continue to put their bodies and lives on the line for the movies that are made. I suspect this is for two reasons: 1) In the digital age, it is increasingly difficult to tell a good stunt from a good effect and 2) Giving an award for stuntwork might encourage producers and stunt workers to take extreme risks to get an award. Neither one applies to movies from 100 years ago, so the Century Awards does include the category.

The other great thing about this category is that it gives us an opportunity to better appreciate different categories of film. In areas like cinematography and screenplay, comedies, and especially short comedies, often get short shrift. But, they tend to shine in the “stunts” category. And, in 1916, stunts and comedy combined in the talents of one man especially: Douglas Fairbanks. He features in four of the six nominees in this category, and each time his work is decisive in the nomination. In “The Matrimaniac,” Doug scales walls and leaps onto moving railroad trains to secure his true love. In “Flirting with Fate,” he’s leaping up fire escapes and climbing trees to escape the hit man he hired to kill himself. In “His Picture in the Papers,” Fairbanks swims the ocean, fights a goat, and boxes to redeem himself as heir to a health food empire. And, we see him again in “Reggie Mixes in,” a parody of the gangster genre, in which he leaps from a window after a classic knock-down-drag-out fight. But, Douglas Fairbanks wasn’t the only one in stunts in 1916. We also have “The Poison Man,” an episode of “Les Vampires” in which we see different actors scaling buildings, leaping on top of moving trains, and fighting each other. Finally, there’s that other master of physical comedy, Charlie Chaplin, who donned roller skates and literally skated circles around the rest of his cast in “The Rink.”

The nominees for best stunts of 1916 are

  1. The Matrimaniac
  2. Flirting with Fate
  3. His Picture in the Papers
  4. Reggie Mixes In
  5. The Poison Man
  6. The Rink

And the winner is…“The Matrimaniac!”


This was one of the tougher choices I had this year. Each of the nominees had really impressive stunts, and in my reviews I mentioned that several of them had placed the actors at considerable risk. But, I felt that Fairbanks had to get credit for essentially inventing a new style of visual comedy in 1915 and perfecting it in 1916, and that this was the best example of that style and of his physicality as an actor from that year. I have no doubt that we’ll be seeing Fairbanks in future awards, and even that a rivalry between him and Chaplin may become a recurring theme.

Best Stunts 1915

I’ve gone ahead and broken the rules for this year, because after the initial nominations were in, I saw an excellent example of stuntwork from 1915. So, there are six nominees this year. Oh well, that’s what happens when you run a major awards event from your apartment.

Stunts don’t normally get the official recognition they deserve, and correcting that was one of the reasons for me starting the Century Awards in the first place. Now that all the performers involved are long dead, let’s acknowledge their physical prowess and risk-taking. The great thing about early film is that so many of the stunts were done by the stars themselves.

Again this year, we see a predominance of slapstick, in the form of Charlie Chaplin and Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle on the slate of nominees. Chaplin’s “Work” includes some tricky business with a giant wheelbarrow and the gradual destruction of the home he’s supposed to be renovating. He shows us more fancy footwork in “The Champion,” in which several other actors (and a little dog) get into the boxing ring and show off their timing and agility. The Chaplin short “By the Sea” shows off comic timing in a tough situation when Chaplin and co-star Billy Armstrong get their hats tangled up in the wind. Arbuckle also had several good movies this year, but I thought the outstanding example was “Fatty’s Faithful Fido,” which also included the acrobatics of Al St. John and the ladder-climbing abilities of Luke the dog. Apart from those, we also had some action movies this year; as in “The Lamb” where Douglas Fairbanks gives us a taste of what would become his forte, while in “Regeneration” the villain manages some impressive hand-over-hand work on a clothesline.

The nominees for Best Stuntwork of 1915 are…

  1. Work
  2. The Lamb
  3. The Champion
  4. Regeneration
  5. By the Sea
  6. Fatty’s Faithful Fido

And the winner is…”Fatty’s Faithful Fido!”

Careful up there, Al!

Careful up there, Al!

Ultimately, I was most impressed by the sheer number of stunts pulled out for this movie, which came out only days before Chaplin’s “The Champion” and parallels it to some degree. They’re both good, and both involve dogs, which made it a tough call, but ultimately between Luke and Al St. John I felt that the shorter film was actually the more impressive.

Century Awards Update

With just two weeks left before the Century Awards, I want to go ahead and finalize my nominees. Last year I wisely announced only four nominees for each category on the initial day, then added one for each category in the finals. This year, I figured I had done such a good job watching 1915 movies that I didn’t need to do that – and lo and behold I discovered four exceptions. So, I’m adding a sixth movie to three categories and a seventh in one. This breaks the Academy’s rules all over the place, but luckily I’m not bound by them.

So, here’s the updated categories:

Assunta Spina

Best Costume Design

  1. Trilby
  2. The Deadly Ring
  3. A Fool There Was
  4. The Coward
  5. Hypocrites
  6. Alice in Wonderland *New*

Best Stunts

  1. Work
  2. The Lamb
  3. The Champion
  4. Regeneration
  5. By the Sea
  6. Fatty’s Faithful Fido *New*
  7. Fatty’s Tintype Tangle *New*

Best Lead Actress

  1. Clara Kimball Young for “Trilby”
  2. Anna Q. Nilsson for “Regeneration”
  3. Vera Kholodnaia for “Children of the Age”
  4. Fanny Ward for “The Cheat”
  5. Geraldine Farrar for “Carmen”
  6. Francesca Bertini for “Assunta Spina” *New*

See you on the Red Carpet!

Best Stunts 1914

Stuntwork is the black sheep of the modern film industry. Not included in the Academy Awards, professional stuntmen and women work in the shadows of the more famous stars and live largely unknown and unnoticed by the public, which nonetheless thrills at their accomplishments. In the early days of the film industry, most actors and actresses did their own stunts – it was expected – although occasionally a double would be found for a particularly challenging shot.

Stuntwork was vital to the slapstick comedies that were so popular before words added verbal comedy to the range of possibilities for the industry. Thus, we have two nominations for the surprisingly agile Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle. In “Leading Lizzie Astray,” he plays a physical giant who destroys a wall and takes on a whole team of bad guys, while in “The Knockout” he performs an elaborate series of moves as an aspiring boxer outclassed in the ring by much more able opponents (with no less than Charlie Chaplin as the unfortunate ref). Jack Holt took on the stunt-double’s work for William Pike in “Salomy Jane,” falling down a cliff into a river, and trained acrobat Pierre Couderc gives us flips and falls as “The Patchwork Girl of Oz.” Finally, Pearl White undertook a number of harrowing situations in “The Perils of Pauline.”

The nominees for best stunts for 1914 are:

  1. Perils of Pauline (Pearl White, et. al)
  2. Patchwork Girl of Oz (Pierre Couderc, et. al)
  3. The Knockout (Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, et, al)
  4. Leading Lizzie Astray (Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, et. al)
  5. Salomy Jane (Jack Holt, et. al)

And the winner is… Pearl White and others for “Perils of Pauline!”


Pearl White got my attention in the very first chapter of the serial, when she scaled a rope from a balloon onto a beach, and she never let up in getting herself into and out of trouble in dangerous ways. Although it’s possible a double was used (and that balloon was never quite so far off the ground as it seemed), the stuntwork in this serial is outstanding, and holds up a century later as a remarkable achievement.