27. The Actress Who Drowned in Quicksand – For Real
Risk and danger have accompanied Hollywood and the film industry from its infancy. One of the earliest deadly tragedies to take place in the midst of a movie’s production, and one of the most unusual ones at that, claimed the lives of an actress and a camera operator on July 1st, 1914. It occurred on the set of Across the Border, which was filmed in the Arkansas River near Canon City, Colorado. In a freak incident, lead actress Grace McHugh and camera operator Owen Carter drowned in quicksand.
Twenty-six-year-old Grace McHugh had left her home in Golden, Colorado, three weeks earlier, to pursue her dreams of becoming a star. The aspiring actress signed up for a gig with the Colorado Motion Picture Company and was cast in a role for Across the Border, a silent film Western then under production. Little is known about the movie today, other than the deaths on its film set. As seen below, McHugh’s career did not last long and was cut tragically short.
The Colorado Transcript of July 2nd, 1914, described the freak incident: “Miss Grace McHugh of Golden … was drowned in the Arkansas River at Canon City yesterday afternoon, according to a message received from Canon City last night. The accident occurred at 1 o’clock, and up to the time of going to press, her body had not been recovered. Miss McHugh had been the leading lady for the Colorado Motion Picture company, and left Golden about three weeks ago to join the company.
The accident occurred while Miss McHugh and Owen Carter, a cameraman, were engaged in making a scene in a picture entitled ‘Across the Border’. She was fording the stream in a boat, and suddenly the watchers saw the boat capsize and Miss McHugh was plunged into the swollen stream. Carter, without hesitation, plunged into the river, and succeeded in getting Miss McHugh to a sandbar. They appeared to be safe, when suddenly, when suddenly both sank from view, and it is believed they were sucked down by quicksand.” Filming had already been completed by then, so both McHugh’s and Carter’s work was included in the final product released to the public.
25. A Tough Guy Hollywood Star Who Was a Tough Guy in Real Life
Hollywood star Lee Marvin was a prolific actor who appeared in about seventy films between 1951 and 1986. He won an Oscar for Best Actor in 1965 for his role in the Western comedy Cat Ballou, but he is probably better known for his roles in The Dirty Dozen and Hell in the Pacific, as well as the NBC television series M Squad. Born in New York City in 1924, Lee Marvin was a problem child and teenage delinquent who liked to hunt and drink – sometimes both simultaneously. He was expelled from numerous schools for misconduct that ranged from smoking cigarettes to throwing schoolmates out of second-story windows.
Marvin eventually dropped out of high school to become a US Marine during World War II and stormed beaches in the Pacific for a few years. He was promoted to corporal at some point, only to get busted back down to private for misconduct. He was seriously injured in the Battle of Saipan, first when he got hit by machine-gun fire, then when a sniper shot him in the foot. It took Marvin a year to recover from his wounds, at which time he seems to have done some self-reflection. He came out of the war a calmer and less wild young man.
After he was honorably discharged from the Marine Corps, Lee Marvin drifted for a while, before he eventually got a job as a plumber’s assistant. One day he was in the midst of a pipe repair job in a theater when an actor got sick. Marvin was recruited on the spot to step into the role, which fit his personality – a big and boisterous drunk. He took to acting like a fish to water, and after a few years in off-Broadway productions, followed by a small role in a Broadway piece, he moved to Hollywood in 1950.
There, Marvin got started with bit parts in war movies, where his real-life combat experience lent authenticity to his performances. That experience also made him a sought-after consultant by directors and actors who wanted to get a feel for authentic infantry behavior. Throughout his career, Marvin excelled most in roughneck roles, mainly because he actually was a roughneck in real life, with a violent streak that made his malevolent and tough-guy characters ring true. Lee Marvin died in 1987 at age sixty-three and was buried in Arlington National Cemetery.
