Heartland International Film Festival 2020 Virtual Fest

Once the Heartland International Film Festival (HIFF) began, I was particularly looking forward to the drive-in movie experience. In the meantime, I was happy to see the various virtual viewing options made available through the HIFF website. I’m most interested in anything having to do with classic cinema or pop culture. In particular, I found two intriguing documentaries: Stuntwomen: The Untold Hollywood Story (2020) and Picture Character (2019).

Stuntwomen: The Untold Hollywood Story (2020)

Of the two documentaries that captured my interest, Stuntwomen most closely aligned with my interest in classic cinema. Directed by April Wright, the documentary depicts the evolution of stuntwomen from early films such as The Perils of Pauline (1914) through to the present.

In discussing the nascent film industry, special effects were limited and the need for stunt work was evident. In some cases, actors performed their own stunts, choreographing fight scenes, falls, and daredevil-esque maneuvers. However, in other instances, doubles were required in an effort to portray more physically demanding scenes that could potentially injure a star who was not apt to complete the stunt. Moreover, injuries would also delay filming. As a result, it was not atypical for women to double actresses or for men to double actors.

Early on, there were a variety of women filmmakers and stunt professionals. Once it became clear that film was becoming profitable as a medium, men joined and soon overwhelmed the profession, leaving fewer directorial opportunities for women. In terms of stunt work, a gender bias also took hold. A stuntmen’s professional organization was established, barring women from joining. Additionally, men would take on doubling for women in some cases, believing that a stunt was “too dangerous” to be completed by a woman.

Undaunted, women established a stuntwomen’s professional association and were determined to continue perfecting their craft. Helen Gibson was considered to be the first American professional stunt woman, using her trick-riding and rodeo skills to portray stunts on the screen. She took on various stunt double opportunities, including appearances in the longest running serial in history, the 119-part serial called The Hazards of Helen.

Additionally, the broader discussion of other classic film stunt doubles was also of great interest to me–namely because I was hearing their names for the first time! Another woman who we may not know by name but have certainly seen is Aline Goodwin. Goodwin doubled for Margaret Hamilton in The Wizard of Oz (1939), Fay Wray in King Kong (1933), and Vivien Leigh in Gone With the Wind (1939). When Scarlett O’Hara tumbles down the stairs, that is Goodwin!

In some cases, stunt work remained in the family. John Epper, stunt man for the likes of Gary Cooper and Errol Flynn–had a daughter named Linda Epper, who would double for Lynda Carter in the Wonder Woman series, among other stunt work endeavors. Linda Epper and a wide range of other stunt women–retired as well as working–are featured heavily in the documentary, depicting the challenging work they do, the importance of work-life balance, and even the more emotional factors that come up in their line of work.

This documentary is certainly not to be missed by any classic film fan. It does a wonderful job of featuring the stories of these women as key players in the the storytelling process and it is a shame that they are not discussed more. Additionally, TCM’s own Ben Mankiewicz also makes an appearance in the documentary, as do many other film industry historians and professionals.

Picture Character (2019)

While not relating to classic cinema, Picture Character portrays an interesting story regarding the emoji. Directed by Ian Cheney and Martha Shane, the documentary discusses the history and impact of the beloved pictorial signifiers, while simultaneously following the stories of several proposed emojis.

Interestingly, emojis are proposed regularly and considered by a board. Board members look for the significance in meaning of a proposed emoji, proposed uses, as well as a variety of meanings. Emojis also have their limitations, such as not portraying deities. Used on a global level, individuals aim to connect with the emojis offered and look to them as clever symbols which offer a means of communication that is not bound to a given language. Rather, it is the language of pictures.

While emojis are proposed frequently, few proposals are accepted and ultimately adopted. The documentary provides a fascinating look at the different types of emoji proposals inspired; certain proposals are accepted, while others–to a level of frustration–are not. Though the goal is to promote diversity in depiction and expression, the emoji that is rejected in this documentary certainly leaves the viewer perplexed as to why.

From a personal standpoint, I also can’t help but wonder: What classic movie-inspired emojis would I like to see developed one day?

About Annette Bochenek

Dr. Annette Bochenek of Chicago, Illinois, is an avid scholar of Hollywood’s Golden Age. She manages the Hometowns to Hollywood blog, in which she writes about her trips exploring the legacies and hometowns of Golden Age stars. Annette also hosts the “Hometowns to Hollywood” film series throughout the Chicago area. She has been featured on Turner Classic Movies and is the president of TCM Backlot’s Chicago chapter. In addition to writing for TCM Backlot, she also writes for Classic Movie Hub, Silent Film Quarterly, Nostalgia Digest, and Chicago Art Deco Society Magazine.
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