FACT OR FICTION-Infamous Movie Urban Legends
by Jonathan Crow April 23rd, 2009
The unbelievable scale and complexity of movie productions, not to mention the unparalleled egos of the people who make them, make Tinseltown a veritable factory for gossip. While some tidbits pop up in tabloids and are quickly dismissed, others develop into full-fledged urban legends. Here's a list of some of the most enduring of these tales, along with a little research -- with thanks to snopes.com and other sources -- to separate the rumors from reality.
Movie: The Wizard of Oz
Claim: A lovelorn munchkin's suicide was captured on film.
There are few movies out there that have more urban legends connected to it than "The Wizard of Oz." And while some are partially true -- it does actually synch up in some freakish ways with Pink Floyd's "Dark Side of the Moon" (start your CD when the MGM lion roars for the third time) -- others, like the dead munchkin tale, are not.
The scene in question is when Dorothy and Scarecrow discover the Tin Man. It ends with all three dancing off into the distance along the yellow-brick road as the camera cranes up. If you watch closely, you can see some kind of odd motion behind a tree at the center of the screen. Some have it that it's a hiding stage hand who didn't hear the director shout "action" until it was too late. More active imaginations have it that it's a suicidal actor who played a munchkin kicking a ladder out from under him.
Leaving aside the absurdity that footage of a suicide would make it past the editors who labor over every frame of a movie before it's released, the truth is that movement the background is actually a stork or a crane. In order to help add some atmosphere to the indoor set, a number of exotic birds were lent to the production by the L.A. Zoo and were allowed to roam free. That strange flutter is one crane stretching its wing at an inopportune moment.
Movie: Back to the Future Part II
Claim: The hoverboards actually worked.
"Back to the Future II" might not have been the best movie of the BTTF franchise, but it did have one of its most memorable scenes: Marty McFly escaping a gang of bullies on one of those way cool hoverboards. Soon after the movie came out, rumors spread that these hoverboards were in fact real and that they'd soon be available in stores. Other rumors claimed that Mattel had a warehouse full of the boards but were sitting on them because parents' groups were concerned about safety. And even another rumor had it that a Mattel employee died a gruesome death testing one, causing the toy company to shelf the product. Director Robert Zemeckis added fuel to this urban legend by claiming in the "making of" documentary that "hoverboards have been around for years."
It turns out that the hoverboard scene was the result of Hollywood special effects, not some new, totally awesome technology. The actors were suspended on wires that were removed digitally (this was one of the first movies to use the now-common technique). The boards were then attached to the actors' feet, so they were holding up the hoverboards, not the other way around. Zemeckis got tired of answering questions about how the effect was achieved that he just started lying and claiming they were real. To this day Mattel swears up and down that they don't have piles of the boards gathering dust.
Movie: Three Men and a Baby
Claim: The ghost of a dead boy is visible in the background of one scene.
The notorious "ghost boy" in this film appears in scene where Jack Holden (Ted Danson) is talking to his mother. For the past twenty years, this image of what appears to be a human figure looming between the curtains has been freaking out viewers. Rumor has it that the figure was the ghost of a nine-year old who died -- either from a shotgun to the head or from jumping out the window -- in the New York apartment where they filmed the movie.
In fact, "Three Men and a Baby" was shot on a soundstage in Toronto; no actual residential locations were ever used for the production. The figure itself was a cardboard cut-out of Ted Danson, which was supposed to be a part of his character's job as a product spokesman. Though much of that storyline ended up on the editor's floor, the cut-out remained and a legend was born.
Claim: An actress died from being painted gold.
Back in the '60s, it was widely believed that you can breathe through your skin. If you cover your skin with something like paint, the theory went, you could die of asphyxiation. James Bond explained as much when Goldfinger's ex-secretary Jill Masterson wound up dead, in his bed, and covered in gold. Science has since proved this theory to be bunk; you breathe through your nose and mouth, not your skin. Though Jill Masterson still could have died from getting the head-to-toe Goldfinger treatment -- her body would have overheated since it has no place to sweat -- it wouldn't have been from asphyxiation.
