Tag Archives: William Witney

Stunt Families: The Canutts

 

Everyone in the Industry seems to include legendary stuntman and action director, Yakima Canutt as a founding father of the American Stunt System that we have in place today. He helped create the systems, procedures and policies that keep stunt men and women safely working and producing some of the finest moments ever shot on film over the last 100 years.  Republic Pictures director William Witney said of him, “There will probably never be another stuntman who can compare to Yakima Canutt. He had been a world champion cowboy several times and where horses were concerned he could do it all. He invented all the gadgets that made stunt work easier. One of his clever devices was a step that attached to the saddle so that he had leverage to transfer to another moving object, like a wagon or a train. Another was the “shotgun,” a spring-loaded device used to separate the tongue of a running wagon from the horses, thus cutting the horses loose. It also included a shock cord attached to the wagon bed, which caused wheels to cramp and turn the wagon over on the precise spot that was most advantageous for the camera.”Yakima Canutt

In the book, Falling: How Our Greatest Fear Became Our Greatest Thrill, Garrett Soden describes that time like this, “In the five years between 1925 and 1930, fifty-five people were killed making movies, and more than ten thousand injured. By the late 1930s, the maverick stuntman willing to do anything for a buck was disappearing. Now under scrutiny, experienced stunt men began to separate themselves from amateurs by building special equipment, rehearsing stunts, and developing new techniques.” Through the years, Yakima and his fellow stunt performers were hurt and some killed, so several leaders in the Industry, including Yakima started to develop safer ways of doing things and started to create a lot of the new tools of the trade.Tap Canutt

In 1940, he started to direct the action on several pictures and a new role behind the camera was created.  That of the Action Director, which eventually became the Second Unit Director and Stunt Coordinator positions. He trained and organized his own set of stunt performers which he could count on to do the stunts safely and properly and they included his two sons Edward “Tap” Canutt and Harry Joe Canutt. Tap and Joe would become crucial elements in the stunt industry in their own right and would perform stunts in some of the biggest epics and films of the 40’s, 50’s and 60’s, which included, Ben Hur, El Cid, Ivanhoe, Spartacus, Knights of the Round Table, King Richard and the Crusaders, Swiss Family Robinson, The Fall of the Roman Empire, Khartoum, Where Eagles Dare and so many others.Joe Canutt

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Kane Richmond, David Sharpe, and Carey Loftkin, Spy Smasher

 

Though Republic had the best stunt men in the business on hand, with the likes of Carey Loftin and David Sharpe and even Yakima Canutt as the film’s “Ramrod”, star Kane Richmond, who was quite an athlete, often insisted on doing his own stunts as “Spy Smasher” (this was back in the days when insurance issues were a lot more loose on movie sets).spysmahed

Spy Smasher has absolutely fabulous stunts that remind you how fun movies were before CGI came into existence. These knuckleheads go all out in the fight scenes – leaping around, flipping each other, bludgeoning one another with balsa wood chairs, Spy Smasher roars around on a motorcycle like a madman, a wooden tower gets blown up and collapses, a motor boat takes on a submarine, etc.

William C. Cline said in his book, In The Nick of Time, that even though Kane Richmond did a lot of his own stunts, he was still helped out from time-to-time on some of the most spectacular stunts, which were performed by Dave Sharpe who, for example, “rolled from an overturning motorcycle to leap atop a careening auto that plunged from a cliff.” and stuntman Carey Loftin, who “showed what a motorcycle could do in the hands of an expert.”

