Of all the many stuntmen whose contribution was invaluable to the Western, Yakima Canutt is probably the most famous. The amazing under-the-coach stunt on Stagecoach alone marks him out as one of the greats.
Half his name sounds American Indian and the other half kind of Danish but neither was the case. He was born in 1895 in the Snake River hills, near Colfax in Washington, the son of a rancher, and got known by the name Yakima, as opposed to his given names Enos Edward, at the 1914 Pendleton Round-Up, when a newspaper caption misidentified him. “Yakima Canutt may be the most famous person not from Yakima, Washington,” says local author Elizabeth Gibson.
For after a basic elementary education Yak early put the skills he had learned on the ranch (he first broke a bronc when he was 11) and his natural abilities together and, already 6 foot tall (1.8m) at the age of sixteen, started rodeoing. At seventeen he won the title of World’s Best Bronco Buster. Winning second place at the 1915 Pendleton Round-Up got him noticed by show promoters, who invited him to compete around the country.
Yak later wrote about this time in My Rodeo Years: Memoir of a Bronc Rider’s Path to Hollywood Fame. “I started in major rodeos in 1914, and went through to 1923. There was quite a crop of us traveling together, and we would have special railroad cars and cars for the horses. We’d play anywhere from three, six, eight, ten-day shows. Bronc riding and bulldogging were my specialties, but I did some roping,” Well, I say he wrote it. It’s “as told to John Crawford.”
Yak won his first world championship at the Olympics of the West in 1917 and won two more championships in the years after. While on tour he became interested in the Ladies Bronc Riding Champion Kitty Wilks (Kathleen E Derre), and they wed in July 1917, though they had no children and would divorce in 1922.
In the First World War he broke horses for the French government and in 1918 enlisted in the US Navy, though he was given a 30-day furlough to defend his rodeo title.
Yak got an early look at the motion picture business in 1919 when he traveled to Los Angeles for a rodeo, and met the great Tom Mix, who had also started in rodeo. Tom invited Yak to be in two of his pictures. The star paid a greater compliment by borrowing two of Yak’s two-tone shirts and having his tailor make 40 copies. But at this stage Yak wasn’t considering a Hollywood career and returned to the rodeo circuit.
You might want to take a look at our article Rodeo and the Western by clicking the link.
He became a leading figure on the circuit. After he won three years in a row at the Fort Worth Rodeo, it became known as “Yak’s show.”
But the lure of Hollywood was strong. Like many rodeo riders, Yak suffered a variety of injuries. While bulldogging in Idaho, he suffered tears to his mouth and upper lip from a bull’s horn; after getting stitches, he returned to the competition. A plastic surgeon corrected the injury a year later. Not that he’d be injury-free as a stuntman… in Branded a Bandit (1924) his nose was broken in a 12-foot fall from a cliff. The picture was delayed several weeks, and when it resumed, Yak’s close shots were from the side. A plastic surgeon reset the nose, which healed, causing the stuntman to remark that he thought it looked better.
Yak was still making rodeo appearances in the mid-1920s but gradually one career replaced the other. He worked on many oaters, perfecting such stunts as the crupper mount (vaulting from the rear of the horse onto the saddle) and leaping from a horse to a wagon or train.
He got roles as an actor too, staring with bit-parts but getting higher profile. On one picture, a sheepmen v cattlemen yarn of 1923, The Forbidden Range, he was second-billed and the following year he got the lead in two 5-reel epics, Branded a Bandit and Ridin’ Mad. Eight more pictures as lead followed in 1925, when he was under contract to Ben F Wilson. Wilson, who had started in the very early days in New Jersey with Thomas Edison, became quite a big wheel in the silent movie business, as actor, director, producer and writer. As the 20s wore on, Wilson slipped down the ladder a bit, making movies on Poverty Row, and these oaters with Yak were not exactly mega A-pictures, to say the least of it. Still, he was leading in Westerns. If you want to look at one, Branded a Bandit is on YouTube, here.
He became friends with Douglas Fairbanks (they competed regularly at Fairbanks’s gym), and worked on the 1927 picture Fairbanks wrote and starred in, The Gaucho. The big time was beckoning.
