The Thrill Makers: Celebrity, Masculinity, and Stunt Performance

The Thrill Makers: Celebrity, Masculinity, and Stunt Performance

The Thrill Makers: Celebrity, Masculinity, and Stunt Performance

The Thrill Makers: Celebrity, Masculinity, and Stunt Performance

Synopsis

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 T he 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.

Excerpt

In December 1916 the New York Tribune published 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. Notably, the article was framed as the revelation of a secret: these stunt performers were “unheralded, unknown,” and “unsung”; their names never appeared on film programs, nor were their pictures featured in theater lobbies or in film magazines. Though readers of the New York Tribune may not have known the members of the Stunt Men’s Club by name, they were certainly aware of “fallers” like Steve Brodie, “swimmers” like Paul Boyton, lion tamers like Jack Bonavita, and steeplejacks like Rodman Law. Thrilling celebrities such as these may have been relegated to the role of understudy to “great actors” in 1916, but there was nothing “unheralded” or “unsung” about bridge jumpers, human flies, lion tamers, and aeronauts in the decades before cinema. Some rose from obscurity to entertain Queen Victoria; some were pioneers of modern media publicity, appearing on the front pages of national newspapers and in early motion picture newsreels; and some performed before thousands of awestruck fans at state fairgrounds and aviation meets. These “thrill makers,” as they were sometimes called in the press, were part of a . . .

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