Old Hollywood gave the world some beautiful movies. But behind the scenes, things weren’t always pretty. Films such as The Wizard of Oz and White Christmas literally covered their actors in an extremely dangerous substance in order to get the shot they wanted. The movie industry no longer does this – but back in the old days, actors very much did die from it.
When movies first became a recognized form of art, actors didn’t have the health and safety regulations that they’re granted today. If you were asked to do something dangerous, you were expected to do it. Stunt performers did exist, but most movie studios couldn’t afford to hire one – or simply didn’t want to.
It goes without saying that accidents were common. While shooting a movie called Across the Border in 1914, actress Grace McHugh and a cameraman named Owen Carter died after being caught in quicksand on the Arkansas River. He had gone in to rescue her, but to no avail. And the film was still released.
Then there was the terrible case of Martha Mansfield. The 24-year-old actress was killed on the set of The Warrens of Virginia. Her Civil War-era costume was not fireproof, and at one point somebody tossed a match near it. The dress went up in flames and unfortunately she died in hospital the next day.
Part of the appeal of Hollywood back then was actors putting themselves into dangerous situations – although of course you had to survive if you wanted to make it in the game. An early stunt performer was Pearl White, billed as “the peerless fearless girl.” When another stunt performer died on her set, it only increased her notoriety.
Then of course there was the legendary Harold Lloyd. He once had two of his fingers blown off during a performance, but he kept on working. The famous shot of him hanging off a clock tower in Safety Last! really did involve him dangling over Los Angeles, although he was nearer to the ground than he appeared.
Actors such as Buster Keaton had to carefully plan their death-defying filmed stunts. The famous scene in Steamboat Bill Jr where a house falls down around Keaton was a masterpiece of mathematics and nerves. Keaton had to simply stand still as his body passed through the house’s window, but he must have thanked his lucky stars after he’d pulled it off.
Even as film progressed from the silent era, deaths still frequently happened on sets where safety rules were lax. Three people died while filming the 1941 movie They Died With Their Boots On. One of these was Jack Budlong, a friend of the film’s star Errol Flynn. He insisted on using a real sword rather than a prop, which was his undoing.
While riding his horse and waving his real sword in the air, Budlong suffered a fatal accident. His horse got spooked by the fake explosions happening around it and threw him off. Budlong fell into the very real sword, which ran him right through the abdomen. He ended up dying shortly afterwards in hospital.
A turning point for movie set safety came in 1982, when a terrible accident took place on the set of Twilight Zone: The Movie. A helicopter crash killed actor Vic Morrow and two child actors, Myca Dinh Le and Renee Shin-Yi Chen, who had been hired by director John Landis in violation of child labor laws.
There was a long and painful trial afterwards, but some good things did eventually emerge from the tragedy. The Directors Guild of America created a helpline where directors could be advised on safety problems, and – perhaps more importantly – people began to be disciplined for not following health and safety directions.
On-set accidents reportedly fell after that terrible case. Even today, though, the very nature of moviemaking still claims lives. Star Brandon Lee famously died on the set of The Crow in 1993 after someone neglected to clean a gun properly: the tiny piece of bullet within it claimed Lee’s life.
And many stuntmen and women have died while filming popular movies. During production of The Expendables 2 one stuntman, Kun Lieu, was killed and another suffered serious injuries. Even more recently, stuntwoman Joi Harris died on the set of the second Deadpool film when a motorbike stunt went wrong.
Movies, then, almost always have an element of danger to them. But one of the biggest perils of old Hollywood film sets was something that was overlooked for ages and ages, even though it was fully capable of causing deaths. It all had to do with how moviemakers created snow effects.
Gently falling snow always makes for a beautiful movie scene. But filmmakers had difficulty creating it in a safe way. Obviously, they couldn’t bring the real snow inside to the set, so what to do? This was long before CGI could bring anything to life on a computer. People had to get creative.
Unfortunately, not all the ideas for fake snow were good – or even safe. During the 1920s cotton was the main thing used to film snow scenes in movies. Obviously cotton doesn’t pose any risks on its own, but when loads of it is piled up on a movie set it’s a fire hazard. It was firefighters who ended up pointing this out.
In 1925 Charlie Chaplin starred in The Gold Rush, a film which required lots of snow. Some of the movie was shot on location. Around 600 extras, many of whom were homeless people from Sacramento, battled against real snow for the movie. The moviemakers then had to figure out how to recreate it on set.
In the end, talented set builders created an entire tiny mountain range inside. Reportedly, they used a quarter of a million feet worth of timber. For the snow, though, they used a mixture of salt of flour. It wouldn’t have tasted nice, but it definitely did the job. The Gold Rush is still considered a masterpiece of special effects.
Another foodstuff was often used for snow on the sets of movies – cornflakes. The flakes were painted white and scattered around. It looked fairly convincing, but once movies switched to sound it became obvious that it couldn’t continue. Cornflakes make a loud crunching noise when you tread on them.
A whole new type of fake snow was created for the movie It’s A Wonderful Life in 1946. Director Frank Capra didn’t want to use painted cornflakes – for a start, he wanted to record the film’s dialogue live, and his actors crunching on breakfast cereal every time they moved would have made that impossible.
Capra and Russell Sherman, the head of special effects at RKO, decided to come up with something themselves. Any solution involving real snow was out of the question, because it was the middle of July. It’s A Wonderful Life may be set around Christmas, but some of the actors got heat exhaustion during filming.