Spy Smasher was directed by William Witney for Republic Pictures.spyserial

Things to look up (click on item to go to IMDB page or Website):

Glossary of film terms as defined by the Wikipedia – B movie – is a low-budget commercial motion picture that is not definitively an arthouse or pornographic film. In its original usage, during the Golden Age of Hollywood, the term more precisely identified a film intended for distribution as the less-publicized, bottom half of a double feature. Although the U.S. production of movies intended as second features largely ceased by the end of the 1950s, the term B movie continued to be used in the broader sense it maintains today. In its post–Golden Age usage, there is ambiguity on both sides of the definition: on the one hand, many B movies display a high degree of craft and aesthetic ingenuity; on the other, the primary interest of many inexpensive exploitation films is prurient. In some cases, both may be true.spy_smasher

In either usage, most B movies represent a particular genre—the Western was a Golden Age B movie staple, while low-budget science-fiction and horror films became more popular in the 1950s. Early B movies were often part of series in which the star repeatedly played the same character. Almost always shorter than the top-billed films they were paired with, many had running times of 70 minutes or less. The term connoted a general perception that B movies were inferior to the more handsomely budgeted headliners; individual B films were often ignored by critics.spystuff

Latter-day B movies still sometimes inspire multiple sequels, but series are less common. As the average running time of top-of-the-line films increased, so did that of B pictures. In its current usage, the term has somewhat contradictory connotations: it may signal an opinion that a certain movie is (a) a genre film with minimal artistic ambitions or (b) a lively, energetic film uninhibited by the constraints imposed on more expensive projects and unburdened by the conventions of putatively “serious” independent film. The term is also now used loosely to refer to some higher budgeted, mainstream films with exploitation-style content, usually in genres traditionally associated with the B movie.Spy_Smasher (1)

From their beginnings to the present day, B movies have provided opportunities both for those coming up in the profession and others whose careers are waning. Celebrated filmmakers such as Anthony Mann and Jonathan Demme learned their craft in B movies. They are where actors such as John Wayne and Jack Nicholson first became established, and they have provided work for former A movie actors, such as Vincent Price and Karen Black. Some actors, such as Béla Lugosi and Pam Grier, worked in B movies for most of their careers. The term B actor is sometimes used to refer to a performer who finds work primarily or exclusively in B pictures.

Check out our new Book, 100 Years of the Best Movie Stunts!
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Yakima Canutt and Rex, The Devil Horse

 

It’s hard not to include Yakima in multiple years as his work for stunt men and stunt coordinators over the years was so extensive.  He is credited as having developed so many of the traditional techniques, especially when it comes to horse stunts. This film is a notable entry among his many horse stunts as the wild black stallion used for this stunt, named “Rex” killed a stuntman the year before. The stock footage created from Yakima riding Rex was so good that it was used for many westerns thereafter.The Devil Horse Stunt

Yakima was stuntman on the latter, The Devil Horse (1932), a western serial with Harry Carey, and at first they wanted to use Rex but his owner wanted too much money so they decided on going with another horse (Apache) for that production. Yakima learned a lot of his horse riding as a world champion rodeo rider. He broke his first bronco at age 11, so he knew what he was doing with Rex. Yakima won his first world championship at the Olympics of the West in 1917 and won more championships in the next few years.yakima captured

He was really in his element when working with horses on the early westerns. William Witney, one of Republic’s film directors, said: “There will probably never be another stuntman who can compare to Yakima Canutt. He had been a world champion cowboy several times and where horses were concerned he could do it all. He invented all the gadgets that made stunt work easier. One of his clever devices was a step that attached to the saddle so that he had leverage to transfer to another moving object, like a wagon or a train. Another was the “shotgun,” a spring-loaded device used to separate the tongue of a running wagon from the horses, thus cutting the horses loose. It also included a shock cord attached to the wagon bed, which caused wheels to cramp and turn the wagon over on the precise spot that was most advantageous for the camera.”

The Devil Horse was directed by Fred Jackman for Hal Roach Studios.yakcanutt_devilhorse

Things to look up (click on item to go to IMDB page):

Glossary of stunt terms as defined by Wikipedia:

  1. Trick riding – refers to the act of performing stunts while riding a horse, such as the rider standing upright on a galloping horse. Other stunts might include hanging upside down off of the side of the horse while attached to a strap or jumping on and off a galloping horse.

