When the film industry first came into existence, it was very different from what it is today. There was no such thing as “action” movies back then.
However, although there were no action movies, there was still the need for stunt performers. They were usually only required when making slapstick comedy films, though.
But they were not given much of a thought. There was no professional training given to them, and the movie producers would just find someone crazy and desperate enough to risk their life for a decent amount of money when they wanted someone to do a dangerous scene in the movie.
The First Professional Stunt Performers
However, between 1910 to 1920, the audience developed a taste for what could be termed as serial action movies of those times. This obviously called for the need of professional stunt performers.
But even during this time, some of the stunt performers only learned the skills and tricks through trial and error instead of professional training. And it was at that time when the film industry got its first ever “professional stunt performer,” Frank Hanaway.
His first performance was in the film The Grain Train Robbery, which was made in 1903. He was a skilled cavalryman, and could fall off a running horse without getting hurt in any way.
Similarly, the first stuntwoman to enter the film industry was Helen Gibson. Her first job was in the movie series The Hazards of Helen in 1914. She too was chosen on the basis of her experience and skills in horse riding and her ability to perform tricks when riding a horse.
Interestingly, she went from being the stuntwoman in The Hazards of Helen movie to eventually playing the lead role herself. She performed some highly risky stunts after starting to play as the lead role.
Practice of Choosing Men Over Women
Despite Gibson’s success as a stuntwoman, producers decided that men were better suited for dangerous scenes. This led to most of the stunt performers being men.
They would wear a wig and a woman outfit to perform the stunt as the woman actor of the film, and as stunts used to be shot from quite a distance, the audience wouldn’t be able to tell the difference.
The Emergence of a New Profession
As the film industry grew rather rapidly in the 1950s, the importance of professional stunt performers grew too. In fact, many independent producers without much experience would hire professional stunt performers to create the stunt scenes as well as find the right people to perform them.
These professionals were known as stunt coordinators.
Associations of Stunt Performers
As the profession grew further, the first official association of stunt performers, known as the Stuntmen’s Association, was formed in 1960. Its primary focus was to help educate stuntmen about the best safety practices as well as the tricks of the trade. Furthermore, it would also help producers find the right stunt performers for their needs.
Many other similar associations were formed soon after the Stuntmen’s Association, including the Stuntwomen’s Association, International Stunt Association, the United Stuntwomen’s Association and more.
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GREGORY, MOLLIE. "The Rise and Fall of Female Stunt Players in Silent Movies." In Stuntwomen: The Untold Hollywood Story, 7-24. University Press of Kentucky, 2015. http://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt17t74fn.5.
Smith, Jacob. "Introduction." In The Thrill Makers: Celebrity, Masculinity, and Stunt Performance, 1-12. University of California Press, 2012. http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1525/j.ctt1pnk67.5.