Capra and Sherman decided to mix foamite, otherwise known as Phomaide, which is the material found in fire extinguishers, with water and sugar and soap flakes. When the resulting mixture was pumped at high pressure through a wind machine, it looked like snow was really falling on the massive Bedford Falls set.
It actually took 6,000 gallons of fake snow to cover the entire set in the end. But it was worth it. The foamite mixture was so realistic that actors left footprints in it when they walked – you couldn’t get that with cornflakes. The RKO Effects Department even won an award for their exciting new creation.
However, like any good film director, Capra had back-up plans in case the It’s A Wonderful Life foamite snow failed in some way. One of them was to use dolomite, a white mineral which forms transparent crystals, to winter-fy the set. The other idea he noted down was much more shocking.
His other idea was to use asbestos as a stand-in for snow – yes, really. Asbestos, the world knows now, is an extremely dangerous material. When the microscopic fibres of asbestos are breathed in it can cause serious illnesses, including lung conditions and cancer. But that wasn’t a concern which had sunken in for the people of the era.
People were aware in the 1940s that asbestos was dangerous, but they weren’t anywhere near aware enough. Asbestos could be found in Christmas decorations, even. It wasn’t just Frank Capra who thought of using the material to make fake snow for a movie – lots of directors did it.
Probably the most famous movie to use asbestos as snow was 1939’s The Wizard of Oz. To this day it is considered one of the best films ever made, with its music and characters positively iconic. The Library of Congress has it down as the most-seen movie of all time. Yet the actors suffered on set.
The film’s star, Judy Garland, was not treated well by the producers. Studio heads were desperate that she not gain any weight, and thus they not only controlled her daily food intake but made sure to tell her how “fat” she was. Virtually every story and rumor about her time on the Oz set indicates it was thoroughly miserable.
During the scene in the poppy field, Glinda the Good Witch covers Dorothy with snow to wake her. But that was in fact pure asbestos falling on Garland then. The dress Garland wore in that scene sold for over a million dollars in 2015 – hopefully, the buyer was warned beforehand about the danger.
And that was far from the only asbestos the actors were exposed to on set. Ray Bolger, who played the Scarecrow, had his whole costume made from asbestos. Because he would be around fire, it was thought the asbestos would fire-proof him, but it exposed him to a different danger. The Wicked Witch’s broom was also made from it.
The Wizard of Oz wasn’t the only offender when it came to the use of asbestos. The 1942 musical Holiday Inn had a big number involving snow, but of course it wasn’t snow, it was a falling cancer-causing substance. No actor would ever agree to that today, no matter how good the song was.
Holiday Inn star Bing Crosby was exposed to a lot of asbestos throughout his career. In 1954’s White Christmas he beautifully sang the title song, but he did so while asbestos was being quite literally thrown over him. In the end Crosby died at the age of 74 of a heart attack, not cancer – but plenty of others died from asbestos exposure.
Steve McQueen is one actor who unfortunately did. In 1979 he was diagnosed with pleural mesothelioma, which is associated with asbestos. He was told his heart could not withstand any operations to remove tumors, but he was determined to try. The doctors were right: he died of heart failure just 12 hours after surgery.
Not long before he died, McQueen told doctors that he thought he got mesothelioma because in the 1940s he worked removing asbestos from pipes aboard a ship. It had taken thirty years to assert itself, but he had been exposed to a great deal of it then. The use of the material in the film industry, though, he suggested had also played a part.
Another actor who suffered from asbestos exposure was Ed Lauter. He had a long career in Hollywood, appearing in films such as The Longest Yard, the 1976 version of King Kong, and Alfred Hitchcock’s last film Family Plot. He was diagnosed with pleural mesothelioma in 2013 and died that same year.
After Lauter passed away his wife Mia filed a lawsuit against several companies, alleging that they had exposed him to asbestos and thus caused his death. In 2014 the family’s attorney told the Asbestos.com website, “His career in motion pictures put him at risk for exposure. We’re not saying everyone in motion pictures is at risk, but it is known where asbestos was used in certain motion picture equipment and on what sets.”
Only one death has so far been linked to asbestos exposure on the Wizard of Oz set, and even then only vaguely. Jack Haley, Jr., the son of Tin Man actor Jack Haley, died of respiratory failure in 2001. People have speculated his father might have unwittingly exposed him to asbestos particles on his clothes.
Thankfully, asbestos is no longer used in day-to-day life. By the 1990s a lot of asbestos manufacturers, such as Celotex and Standard Insulation, had declared bankruptcy and closed their doors. There are still multiple ongoing compensation cases for people exposed to the material, however.
There are still a lot of buildings in the United States which contain asbestos within them, and there are strict regulations about how it must be removed and contained. Anyone working on asbestos must have safety equipment on. If only the movie actors of yesteryear had been granted those.
And, of course, asbestos is no longer used in movies to make snow. These days, infinitely safer options are available. The special effects company Snow Business has created fake snow from recycled paper, for instance, and it functions very well. In addition, CGI has now advanced to a point where digital artists can create realistic falling snowflakes. It’s a pity that the movie industry took so long to realize the danger of asbestos, as well as the importance of health and safety in general. Legendary director Steven Spielberg reportedly once said, “No movie is worth dying for… If something isn’t safe, it’s the right and responsibility of every actor or crew member to yell, ‘Cut!’” Of course, he was correct.