Silent films—especially westerns—were frequently shot on location, under grueling and often dangerous conditions. There were no unions to protect actors and crew, thus safety precautions were routinely sacrificed in order to meet tight shooting schedules and even tighter budgets.
There were countless accidents, some fatal. Martha Mansfield, a stunning Ziegfeld girl, just beginning to make her mark in motion pictures, was in 1923, engulfed in flames when a careless crew member dropped a match on her voluminous gown, a Civil War costume. Mansfield died twenty-four hours later from third degree burns over her entire body.
In her delightful and revealing memoir, My Hollywood: When Both of us Were Young, Patsy Ruth Miller (1904-1995)—briefly married to director Tay Garnett—best known for her role as Esmerelda in the silent Hunchback of Notre Dame, starring Lon Chaney, recalls a frightening episode on a Tom Mix western, For Big Stakes, 1922. At the time, Miller was a high school student who had been mentored by the great if notorious Nazimova, real name Miriam Edez Adelaida Leventon, and now struggling to get a foothold in the industry.
Oaters, as B westerns were called, were not glamorous or prestigious, and the pay was awful—actors had to provide their own wardrobe—but they did afford the opportunity to gain much needed experience and garner favorable public attention. Oaters had a large and dedicated audience.
Tom Mix, a colorful cowboy star, rode Tony, his faithful horse. Tony was, arguably, just as famous as Mix, hence an extremely valuable piece of horse flesh.
Patsy Ruth sets up the frightening episode:
One day on location there was a scene in which the heavies kidnapped me and tied me to a tree—probably a Yucca—out on the lone prairie. Then the villains ride off, setting fire to the underbrush…Before the fire could reach me, Tom would come tearing in, cut me loose with one sweep of his knife, swing me up on the saddle behind him, and go galloping off…
But, as often happens when shooting a stunt, something goes terribly wrong as the camera grinds away:
The only flaw in the plan was that the bad guy who tied me was not a quick learner; he didn’t catch on how to tie a slip knot in one easy lesson, and he tied a real knot—a true Gordian knot. My struggle (acting) to free myself only made the knot tighter. Then the wind shifted a little, and my frantic struggle was no longer acting; I was getting too warm; the fire was uncomfortably close. The director and crew thought I was just hamming it up a bit, I suppose.
Unaware of the looming danger, Tom Mix, the classic white hat good guy, rides to the rescue:
He pulled Tony to a rearing halt then, wielding the knife with a flourish, pretended to cut the rope while really pulling on the loose end as in the rehearsal. But instead of falling free, the rope just got tighter; it would have taken three hands to untie it, and Tom barely had one. His left hand holding the reins, he was having all he could do to keep Tony from bolting. Horses have a terrific fear of fire. They panic and Tony was no exception.
By now, Mix understands that the stunt has gone bad and he is no longer acting. Keep in mind, Mix is mounted on his horse as he deals with the life-threatening situation:
Tom reacted quickly and with great presence of mind. Realizing that if he slashed the rope he would probably slash me, he slid the knife under the rope where it bound my shoulders. I scrunched my arms back to give him some leeway, and he sawed through it in a matter of seconds. It was a great feat of horsemanship and quick thinking. As soon as I was free, I reached up, he grabbed me, and somehow I was in the saddle behind him clinging like a limpet, and we were galloping off to safety…
Fade to black on a happy ending? Not quite.
My long, flowing hair was on fire and so was Tony’s long, flowing tail. The fire didn’t reach the camera truck; either they put it out or it burned itself out.
In the old days, movies were shot on nitrate stock—highly flammable, and the camera truck would have gone off like a munitions arsenal.
Tom Mix, star and producer, was furious:
But Tom’s rage wasn’t that easily extinguished. He raised holy hell with everyone—not mind you, because his leading lady might have been barbecued—there are always more leading ladies, but because Tony had lost a good part of his tail.
An actress on one of my films pulled a hissy fit when she discovered that the bottled water in her trailer was not the brand she ordered. Her agent actually called to scold the producer and demand an immediate correction—or else. A production assistant privately suggested to me: “Wouldn’t it be tragic if a light accidentally fell on her head.”
Patsy Ruth doesn’t slap a law suit on the production company. She doesn’t whine and kvetch. She wears a fall for the rest of the picture and promptly signs up for a Hoot Gibson oater. A few months later she’s cast in The Hunchback of Notre Dame, the role that established her career.
Patsy Ruth Miller never finished high school. She dropped out in order to pursue her Hollywood career. But after she retired in 1931, Patsy Ruth started writing short stories and radio scripts. She won three O’Henry Awards and her novel, That Flannigan Girl, 1939, is an excruciatingly accurate portrait of Hollywood stardom—rise, fall and comeback—in the golden era. The novel is hard to find, but highly recommended. I picked up a used library copy for two dollars.
The danger in looking back at the old days is, of course, romanticizing an often brutal and callous business. But it does seem to this veteran Hollywood screenwriter that the classic American virtues of rugged self-reliance and, yes, personal courage, have been replaced by a culture of overpaid, overbred, and overeducated Hollywood brats who are not movie stars, just ordinary celebrities.