“Yak”: Listening to the Chief of the Daredevils, on His Birthday

Well, talk about stunt broadcasting. I am listening to Daredevils of Hollywood, an obscure series of radio documentaries of sorts, syndicated and transmitted in the United States during the late 1930s. Daredevils celebrates the achievements of those doubles who took it on the chin or jumped off cliffs for the likes of John Wayne and Clark Gable. Chief among them was Yakima Canutt (a tribute page devoted to whom you will find here). Former rodeo star Enos Edward “Yak” Canutt was born on this day, 29 November, back in 1894 (or 1895, according to the Internet Movie Database; or 1896, if the Wikipedia is to be relied upon). His seven decades spanning resume as a double, stunt coordinator and second unit director includes many of the films I have enjoyed over the years, blockbusters like In Old Chicago (1937), the to Canutt very painful Boomtown (1940), and the seminal Stagecoach (1939), a kind of fast moving Grand Hotel on wheels. Canutt did “any stunts except those with animals,” all horses aside.

Now, I am fairly allergic to tumbleweed and, however partial to whiskey, generally avoid the Republic saloon scene; I am more of a Paramount kind of guy with a soft spot for Warner Bros., even though one unlikely Texas Lady (star of the aforementioned Boom Town) is prominently displayed in my room, locally known as the Claudette Colbert Museum. No matter how many I might have pulled in my lifetime, I have little to say about stunts other than what I learned from Lee Majors and his sidekick Howie in The Fall Guy.

After the death of the Academy Awarded stuntman in 1986, Alistair Cooke devoted a “Letter from America” to his life and art, convinced that not one in ten thousand listeners had ever heard of Canutt, no matter how often his name had appeared in the credits of Hollywood films as diverse as Gone With the Wind and Ben-Hur. The fate of the stuntman, a profession largely done in by CGI, was to remain invisible. So, it is hardly a surprise that there is no mention of “Yak” in my undergraduate Stagecoach essay “How the West Was One.” That is where the radio comes in; it hands me the candle to put on King Canutt’s cake.

Programs like Daredevils of Hollywood are the Wikipedia of the pre-digital age. They are just as reliable or maligned; but they are far more intimate in the gossip they whisper in your ears. They introduce me to so much I would have otherwise missed out on, so much I am apt to overlook rather than look up. How thrilling it is to hear the voices of those behind the scenes. And, as it turns out, Canutt was quite the storyteller. The script permitting, he sure could, you know, yak about the “tragic,” the “funny” and the “sometimes annoying” aspects of his work—if only the announcer had not felt obliged to cut him off for the sake of commerce. Then again, Canutt knew all about commerce. He risked his life for it.

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