23. One of the Most Accomplished Stunt Pilots in the History of Hollywood
Paul Mantz (1903 – 1965) was a famous and highly respected aerial racer, stuntman, movie stunt pilot, and film consultant. He caught the itch to fly in early childhood, and as he grew up, his mother often had to step in and stop him whenever he tried to do wild stuff like launching himself off a tall tree with canvas wings. He worked a variety of part-time jobs and saved money to pay for his first flying lesson when he was sixteen.
In 1926, despite the fact that he lacked the requisite college education, Mantz finagled his way into the US Army’s flight school. He pulled that off with forged documents that purported to be from Stanford University. However, he was kicked out a few days before graduation when he performed a dangerous stunt that was witnessed by some of the higher-ups. Mantz then worked in commercial aviation for a while but left that to head for Hollywood when he heard that stunt pilots routinely made money hand over fist there.
In Hollywood, Paul Mantz proved himself a natural showman. He managed to attract attention in a crowded field and made a name for himself after he successfully pulled off a dangerous aerial stunt for the 1932 movie Air Mail. From then on, and for decades afterward, Mantz cemented his place as one of Tinseltown’s premier movie stunt pilots. When America was thrust into WWII, he enlisted in the US Army Air Forces and was assigned to the First Motion Picture Unit, the USAAF’s primary film production outfit at the time. Mantz was eventually commissioned a major and rose to lieutenant colonel before he was honorably discharged in August 1944.
After the war, he shelled out $55,000 to buy a fleet of 475 surplus bomber and fighter aircraft from the military, including P-51 Mustangs, to use in his aerial stunts. He joked at the time that he had the world’s sixth-biggest air force – and also demonstrated that he was a shrewd investor. Mantz sold the fuel already in the planes to recoup a good chunk of his investment, kept only twelve airplanes, and sold the rest for scrap. When all was said and done, he had recouped his $55,000, walked off with a handsome profit, and had a dozen essentially freebie airplanes to keep on top of the financial gain.
21. Paul Mantz’s Near Suicidal Stunts in Twelve O’Clock High
After his discharge from the military, Paul Mantz resumed his aerial stuntman and movie stunt pilot career. Some of his greatest Hollywood aerial exploits after the war occurred on the set of 1949’s Twelve O’Clock High, in which he performed “near-suicidal” B-17 belly landings as the cameras rolled. Unfortunately, his storied career came to an abrupt end on July 8th, 1965. Mantz and fellow veteran stuntman Bobby Rose were on the set of The Flight of the Phoenix, in which they doubled for the movie’s stars, Jimmy Stewart and James Attenborough.
The stuntmen flew the Tallmantz Phoenix P-1, a one-off makeshift airplane made of aluminum and plywood, specially manufactured for the movie by Mantz’s company, Tallmantz Aviation. Mantz piloted the airplane as cameras rolled to capture film for the movie’s early aerial sequences. The script called for takeoffs, which Mantz attempted to simulate with “touch and go” passes before the cameras. However, on the third low camera pass, Mantz’s rate of descent of 90 miles per hour exceeded the aircraft’s structural capacity. When he touched down, the modest impact combined with an unexpected drag to produce disaster.
20. Was This Hollywood Stuntman Killed Because He Flew While Drunk?
When the Tallmantz Phoenix P-1’s landing gear touched the desert floor on its third low pass on July 8th, 1965, the boom section behind the wings failed and snapped off. That caused the nose section to pitch forward and slam into the ground, and the airplane broke apart as it cartwheeled into destruction. Mantz was instantly killed, while the more fortunate Bobby Rose survived because he was thrown out of the cockpit and clear of the wreckage. Rose suffered a broken shoulder and pelvis but lived. The subsequent investigation uncovered a variety of factors that combined to produce the tragedy, but pilot error was the main culprit.
In essence, despite his vast experience, Mantz had overestimated his plane’s structural capacity and miscalculated the consequences of his speed in this final touchdown pass. Investigators also assumed that Mantz might have been under the influence of alcohol at the time of the accident. However, there were hiccups and delays with the collection of a blood sample and getting it to a lab, so the results might have been skewed. Thus, whether or not Mantz was drunk at the time of the crash was never proven conclusively, and has remained a matter of speculation ever since.
