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Top 10 Terrible Accidents From The Early Days Of Film

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The earliest days of film were a time for experimentation, education, and innovation. As this was an emerging art form, many of the laws and regulations governing modern films and television weren’t yet in place. These are some of the earliest and worst accidents to have occurred in the film industry before those laws were established.

10  – Across The Border

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One of the earliest recorded examples of a terrible accident on a film set occurred with the 1914 film, Across the Border. Little is known about this silent Western except that it starred leading man Edmund Cobb and had one of the more tragic early deaths of Hollywood.

Filming was done on location in the Arkansas River in Colorado. Grace McHugh, 26, was the lead actress of the film and a local from Golden, Colorado. While reshooting a scene with her horse fording the river, McHugh was thrown into the current when the horse lost its footing.

Owen Carter, the cinematographer, immediately jumped in after her and pulled her to a sandbar. The crew initially thought they were saved. But it turned out to be quicksand, and the two quickly drowned.[1]

Filming had already been completed, so both McHugh’s and Carter’s work was shown in the final product.

9 – Such Men Are Dangerous

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Such Men Are Dangerous was a 1930 drama based partly on the disappearance of Belgian financier Alfred Loewenstein over the English Channel. As a result, the plot of the film required extensive plane use over the water, which resulted in the deaths of 10 people.

The crew was filming a parachute jump scene off the coast of Southern California when the wingtips of two Stinson Detroiter aircraft collided. This caused the planes to swing together and crash, exploding and killing everyone aboard—including director Kenneth Hawks and two military pilots. Out of the 10 dead, five bodies were recovered.[2]

As with Across the Border, the accident didn’t impede production and the film was released on schedule. However, this event confirms a shocking statistic: The deaths of cameramen outnumber those of stunt people 4 to 1.


8 – The Warrens Of Virginia

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The next tragedy occurred on the set of the 1924 adaptation of The Warrens of Virginia. The film was a period piece that took place during the US Civil War, a detail that resulted in the death of 24-year-old lead actress Martha Mansfield.

During a scene break, Mansfield was sitting in the back seat of her car when a lit match was tossed in her direction, easily igniting her ruffled hoopskirt. Most of her body was burned by the time actor Wilfred Lytell threw his overcoat on her.

The injuries were severe. Mansfield’s chauffeur was badly burned while tearing the dress from her body, and Mansfield herself succumbed less than 24 hours later in the hospital from severe burns and general toxemia.[3]

The actress had prior vaudeville experience and was fresh off the success of 1920’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

7 – The Valley Of The Giants

Photo credit: Paramount Pictures

The unfortunate story of actor Wallace Reid is indicative of the lesser knowledge of set safety and drugs in early Hollywood. During the filming of the 1919 film The Valley of the Giants, Reid was injured in a train crash in Oregon. He cut his arm to the bone, injured his back, and eventually required six stitches for an 8-centimeter (3 in) laceration on the top of his head.[4]

To keep up with the incessant demands of filming at the time, Reid was given increasing quantities of morphine for the pain. Gradually, he became addicted as movies became longer and shooting schedules more frequent.

Drug rehabilitation programs and drug addiction education was not prominent back then, so Reid eventually succumbed to his morphine addiction. He died in a sanitarium in 1923 at age 31.

Another case occurred in 1923 with the filming of Souls for Sale. Actress Barbara La Marr injured her ankle and was prescribed morphine and cocaine to cope. In addition to alcohol abuse, La Marr developed nephritis and tuberculosis. She died three years later.

6 – Haunted Spooks

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The production of this 1920 comedy film was halted due to an accident involving lead actor and comedian Harold Lloyd. While taking publicity shots at the start of filming in August 1919, Lloyd, perhaps most famous for his film Safety Last, posed with what he believed to be a prop bomb with a lit fuse.

The bomb turned out to be real and exploded in his hand. It burned his face, temporarily blinding him, and resulted in the loss of the thumb and index finger of his right hand.[5]

Lloyd, however, was a good sport about the accident. He said that “the pain was considerable, but trivial compared with my mental state” and resumed filming in January 1920.

He was fitted with a glove with artificial fingers and kept the accident unknown to the public. Lloyd didn’t do this for vanity but because he felt that people should genuinely want to watch his films. He didn’t want an audience who came out of pity or sympathy.

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Top 10 Terrible Accidents From The Early Days Of Film

by Wayne Hillary