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PAINFUL TRUTH: Stunt performer changed Hollywood from the shadows

You’ve seen Yakima Canutt and his work, but not known it was him on screen
FILE - A worker wheels equipment past the famous Hollywood sign as preparations continue on March 8, 2023, for the 95th Academy Awards at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/J. David Ake, File)

I’ve been reading a bit recently about Hollywood’s early days.

I don’t mean the 1940s or 1950s, I mean the silent era, from the dawn of what they called the “Hollywood colony” up to the emergence of the talkies at the tail end of the 1920s.

One of the most important figures in Hollywood history emerged from that era.

You almost certainly know names like John Wayne, Charlton Heston, maybe even old-time cowboy actors like Tom Mix and Gene Autry.

Behind them all, making them look good and taking a beating doing it, was a guy called Enos “Yakima” Canutt. (He happily ditched his original first name.) He is far less well known than the big stars of his era, but he quietly revolutionized filmmaking, particularly stunts and the job of the stunt performer.

Back in the early days of film making, stunt work was incredibly dangerous. You wanted to film a plane crash, you could use a little model and some special effects, but you could also just hire a pilot who was willing to crash a plane, on purpose. One stunt pilot actually specialized in that task in the 1920s!

And you know that stunt from in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, where someone climbs into a catapult and flings themselves over a castle wall? Special effects and dummies, right?

Well, in 1927 for a movie called The Beloved Rogue, a stunt performer named Paul Malvern actually got into a catapult and was shot through the air. He lived, shockingly.

Yakima Canutt came into that world as a rodeo star, drifting into doing cowboy movies, acting, and stunt work.

For a while he was pretty close to becoming a leading man, despite the fact that he was doing his own stunts and getting his face banged up in the process.

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But the end of the silent era doomed his young acting career. A bout of the Spanish flu had ravaged his vocal chords.

So Canutt went into stunts full time. He met up with a relatively unknown actor in cheap B westerns named John Wayne, and in 1939 both of them were in Stagecoach – Wayne as the star, Canutt doubling for him and multiple others, pulling off wild feats including being dragged under a stagecoach. He invented new techniques that made the work safer, but visually spectacular.

After that Canutt was everywhere, from the burning of Atlanta in Gone with the Wind (he doubled for Clark Gable) to Britain, where he organized jousts in Ivanhoe.

By the 1950s, Canutt, born in 1895, was done getting battered. He’d suffered broken ankles and internal injuries. He turned to arranging stunts, often with his two sons in front of the camera, and doing second-unit directing work.

Which is how he arranged gladiatorial fights and war scenes in Spartacus, and orchestrated the legendary chariot race in Ben Hur, without injuring a single horse. (The only stunt performer injured, slightly, was one of his sons.)

Canutt died at age 90, having transformed Hollywood, mostly while pretending to be someone much more famous.

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Matthew Claxton

About the Author: Matthew Claxton

Raised in Langley, as a journalist today I focus on local politics, crime and homelessness.
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