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The Thrill Makers

The Thrill Makers: Celebrity, Masculinity, and Stunt Performance

Jacob Smith
Copyright Date: 2012
Edition: 1
Pages: 282
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  • Book Info
    The Thrill Makers
    Book Description:

    Well before Evel Knievel or Hollywood stuntmen, reality television or the X Games, North America had a long tradition of stunt performance, of men (and some women) who sought media attention and popular fame with public feats of daring. Many of these feats-jumping off bridges, climbing steeples and buildings, swimming incredible distances, or doing tricks with wild animals-had their basis in the manual trades or in older entertainments like the circus. In The Thrill Makers, Jacob Smith shows how turn-of-the-century bridge jumpers, human flies, lion tamers, and stunt pilots first drew crowds to their spectacular displays of death-defying action before becoming a crucial, yet often invisible, component of Hollywood film stardom. Smith explains how these working-class stunt performers helped shape definitions of American manhood, and pioneered a form of modern media celebrity that now occupies an increasingly prominent place in our contemporary popular culture.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-95236-2
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. vii-viii)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-x)
  5. Introduction
    (pp. 1-12)

    In December 1916 theNew York Tribunepublished an article about a group of “anonymous heroes” who were appearing daily on cinema screens across the country. These heroes, the “understudies of the great actors in the movie thrillers,” were those who did “stunts” in the movies. The “Stunt Men’s Club” was said to include “fallers,” who jumped from high places; swimmers and divers; lion and tiger fighters; and steeplejacks who specialized in scaling walls and chimneys.¹ Notably, the article was framed as the revelation of a secret: these stunt performers were “unheralded, unknown,” and “unsung”; their names never appeared on...

  6. CHAPTER 1 The Adventures of the Bridge Jumper
    (pp. 13-47)

    On July 22, 1886, a figure was seen falling from near the center of the Brooklyn Bridge. The body was in the air for about three seconds as it traversed the 135 feet from the bridge to the water, and after striking the East River it disappeared from sight for nearly half a minute. A man was soon pulled from the water into a tugboat and brought to shore, where he was promptly arrested for attempted suicide. By the time the jumper, named Steve Brodie, emerged after a brief stint in a police court cell, he had become an instant...

  7. CHAPTER 2 The Adventures of the Human Fly
    (pp. 48-80)

    Few images from Hollywood cinema are more famous than Harold Lloyd hanging from the clock hands of a high-rise building inSafety Last(1923). The resonance of that iconic image is due not only to its stunning visual composition, but also to the fact that it refers to aspects of American cultural life that have become lost to popular memory. Indeed, Lloyd’s death-defying climb in that film resonates with a whole culture of early twentieth-century spectacular performance wherein men climbed public buildings without the help of any mechanical or safety devices: human flies. Lloyd’s biographies describe how he struck upon...

  8. CHAPTER 3 The Adventures of the Lion Tamer
    (pp. 81-123)

    A steel cage is cloaked in darkness. Inside can be seen the dim outlines of a chaotic, shifting mass of snarling animals. Overhead lights illuminate the cage and a man enters firing a pistol loaded with blank cartridges. The agitation of the lions and tigers gives the impression of savage violence precariously held in check by the man’s kitchen chair and whip. The man is lion tamer Clyde Beatty, and this is the climactic scene of the 1933 filmThe Big Cage. At one point in Beatty’s act a lion named Nero is brought into the cage. Beatty moves within...

  9. CHAPTER 4 The Adventures of the Aeronaut
    (pp. 124-181)

    TheOxford English Dictionarydefines the verbto thrillin two ways: as an action of “material bodies” and as an action of “non-material forces.” In the first case,to thrillmeans to pierce, bore, or penetrate, as by a piercing weapon such as a lance or dart. As an action of nonmaterial forces,to thrillimplies another kind of penetration: “to affect or move with a sudden wave of emotion.” The material and nonmaterial are intertwined in the noun form ofthrill, which refers to “a subtle nervous tremor” of the body caused by “intense emotion or excitement.” Thus...

  10. Conclusion
    (pp. 182-194)

    Less than a year after RKO releasedThe Lost Squadron,the same studio produced the filmLucky Devils,which begins in a bank lobby with a high, domed ceiling circled with windows. Suddenly, the barrel of a machine gun breaks through one of the high windows and a man shouts, “Don’t any of you mugs move, this is a stickup!” Frightened bank customers scream as more robbers enter, their guns blazing. A bank teller sets off an alarm with his foot, and a gunfight ensues when the police arrive. During the battle a security guard falls over a railing, and...

  11. Notes
    (pp. 195-260)
  12. Further Reading
    (pp. 261-264)
  13. Index
    (pp. 265-270)
  14. Back Matter
    (pp. 271-272)