Book Review: Fall Girl, My Life as a Western Stunt Double

Martha Crawford Cantarini is an extraordinary horsewoman from the era of epic Western movies, and it’s wonderful that her story is finally available to readers.

Born deep in the heart of Texas, Martha Crawford grew up in the California movie colony. With a professional polo player for a father it was destiny, she says, that her adult life would revolve around horses and films.

Her movie debut came when she was offered the job of stunt double for Anne Baxter in 20th-Century Fox’s Yellow Sky, with Gregory Peck and Richard Widmark. Martha possessed so much skill as a horsewoman and exhibited so much poise under pressure that her career path was set. She became one of the busiest of Hollywood’s elite corps of female stunt riders.

Martha doubled for the most important stars of the day, leading ladies such as Eleanor Parker (to whom she bore an uncanny resemblance), Jean Simmons, Shirley MacLaine, Rhonda Fleming, Carroll Baker, Ann Baxter, Claudette Colbert and Linda Darnell. Martha became friends with Elvis Presley during the filming of Love Me Tender, in which she doubled Debra Paget. She worked closely with Clark Gable in The King and Four Queens and other films.

One of the highlights of her career was doubling Eleanor Parker in MGM’s Academy Award-nominated film Interrupted Melody, in which she leaped onto a bareback horse in the midst of a terrifying fire scene, then clung to the rearing animal. The studio still shot of the scene was featured in Life Magazine.

Martha worked steadily for all the major studios, performing challenging stunts in untold films and numerous episodes of popular TV series such as My Friend Flicka, Cheyenne, Have Gun Will Travel and December Bride.

As the sun set on the era of grand Westerns, she continued to work in television on classic programs such as My Friend Flicka, and made many commercials with her own horses. With one of her talented stunt horses, Martha had a one-hour weekly live television show in Las Vegas.

Her marriage to Bill Lear, Jr. (LearJet) made the front page of the New York Times, and the divorce made the front page of the Los Angeles Times. Some years later Martha met and married jockey John Cantarini. Her renewed interest in horse racing history led to an association with author Laura Hillenbrand during the writing of Seabiscuit, An American Legend.

Martha’s memoir, Fall Girl: My Life as a Stunt Rider and Star Double during the Glamorous Days of Western Movies (McFarland), is a rare insider’s look at the stars, directors and horses of the 1940s and 1950s. It’s also a hair-raising tale of stunts that worked and those that didn’t and a must-read for Western movie fans. The pictures alone are a treasure trove.

Martha is a member of the Hollywood Stuntmen’s Hall of Fame, and a recipient of the Golden Boot Award.

Fall Girl, a 225-page mid-sized paperback, is available on Amazon for $33.25 (paperback) and $17.23 (Kindle edition).

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