Aerialist actor Ormer Locklear
|Born||Ormer Leslie Locklear
October 28, 1891
Greenville, Texas, U.S.
|Died||August 2, 1920
Los Angeles, California, U.S.
Born in Como, Texas, Locklear was brought up in Fort Worth and trained as a carpenter. While still at school, he was a daredevil performer of tricks in and on moving vehicles. He worked as a house builder, and married Ruby Graves in 1915.
Locklear became fascinated by flying, trying to build his own glider, so when the United Statees entered World War I in 1917, he joined the U.S. Army Air Service. Locklear trained in Austin, at Camp Dick and Barron Field, becoming a flying instructor. Locklear was an exponent of wing walking to make aircraft repairs in flight.
A 2nd lieutenant at the end of the war, Locklear had been assigned to military recruitment when he saw a barnstorming show and realized his own usual flying exploits were far more impressive. After briefly reenlisting, Locklear left the US Army in 1919, along with two military colleagues, Milton "Skeets" Elliott and Shirley Short. With manager and promoter William Pickens, they soon obtained aircraft and formed the "Locklear Flying Circus".
Pickens had a great deal of experience promoting barnstormers, with Locklear being his greatest success. Both men became wealthy and lived in high style. His trademark stunt of jumping from one aircraft to another led Locklear to perfect a transfer from a car, and then the "Dance of Death," in which two pilots in two aircraft, would switch places in midair.
The Locklear Flying Circus performed throughout the United States. When they came to the attention of Hollywood, Pickens arranged for Locklear to appear as a stunt man in film work. This opened the way to a movie career in California for Locklear, now considered the foremost "aviation stunt man in the world". Carl Laemmle, head of Universal Pictures, agreed to purchase all of Locklear's future air show dates in July 1919 in order to have him on contract for a proposed two-film series. Locklear was signed to star in The Great Air Robbery, a film depicting pilots flying air mail.
Principal photography for The Great Air Robbery began in July 1919 at DeMille Field 1, Los Angeles, California, owned by producer Cecil B. DeMille. Besides being used as a base for flying,[clarification needed] Locklear's Curtiss JN-4 "Jenny" aircraft was also mounted on a raised wooden platform at the airfield in order to film closeups. The Great Air Robbery was primarily an opportunity to showcase the aerial stunts that had made Locklear famous. The studio promotion was extensive, with Laemmle declaring the film was "... the most amazing and unbelievable photodrama of all time." The promotional campaign included a premiere at the Superba Theatre in Los Angeles, and a two-month personal appearance tour with Locklear.
Reviews were generally favourable, as The Great Air Robbery was the first of a cycle of postwar films dealing with the exploits of stunt pilots. The New York Times review focused on the exciting elements of the film. "Lieutenant Locklear swings from one airplane to another and crawls out on the tail of a flying machine several thousand feet, presumably, above the earth. The melodrama's use of airplanes for midnight mail deliveries, highway, or rather highair, robberies, and battles between the forces of law and lawlessness adds excitement."
Although The Great Air Robbery was a commercial success, Laemmle did not take up the option for a second film starring Locklear, prompting his $25,000 lawsuit against Universal. Unwilling to go back to the air show circuit, Locklear wanted to continue his Hollywood career, and in April 1920, he was signed to star in The Skywayman (1920).
Principal photography on The Skywayman began on June 11, 1920, with DeMille Field 2 as the main base of operations.[N 1] Despite Locklear's public claim that new stunts "more daring ever filmed" would be involved, the production would rely heavily on models and less on actual stunt flying. Two stunts, a church steeple being toppled by Locklear's aircraft and an aircraft-to-train transfer were both problematic and nearly ended in disaster.
The last stunt scheduled for filming was a nighttime spin, initially to take place in daylight with cameras fitted with red filters to simulate darkness. Locklear, under a lot of pressure, with not only his family life being in upheaval but also learning that studio head William Fox was not going to extend his contract beyond one film, demanded that he be allowed to fly at night. The studio relented, and on August 2, 1920, publicity surrounding the stunt led to a large crowd gathering to witness the filming of the unusual stunt. Large studio arc lights were set up on DeMille Field 2 to illuminate the Curtiss "Jenny", to be doused as the aircraft entered its final spin. The dive towards some oil derricks was to make it appear that the airplane crashed beside the oil well. As arranged, Locklear had forewarned the lighting crew to douse their lights when he got near the derricks so that he could see to pull out of the dive, saying that "When you take the lights off, I'll know where I am and I can come out of it." After completing a series of aerial maneuvers, Locklear signaled that he would descend.
In front of shocked spectators and film crew, Locklear and his long-time flying partner "Skeets" Elliot crashed heavily into the sludge pool of an oil well, never pulling out of the incipient spin. After the accident, speculation revolved around the five arc lights that had remained fully on, possibly blinding the flight crew. The crash resulted in a massive explosion and fire, with Locklear and Elliot dying instantly.
With the entire film already "in the can" except for the night scene, Fox made the decision to capitalize on the crash and deaths of Locklear and Elliot by rushing The Skywayman into production and release. With lurid notices proclaiming "Every Inch Of Film Showing Locklear's Spectacular (And Fatal) Last Flight. His Death-Defying Feats And A Close Up Of His Spectacular Crash To Earth," the film premiered in Los Angeles on September 5, 1920. The advertising campaign that accompanied the film was very similar to that of his first feature film, focusing on Locklear's earlier exploits and combining model displays and exhibition flights across North America to coincide with the film's release. Fox Film Corporation claimed that 10% of the studio profits would go to the families of Locklear and Elliot.
Silent screen star Viola Dana was in a relationship with Locklear at the time, and witnessed the crash. Dana describes Locklear's aerial accident in the "Hazards of the Game" episode of the television documentary series Hollywood (1980).[N 2]
Locklear and Elliott were buried in Fort Worth after huge funeral ceremonies, both there and in Los Angeles.
- Wynne 1987, p. 14.
- "Barnstormers and Racers." Century of Flight. Retrieved: October 23, 2014.
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- Brownlow, Kevin. Hollywood, episode "Hazard of the Game," 1980
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- Wynne 1987, p. 24.
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- Wynne 1987, p. 10.
- Farmer, James H. Celluloid Wings: The Impact of Movies on Aviation. Blue Ridge Summit, Pennsylvania: Tab Books Inc., 1984. ISBN 978-0-83062-374-7.
- Hatfield, D. D. Los Angeles Aeronautics 1920-29. Inglewood, California: Northrop University Press, 1973. ASIN B0006CB8ZI
- Paris, Michael. From the Wright Brothers to Top Gun: Aviation, Nationalism, and Popular Cinema. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 1995. ISBN 978-0-7190-4074-0.
- Pendo, Stephen. Aviation in the Cinema. Lanham, Maryland: Scarecrow Press, 1985. ISBN 0-8-1081-746-2.
- Ronnie, Art. Locklear: The Man Who Walked on Wings. Cranbury, New Jersey: A.S. Barnes and Company, 1973. ISBN 0-498-01073-2
- Wynne, H. Hugh. The Motion Picture Stunt Pilots and Hollywood's Classic Aviation Movies. Missoula, Montana: Pictorial Histories Publishing Co., 1987. ISBN 0-933126-85-9.