Alec Guinness de Cuffe (1914 – 2000), better known as Alec Guinness or Sir Alec Guinness after he was knighted in 1959, was one of Britain’s greatest stage and film actors. He began his career in the theater at age twenty while he was still a drama student. By the time he turned twenty-two, Guinness had attracted attention as a Shakespearean actor and was befriended and mentored by the stage legends of his day. After his conquest of the British stage, Guinness set his eyes on new horizons and found significant success across The Pond in Hollywood.
Highlights of the decades-long career of Sir Alec Guinness include stellar roles such as his performance in 1957’s Bridge on the River Kwai, which netted him an Oscar for Best Actor. He had other notable performances in movies such as Great Expectations and Oliver Twist in the 1940s, and Doctor Zhivago and Lawrence of Arabia in the 1960s. However, the performance for which he is probably best known today as Obi-Wan Kenobi in the original Star Wars trilogy – a role that, ironically, he thought was tripe. A lesser-known fact about him is that he was a British Royal Navy WWII veteran.
In 1941, twenty-seven-year-old Alec Guinness enlisted in the Royal Navy Reserves. By 1942, he had been commissioned a naval officer. He was ordered to Boston in 1943 to take charge of his first command, a freshly built landing craft. He sailed his ship and new crew across the Atlantic to North Africa, where they began to train for the Allied invasion of Sicily. On July 9th, 1943, Guinness took 200 men to land on Passaro, Sicily. However, there was a communications breakdown, and he was not told that the scheduled invasion had been delayed. So Guinness’ landing craft arrived on the beach on its lonesome and disembarked its troops an hour early.
Later, Guinness landed troops on the island of Elba, ferried agents and supplies to the Yugoslav partisan, and participated in the Normandy landings. During the war, he was granted a leave of absence to appear onstage in the play Flare Path, about the RAF’s Bomber Command. Guinness’ wartime experiences had a profound impact on him, and for a while after the war, he seriously thought that he should become a priest. Fortunately for millions of viewers worldwide, he decided to continue his career on stage and film and went back to acting after he was demobilized.
Once known as “The King of Hollywood”, William Clark Gable (1901 – 1960) was one of the silver screen’s greatest legends. He starred in more than 60 movies and is perhaps best known for his role as Rhett Butler in the blockbuster Gone With the Wind, although that one didn’t net him an Oscar. He got one as Best Actor for his lead in It Happened One Night. Other notable films in which he starred and that met both critical and commercial success include Mutiny on the Bounty, The Hucksters, and The Misfits, his last film, as well as that of his co-star, Marilyn Monroe.
Gable had quit school when he was sixteen years old to go work in a tire factory and decided to become an actor after he saw a play. He took acting lessons and worked a variety of jobs, from oil field roustabout to a necktie salesman, until 1924, when he married his acting coach and the couple moved to Hollywood so he could focus on his dream. Gable got his start as an extra in various productions. After years of bit parts and stints in the theater, he got a contract from MGM. It was the start of his rise to stardom – and when he eventually reached the zenith, he gave it up to go kick some Nazi butt.
16. From the Silver Screen to the Eighth Air Force
After he got signed up by MGM, Clark Gable attracted attention for a powerful performance in his first starring role in The Painted Desert. He built upon that success, and when MGM paired him with established female stars such as Joan Crawford and Greta Garbo, the combination steamed the screen and he became an insta-star. When America entered WWII, Gable had established himself as the silver screen’s biggest star and its greatest box office draw, and MGM’s most lucrative earner. He gave that up and took a break from Hollywood to go fight the Axis.
After his wife died in an air crash on her way back home from a war bonds tour, a devastated Gable decided to enlist. Despite MGM’s reluctance to let its most profitable star go, Gable enlisted in the US Army Air Forces in 1942, with the hope of becoming an aerial gunner. He was sent instead to OCS, which he completed in October 1942 and was commissioned a 2nd lieutenant. On personal orders from the USAAF’s chief, general Hap Arnold, Gable was sent to the Eighth Air Force in England, to make a combat recruitment film for aerial gunners titled Combat America.