But by 1928 the talkies were coming in and as with many actors, that presented something of a problem for Yak’s career in the movie business. He didn’t have a deep cowboyish voice – it had been damaged from an attack of influenza while in the Navy. And to be fair, while he was supremely good at the athletic side of being a cowboy hero, he wasn’t perhaps the most natural of actors. He decided to concentrate more on stunting.
It wasn’t an obvious choice. In the five years between 1925 and 1930, 55 people were killed making movies, and more than 10,000 injured.
The Wikipedia entry on Canutt says:
When rodeo riders invaded Hollywood, they brought a battery of rodeo techniques that Canutt would expand and improve, including horse falls and wagon wrecks. He also developed the harnesses and cable rigs to make the stunts foolproof and safe. Among the new safety devices was the ‘L’ stirrup, which released a rider’s foot if he was performing falling off a horse, so that he did not get hung in the stirrup. Canutt also developed cabling and equipment to cause spectacular wagon crashes, while releasing the team of horses, all on the same spot every time.
Unfortunately, he also developed the ‘Running W’, bringing down a horse at the gallop by attaching a wire, anchored to the ground, to its fetlocks and launching the rider forward spectacularly. But this either often killed or severely injured the horse, requiring it to be put down. At a minimum it was badly shaken and unusable for the rest of the day. The ‘Running W’ is now banned and has been replaced with training for the falling-horse technique.
Yak picked up work at low-budget Mascot, working especially on serials. In fact he first performed the famous Stagecoach stunt in Riders of the Dawn (1937) while doubling for Jack Randall.
It was while at Mascot that Yak met John Wayne, doubling for him in a motorcycle stunt. They became firm friends. Duke admired Yak’s agility and fearlessness, and Yak respected Duke’s willingness to learn and attempt his own stunts. Canutt taught Wayne how to fall off a horse.
The two also worked together to create a technique that made on-screen fight scenes more realistic. They found that if they stood at a certain angle in front of the camera, they could throw a punch at an actor’s face and make it look as if actual contact had been made. The pair pioneered stunt and screen fighting techniques still in use.
As an actor, Wayne copied much of his on-screen persona from Canutt. The drawling speech and the hip-rolling walk were pure Canutt. Wayne said, “I spent weeks studying the way Yakima Canutt walked and talked. He was a real cowhand.” A classic example of their collaboration is the 1934 epic Randy Rides Alone (our review here) in which Duke starred as Randy and Yak appeared as “henchman Spike.”
Yak met Minnie Audrea Yeager Rice at a party. They married in November 1931, and remained married till his death in 1986. They had three children together (all now deceased): sons Tap and Joe followed their father into the stunt business, while daughter Audrea married a stuntman. It was a family business alright.
When in 1934 Mascot, Monogram and other small studios combined to form Republic Pictures, Yak emerged as the studio’s top stuntman, working on many of its action pictures, especially Westerns. He performed almost all the scenes in which Zorro wore a mask, and in fact was on screen more than star John Carroll. Republic scripts were marked “see Yakima Canutt for action sequences.”
Republic regular director William Witney wrote:
There will probably never be another stuntman who can compare to Yakima Canutt. He had been a world champion cowboy several times and where horses were concerned he could do it all. He invented all the gadgets that made stunt work easier. One of his clever devices was a step that attached to the saddle so that he had leverage to transfer to another moving object, like a wagon or a train. Another was the “shotgun,” a spring-loaded device used to separate the tongue of a running wagon from the horses, thus cutting the horses loose. It also included a shock cord attached to the wagon bed, which caused wheels to cramp and turn the wagon over on the precise spot that was most advantageous for the camera.
Yak’s injuries mounted up, though. In 1932, for example, he broke his shoulder in four places while trying to transfer from horse to wagon team. On the set of the 1936 picture San Francisco, when his reputation got hum the job at MGM, Yak stood in for Clark Gable in a scene in which a wall was to fall on the star. Yak later wrote, “We had a heavy table situated so that I could dive under it at the last moment. Just as the wall started down, a girl in the scene became hysterical and panicked. I grabbed her, leaped for the table, but didn’t quite make it.” The girl was unhurt but he broke six ribs. It was a dangerous game.
He tried to move away from stunts and get into directing.
