Certain forms of innocence cannot be faked. Yakima Canutt's enthusiastic memoir covering his career as Hollywood's most renowed stunt man and action director is so straightforward in both its macho airs and remdose prose that the result is quite amusing and revealing.
Right on the scrappy heels of biographies of John Ford and John Huston, to say nothing of the several recent books on John Wayne, comes this similar account of sociological intransigence. Here is a world in which alternate layers of hard work and ritualized horseplay are what make the man; the practical jokes and barroom punches are just friendly caresses -- signs of affection. In Canutt's case the story is much sturdier and more absorbing, probably because while the others merely play-acted -- jockeying along various positions on the masculinity yardstock -- he actually lived with thrills and dangers of those men who truly test themselves.
Enos Edward Canutt -- "Yakima" is a nickname picked up during his bronc riding days -- came to films after his first championship year at the Pendelton world rodeo contest in 1918. He acted in about 20 silent films, mostly bloo-and-thunder westerns and action serials, doing his own stunts and doubling for some of his co-stars. When sould came in, he threw in the acting towel, saying his voice resembled "a hillbilly in a well." But his stunt career took off, and soon he was getting scripts with blank pages captioned with the single line: "See Yakima Canutt for action sequences."
In 1939, a banner year for the stunt man, he worked on two Hollywood classics, "Stagecoach" and "Gone With the Wind." The former, a film in which his friendship with John Wayne flourished, was his only action picture in which there were no retakes of the stunts. In the latter, he doubled for Clark Gable as Rhett Butler, driving the carriage through burning Atlanta, and also played the mad-eyes renegade who attacked Vivien Leigh's Scarlett O'hara in Shantytown. When he was injured the next year during the filming of "Boom Town" (six broken ribs, kidney and intestinal damage, peritontis), he cut down on the stunts and concentrated instead on second-unit direction in films such as "Ivanhoe," "Mogamba," "Spartacus" and "Old Yeller," as well as the great chariot sequence in "Ben Hur."
Throughout the book he presents himself as a professional, a man who hates incompetence and loves offscreen rowdiness, drinking with friends and discussing his career. (Not surprisingly, he does not delve into his private life except to write about his two sons, who frequently work with him.) His autobiography is a celebration of the sensous enjoyment and deep pride he has in his work. He takes the reader from film to film, painstakingly pointing out the most famous and difficult scenes and and breaking down each stunt to its essentials: the preparation, the dangers and problems (Canutt's cure-all: more money), the subsequent follow-through, the results. One gets a pretty good idea how to, among other things, fall off horses, wreck stagecoaches, make gorillas charge (Canutt hollers "boo"), and make leg and head-chopping appear realistic. It is here, in these textbook explanations, that the book excels.
Threaded between these sections are testimonials to his colleagues, and not since Bette Davis interrupted Whitney Stine's "Mother Goddam" biography with her red-ink compliments has there been so much bouquet tossing. But at least he sounds genuine, and one is constantly entertained by the slangy, back-slapping style.
"In spite of being confident of my ability," he says of his rodeo period, "I somehow felt as though I had eaten butterflies for breakfast." Finding that the punches thrown in silent films were real ones, he tells us, "I saw more stars than an over-anxious astronomer." An old Indian is asked whether he still bucks horses and supposedly responds, "Ugh -- some time ride 'em, some time buck off." Canutt, one suspects, has seen too many of his own movies.
Certain on-set stories are also difficult to resist. These are best typified by an episode that must put into focus the resentment every behind-the-scenes professional must harbor. Once, when Canutt doubled for John Wayne and happened to give a switch to his troublesome horse, Wayne called out to the spectators watching the filming, "Folks, when you see this picture, remember that it's not John Wayne whipping that horse."
"Yes, folks," Yakima Canutt answered, "and when you see the picture, remember it's not John Wayne doing the stunt either!"