January 15, 2014

Safety Last: Close Calls in B Movie Stunt Work

This brand new year is a particularly auspicious one for me, as I started a new job last week. With a new job comes new challenges, not the least of which is trying to find out where HR is holding its employee orientation in a maze-like building the size of a small city block. I was running late, had wolfed down a burnt toaster waffle for breakfast, didn't have time to make or buy a coffee, forgot my water bottle, and was desperately looking left, right, up, down and around the main foyer of the Services building, trying to find some clue as to where they were holding the orientation, when a fellow new employee (who had the presence of mind to get there early) came out of a nearby restroom, took pity on me, and mercifully guided me to the appointed meeting room.

The great Harold Lloyd in Safety Last! (1923)
"I think I have just enough time
to grab a quick cup of coffee!"
I was absolutely sure there'd be coffee, maybe even doughnuts (or at least bagels), but alas, there were no refreshments whatsoever. It was all business at an ungodly early hour of the morning. Plus, the HR people were fiendishly clever. There was a sign-up sheet up front, but also sheets to be signed and turned in only after they'd covered the material. There was to be no quick scribbling of initials, then quietly skipping to track down a nice grande latte or a fresh blueberry muffin. Instead, I had to absorb scores of Powerpoint screens full of dry information only the most zealous accountant or personnel manager could love… all without a trace of caffeine in my system!

Ironically enough, the morning was saved by the last part of the presentation… on, of all things, workplace safety. While not exactly a stand-up comedian, the presenter at least knew enough to grab attention with photos and videos of some of the most diabolical workplace hazards ever cobbled together by caffeine-starved clock-punchers whose only excuse could be that they were sleepwalking through their jobs. There was a photo of a rickety ladder tied to another rickety ladder to make the mother-of-all dangerous makeshift extension ladders. There was a daring workman, barefoot, with sopping wet pants, busily using an electric drill and extension cord while standing on an aluminum ladder set up next to a pool of water. Yet another featured a pair of workmen perched on a high, narrow ledge ringing an impressive atrium -- no railings, no tie-offs, the one using a short ladder on the ledge to get to an even higher window, the other kneeling at the foot of the ladder. One sneeze, one slip and …

But the coup-de-grace was a video clip of the one of the more dangerous workplaces I've ever seen. Behind a bar, a woman can be seen in the foreground filling a glass, her back turned to the counter. Two other employees pop into the picture, and one lifts a trapdoor in the floor (?!) right behind the woman and walks down the steps to a cellar. Oblivious, the woman finishes filling the glass, takes a step back, and promptly disappears down the hole! (The presenter assured us that although it looked bad, the woman was not killed. Apparently the investigators concluded that lack of communication was a key -- as in, "Hey there Norma, we're right behind you and and please be aware that we just opened the trapdoor to this incredibly dangerous, incredibly stupidly planned cellar located right in the center of the busy, cramped space behind the bar….")


Although it's unlikely that I'll be grappling with these kinds of safety issues (my biggest challenge will be making sure that all that hot coffee I swill stays in the mug instead of ending up in my lap or on my keyboard), it was certainly an entertaining and educational way to wrap up the orientation. It never ceases to amaze me the ingenuity that human beings bring to cutting corners so that they can grab an extra cup of joe or a quick smoke behind the dumpster.

Speaking of ingenuity and lots of corner cutting, the B movies featured on this blog couldn't have been made without those key ingredients. Lack of time, money and resources usually leads to suboptimal outcomes, but once in awhile, with talented people and the planets aligned just right, it can stimulate creativity and lead to something sublime. Val Lewton proved that you can often frighten audiences by not showing them in graphic detail the object of their fears (and save some time and a lot of money). But in the movie business, one area where you most definitely do not want to cut corners or fly by the seat of your pants is stunt work.

Unfortunately for many B productions of yore, the pressures to just get the thing in the can on time and on budget meant that directors who didn't know a pick point from a nose pick doubled as stunt coordinators, and unsuspecting actors who just wanted to get another picture on their resume suddenly found themselves risking their necks doing their own stunts. Fortunately, the guardian angels who look after fools and B movie crews apparently did double-duty, as there are many more close calls in the lore than actual tragedies.

