QUESTION: Was there a Hollywood movie made at the lake that involved a horse jumping off a cliff?
Oh, yes. The motion picture, released in January, 1939, was Jesse James, starring Tyrone Power and Henry Fonda. Most of the movie was shot around Noel, Missouri, in the extreme southwestern corner of the state. The Elk River provided a convenient Ozark stream for background visual effect, especially during chase scenes, when the drama was intensified by the splashing hoofs of galloping horses.
From a purely historical perspective, the movie was terrible. Almost nothing in it matched the known facts of Frank and Jesse James' lives. It was simply a western, with lots of shoot-em-up and high melodrama. But its Ozark film location, as well as the fact that it was produced in color, did enhance the overall effect of the movie.
The picture, however, is probably better known for another reason. In one of the outdoor scenes, Frank and Jesse are riding hard to avoid capture after attempting to rob the bank in Northfield, Minnesota. They suddenly come to the edge of a high precipice overlooking a mountain stream. (Remember now, this is all shot in the Ozarks.) There is no alternative but to jump over the cliff with their horses. And they do. And back in 1938, when the movie was made, jumping over a cliff meant jumping over a real cliff with a real horse and rider. That's where Lake of the Ozarks came in.
Actually jumping into a shallow stream from a high cliff was an impossibility. So a plunge into the Elk River was out of the question. The same held true for every other Ozark cliff and river. Except at Lake of the Ozarks. In 1938 it was the only deep water lake in the region. And it had plenty of cliffs along its shoreline. So the production crew moved up here for the shoot.
They settled on a 70-foot high cliff between mile markers 21 and 22. The cameras would be angled to show the cliff and some of the lake, but the broader expanse of water would be off camera so as to give the impression that our heroes were jumping into a small river. And since there was an element of danger here, only one stuntman on one horse would actually go over the edge. The spliced footage from two cameras would give the impression that two riders made the jump.
No horse could be trained to make that jump, so the chosen steed was placed on a slippery platform known as a tilt chute. With stuntman Cliff Lyons in the saddle, one end of the chute was lifted and horse and rider slid over the abyss.
In the first moment of the scene all four of the horse's hoofs were together as it tried vainly to prevent the slide. Once in the air, the animal flailed wildly and instantly turned over. The scene cut away the moment horse and rider hit the water.
Lyons was okay as a rescue boat fished him out of the water. And the horse, too, had survived the fall. But once in the water the now panicked animal thrashed about uncontrollably, and before the hostlers could get a rope on the terrified horse, it had drowned.
The spectacular cliff jump scene was included in the final cut of the movie. But public outcry over the death of the horse raised a furor in Hollywood. As a result, the Motion Picture Association of America granted the American Humane Association the rights to monitor the treatment of animals in all future movie stunts.
So today, when you read in the end credits that "no animals were harmed in the making of this motion picture," know that it all dates back to a regrettable incident at Lake of the Ozarks.
© 2008 by Michael Gillespie. All rights reserved.