Clark Gable needed combat footage for his recruitment film. So in 1943, he flew five combat missions as a B-17 gunner, one of which took him into Germany. His presence in the missions was for propaganda and PR purposes, but the dangers he ran were all too real. In one mission, Gable’s B-17 lost an engine and had its stabilizer damaged after it was hit by antiaircraft fire and was attacked by fighters. Over Germany, his B-17 had two crewmen wounded and another killed after their bomber was struck by flak, and shrapnel went through Gable’s boot and almost took off his head.
When MGM heard of its most valuable actor’s close brushes with death, it worked its connections to have him reassigned to noncombat duty. For his service in Europe, Gable was awarded a Distinguished Flying Cross and an Air Medal, and in late 1943, he was ordered back to the US to edit the film. He hoped for another shot at combat once he was done, but none came. By the summer of 1944, after the Normandy invasion came and went without a combat assignment, he finally gave up and requested to be relieved from active duty on grounds that he was forty-three years old by then, and overage for combat. He stayed in the reserves until 1947 when he finally resigned from his commission.
The silent film era’s The Warrens of Virginia was a 1924 romantic drama, with a plot that revolved around a love story in which a man leaves his Southern sweetheart to fight for the Union in the Civil War. No known prints survive today, which makes it one of the many lost movies from those days. The film is best known now for the death of its star, Martha Mansfield (1899 – 1923) in a freak accident that burned her alive on set.
Mansfield was a New Yorker who had decided at an early age that she would become an actress. When she was fourteen years old, she got a role in a Broadway play and took side gigs as a model for artists and a dancer in musicals. In 1917, she was signed up by one of the forerunners of what would become Warner Bros. Studios, and performed in three short movies. A year later, she appeared in the Ziegfeld Follies – a popular series of theatrical revue productions that ran on Broadway from 1907 to 1934, and combined music, dance, and sketches.
Martha Mansfield moved to California in 1919 to pursue a career as an actress. She caught her first big break a year later when she was cast opposite superstar John Barrymore in 1920’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. By 1923, Mansfield was a rising star who had come a long way in a short time. On Thanksgiving Day that year, she was in San Antonio on the film set of her latest movie, the Civil War love story The Warrens of Virginia. At the end of the workday, she hung out with the rest of the cast, still in costume and clad in a frilly Southern belle period dress.
At some point, somebody lit a cigarette and tossed the match. It landed on Mansfield’s dress, which immediately caught fire and went up in a WHOOOSH! Her co-star threw his overcoat over her, which saved her face and neck, while her chauffer sustained severe hand burns as he ripped the flaming dress off of her. By then, however, she had suffered severe burns over much of her body. Mansfield was rushed to a hospital in San Antonio, but despite the doctors’ best efforts, the burns were too extensive, and she died the next day.
James “Jimmy” Stewart (1908 – 1997), one of Hollywood’s greatest actors, starred in many movies that became beloved classics. He was known for a down-to-earth mannerism that helped him excel in the depiction of middle-class American men, diffident and resolute of character, as they struggled with crises. Notable among the more than eighty movies in which he appeared are his roles in the Christmas standby It’s a Wonderful Life, as well as Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Vertigo, and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. Stewart was nominated for five Oscars, won one for Best Actor for his role in 1940s The Philadelphia Story, and was awarded another Oscar in 1985 for Lifetime Achievement.
Stewart kicked off his thespian career in shows with a drama group in Princeton University, from which he graduated in 1932. He then dove into acting, and by 1933, he had secured roles on Broadway. In 1935, he landed a contract with MGM and headed west to Hollywood. A year later, he had his first breakthrough as lead actor in a popular musical comedy, The Dancer. From there, he quickly established himself as one of Tinseltown’s premier actors. When the Second World War came along, Stewart took a break from Hollywood to go bomb the Nazis, then came back home and resumed his illustrious career.
