Silent movie comedy was all about slapstick and sight gags. Slipping on banana peels, falling from moving cars, teetering on high window ledges—audiences loved to see comedians testing the boundaries of gravity. And in an era long before CGI, these amazing feats were performed in real-time, the result of careful planning, physical skill and immense courage.
1. Buster Keaton in Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928)
After being blown around by a cyclone in this film, a dazed Buster Keaton stops in the middle of a street to catch his breath. As he stares unblinking at the camera, the front wall of a two-story house crashes down on him. But he escapes unhurt because his body is perfectly framed by an open window. Eighty years on, it still looks impossible. And dangerous. The 4,000-lb. house front was on a hinge, and Keaton drove a nail in the ground to mark his position. The window was just big enough to give him two inches of clearance on either side. Minutes before shooting, Keaton noticed a few crew members praying. He also saw the cameraman turn away as the shot rolled. Buster later called the stunt one of his “greatest thrills,” then added, “I was mad at the time, or I would never have done the thing.”
2. Dick Grace in Wings (1927)
Stuntman Dick Grace called himself “a crack-up engineer.” As an Army pilot in World War I, he honed the skills that made him Hollywood’s go-to guy for aerial stunts.
In Wings, he hung from a rope ladder out of a cockpit and crashed several planes into barren fields and lakes. His secret? Aside from crazy courage, Grace sawed wings and aircraft parts into break-away sections to soften the blow upon impact. He also wore a spring-loaded shock absorber belt extending from his backside to his armpits. Wings won the first Oscar for Best Picture, and though Grace broke his neck during the shoot, he went on to form his own movie stunt troop, called The Squadron Of Death.
3. Yakima Canutt in Devil Horse (1926)
Former rodeo star Yakima Canutt never met a bronco he couldn’t bust. Or so he thought. In this western, he goes mano-a-mane-o with Rex, a vicious black stallion who’d already killed a man in another film. The ride was so wild that Canutt had the horse’s wranglers tie his wrists and ankles around Rex’s neck and torso. He still got tossed, and in one scene, it’s clear that Rex is trying to stamp Canutt straight into cowboy heaven. A few of the action scenes were so thrilling, they were later used as stock footage for numerous other westerns. Over the next thirty years, Canutt was Hollywood’s first-call stunt cowpoke, leaping off horses and getting dragged through the sagebrush. But he never rode Rex again.
4. Harold Lloyd in Safety Last (1923)
It’s probably the most famous image of the silent era. A pasty-faced, bespectacled young man dangling from the minute hand of an enormous clock twelve stories above a city street. For years, it was thought that comedian Harold Lloyd made the dizzying ascent by himself. But after Lloyd’s death in 1970, stuntman Harvey Parry revealed that he had handled most of the really treacherous parts – the flips and near-falls. As for the clock scene, a set replicating the building’s top two floors was constructed on the roof of the actual building, with mattresses laid down in case Lloyd fell the twenty feet or so. Cameras were cleverly angled to show the street below. Though Lloyd certainly had help, his classic scene continues to make time stand still, figuratively and literally, for generations of movie fans.
5. Four stuntmen in The Trail Of ’98 (1928)
This adventure tale of gold rush prospectors in Canada proved that sometimes even the most intrepid stuntmen were no match for Mother Nature. For a scene where prospectors’ canoes are swept down the wild Yukon River, a cord with safety loops was strung across the river. The stuntmen were meant to grab on to the loops as they jumped from the boats. But when the cord got too knotted and icy to hold, four stuntmen were swallowed by the rapids and killed. Two of the bodies were never recovered. A note of trivia: comedy legend Lou Costello of Abbott & Costello-fame made his first film appearance in this movie, as a stuntman.
6. Charlie Chaplin in Modern Times (1936)
In one famous scene from this satirical comedy, Chaplin’s character the Little Tramp roller skates blindfolded backwards and forwards around the fourth floor of a department store, spinning ever closer to the edge of a balcony with no balustrade. The stunt was achieved with a technique called a “glass shot.” The deep drop-off to the department store’s lower floors was actually painted on a pane of glass, placed in front of the camera and perfectly aligned with the real setting, creating a seamless illusion. But Chaplin’s skating was no trick. It was one of the many skills he’d picked up during days in Vaudeville. For further proof, check out 1916’s classic short The Rink, in which Chaplin performs a ten-minute slapstick ballet on wheels.