This belief no doubt fueled the rumor that the actress who played Jill Masterson, Shirley Eaton, died from all that gold paint. Though a pair of doctors was on set just in case something went wrong, Eaton not only survived the shoot, she is, as of this writing, alive and well in her native England and a grandmother of five.
Claim: A stuntman's death ended up in the final cut of the famed chariot race.
The chariot race in William Wyler's 1959 epic "Ben Hur" is one of the most spectacle action sequences ever shot, easily holding its own against later day CG-laden sagas like "The Lord of the Rings." Based partially on the strength of this scene, the film nabbed a record-breaking eleven Oscars. The race took three months to finish and required eighteen chariots and 8,000 extras. It also featured some of the most gruesome on-screen death scenes up to that point in movies. So it's not too surprising that people started to confuse movie magic with real-life fatalities.
William Wyler, Charlton Heston, and stunt coordinator Yakima Canutt have all stated on the record that no one was seriously injured in that scene. The crew managed to make those on-screen deaths, particularly that of Ben Hur's rival Mesalla, look so shockingly real through a clever use of dummies and top-drawer editing. The only stunt that came close to resulting in serious injury happened when Ben Hur was tossed from his chariot. Heston's stunt double Joe Canutt, Yakima's son, got an ugly cut on his chin that required a few stitches, but it was hardly fatal.
Claim: Ronald Reagan was originally slated to play Rick Blaine.
Humphey Bogart's turn as Rick Blaine in "Casablanca" made his career, launching him into the pantheon of cinema icons. Yet urban legend has it that future-president Ronald Reagan almost got tapped for the part. It's a great story, but it's not true. Reagan was never considered for the role.
On December 27, 1941, producer Hal Wallis bought the rights to the unproduced play "Everyone Comes to Rick's." Two weeks later, before the screenplay had even been started, a press release hit "The Hollywood Reporter" stating that Reagan and Ann Sheridan were going to co-star in "Casablanca." This was most likely a planted item from Warner Bros.' Page Ranking department, a common practice back then to keep studio actors in the spotlight.
The truth was this: Hal Wallis was an independent producer who agreed to make movies for Jack Warner; his contract stipulated that he was under no obligation to take casting cues from the studio. In fact, the studio was required to make its stable of actors available to him. Though Jack Warner did ask Wallis to cast George Raft, Wallis refused. The producer always had Bogart in mind to play Rick.
Movie: The Madness of King George
Claim: The original title, "The Madness of George III," was changed because Americans thought it was a sequel.
The 1991 play "The Madness of George III" dramatized the strange behavior of the British monarch who supposedly lost his mind after losing the American colonies. When it was adapted into a 1995 film, rumor had it that distributors changed the title for the American release to "The Madness of King George" so that confused Yanks wouldn't think they had missed "The Madness of George" parts I and II.
In fact, the "The Madness of King George" was the title for the movie worldwide, even in the UK. It's true the filmmakers did change original play's name. Reportedly, this was because they were keen to get the word "King" into the title for cultural reasons; while Brits immediately recognize that George III was a monarch, while Americans -- a people without a history of royalty -- might not.
Movie: For Your Eyes Only
Claim: One of the Bond girls used to be dude.
This 1981 Bond flick, the twelfth starring Roger Moore, had its usual quotient of explosions and scantily clad women. One of these ladies, however, garnered a lot more attention than usual when British tabloid "News of the World" came out with a front page headline reading: "James Bond Girl Was a Boy."
Caroline Cossey was born Barry Cossey in rural England in 1954. At the age of seventeen, he started taking hormones and two years later, he went the full nine yards and had sex reassignment surgery. The doctors apparently did a bang-up job because Caroline, working under the stage name of Tula, soon found work as a model and as an actress. Caroline's role in "For Your Eyes Only" was quite small; she's listed as "Girl at Pool," a credit shared by eight other women.
After the tabloid outing, an experience that devastated her, she went on to appear in Playboy and publish a couple autobiographies. She is currently married and living in Georgia.
Fact or Fiction: Infamous Movie Urban Legends
I remember one urban legend a few years back regarding the 'Blair Witch Project' where a lot of people, including myself, thought this was for real.
Life's tragedy is that we get old too soon and wise too late.
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