11. The Hollywood Star Who Actually Wanted to Fight in WWII
By the time America joined WWII, Jimmy Stewart was an established star. It would have been easy for him, as others from Hollywood had done, to avoid service altogether – John, cough, Wayne. Alternatively, he could have readily secured a safe military gig that allowed him to be seen in uniform, yet stay away from danger – cough, cough, Reagan. But Stewart’s grandfather had fought against the South, and his father had fought against both Spain and Germany. So when war came along in Stewart’s generation, it was natural that he would go off to fight. He had been drafted by the Army in 1940 but was medically rejected because he was underweight.
However, Stewart was a flight enthusiast who had secured his pilot’s certificate in 1935, and had accumulated over 400 hours in the cockpit by the time America got into the war. He managed to get around the underweight bit and enlist in the US Army Air Forces in 1941. Upon his graduation from a pilot training program in 1942, he was commissioned a second lieutenant. Higher-ups wanted to shunt him into PR and put his celebrity to use in bonds drives and rally appearances, but Stewart wanted a combat assignment. After many travails and clashes with commanders, he managed a transfer into a B-24 Liberator heavy bomber group, which joined the US Eighth Air Force in Britain in the autumn of 1943.
10. The Hollywood Star Who Put Some Hurt on the Nazis
Jimmy Stewart flew his first combat mission on December 13th, 1943. He piloted the lead B-24 of his group’s high squadron as they bombed U-boat facilities in Kiel, Germany. A few days later, he flew lead bomber for the entire group as they bombed Bremen. By February 1944, Stewart had been promoted to major and was awarded a Distinguished Flying Cross. A month later, he led an entire bomb wing on a raid that targeted Berlin. In late March 1944, Stewart was assigned as operations officer for a newly formed bomb group. That assignment meant that he was not required to fly combat missions. However, Stewart wanted to inspire and encourage his new unit. So he personally piloted the lead B-24 on numerous raids deep into the Third Reich, and served as a crewman on other missions.
Such conduct earned Stewart a second Distinguished Flying Cross, a French Croix de Guerre, an Air Medal with three oak leaf clusters, and other decorations. After the war, Stewart returned to Hollywood and resumed his career as an actor, but continued to serve in the US Air Force Reserves. He kept current with new bombers as they entered service, and was certified to pilot B-36 Peacemakers, B-47 Stratojets, and B-52 Stratofortresses. He was promoted to colonel in 1953, and was given reserve command of Dobbins Air Force base in Georgia. By 1959, Stewart had reached the rank of brigadier general. He retired from the military in 1968.
We take airplanes for granted nowadays, but in the early twentieth century, powered flight was still a new marvel. Back then, airplanes fascinated the public in a manner and to an extent that is difficult for us today, accustomed as we are to air travel as just another routine aspect of modern life, to grasp. Most people a century ago had never seen an airplane before, and crowds that numbered in the hundreds or even thousands shelled out money to watch the era’s pilots put on aerial displays for them. One such pioneer was Ormer Locklear (1891 – 1920), an aerial daredevil who learned how to fly with the US Army Air Service.
He went on tour as a barnstormer pilot and put on aerobatic displays for crowds across the country. Locklear is believed to have been the first man to ever walk on the wing of an aircraft in flight – a stunt that became especially popular with air show audiences in the 1920s. It also had a practical angle: it allowed pilots to make repairs mid-flight. Other stunts pioneered by Locklear include jumping from one airplane to another mid-flight and clambering aboard a low flying plane from a moving car. As seen below, such skills turned out to be in high demand in Hollywood.
8. The World’s Greatest Stunt Pilot Goes to Hollywood
By 1919, Ormer Locklear had established himself as the most famous daredevil pilot in the world. It did not take long before his fame attracted the attention of Hollywood. Universal Studios inked a contract to buy all his future air show dates, in order to get him to sign on to a two-movie series. The first film, The Great Air Robbery, was a drama about airmail pilots, which showcased Locklear’s aerobatic antics. It received favorable reviews and went on to become a commercial success at the box office.
