In the scrappy, DIY silent era, safety precautions were much lower down the list of priorities on busy sets than they are today. Particularly if you happened to be Buster Keaton (pictured). Keaton became famous for his daredevil stunts, and broke a few bones in the process. If you’ve seen the footage of the front of a house falling on a man, who happens to line up perfectly with a window, that’s Keaton. Keaton and his contemporaries like Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd came up with inventive ways to minimize risk while still getting dangerous-looking shots. And according to the Guardian, Keaton sometimes stepped in for other, less daring actors. But typically, actors were expected to do their own stunts, without training.
Some actors embraced this rough-and-ready approach. Douglas Fairbanks, for example, became famous for his fight scenes and other swashbuckling stunts. But others were less thrilled. Gloria Swanson, for example, was made to dive into deep water, mostly naked, even though she couldn’t swim. And in 1914, actress Grace McHugh and cameraman Owen Carter drowned while shooting “Across the Border.”
Fire was also a hazard. Florence Lawrence, formerly known as the Biograph Girl, was injured in a fire on set. And actress Martha Mansfield was killed during a break when a lit match fell into the car she was sitting in, igniting her costume.