A blindfolded horse's plunge to its death down a 70-foot cliff in southwestern Missouri during the making of the movie "Jesse James" nearly 50 years ago is still causing reverberations in the entertainment community today.
The 1939 movie by 20th Century Fox featured a thundering chase in which Tyrone Power as the outlaw James was pursued by a posse on horseback to the edge of a cliff. There, James and his horse made a daring leap to freedom.
To shoot the scene, a stunt man raced the blindfolded horse onto a sloping greased platform rigged to tilt and plunge horse and rider to the water below. The stunt man, knowing what to expect, survived. The horse fell to its death.
Stung by public fury when the incident came to light, image-conscious producers asked the Denver-based American Humane Assn. to come to Hollywood to police the treatment of animals in the entertainment industry, said Carmelita Pope, the former actress who has been the association's director since 1979.
In the years since the horse's death, the association has served as the quasi-official watchdog of animal actors, from Francis the Talking Mule to Rin Tin Tin and Flipper. Today, the association is widely credited with drastically decreasing the incidence of animal cruelty in films.
Admirers and foes say the association has achieved tremendous power and credibility in the film community.
Working out of a small suite on Ventura Boulevard in Sherman Oaks, the association champions the rights of horses, domestic and wild cats, dogs, chimpanzees, pigs, sheep, rats--even fish, birds, spiders and snakes--used in movies, television shows and commercials.
"We feel that the motion picture and television industry touches so many lives that the people watching these productions should be assured that the animals were not abused in any way for their entertainment," Pope said.
Breaks for Tired Animals
The association's protection may involve rescuing a tired dog from an exacting director by ordering a break after 30 takes of a dog-food commercial, making sure goldfish are put back into water quickly after their fish bowl is filmed smashing to the floor or checking the ground on which a horse is to run to make sure there are no gopher holes or overhanging branches.
Pope said the association also takes measures that protect actors and crew, such as making sure a rattlesnake is milked before a scene or asking a cameraman filming a puma to sit behind a shield.
During filming of "Down and Out in Beverly Hills," an association investigator stood by to make sure Mike the Dog was not exhausted by his rigorous shooting schedule.
An investigator recently went to the set of the movie "Hanoi Hilton" to protect rats, lizards, spiders and other insects used in the picture, Pope said. Pope acknowledged the impossibility of detecting exhaustion in a bug. The investigator was simply making sure they weren't squished, she said.
One investigator recently traveled to Santa Fe, N.M., to spend 10 days protecting a pig--several pigs, really, including stunt doubles--prominently featured in the Robert Redford film "The Milagro Beanfield War." The pigs were treated fine, the investigators said. The worst thing that happened to them, a publicist for the film said, was that they got fatter from constant food rewards received for performing.
Clint Eastwood's longtime producer, Fritz Manes, who has worked with apes, ferrets, snakes, rats and other creatures under the association's scrutiny, called the organization "terrific."
"I think they do a marvelous job of watching the movie industry and keeping people aware of how animals should be treated," he said.
Mark Locher, a spokesman for the Screen Actors Guild, agreed, saying there are virtually no reports of animal abuse in American films these days, in large part because of the association.
But a contradicting view came from Rudy Ugland of Saugus, a wrangler who trains and supplies horses to film makers and coordinates location work involving horses. Ugland has drawn the association's fire on several occasions for animal stunts in films such as "Heaven's Gate" and "The Missouri Breaks."
Ugland denied having inflicted cruelty on animals and criticized the association, saying its investigators "couldn't tell you which end you put a bridle on one of these horses. I think it's hurt the whole business."
Pope dismissed such criticism, as well as frequent complaints from stunt men that animals are better protected than stunt men are.
"Stunt men have voices. All they need to do is use their own good common sense and say, 'I won't do that, that's dangerous.' And they enjoy those nice fat paychecks," she said. "The animals just get fed."
Pope, who is probably best known for her roles in soap operas and as a spokeswoman for Pam vegetable spray, heads a staff of six, including four uniformed field investigators who are sent to monitor the filming of scenes with animals.