Friday, February 9, 2018

Acting Dangerously: Tom Tyler the stuntman

FBO, like other small film production outfits during the 1920's, had its stars performing dangerous stunts without the benefit of using professional stuntmen. With Tom Tyler being young, athletic and muscular, he could certainly pull off any stunts required of him in a film script. Sometimes Tom also had to protect co-stars placed in the same situation that he was in, keeping them safe from being killed on the set. Perhaps it was a feeling of invincibility on Tom's part – as any young man might feel, having traveled such a long way from home to  the destination of where his future lay, ready to conquer Hollywood and anything it handed him. He certainly was not afraid to perform these stunts, even though the first few ones came very close to costing him his life.

It was in Tom's debut starring role of “Let's Go Gallagher” in 1925 where he completes his first rescue mission, releasing Frankie Darro and his dog Beans who were tied to a train track by a gang of outlaws. In this case, it was Tom's horseback riding skills of a speedy pace that made this rescue possible. Yet this was just a precursor to a greater rescue later on in the film, where Tom also had to rescue the heroine (Barbara Starr) who was stuck on a runaway carriage, headed down the steep grade of a mountainside. Once again speed and precision played an important role, and Tom in all his grandeur rescues the frightened girl from getting killed, and establishes him as a major film star of athletic capability.

The theme of having to rescue a girl from a perilous situation, usually involving a cliff, followed in the next few Tom Tyler films made for FBO. For example, in “The Wyoming Wildcat” (1925), Tom makes a daring rescue while on horseback, leaping off the top of a cliff while remaining on his horse, plunging into a whirlpool of water below, to save Virginia Southern from drowning. It is not difficult to imagine the audience's reaction when viewing this silent film for the first time in movie theatres. But Tom's early silent films were meant to be fun, entertaining, adventurous, and hold the viewer spellbound all at once. Since 1925 was the year Tom became a star, a leading man for FBO, it was only natural for his publicists to market him as being one of the most exciting actors that year – and he was!

Can you imagine having to experience almost getting killed while shooting a scene – then having to reshoot the scene with better safety measures in place? That is what happened in “The Cowboy Musketeer” (1925). In this silent film, Tom is ambling along on horseback when he happens to glance off to the side of the trail and sees Frances Dare stuck in her car, tangled up in a collapsing rickety wood bridge, and races to catch her before she falls into the water. While they are suspended from Tom's lariat, tied to his horse's saddle, somehow the rope comes loose, and the couple end up going over the falls, holding on to each other tightly. Tom and Frances survive the ordeal, and while the scene was shot over to prevent any similar mistakes, provides an example of how dangerous it can be for the starring actor to perform stunts of this nature. It could be just luck that Tom managed to survive so many dangerous stunts while filming, although the cliff-water-falling combination must have proven to be too risky, for FBO certainly could not afford to lose its brand new star to a potentially fatal accident.

Starting with “Born to Battle” (1926) and “Wild to Go” (1926), the stunts Tom performed were not as dangerous yet they remained exciting. In these two movies he had to jump from a ship and swim to safety to escape his captors. Tom is an expert swimmer, however, as can be attested to his physical training in addition to weightlifting.

Another exciting stunt typically performed by Tom involved his rescuing a girl on a runaway horse while he too is on horseback, gently and safely scooping her up in his right arm. Such a stunt is risky in itself, yet Tom makes it look incredibly easy. On the positive side, such a stunt is thrilling to view on film while not quite as dangerous as those stunts that Tom performed during his first few starring roles.

It was not until the filming of “Idaho Red” in 1929 when Tom became victim to a different type of accident, one that almost killed him, and most likely caused him to develop scleroderma during his mid-40's. During the filming of a scene where Tom has been captured by a group of bandits and left in a cellar, a demijohn of chemicals spilled and temporarily asphyxiated him until the rest of the crew discovered him and had to revive him. This must have been terribly frightening for Tom, not knowing what happened to him even though it was just another close brush with death.

Out of the first three Tom Tyler starring role silent films mentioned above where he performs life-threatening stunts, only one of them exists as a 35mm print in a film archive: “The Wyoming Wildcat”. Even though this silent film is not restored, it remains a valuable piece of film history with regards to Tom's film career. Hopefully one day it will see restoration as well as digitization. Until then, however, we can appreciate the thrilling stunts Tom performs in his existing talkies, not to mention “The Texas Tornado” (1928).

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