Friggatriskaidekaphobes unite! We’re hardly the superstitious types around these parts, but with today being the notoriously unlucky/cursed/bedeviled Friday the 13th, we thought we’d counter-program from all our festival and award season coverage and take a moment to take a not-very serious look at some of the myths, urban legends and superstitions that have sprung up around Hollywood movies over the years. Should you be terrified to rewatch “Three Men and a Baby” for any reason other than that it’s “Three Men and a Baby”? Did Charlie Chaplin catch a time traveler? Just how many people involved have to die and for how long a period after filming has ended, for a film to be considered “cursed”? These are just some of the questions we’ll be shining a light on today, so grab your lucky rabbit’s foot, throw some salt over your shoulder, cross your fingers and knock on wood as we run down, and largely lay to rest, a few of the more stubborn myths about sinister forces or secret conspiracies or paranormal interventions that have dogged the movie industry for decades.
“From Here to Eternity”(1953)/”The Godfather” (1972)
Myth: Frank Sinatra got the part of Angelo Maggio in “From Here To Eternity” after some of his mafia friends sent a threat in the form of a mutilated horse’s head to the producers. This incident was then used by Mario Puzo in his novel, and became the infamous horse’s head scene in “The Godfather,” in which, yes, the bloody warning is used to coerce a movie producer into giving a “connected” guy a coveted role.
Reality: Everyone involved with the production of “From Here to Eternity” have denied anything like this actually happened. Sinatra’s acting career was in a rut at the time, but his wife Ava Gardner was very close to studio head Harry Cohn’s wife and reportedly persuaded her to push Sinatra for the role he himself was also aggressively pursuing. Then when the actor originally cast, Eli Wallach, dropped out, Sinatra got his shot and apparently blew everyone away at his screen test, so much so that footage from that test actually made it into the final film. His performance, which he did for a fraction of his usual salary—something else that would suggest the producers were hardly in fear of their lives—was then awarded with one of the eight Oscars that the picture won, so it seems a little unfair to entertain the idea that he might have only got the role through strong-arming and nepotism.
“The Wizard of Oz” (1939)
Myth(s): 1. One of the actors playing a Munchkin, in a fit of depression related to his love life, hanged himself on set, and the hanging body is visible in one shot from the Yellow Brick Road. 2. The Tin Man outfit was poisonous. 3. Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon” was designed to perfectly sync up with the film.
Reality: 1. Untrue—all Munchkin actors were present and accounted for after filming ended, and indeed the forest scenes were filmed before the Munchkinland scenes so it’s debatable whether any of them would actually even have been on set at this time. There is a figure, or more accurately a blob in between the trees in the background—in VHS copies it’s indistinct enough that the mistake could be made and wild stories of Munchkin debauchery and excess that did the rounds after filming kind of fed into the idea that some inter-Munchkin love rivalry had ended in tragedy (that had somehow been caught on camera and then used in the final film). Prior to this the popular theory was that it was a wandering stagehand, but later it was officially announced that the shape is in fact a bird, one of several of different varieties that the production had brought in to add verisimilitude to the scene. In fact, in the remastered version it’s very clearly a bird, possibly a crane, but that of course only gives fuel to the conspiracy theorists who believe that the remastering process was partly a cover-up of this on-screen suicide. Certainly the original and the remastered versions look very different, and we guess that those simply longing to believe that the “We're Off to See the Wizard” section of probably the most beloved family film of all time is actually a snuff movie, will find a way to continue believing just that.
2. Kinda true. Buddy Ebsen, the actor originally slated to play the Tin Man (after swapping roles with The Scarecrow aka Ray Bolger), was also the guinea pig for the costuming and make up. With the designers not sure how they were to achieve the Tin Man’s silvery sheen, they went through several prototypes, eventually settle on one which involved a layer of clown white on his face, followed by a dusting of aluminum powder. The dust in his lungs caused Ebsen to get very ill (though whether from an allergic reaction or an infection it caused is unclear) and be hospitalized, and the part was recast to Jack Haley. Haley’s makeup was a paste instead, but that didn’t solve all problems as he had to miss four days of filming to wait for an eye infection it caused to clear up.