So without further ado (and before I get carpal tunnel from typing too much), here are a few close calls from the annals of "make-it-up-as-you-go-along" B movie stunt work. And remember: Don't try this at home!

"That was a disastrous film to work on."


Actor Richard Devon
"I'm not getting paid enough for this crap!"
There are no two ways about it. Richard Devon, a fixture (especially as villains) in Roger Corman's early films, didn't particularly appreciate the King of the Bs. But then, if you'd witnessed Roger choosing to save a buck or two at the expense of his actors' safety, you might have been bitter too. In an interview with Tom Weaver, Devon talked about risking life and limb doing location shooting for The Saga of the Viking Women and Their Voyage to the Waters of the Great Sea Serpent (1957; aka The Viking Women and the Sea Serpent… whew!):
"That was a disastrous film to work on. It was as if Roger were really trying to short his skimpy shooting schedules, even more than what he had done. He was trying to beat his own record. He didn't want to waste a frame, nor did he spare anyone's feelings on the set. He was an absolute demon. As I said before, in his office he would purr like some wide-eyed kitten-- but he could be dangerous.

In one sequence in Viking Women I had to ride this horse through a small cave. It was like seventeen and half hands tall, and that's a tall horse. I was leading the other Grimaults [film characters] through the cave on this huge horse, and the sucker hung me up on a wall and damn near tore my kneecap off. As I recall,  there was never any nurse or first aid people on the set; Roger said 'uh huh' to my problem, and, 'Let's get on with it.'

Lobby card - The Viking Women and the Sea Serpent (1957)
[Speaking of shooting the Viking Women's voyage on location at a beach]. That was a condemned beach at Cabrillo. Nobody bothered to tell us it was condemned. They used to post signs when they condemned a beach; somebody had picked up the sign and threw it in the bushes, but I found it. And then we saw the water, and there was a tremendous undertow-- it was sort of scary. We were all down there on the day when Roger shot the scene where the Viking women launch their ship. If you recall the film, the rudder falls off the boat. Needless to say, that was not supposed to occur, but Roger is undaunted-- nothing stops Roger. They just kept going. The girl who swam after the boat was swimming to save her life, because of the undertow. She got to the boat, and they pulled her in."
[Tom Weaver, Science Fiction Stars and Horror Heroes: Interviews with  Actors, Directors, Producers and Writers of the 1940s through 1960s, McFarland, 1991]


Where to find it:
Available on DVD

Oldies.com

The She-Creature Meets The Three Stooges


Paul Blaisdell, monster-maker
Paul Blaisdell in his She-Creature suit.
Tragically unheralded makeup and effects artist Paul Blaisdell created some of the most memorable and outrageous B movie creatures ever to slither, stalk or stomp across a drive-in movie screen. He was a genius at taking a handful of cheap materials, locking himself in his garage, and delivering the goods just in the nick of time to satisfy the pickiest, most time-pressed director. Predictably, many of his creations were featured in, you guessed it, Roger Corman's '50s sci-fi flicks. If it was a creature suit, Paul usually wore it himself, which from time to time was his undoing. Biographer Randy Palmer relates some Three-Stooges-like miscues on the set of The She-Creature (1956):
"For the scene in which the creature smashes into Johnny's (Paul Dubov) apartment, the crew had prepared a specially scored door made of balsa wood that would come apart easily in sections. The only problem was that it was so delicately fitted together that if anyone brushed up against it the whole thing came tumbling down. Since there was just the one door (there was never enough money in the budget to do these kinds of things twice), someone had the foresight to protect the breakaway prop by reinforcing it with plywood from the opposite side. When it was time for Blaisdell to knock the hell out of the door, no one remembered that it had been reinforced. … When [director] Cahn called 'Action,' Blaisdell raised a creature claw and smashed at the door, but the rubber-coated pine costume just bounced off. Blaisdell hit the door with such force he was knocked backward and fell on the creature's tail. There was so much latex and foam in the tail it almost bounced back up. ...

