Thursday, November 29, 2012

Yakima Canutt, 1895-1986

Yakima CanuttToday marks the birthday of Yakima Canutt, a Hollywood figure whose work you've seen even if you didn't know what he looked like. Canutt was a pioneer in stunt work, most notably doing stunts as John Wayne's stunt double in the 1939 version of Stagecoach. If you watch the famous scene of Wayne's character running over the tops of the horses and then under the stagecoach to wind up on the back side, that's actually Canutt. But Canutt did so much more, performing stunts in dozens of B westerns in the 1930s and through the 1940s, by which time he realized he was getting too old to do the strenuous stuntwork.

The result of getting older is that Canutt turned to secnod-unit directing, staging fight and action sequences for the other, younger stuntmen to do. Canutt's credited work as a second-unit director includes the Charlton Heston version of Ben-Hur, for which Canutt staged the famous chariot race; other period pieces such as El Cid and The Fall of the Roman Empire; and the western comedy Cat Ballou.

People like Canutt really deserve more attention, I think. Stunts are an important part of a lot of movies; you don't want to risk your expensive big stars; and those stunts aren't going to do themselves. (Well, with modern-day CGI and the increasing number of animated movies, maybe those stunts will do thmeselves one of these days.) At least nowadays, the stuntmen show up in the closing credits that go on and on after the movie; back in the studio era the credits were so limited that many of the people playing the bit parts, as well as the stuntmen, didn't get screen credit. IMDb, for example, lists Canutt as uncredited for Stagecoach. (It's been a while since I've watched it and don't have a DVD at hand, so I can't remember whether he actually is in the credits or not.)

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