Martha Crawford Cantarini, a Hall of Fame stunt double from Hollywood’s golden era of real-action movies, explains that some of the most deserving actors of the era went unrewarded.
Top photo: Copyrighted image from Martha’s personal collection.
But first, a proper introduction to Martha. The daughter of a professional polo player, Martha’s equestrian skills landed her stunt-double roles in nearly 20 films and television episodes throughout the 1950s. She stood in for many star actresses — Eleanor Parker, Anne Baxter, Shirley MacLaine, Rhonda Fleming, Jean Simmons, Carol Baker, Claudette Colbert — and was one of the most sought-after stunt doubles in Hollywood. You can see a full list of her credits on IMDB here.
In her autobiography, Fall Girl: My Life as a Western Stunt Double, she explains how she got into the business. “Your reputation was everything. After my work on Interrupted Melody, news traveled pretty fast about the quality of my horsemanship, and a lot of the subsequent work calls I received were a result of that. It was rather like a young jockey winning his first two races at a new track and finding that from there on, the owners came looking for him.”
A video tribute to Martha’s illustrious career:
In addition to her work on the big screen, Martha was — and remains today — a dedicated and passionate horsewoman through and through. She was an outstanding hunter-jumper rider and developed an extensive thoroughbred racing history website containing photos and rebroadcasts of famous races.
It was her natural instinct as an equestrian that got her through moments like the one pictured above, capturing a near disaster that occurred during a publicity shoot for The Big Country, produced by and starring Gregory Peck. (Martha was doubling for Jean Simmons and Carol Baker.)
Martha recalls that she and her horse, Jim, were attempting to jump a wagon — in a western saddle and without a groundline! — when disaster struck. “We got into the jump wrong and I am assuming it was my subconscious that told me of the coming catastrophe or perhaps from riding hundreds of horses, but I stepped off of him in mid-air over the wagon. You can see his hind leg behind the wagon wheel. Had I not stepped off it would have snapped his leg off. As it was, I was able to pull him away from the wheel. I got the Motion Picture and TV’s Golden Boot Award and was inducted into the Stuntman’s Hall of Fame years later and that picture is one which is most requested from me. It is a million-to-one shot. I told the photographer, ‘I hope you got that cause we are not going to do it again!'”
We are honored to count Martha as a longtime Horse Nation reader and were excited to receive from her this essay about some of the most incredible four-legged stars she has ever worked with.
Many of filmdom’s deserving horses were overlooked for an award of any kind.
The Patsy (Picture Animal Top Star of the Year) Awards were originated by the Hollywood Office of the American Humane Association many years ago and designed to be presented yearly, like an Oscar, for animals who have done outstanding performances in television and the motion picture industry.
Also, there was The Craven Award, named for Richard C. Craven, the first director of the AHA in Hollywood. Unlike Patsy, it rewarded those that would normally have had no opportunity to appear in a starring role. Sadly it was a time, however, that allowed both animal awards to go to horses whose celebrity and talents were also the most easily recognized.
Most of the well-known actors, not all, and stunt people who worked with these horses knew that they contributed mightily to their own success, often making them look better than they were. The long difficult days of work and the accomplishments of these horses went unseen by the average movie goer. The horses were seen ‘packing’ the actors willingly in spite of their bad hands, and those who bounced on their kidneys, day after day going totally unnoticed by the viewing fans who cheered wildly for more as they carried the actors up the hills as cowboys and down the hills as Indians.
I was one of the fortunate ones to be rewarded for my stunt work with horses in films with a Golden Boot, and the memories of those horses haunt me to this day. I learned something from every one of them. Their insight was real and they taught me a valuable lesson that I will always remember: As we strive to learn the best ways to motivate our horses, in reality, they motivate us to be the best that we can be.
Of these shamefully overlooked horses three come to mind:
Little is known of his early history though he was originally purchased at Caliente Race Track by Don Burt, AHSA judge and past president of the AQHA, for $25. He was put through a crash course in jumping by Jimmy Williams but would not jump inside a show ring there after. However, he was well-known on the movie sets for jumping moving cars, burning wagons, etc. with or without a rider.
Jim jumped out of a pasture, over a fence and moving car in The Mating Game ridden by top stunt girl Donna Hall doubling for Debbie Reynolds — watch for this amazing sequence at 1:55 in the trailer:
In the MGM Academy Award-nominated film Interrupted Melody, Ski was carefully chosen as a specialist for me to rear into the fire pit in the Immolation fire scene from Wagner’s Gotterdammerung opera recreated for this award-winning film at a cost of $50,000. At the time it was the most expensive indoor shot ever.
Many directors would have no qualms whatsoever about hurting or killing a horse in a scene. As a necessary control, if a horse was hurt during the filming the director could not use the film footage. The SPCA of those days was an absolute necessity. At times it went overboard as with the sterilized bits!
The still picture above was featured in Life Magazine. Ski was a skilled performer and deserving of a special award but none came. His leap into the fire, however, in this MGM film may have marked the beginning of the end of the era of the major studio horse “stunts.” In the same way, Rex Allen marked the end of the singing cowboys as he rode into the sunset in The Phantom Stallion the same year.
Although most of the horses were specialist i.e. jumping, falling, fighting, etc. there were a few that were extraordinarily versatile and contributed mightily to an actor’s believability and star status. Midnight was one such horse and was owned by Randall Ranch who had the Roy Rogers horses. He was first a well-known cast horse ridden by many, many stars including Clint Eastwood, Henry Fonda and Audie Murphy. He was selected to pull the trick fire engine in Disney’s Apple Dumpling Gang. This memorable horse was also used as a leader with six-up hitches on stage coaches. Few horses could ever have adjusted to both of these feats on a regular basis.
William H. Robertson in his book The History of Thoroughbred Racing in America describes the legendary race horse Native Dancer with words to reflect my own thoughts of Midnight (excerpted): “He was a pro: Confidence that he would get the job done was a large part of his appeal — the pleasure was in observing how smoothly he did it.”
After his movie days were over, I purchased Midnight from Randal Ranch who told me they could not afford to retire him and were going to send him to the killers, although he had made the stable over $40,000! We agreed I would pay them the killer price of $400 and I purchased him; he was retired to my own ranch for the rest of his life. I am sure they would have found a way to retire him themselves had he won a award!
Ski, Midnight and Jim, and all those who gave their lives for a ‘great shot,’ are just a memory today. Once you were privileged to know any of these horses, you could never forget them. Unlike the award winners, the unrewarded horses eventually slipped into oblivion except for the few that were rescued and personally retired by those who sought them out. Though their glory days were, perhaps, behind them, many who worked with these horses can be seen today sitting in front of their television screens hoping to have one more look at the memories of a horse they once knew.
Many thanks to Martha for sharing. Go Riding!