Locklear followed up that success with The Skywayman, about an amnesiac shell shocked veteran’s return home from The Great War. Filming began in 1920, and from early on, there were numerous close brushes with the Grim Reaper. On numerous occasions, disaster was only avoided by the narrowest of margins. In one stunt, Locklear was supposed to knock over a church steeple with his airplane, only for it to almost end in a plane crash. Soon thereafter, he narrowly avoided death as the cameras filmed a scene in which he was to jump from an airplane onto a moving train. Locklear was extraordinarily lucky, but as seen below, that luck eventually ran out.
7. A Hollywood Set Screwup That Got a Famous Pilot Killed
A final stunt on the set of The Skywayman called for a tailspin, known as a “suicide dive”, to be performed for a nighttime scene. As originally planned, the stunt was supposed to be performed in the daytime, and special camera filters were to be used in order to simulate nighttime. However, Locklear insisted that he be allowed to perform the stunt at night. The studio agreed, and as news leaked out of what Locklear planned, a crowd gathered on the night of August 2nd, 1920, to watch the suicide dive. Unfortunately, it lived up to its name.
Searchlights were to be focused on Locklear’s airplane to render it visible for the cameras in the dark as it entered its tailspin. The searchlights’ glare meant that Locklear would fly blind, without a clue about his altitude. So after the airplane descended to a specific height, the searchlights were supposed to get turned off to enable Locklear to see, and to let him know that it was time to pull out of the tailspin. Somebody screwed up somewhere, however, and the searchlights were not turned off. As horrified onlookers watched, Locklear’s floodlit airplane began its “suicide dive” – and remained brightly let within the searchlights’ glare, as it continued its dive straight into the ground. Locklear and a fellow pilot were instantly killed in the crash.
6. When America’s Favorite Teenager Began to Buck at the Restrictions Imposed Upon Her
Julia Jean Turner was fifteen-years-old when she skipped school one day in 1936 to buy a Coca-Cola at LA’s Sunset Boulevard. Her good looks attracted the attention of a Hollywood reporter, who asked if she was interested in becoming an actress. She replied: “I’ll have to ask my mother first“. Turner’s mother, ill and broke, jumped at the chance and had her daughter sign up with Warner Bros. Studios. Within a few months, the novice actress was given the screen name Lana Turner, and became a hit. The studio realized that it had struck gold with the teenager. So it went out of its way to protect Turner’s public image, and packaged and presented her as a wholesome, good American girl.
The new actress’ employers even hired chaperons to accompany her wherever she went. Unsurprisingly, the restrictions eventually began to chafe at the teenage starlet, and she started to push back. Turner came to resent the bubble in which she was confined by MGM Studios, which took over her contract from Warner Bros. in 1938. As an escape, America’s favorite good girl began to party hard and developed a taste for bad boys. As seen below, the degree of badness grew over the years, as Turner gradually worked her way from Hollywood tough guy poseurs to straight-up mobsters.
Year after year, Hollywood studios tried to get Lana Turner to maintain a wholesome image in order to protect their investment in her. Year after year, she resisted. By the late 1950s, with her best acting years behind her, Turner no longer cared about whom she associated with or was seen next to. In 1958, she hooked up with a new boyfriend, Johnny Stompanato, a mobster with close ties to LA’s foremost organized crime figure, Mickey Cohen. On the one hand, Stompanato, a WWII Marine veteran, was a handsome hunk. On the other hand, he was a violent psychopath who often beat the daylights out of Turner, starting with the first time she tried to break up with him.
It was an unhealthy and scandalous relationship. It finally ended with a major scandal that shocked even a jaded Hollywood that was seemingly impervious to scandals. Within the span of a single year, Turner and Stompanato carried on a stormy affair filled with violent arguments, physical abuse, frequent breakups, and just-as-frequent reconciliations. On at least one occasion, Turner claimed that her mobster boyfriend drugged and photographed her in the nude when she was passed out, in order to blackmail her if he ever wanted to. The affair came to an abrupt end when Stompanato was stabbed to death in Turner’s home – not by her, but by her fourteen-year-old daughter.
