In the early days of films, actors did their own stunts; stars like Douglas Fairbanks, Harold Lloyd, Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton were well known for their abilities to perform daring acts of bravado to thrill audiences. As time went on, the studios realized they had expensive investments in their stars and began to use stunt doubles to perform the most dangerous stunts. Still, they did not tell the naive public it was not their favorite movie star falling out of widows, rolling down hills, riding runaway stagecoaches and jumping through fires, they let the illusion remain. Today, of course we all know about stunt men and women, they are even given screen credit at the end of the film unlike years ago when they remained anonymous. Many home videos today include extras focusing on stunts and how they were created. Though many of the movies today have become more infantile filled with actions and little else these days, audiences are much more sophisticated when it comes to stunts and how films are made.
While most stunt work back in the mid twentieth century was performed by men there were a few women who pioneered in this field. Martha Crawford Cantarini was one. Growing up with a strong love for horses, her stepfather was famed polo player Carl Crawford; Martha became one of the few female stunt doubles appearing in numerous movies and TV, westerns as well as other genres. Along with co-author Chrystopher J.Spicer, Martha tells us all about her life behind the scenes of some classic movies and much more in her fascinating autobiography, “Fall Girl: My Life as a Western Stunt Double.” If you have seen “A King and Four Queens”, “Love Me Tender,” “The Big Country” or any other number of westerns, then you have seen Martha do her stuff. In the book, we hear about the actresses she doubled for including Anne Baxter, Eleanor Parker, Debra Paget, Patricia Owens, Jean Simmons and Shirley MacLaine, to name a few, along with male co-stars like Clark Gable, Elvis, Richard Widmark, Robert Taylor and Gregory Peck, the friendships that developed with Robert Taylor and Jean Simmons and some not so friendly relationships with others. “Fall Girl” offers a unique perspective and plenty of insight on the neglected art of stunt doubles, especially from a woman’s perspective.
Martha’s book is published by McFarland Books and is available via their website, just click here or order by phone at 1-800-253-2187.
All photos are from the personal collection of Martha Crawford Cantarini, my deepest thanks.
The Interview – Part One
John: First, I’d like to welcome you to Twenty Four Frames; it’s an honor to do this interview with you. Would you tell us how the book came about? You mentioned that you never met co-author Chrystopher Spicer, How did this project evolve?
Martha: Thank you John –
My Golden Boot Award became a catalyst for the book. It allowed me to have another look at the memories and opened up a new flood of questions from those interested in what I knew about what went on behind both the scenes and the camera. As I say in my book, I had an unquenchable desire to share my stories with those who loved films of that era as did I. The book was a natural progression from that. As a first time author I feared the stories would never be told. But, I was fortunate to make connections with Chrystopher Spicer whose interest in detail and the film business were a dream come true for me. We met quite by accident. I had put up a web site of horse racing history and included a page of some of my studio stills and personal photos including a long time favorite with Clark Gable. Chrys was doing a picture book of Gable and came across the photo. He asked if he could use the picture and after saying, of course a new world opened up for me. I mentioned the book I was working on and Chrys offered his help. He not only understood the story, he understood the film business and he understood me. He seems to speak in my voice in the additions he makes. What a lucky break for me. I have never formally met Chrys but I have difficulty convincing myself of that; after many hour long video phone calls we have become very good friends as well as writing partners. We are currently working on the back story to Fall Girl i.e. The Gambling Horse.
John: If there is one theme that runs through your life, and the book, it is your love of horses which was inspired by your stepfather, professional polo player Carl Crawford. He taught you to ride when you were about three years old. Can you tell us a little about your step dad and your early life?
Martha: My real father, Charles McKee, died when I was six months old. My mother met Carl on a Texas bound train returning home after a visit with the McKee family in Illinois; two years later they were married.
After my first ride on a horse with Carl in which I screamed when they put me on the horse and screamed more when they took me off, Carl and I had a wonderful bond. He became my beloved father and I shared his great love too. He was the teacher I remembered most in my life. He not only taught me to ride and love horses but to value them and the joy they brought to us. He hand polished my riding. Good hands for a rider are perhaps the most important asset a rider can have. Carl made sure I had his good hands to protect the fine mouths he developed on his polo horses. I remember hearing of the super rich buying a horse from him over the telephone for five to ten thousand dollars in the 30’s because of his undeniably great training abilities which I still profit from. Riding at the fine polo clubs in Chicago, New York, California, etc. became all a young girl could hope for with a passion for horses. On Sunday though, it was a tradition that Carl took us out to a fine hotel for breakfast before he played polo. I loved it on days when he offered to drive me to school because I knew we would go to the stables instead. We never told my mother! One more thing. Regarding my hands on a horse: Immediately after the Golden Boot Award ceremony, Frank Stallone, a superb musician, horseman and polo player, introduced himself to me and ask, “Where did you get your hands?” I was the only one sitting there that knew what he meant; He had watched my riding film clips during the award. It thrilled me to have one of my peers recognize this gift that my ‘father’ had given me. Though many ride, some well, in films few are aware of advanced horsemanship as was Frank. I always try to explain to people the difference between a ‘rider’ and a ‘horseman’.
John: You traveled around quite a bit as a youngster, but your parents eventually settled in Hollywood. This would, I believe, be in the mid to late 1930’s when Polo was a popular sport with many movie stars and others in the industry. They either played the game or were fans of the sport. You’re parents social circle encompassed quite a few famous folks and your playmates and schoolmates were some well known child actors or the children of actors including a young girl named Shirley Temple, right?
Martha: Yes, Shirley lived just a short way from the Riviera Country Club where my father played while under contract to Leslie Howard. But when Carl was asked to manage the polo at the club in Palm Springs I met Shirley at the Desert Inn in Palm Springs at an Easter Egg Hunt. I won and she was second. Spencer Tracy’s two children Johnny and Suzie were in our riding group as well as many children of famed producers and directors. I was surrounded by celebrities while growing up but to me they were just nice people that were fun to be with and loved horses.
John: Your stepfather Carl Crawford arranged a screen test for you at 20th Century Fox. However, they did not offer you a contract based on the test, but there was another young actress who tested that same day and did get a contract. Tell us who that other young actress was, and how for you, not passing the screen test became the kick start that led to your career as a stunt double.
Martha: There were two of us tested that day at 20th . . . My heart was not in it but Marilyn Monroe’s was for all she was worth. She wanted to be an actress. I didn’t. Fortunately it worked out for both of us the way we wanted it. Darryl Zanuck was a polo player and also head of Fox studios; he personally requested my test. So when it was a flop, Ben Lyon then head of casting at 20th was sweating out how to tell him it was no good. I got him off the hook by asking him to give me my Screen Actors Guild card and letting me double Anne Baxter in her upcoming Yellow Sky. That worked. I had what I wanted, Ben Lyon was relieved and Zanuck had Marilyn Monroe. I liked Marilyn; she was painfully shy.
Martha: The head wrangler for a film has an office in the studio producing the film and is given a script to help him select the livestock for the film. He also sees to it the stars get to ride a little and help them brush up their riding skills for a film. He is very familiar with, and knows the capabilities of almost anything or anybody connected with horses that work in the film business. From his script he knows just what doubling will have to be done and selects the double horses for the action; he first selects a gentle horse for the star to ride and matches one to the other. If the star’s horse has noticeable markings such as a blaze face or white legs they will sometimes have to paint the double horse. If the stunt is a difficult one and there are few horses available that can do it, then they will match the star horse to the double horse. When I was selected to double Eleanor Parker in Interrupted Melody I was known by the casting director but not by the wrangler as I had been out of the business for several years. So, I went out for a test ride to see if I could indeed do the two second mount. Truthfully, I got the job because I was the only girl who could get on a standing horse in two seconds bareback. The other girls who were interviewed were rodeo trick riders and could get on fast . . . . but only on a running horse. I was OK’ed by Dick Webb the head wrangler for Interrupted Melody. The studios are required to hold an ‘interview’ to select a double for a film. But often this is just going thru the motions to satisfy the rules as most have already been chosen and the ground work suggested by the casting director and the head wrangler.
John: I got the impression there was a hierarchy in place where the stars did not mix with the “lower” tier of workers like stunt people yet you did develop a friendship or two. Did friendships develop with some of the stars you doubled for or was there a strict hierarchy in place where that could never happen?
Martha: I believe that rule was more in place during the early days when stars were so very pampered and enamored of themselves: you know the era with the chauffeured limos and the Wolfhound Dogs! (There was a brief view of that in Singing in the Rain when the star does not want to talk to the stuntman but when he gets a little position she is all over him.) I believe if there is still a rule it is due more to lack of things in common than anything else. We worked often on the set with the stars but the action scenes were done via a second unit entirely away from the main set. Although I became friends with several stars ie dinner at their homes, etc. I did not seek it. It just evolved mostly from horse connections. My best film friends were Richard Widmark , his wife Jean and daughter Anne. Robert Taylor and wife Ursulla were darling and I kept their horses for them at my home. Ronald Reagan was my dinner partner at one of their small dinners where I had become enamored of their furniture made by actor George Montgomery than the stars. Gregory Peck was a friend of both mine and my fathers and often called me for advice about his horses long after my father’s death. He personally hired me to double both girls in The Big Country. Linda Darnell and I shared a mutual love of dogs; I had given her the little red Cocker Spaniel that flew in the P 38 with me, and Bill Lear. I was at her house often. I was so thrilled with rehabilitating my horse, Frosty, who I rescued in Texas that when I left a studio after a day’s work I eagerly left the job and the studio in the rear view mirror. I had little interest in most stars. I had absolutely nothing in common with them unless they were part of the polo crowd. Film stars, as a whole, were so wrapped up in their own lives they had time for little else. I, on the other hand, was so wrapped up in my horses that I had no interest at all in those who didn’t. My friends were show horse and race horse trainers, good horsemen and Donna Hall: perhaps the best horse stunt girl in the business. After the Golden Boot, Jean Simmons and I corresponded regularly via email as so with Fess Parker until their deaths and, of course, Frank Stallone, still to this day.
John: You wrote about the dangerous conditions that stunt people worked under back in your early days, for example in The Rains of Ranchipur. You and the others were subject to some rough conditions in some of the scenes involving heavy storms, rain, mudslides, and the earth splitting from beneath your feet. It actually sounded pretty dangerous and unglamorous. Was it common practice back then to keep people in scenes like ‘in the dark’ so to speak?
Martha: Most of the work you are well aware of the hazards that may be involved. That is why you want to know who you are working with and a stranger in the midst is questioned. When machines and horses mix there is high danger ie the horse drawn caissons in some of the westerns with an army theme. However, what happened on Rains of Ranchipur was inexcusable. Ray Kellog is as fine a special effects man as the business has ever known and still things got by him. The call went out for swimmers. Well, a five time medal winner in the Olympics could not have handled the 50,000 gallons of water they slid into us in the restaurant scene during the flood. No one, not even the top, top water stunt men were expecting it. They were furious. In another film many years ago, Noah’s Ark, several were killed in the same way during a flood scene. No one admitted to forgetting to tell the stunt people what was going to happen then or this day. An experienced stunt person can handle most anything if you know what to expect. Many of the broken arms and legs could have been avoided if we had just been alerted.
Fortunately that was my first and my last venture out of my comfort zone.
John: You did stunt work for many famous stars like Eleanor Parker, Anne Baxter, Shirley Jones, Martha Hyer, Claudette Colbert and many others, and you are not shy about telling us what they were like. Colbert in particular seemed to be the ultimate “star” who would pout or throw a tantrum if something did not go her way. Is it difficult to double for someone who you cannot get along with as happened with Colbert in Texas Lady?
Martha: Claudette didn’t get alone with anyone! Fortunately, I had no contact with her whatsoever or an opportunity to speak with her. Many years before she had personally black listed my mother at Paramount after a screen test showed her to be extraordinarily beautiful. I had never forgiven her though I had never met her. I had disdain for those with these huge egos that were that fragile. Martha Hyer was just out and out jealous of me. I looked better in the costume than she did and I could do the action that got the attention and adulation. She refused to speak to me. Anne Baxter was another with the inflated ego who would not speak. But, she would not speak to Gregory Peck either! All the others were super nice for the most part knowing it was in my hands to make them look good.
In Part Two of my interview Martha will discuss working with Elvis, Richard Widmark, Claudette Colbert, Robert Taylor and much more. Click here for part two.