Check out our new Book, 100 Years of the Best Movie Stunts!Screen Shot 2015-09-19 at 8.23.28 PM

The Adventures of Captain Marvel, Stunts and The Loss of a Superhero’s Name

 The action genre was owned primarily by the movie serials during this time and it was the peak of their popularity. The Adventures of Captain Marvel was hugely successful and widely considered to be one of the best serials ever produced. This was the first depiction of a comic book super hero on film. It is considered by most to be the best in a line of the Superhero serials that would follow.

The serial deserves its reputation and it made Tom Tyler (Captain Marvel) a bankable star for Republic. The funny thing is, this is one of the greatest cinematic trompe l’oeils ever, because Tom Tyler himself is hardly in the movie. About half the scenes of Captain Marvel are actually shot with stunt doubles or, in the case of the flying sequences, a papier-mache sculpture strung on wires.
Serial Captain Marvel

The flying effects were performed mostly with a dummy. The dummy was slightly larger than life, at 7 feet tall, and made of paper mâché so that it weighed only 15 lbs. The uniform was made of thin silk and a cotton jersey. Four pulleys connected to each shoulder and calf, which were strung on two wires so the dummy moved along them by its own weight. The wires were attached to two objects across the view of the camera, and the dummy slid from one to the other, giving the appearance of flight. This system was originally intended for a Superman serial, a prototype of which was built but discarded. The flying pose used for the dummy, arms outstretched and back arched, was based on drawing by Mac Raboy. If Captain Marvel needed to be seen flying upwards, the cape was weighted down and the dummy slid backwards. The film of this was then reversed.

 

Dave Sharpe was the human part of the effect. Dressed as Captain Marvel, he would leap from a high point with his body straight, as if able to fly, then roll to land at the last second. The combination of effects and stunts produced the overall illusion of a flying person. Sharpe also performed other stunts as Captain Marvel, such as back flipping and knocking down attacking natives in the first chapter. Some shots of Captain Marvel flying were filmed with Tyler against rear projected clouds. However, some of these scenes show the wires used to hold him up.
captain
According to Stedman, the flight scenes were “the most successful illusion of such aerobatics ever put upon the screen, in serial or feature.”

The picture is largely carried by a young and energetic Frank Coghlan as Billy Batson, who has almost all of the dialogue. The character of Captain Marvel is barely a walk-on, he has about as much actual screen time as Lou Ferrigno used to get on the old Incredible Hulk TV show– and Cap generally only shows up for the same reason, to get his alter ego out of trouble at the last possible minute.

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I’m going to take a moment to mention something that falls into the category of, “It’s just a damn shame”. My brother is sick of me complaining about this, but I think it’s just a damn shame that Captain Marvel lost his name! It makes me sick really when people today call him Shazam! Shazam was the Wizard’s name! People today don’t understand, but here’s what happened…

 

After the success of National Comics’ new superhero characters Superman and Batman, Fawcett Publications started its own comics division in 1939, recruited writer Bill Parker to create several hero characters for the first title in their line, tentatively titled Flash Comics. Besides penning stories featuring Ibis the Invincible, Spy Smasher, Golden Arrow, Lance O’Casey, Scoop Smith, and Dan Dare for the new book, Parker also wrote a story about a team of six superheroes, each possessing a special power granted to them by a mythological figure.

 Fawcett Comics’ executive director Ralph Daigh decided it would be best to combine the team of six into one hero who would embody all six powers. Parker responded by creating a character he called “Captain Thunder”.
captain_marvel_chapter9
The first issue of the comic book, printed as both Flash Comics #1 and Thrill Comics #1, had a low-print run in the fall of 1939 as an ashcan copy created for advertising and trademark purposes. Shortly after its printing, however, Fawcett found it could not trademark “Captain Thunder,” “Flash Comics,” or “Thrill Comics,” because all three names were already in use. Consequently, the book was renamed Whiz Comics, and Fawcett artist Pete Costanza suggested changing Captain Thunder’s name to “Captain Marvelous,” which the editors shortened to “Captain Marvel”. The word balloons in the story were re-lettered to label the hero of the main story as “Captain Marvel”. Whiz Comics #2 (cover-dated Feb. 1940) was published in late 1939.