Lobby card - The She-Creature (1956)
The climatic appearance of the monster was filmed on location at Paradise Cove near Los Angeles. This was the only time in the film the monster would actually be seen emerging from the waves, and Eddie Cahn wanted it to look impressive.
'Get out in the water, Paul,' Cahn told Blaisdell. 'Way out.'
Blaisdell walked into the surf and turned around.
'Farther!' Cahn yelled.
Blaisdell backed up a few paces.
'No, no! Get really far out! Farther! Get out up to your waist!'
By the time Paul reached the point where Cahn was happy with what he saw, Blaisdell had become a mere dot in the camera lens. Cahn had set everything up as a wide-angle long-shot, but Blaisdell didn't know that. Besides, he had other things to worry about. The costume was acting just like a big sponge. The foam rubber was saturated with so much sea water he could barely move. … The water-logged suit of foam rubber felt like it weighed a ton. Every time Paul pushed forward the outgoing ocean current pushed him back. So he started lunging through the water. It was the only way he could make any progress. … As it turned out, Blaisdell suffered through the oceanic acrobatics all for naught. The image of the monster lumbering out of the ocean had been shot from so far away that nobody could tell what it was, and most of the footage ended up on the cutting room floor."
[Randy Palmer, Paul Blaisdell: Monster Maker, McFarland, 1997]


Where to find it:
Available on DVD

Amazon

"Are you wearing underwear?"


John "J.J." Johnson, Cheap Tricks and Class Acts, McFarland, 1996
Writer, producer, director and all-around B movie entrepreneur Bert I. Gordon (aka Mr. B.I.G.) was notorious for his obsession with all things gigantic in such films as The Amazing Colossal Man (1957), The Cyclops (1957) and The Food of the Gods (1976). In Attack of the Puppet People (1958), he turned giantism on its head by featuring a group of unsuspecting people shrunk down to doll size by a mad scientist. In an interview originally published in Filmfax magazine (and reprinted in John "J.J." Johnson's Cheap Tricks and Class Acts), Puppet People cast member Ken Miller relates one of the funniest and scariest moments in all of Mr. B.I.G.'s long line of B productions:
Lobby card - Attack of the Puppet People (1958)
"The most horrendous physical thing I've ever had to do was on that movie during the scene where I climb up the door to peer through the keyhole. Well, that climb was 50 feet up to the top of the soundstage and I was using a thick rubber rope tied to the giant doorknob at the top. When I was about halfway up, the doorknob started to come off. ... They weren't recording sound in the scene so I yelled down, 'The damned doorknob's coming off!' and the director yelled back, 'Keep going, it looks great!' Then, to make matters worse, my pants, which felt like they'd been glued on, started to split at the crotch. So I yelled, 'My pants are starting to rip' and Bert yelled back, 'Are you wearing underwear? Then keep going!' I got to the top of the rope and held on to the doorknob as two grips reached around and grabbed me. Just as they pulled me up, the doorknob came completely off, it was that close. And the pants just ripped right up my ass. Thankfully, it doesn't show in the film. The next day I couldn't move, I had used muscles in my body that I had never used before. They had to shoot around me while I went in for some physical therapy."
[John "J.J." Johnson, Cheap Tricks and Class Acts: Special Effects, Makeup and Stunts from the Films of the Fantastic Fifties, McFarland, 1996]

Where to find it:
Available on DVD

Oldies.com

4 comments:

  1. Jeff, I loved your workplace intro and, well, any post that mentions Bert I. Gordon is certain to appeal to me. That's a great story from the long-titled VIKING WOMEN AND THE SEA SERPENT. Weaver's book is a treasure and I'm so glad you shared that story.

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    1. Thanks! Indeed, Tom Weaver and his McFarland interview compilations are treasures for B-movie fans. He, more than anyone or anything else, inspired me to start this blog.

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  2. Well at least the HR people are clearly doing their jobs. It's not like they have any other choice. Sure, it can be annoying and all, but I guess they're just trying to prevent potential lawsuits, in the form of litigation. Which would be a real slapstick on their part ;) Nice callback to the Buster Keaton movies, by the way. Love this site.

    Omega On Demand

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    1. Ahem. Thank you Lewis for calling me on my unfair characterization of the HR people who were only trying to do their jobs. To set the record straight, they were thoroughly professional and I appreciate their contributions. Let's just say I was trying to convey my late-arrival,-less-than-optimal frame of mind on that morning. "Fiendish" to describe their presentation was a bit of an overstatement. ;) Glad you like the site!

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