The evolution of stuntwomen
Updated: Dec 21, 2020
In this article, we are opening up the topic of the evolution of stuntwomen.
Even now I can still sit and watch Laurel and Hardy, Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd and be amused and impressed by their slapstick comedy acting and stunts.
Harold Lloyd did a lot of his own stunts and in the 1957 film ‘Safety last’, Lloyd actually hung from the clock tower at the Atlantic Hotel in Broadway.
After filming had finished it is said that he created a dummy version of himself and dropped it from that same height to see what would happen if he had fallen whilst doing the stunt - that’s not something I think I would like to do!
Silent motion pictures and stuntwomen
Silent motion pictures began in 1894 until 1929. In a lot of cases, there were no safety guidelines when it came to ‘action’ scenes, it was a matter of ‘let’s do it and see how it turns out’.
There wasn’t any proper training and the stunts were performed by dancers, actors and singers. Even though men did the majority of the action stunts, women stunt performances were included in silent movies - riding horses, swimming and driving cars.
The first American stuntwoman
Helen Gibson, born Rose Wenger is said to have been the first ever American professional stuntwoman. She began her career in 1911 as a trick rider and rodeo performer. In 1915 Helen Gibson began doubling Helen Holmes in ‘The Hazards of Helen Holmes’. In one of her many stunts, she was required to jump from a railway station roof onto a moving train. Rehearsals on a stationary train went well but when filming, Helen jumped and was propelled to the end of the train holding on to an air vent for dear life!
Men in drag
To save money, many directors wanted actresses to perform their own stunts. In 1912 a debate raged about women’s fitness to do stunt driving when actress Mary Maclaren performed a stunt, driving backwards down an incline at 25mph, she lost control of the car and went over an embankment and sued the film studio.
In 1916 the American born actress Gloria Swanson performed opposite Bobby Vernon who was boldly doing his own stunts and she was to required to follow suit, always saying she was ‘scared to death’ about what was required of her. In one scene she had to dive into deep water in her underwear even though she couldn’t actually swim.
In the 1920s Grace McHugh was thrown off her horse into a river, the cameraman jumped in to save her and they both drowned.
Pearl White, star of the ‘Perils of Pauline’ and ‘The Exploits of Elaine’ serials, was promoted as the “peerless fearless girl” who bravely executed all her own stunts.
However, the debate continued about women’s fitness and stunt performance and by the 1920s studios started to use men in drag.
There are so many stuntwomen who have fascinating stories to tell about those early years and to find out more about the history of stuntwomen here is a recommended read:
Stuntwomen - the untold Hollywood story
That book has been adapted to create a documentary which is in post production. An action-documentary about the evolution of stuntwomen from The Perils of Pauline (1914) and beyond.
Find out more here on IMDb.