Visual inspiration for Captain Marvel came from a number of sources. His appearance was modeled after that of Fred MacMurray, a popular American actor of the period, though comparisons to both Cary Grant and Jack Oakie were made as well. Fawcett Publications’ founder, Wilford H. Fawcett, was nicknamed “Captain Billy,” which inspired the name “Billy Batson” and Marvel’s title, as well. Fawcett’s earliest magazine was titled Captain Billy’s Whiz Bang (which is also mentioned prominently in The Music Man by Robert Preston during the crusade against the pool hall), which inspired the title Whiz Comics. In addition, Fawcett took several of the elements that had made Superman the first popular comic book superhero (super-strength and speed, science-fiction stories, a mild-mannered reporter alter ego) and incorporated them into Captain Marvel. Fawcett’s circulation director Roscoe Kent Fawcett recalled telling the staff, “Give me a Superman, only have his other identity be a 10- or 12-year-old boy rather than a man”. (NOW REMEMBER THIS PART AS IT’S VERY IMPORTANT)

 As a result, Captain Marvel was given a 12-year-old boy named Billy Batson as his alter ego. In the story of his origin printed in Whiz Comics #2, Billy, a homeless newsboy, is led by a mysterious stranger to a secret subway tunnel. An odd subway car with no visible driver takes them to an underground tunnel with seven statues depicting the Seven Deadly Enemies of Man (Pride, Envy, Greed, Hatred, Selfishness, Laziness and Injustice): the lair of the wizard Shazam. (See! The Wizard is Shazam!) The wizard shows that he has observed the hardship of Billy’s life, and grants him the power to become the adult superhero Captain Marvel, just before a stone suspended above Shazam’s head crushes him. His ghost says he will give advice when a brazier is lighted.

 

In order to transform into Captain Marvel, Billy must speak the wizard’s name, an acronym for the six legendary figures who agreed to grant aspects of themselves to a willing subject: the wisdom of Solomon, the strength of Hercules, the stamina of Atlas, the power of Zeus, the courage of Achilles, and the speed of Mercury. Speaking the word produces a bolt of magic lightning which transforms Billy into Captain Marvel. Speaking the word again reverses the transformation with another bolt of lightning.

Adventures_of_Captain_Marvel_(1941_serial)_12
Captain Marvel wore a bright red costume with gold trim and a yellow lightning bolt insignia on the chest. The body suit originally included a partial bib front, but was changed to a one-piece skintight suit within a year (the partial bib would be restored to Captain Marvel’s costume much later in the character’s history, in 1994). The costume also included a white-collared cape trimmed with gold flower symbols, usually asymmetrically thrown over the left shoulder and held around his neck by a gold cord. The cape was inspired by the ceremonial cape worn by the British nobility, photographs of which appeared in newspapers in the 1930s.

Through much of the Golden Age of Comic Books, Captain Marvel proved to be the most popular superhero character of the medium with his comics outselling all others, including those featuring Superman. In fact, Captain Marvel Adventures sold fourteen million copies in 1944, and was at one point being published bi-weekly with a circulation of 1.3 million copies an issue (proclaimed on the cover of issue #19 as being the “Largest Circulation of Any Comic Magazine”). Part of the reason for this popularity included the inherent wish-fulfillment appeal of the character to children, as well as the humorous and surreal quality of the stories. Billy Batson typically narrated each Captain Marvel story, speaking directly to his reading audience from his WHIZ radio microphone, relating each story from the perspective of a young boy.

 Detective Comics (later known as National Comics Publications, National Periodical Publications, and today known as DC Comics) sued both Fawcett Comics and Republic Pictures for copyright infringement in 1941, alleging that Captain Marvel was based on their character Superman. After seven years of litigation, the National Comics Publications v. Fawcett Publications case went to trials court in 1948. Although the judge presiding over the case decided that Captain Marvel was an infringement, DC was found to be negligent in copyrighting several of their Superman daily newspaper strips, and it was decided that National had abandoned the Superman copyright. As a result, the initial verdict, delivered in 1951, was decided in Fawcett’s favor.
adventures
National appealed this decision, and Judge Learned Hand declared in 1952 that National’s Superman copyright was in fact valid. Judge Hand did not find that the character of Captain Marvel itself was an infringement, but rather that specific stories or super feats could be infringements, and that the truth of this would have to be determined in a re-trial of the case. The judge therefore sent the matter back to the lower court for final determination.

