The Strange World of Silent Film

Buster Keaton in The Gene 001Filmmakers could get away with quite a lot in the silent film era. Censorship was in its infancy and pretty much powerless, meaning directors could do as they pleased. These things included letting stars have fist fights in the sky, on-screen drug abuse and having a pretty rudimentary attitude to health & safety procedures.

All of this led to pretty crazy moments like…

Dropping a house on a film star

Perhaps the greatest stuntman who ever lived, Buster Keaton, was a notorious daredevil, regularly risking death for no other reason than because he could, or because he had a death wish. Keaton’s most famous stunt involved the two-ton weight of the front of a house being dropped on the impassible star.

Saved by the vacant attic window, Keaton had precisely two inches to the left of his shoulders and above his head to spare. Had he stood slightly off his marker or if there had been a sudden gust of wind, he would surely have been crushed to death. Some crew members refused to watch, fearing Keaton had gone too far while Keaton for his own part maintained afterwards that he didn’t care if the house hit him or not.

Killer chariot races

The 1959 Ben-Hur film featured one of cinema’s great stunts: the famous chariot race. The scene has inspired many filmmakers since, making it all the way to outer space in Star Wars: The Phantom Menace. Rumors circulated for years that the stunt sequence in the film was so dangerous it actually cost the lives of some men on set. Turns out the rumors were true, sort of, but only in regards to the chariot race in the original silent Ben-Hur.

Ben Hur 1925 560x347Released in 1925, the silent film also featured a thrilling chariot race; in fact the 1959 remake is almost a shot-for-shot replica. The first round of filming in Rome claimed the life of one stuntman and dozens of horses. Due to poor light and problems with the racetrack surface, none of this footage was used in the final film.

Back in Hollywood, the scene was re-done with more unintentional collisions and further animal casualties. An estimated 100 horses were killed in the making of the film — the pile-up with Messala at the end of the race cost five horses alone. Second unit director B. Reeves Eason cared so little for animal welfare that if a horse started to limp, instead of bringing it to the vet, he shot it.

The sea battle also featured numerous extras who were thrown into the water, many falsely claiming they could swim to get the job. Rumors circulated that the studios covered up the drowning of some of the extras, though it was never confirmed. Human deaths on set, at least, were not good for PR.

The entire shoot was so disastrous that safety laws in Hollywood were rewritten because of it. It’s also the most expensive silent picture ever.

Casual drug abuse in family friendly films

Properly enforced censorship didn’t come to the silver screen until the early ’30s, when sex, drugs and blasphemy were no longer tolerated. During the era of silent film however, they were perfectly acceptable. Take drug abuse, for instance. Charlie Chaplin’s 1917 short Easy Street saw the sentimental Tramp attempt to rescue his love interest from the terrible clutches of a junkie. Initially, taking something of a pummeling, Charlie sits on the druggie’s upturned needle and, suddenly Herculean, he beats up the junkie, rescues the girl and saves the day. If drug dealers did commercials, this might just be it.

Not that Chaplin was the only star at it. Douglas Fairbanks’ wonderfully bizarre take on Sherlock Holmes has taken on cult status over the years. It lampoons Arthur Conan Doyle’s most famous creation and his love of all things narcotic. His clock has only four settings: eats, sleep, drinks, dope. His character is also called Coke Ennyday. Subtly was not its strong point.

Fighting in the clouds

After the Wright brothers decided that trains were a completely inadequate form of transportation in 1903, the public took a rather large interest in all things aeronautical. This led to a group of incredibly courageous and crazy daredevils known as barnstormers. These outrageous guys and gals would perform all kinds of wing-walking, stunts and the occasional fight thousands of feet above the ground. Government regulations in the early ’30s would quickly kill this high-flying novelty in the film industry.