4. The Dramatic Conclusion of This Stormy Relationship Shocked Even a Jaded Hollywood
Lana Turner’s and mobster Johnny Stompanato’s stormy affair came to a dramatic end on the evening of April 4th, 1958. The hoodlum boyfriend arrived at Turner’s Beverly Hills home, and as was their wont, the duo began to argue. Turner’s fourteen-year-old daughter Cheryl Crane stood outside the bedroom and eavesdropped. When at some point Stompanato threatened to kill Turner, her daughter, and her mother, Cheryl ran to the kitchen and grabbed a knife. As Turner tried to push Stompanato out of her bedroom, Cheryl buried the knife in his stomach.
The resultant scandal became a media sensation. Hundreds of journalists crowded into a jury inquest over the mobster’s death. After four hours of testimony and twenty-five minutes of deliberations, the jury decided that it was a justifiable homicide. Cheryl was kept as a ward of the court for over two weeks. After a juvenile court judge expressed concern over the lack of “personal parental supervision”, Cheryl was released into the custody of her grandmother, with court-ordered visits to a psychiatrist alongside her parents.
3. The Deadliest Movie Set in the History of Hollywood?
They Died With Their Boots On, a fictionalized depiction of George Armstrong Custer‘s life from when he first entered West Point to his death at Little Big Horn, was one of 1941’s biggest box office draws. It was also one of the deadliest and most injurious movie sets in the history of Hollywood. With a cast led by Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland, who was reunited with Gone With the Wind’s fellow cast member Hattie McDaniel, the film won critical acclaim on top of its commercial success.
The movie was marred by significant tragedy, however, as three crew and cast members had died from various causes on set. The film appeared to have been jinxed from early on, and misfortune seemingly stalked the production. At some point, Errol Flynn collapsed from exhaustion, and for a while, it was touch and go for the famous actor. In the early days of filming, which entailed scenes of massed cavalry charges and melees, eighty personnel were injured, and three perished.
2. Errol Flynn Was Badgered by His Buddy Until He Got Him a Gig as an Extra
The first fatality on the set of They Died With Their Boots On was a stuntman who had a massive coronary, and dropped dead on the set from a heart attack. Next to perish was an extra who had no prior horseback riding experience. It did not help that he was also reportedly drunk. The end result is that he fell off his steed as it galloped, and broke his neck. However, the best known of the set’s deaths was that of Jack Budlong (1913 – 1941), an experienced horseman and a personal friend of Errol Flynn.
The two often played polo together, and Budlong badgered his famous actor pal to get him on the set. Flynn relented, asked around and called in some favors, and eventually secured his buddy a role as an extra. It did not seem problematic at the time: Budlong was a great horseman, the movie was about a famous cavalryman, and it would have many scenes with people on horseback. However, Budlong got carried away by amateurish enthusiasm – or maybe simple stupidity – with tragic results.
In a scene that depicted a Civil War clash between Union and Confederate forces, Jack Budlong eschewed the use of a prop sword. Instead, he insisted on the use of a real saber while he led a rebel cavalry charge against Union artillery. As a coroner’s inquest described what happened next, Jack Budlong, dressed in a Confederate cavalryman’s costume, charged across the “battlefield”. He enthusiastically waved his saber-like Yosemite Sam, while prop explosions went off all around to simulate enemy artillery rounds. Unfortunately, Budlong’s horse was not adequately trained to deal with the explosions and simulated battlefield chaos and noise.
The horse panicked and started to buck, and Budlong was thrown off the saddle fifteen to twenty feet in the air. He landed on and was impaled by his saber, which ran him clean through, pierced his abdomen and exited out his back. Budlong was rushed to a Los Angeles hospital, but his injuries were too severe and he succumbed to them. His demise brought to three the number of deaths in production, which made They Died With Their Boots On one of Hollywood’s deadlier film sets. The movie’s name was an apt descriptor of those who lost their lives as the cameras rolled: dressed up in military costumes when they met their ends, they had literally died with their boots on.
Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading