This is part two of my interivew with Stunt Double Martha Crawford Cantarini whose book “Fall Girl: My Life as a Western Stunt Double” is available from McFarland Books via their website, just click here or order by phone at 1-800-253-2187. If you have not read part one of the interview you can find it right here.
Except for the Love Me Tender shot, all photos are from the personal collection of Martha Crawford Cantarini, my deepest thanks for sharing.
John: Would you tell us a little about your mother?
Martha: My mother was gorgeous. All the polo fans would walk right by the likes of Rita Hayworth, Joan Bennett, etc and ask my mother for her autograph. She would replay, “yes of course, but I am nobody”. They would say, “you MUST be.” Her picture on page 63 of my book was taken at Paramount. Frank
Borzage was a big director at Paramount and one of the polo players, he was the first director to receive an Academy Award, arranged for a test. She had done quite a bit of ‘little theater’ work. She photographed like a glamorous Claudette and poor Claudette could not stand that. She was big enough to stop her at Paramount. Sam Woods, the producer, wanted to put her under personal contract to him for a Broadway show that ran for many years but she turned it down preferring to be a full time mother. Mother and Carl were both show stoppers. Every time we went out Carl was asked for his autograph. They thought he was Richard Dix time after time after time. It was cute once at a party when Bing Crosby introduced himself to Carl . . . as if he needed an intro! He said, he had always wanted to meet him.
John: You doubled for Debra Paget in “Love Me Tender,” Elvis Presley’s first film, in fact, you have some great stories about Elvis one in particular that revealed his humorous side. I ‘m talking about the water gun incident, can you tell us about that?
Martha: Looking back I can see that Elvis was only 21 years old when he made Love Me Tender. But he was so innocent and naïve. He was almost an ornament on the set as the ‘regulars’ did not know what to do with him. He must have felt comfortable with me when he saw me working with the horses as he zeroed in on me as someone he could talk to. I would usually sit atop a ladder while waiting to go to work at Fox Ranch. It gave me a bird’s eye view of what was going on. One day I realized someone was shooting me with a water pistol. It bothered the wardrobe lady more than it bothered me when it continued. Finally, I was able to catch him in the act of aiming the water at me. Talk about an ice breaker. It was! I invited him to pull up another ladder and we spent a lot of time talking horses. And, no more water!
John: I recently watched “The Law and Jake Wade” and there is a scene where Robert Taylor and your character, attempt to escape from Richard Widmark and his gang by rolling down this long, deep sandy hill. What kind of preparation is there in doing stunts like this?
Martha: I don’t think there is any one thing to prepare you for something like that other than to be lucky enough to have a really great stunt man take hold of you and guide you down and help you keep on your feet when you get to the bottom. Best advice . . . keep your mouth closed. I, had many years behind me of acrobatics and of course the timing and coordination that comes with that is a marvelous aid no matter what you are doing.
John: You worked with Richard Widmark, twice I believe, in “Yellow Sky” and “The Law and Jake Wade.” He an actor I admire a lot, especially when he is on the wrong side of the law. In “The Law and Jake Wade” I thought he stole the film from everyone else. From what I have read, he was truly a nice man, nothing like the crazed characters he played. Is that a true statement?
Martha: Richard Widmark was one of the most highly trained actors in Hollywood. The others in the cast ie Robert Taylor was a personality. He was just lovable, likable, wonderful Robert Taylor but not an actor in Widmark’s class.
You would have loved Richard Widmark in person. He was a soft spoken, gentle man who cared deeply about his wife and daughter. He took his work very seriously as is evident in his acting. But, he left it at the studio. I taught his daughter Anne to ride and something I did not realize but he saw . . . upon introducing me at their New Years Eve party as Anne’s riding teacher, he said,
“Other than teaching Anne to ride . . . she taught her to be a lady.” I had not realized that and I almost cried. What a wonderful, wonderful family.
Conversely, many of those who play the nice guys, aren’t.