In 1938, Republic started expanding into bigger-budget pictures. The studio hired Yak’s mentor and action director for the 1925 Ben-Hur, ‘Breezy’ Eason, as second unit director, with Canutt to coordinate and oversee the stunts. For Yak, this meant hiring stuntmen and, laying out the action for the director, writing additional action sequences and doing some stunts himself.
1939 was a big year for Canutt. On John Wayne’s recommendation, John Ford hired Yak to supervise the river-crossing scene as well as the Indian chase scene, do the remarkable stagecoach drop, and double for Wayne in the coach stunts. The stuntman devised modified yokes and tongues to give extra handholds and extra room between the teams. Ford being such a prima donna, he didn’t take kindly to the way Yak disposed the stuntmen and even presumed to ask actors to do certain moves, and after that the director hardly ever used Canutt again, despite the astonishing contribution the stuntman had made to the picture. The stage drop remains one of the greatest stunts ever performed in a Western. Steven Speilberg paid homage to it in Raiders of the Lost Ark when stuntman Terry Leonard, standing in for Harrison Ford, ‘dropped’ from the front of a German transport truck, was dragged underneath (along a prepared trench), and climbed up the back and round to the front again.
In 1939 too Yak doubled for Gable again, this time in the burning of Atlanta scene of Gone with the Wind, and he also did the stunts of Warners’ big color Errol Flynn/Olivia De Havilland Western Dodge City.
In 1940, Yak sustained yet more injuries, quite serious this time, while doubling for Gable yet again, this time in Boom Town, when a horse fell on him. He was in pain for months after an operation to repair his bifurcated intestines, but he he continued to work.
Republic’s Sol Siegel offered him the chance to direct the action sequences of the studio’s big-budget Raoul Walsh-directed picture Dark Command. For this, Yak fashioned an elaborate cable system to yank back a plummeting coach before it fell on the stuntman and horses; he also created a breakaway harness from which they were released before hitting the water. It was typical of his ingenuity and regard for safety.
In 1943, while doing the low budget Roy Rogers picture Idaho, Yak broke both his ankles in a fall from a wagon. He recovered to write the stunts and supervise the action for another Wayne film, In Old Oklahoma.
As the 1940s progressed and into the 50s, Yakima Canutt became one of Hollywood’s best second unit and action directors.
In 1952 MGM sent him to England to manage the action scenes and jousting sequences of Ivanhoe with Robert Taylor, and that was followed by Knights of the Round Table and King Richard and the Crusaders. Yak introduced many British stuntmen to the Hollywood-style approach.
Yak had directed certain scenes of various films since 1935, and was sometimes co-credited.
But in 1954, he directed with sole credit the Western The Lawless Rider, a Johnny Carpenter project with a $20,000 budget which we reviewed recently. It was either a deliberate retro attempt at a 1930s second-feature or the cast and crew couldn’t make anything more ‘modern’, but either way it was pretty bad, I’m afraid. The writing and acting were plodding and the direction, I’m sorry to say, less than sparkling. Oh well.
Canutt staged the famous chariot race on Ben Hur in 1959. He trained Charlton Heston and Stephen Boyd to do their own charioteering. Yak and his crew spent five months on the sequence. In contrast to the 1925 film under Breezy Eason, not one horse was hurt, and no humans experienced serious injuries either. Yak’s son Joe Canutt, while doubling for Heston, cut his chin but that was because he did not follow his father’s advice to hook himself to the chariot when Judah Ben-Hur’s vehicle bounced over the wreck of another chariot.
In 1960 Yak directed the close action scenes on Spartacus, such as the slave army rolling its flaming logs into the Romans. Anthony Mann specifically requested Canutt for El Cid in 1961 as well as The Fall of the Roman Empire in 1964.
In 1967 he was given an Honorary Academy Award for achievements as a stunt man and for developing safety devices to protect stunt men.
Cat Ballou, A Man Called Horse, other films followed, right through into the 1970s. Breakheart Pass in 1975 was his last accreditation as stunt coordinator.
In 1978 the Academy held “A tribute to Yakima Canutt” dinner.
In 1985 Encore screened Yak’s Best Ride, directed by John Crawford.
In May, 1986, Yakima Canutt died of cardiac arrest at the age of 90.
His contribution to our noble genre of Western was huge.