Instead of retrying the case, however, Fawcett decided to settle with National out of court. The National lawsuit was not the only problem Fawcett faced in regard to Captain Marvel. While Captain Marvel Adventures had been the top-selling comic series during World War II, it suffered declining sales every year after 1945 and by 1949 it was selling only half its wartime rate. Fawcett tried to revive the popularity of its assorted Captain Marvel series in the early 1950s by introducing elements of the horror comics trend that gained popularity at the time.

 Feeling that this decline in the popularity of superhero comics meant that it was no longer worth continuing the fight, Fawcett agreed to permanently cease publication of comics with the Captain Marvel-related characters, and to pay National $400,000 in damages. Fawcett shut down its comics division in the autumn of 1953 and laid off its comic-creating staff. Whiz Comics had ended with issue #155 in June 1953, Captain Marvel Adventures was canceled with #150 (November 1953), and The Marvel Family ended its run with #89 (January 1954).

NOW FOR THE IRONY…When superhero comics became popular again in the mid-1960s in what is now called the “Silver Age of Comic Books,” Fawcett was unable to revive Captain Marvel, having agreed never to publish the character again (as part of settlement of the lawsuit). Carmine Infantino, publisher of DC Comics, licensed the characters from Fawcett in 1972, and DC began planning a revival. Because Marvel Comics had by this time established Captain Marvel as a comic book trademark for their own character, DC was forced to publish their book under the name Shazam!. Infantino attempted to give the Shazam! book the subtitle The Original Captain Marvel, but a cease and desist letter from Marvel Comics forced them to change the subtitle to The World’s Mightiest Mortal with Shazam! #15 (December 1974). As all subsequent toys and other merchandise featuring the character was also required to use the “Shazam!” label with little to no mention of the name “Captain Marvel”, the title has become so linked to Captain Marvel that many people took to identifying the character as “Shazam” instead of “Captain Marvel”.

adventure 1280-1-shazam-465
So now, the company that forced Captain Marvel to lose his trademark name owns him and can’t use the name themselves! Here’s where you go, “It’s just a damn shame!”, because Captain Marvel is so much cooler than Shazam! Now I wish they would just go back to his original name of Captain Thunder. Anyway, enough of my tirade…back to the blog.

Things to look up (www.imdb.com):

  • Tom Tyler
  • The Adventures of Captain Marvel
  • John English
  • William Witney
  • Republic Pictures
 Stunt Men:
  • Dick Crockett
  • James Fawcett
  • Bud Geary
  • George Magrill
  • Ted Mapes
  • Loren Riebe
  • David Sharpe
  • Duke Taylor
  • Ken Terrrell
  • Henry Wills
 Glossary of film terms as defined by the Wikipedia (www.wikipedia.com):
 Trompe-l’œil: (French for “deceive the eye”, which can also be spelled without the hyphen in English as trompe l’oeil, is an art technique involving realistic imagery in order to create the optical illusion that the depicted objects exist in three dimensions. Forced perspective is a comparable illusion in architecture.

History of film companies as defined by IMDB: Republic Pictures was an American independent film production-distribution corporation with studio facilities, operating from 1935 through 1959, and was best known for specializing in westerns, movie serials and B films emphasizing mystery and action.

 The studio was also responsible for financing and distributing one Shakespeare film, Orson Welles’ Macbeth (1948), and several of the films of John Ford during the 1940s and early 1950s. It was also notable for developing the careers of John Wayne, Gene Autry and Roy Rogers.

Check out our new Book, 100 Years of the Best Movie Stunts!

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