3. Well, this one really depends on what you think of as “perfectly syncing up” and whether that’s ever really possible between a 43-minute album and a 101-minute film.There are many, many blogs dedicated to the points of synchronicity (check out one here if you wish), but of course coincidence is not enough of an explanation for the kookier element who insist that the band deliberately designed the album that way. The band and everyone associated with the recording have always denied it, but the last word on that should probably go to drummer Nick Mason who said “"It's absolute nonsense. It has nothing to do with 'The Wizard of Oz.' It was all based on 'The Sound of Music.'"
Myth: Somebody Up There (or possibly Down Below) did not want the Antichrist film to get made,“sent” a variety of catastrophes to trouble the beleaguered production, and was then pretty pissed when it did get made and continued its reign of terror over those involved. So: Gregory Peck’s, the producer’s and the screenwriter’s (different) planes were all struck by, or very nearly struck by, lightning, while there are varying reports of a narrowly avoided plane crash—either Peck cancelled a seat on a flight that then crashed, killing all on board, or a charter plane that had originally been booked for crew members went down a few minutes after take off. Director Richard Donner’s hotel was bombed by the IRA. An animal trainer used by the film was killed by a lion after filming ended, and during the production dog wranglers were attacked by their Rottweilers. And production designer John Richardson, who designed many of the grisly death scenes in the film including the famous David Warner plate-glass decapitation scene, experienced a horrendous car crash while working on his next film, in which his girlfriend was killed, allegedly beheaded. Further mythology that has sprung up around that tragedy is that it happened by a road marker indicating the couple were 66.6km from the Dutch town of Ommen at the time.
Reality: Already the fogginess of so many of these tales makes it difficult to sort out fact from hyperactive imaginings, but, let’s see. Planes are very frequently struck by lightning, and hotel bombings occurred fairly often around then, many times with much more tragic results that what was presumably more inconvenience than anything else for Donner (not to mention all the other non-“Omen”-related occupants of the hotel). Trainers who work with wild animals, or animals bred for aggression are often attacked by those animals. And the car accident death, well, it’s definitely tragic, and horrific that anyone should witness that, but as for the road sign, while there is a town in The Netherlands called Ommen, its strikes us as odd that there isn’t a single image of this ominous signpost anywhere on the internet. Plus, as far as we can ascertain, Dutch road signs don’t feature fractions of kilometers, except for smaller distances on bicycle paths. So a collection of near-miss circumstances, some bad luck and one bona fide tragedy is all we can see this “curse” really amounting to.
“Three Men and a Baby” (1987)
Myth: The ghost of a young boy, who committed suicide using a shotgun in the house where they were filming the movie, can be seen staring out from behind a curtain in a certain shot.
Reality: Well, it’ll show our vintage but we actually remember getting a shock when we were first told about this, many years back in the heyday of VHS. As also with “The Wizard of Oz” suicide myth the grainy, blurry image that you get from trying to examine a paused VHS does lend itself to all sorts of interpretations particularly for impressionable youngsters. However this one has been completely and thoroughly debunked: for one thing, the interiors were filmed not in an actual house but on a Toronto soundstage, which would be an unusual place for an unquiet spirit to be haunting. And for another, it’s very clearly a cardboard standee of Ted Danson in a top hat which was used as a prop elsewhere, that only looks small-suicidal-boy-sized because of perspective, the gauzy curtains that obscure detail and the odd angle from which it’s seen. Even the shotgun detail probably came from the vaguely shotgun-reminiscent shape that the bottom part of the standee makes from yet another angle. Still, I totally FREAKED Elaine Brady OUT when I showed this to her back in the day.