John: What do you remember about Budd Boetticher who directed you In “The Killer is Loose,” a film you had a small part in playing Wendell Corey’s doomed wife who is killed early in the film. It’s a small role but it central to the entire story.
Martha: I knew two Budd Boetticher’s. One on the set of Killer is Loose and another hanging around the San Fernando Valley Saddlery where I believe he had horses boarded . On the set he was very professional. He told me what he wanted me the fall over the chair and we got it in one take; the rest was simple and we finished in one day. Around the saddlery, which was a mecca for western stuntmen, he seemed to be at home with the cowboys. But though he was well liked there, his education showed through his feigned rough edges.
John: Were there any stunts you regretted doing or scenes that ended up on the cutting room floor?
Martha: I never regretted doing any stunts as I was always thrilled they called me. But, I have a lot of film footage on cutting room floors and yet some they even used in trailers much to my surprise which they seldom do. I was called to St. George, Utah to do a buckboard chase for Eleanor Parker in The King and Four Queens. They even chartered an airliner to take me there. I was given the best team of horses I have ever had the opportunity to work with. After the chase was over and we were out of camera range I saw the pick-up man coming to help me get stopped. This team was so great I was able to pull them up easily by myself. I could not wait to see the film; it was my best chase yet. Alas, they cut it out entirely. Eleanor had refused to chase after a man in any film and they had to rewrite the ending!
John: Was sexism ever a problem on the set, pandering from other stunt performers who were mostly men? You mention that during the making of “the Law and Jake Wade” you wanted to portray an Indian who is killed falling off his horse but the request was met with much resistance which you believe was instigated by the stuntmen on the film, was this common?
Martha: I was only aware of this one time but it was obvious. They told me they would not let a girl do the fall from the running bareback horse. It was an easy fall onto deep sand. I knew this was just double talk as the other girls had done ‘bull dogs’ for ages which were far more dangerous (a bull dog is when you are riding a horse and another rider jumps from his horse and takes you to the ground with him.) So, in retrospect I knew it was the five stunt men there who were calling the shots. I only knew three of them.
John: There’s a very touching story about a horse named Midnight, an “extraordinarily versatile” horse to use your own words. Can you tell us about this rare talent?
Martha: Midnight. What a wonderful horse he was. He made everyone who worked with him look better than they were. He was the only horse I knew who could be safely and slowly ridden by an inexperienced actor and later used the same day as a leader for a 6-up pulling a stage coach at a dead run. Amazing. Horses just do not do that. After making thousands of dollars for them, Randall Ranch was going to send him to the killers as he was too sore to work anymore. I hit the ceiling and bought him from them for killer price of $400. I retired him and no one ever sat on his back for the remainder of his years.
John: Of the movies you worked on do you have a favorite? Any favorite star you worked with?
Martha: I have to say Interrupted Melody at MGM was my favorite with Love Me Tender a close second. Elvis winked at me on LMT and I have never recovered, so how could I not love that one? I have to say I enjoyed all the work I did with Eleanor Parker but Jean Simmons was my favorite. She is the consummate professional and had absolutely no idea how great she was. She was a dear lady and became a dear friend. My big three are Gregory Peck, Richard Widmark and Robert Taylor.
John: In 2005, you received along with Debbie Reynolds, James Caan and a few others the Golden Boot Award. You are only one of three stunt girls, to ever receive this award. For those who don’t know can you tell us what it represents.
Martha: It is best described in the words of those who produce the Golden Boot ie
“In the early 1980’s, veteran movie sidekick Pat Buttram conceived the Golden Boot Award as a way to recognize the achievements of cowboy film heroes and heroines, as well as writers, directors, stunt people and character actors who had significant involvement in the film and television westerns.” I was privileged to not only receive this award but to have it presented at the Beverly Hilton Hotel’s International Ballroom by Jean Simmons.
John: Martha, thank you very much for your time, it has been a real pleasure.
Martha: Thank you so much John. I am honored you would ask me to do this.