Odd Machines Put Fun in Movies (Mar, 1935)

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Odd Machines Put Fun in Movies

By John E. Lodge

MOVIE studio men were stumped when a comedy script called for an oyster that would open its shell and wink one eye. But a New York maker of comedy props welcomed the job. A few days later, he appeared at the studio carrying an ingenious shell made of papier-mache. The two halves opened and closed on a spring hinge and an eye within winked when a studio man pulled a hidden string.

In another picture, a laugh-getter was a bow tie that spun around like a propeller every time an actor swallowed. A crack propmaker spent two whole days designing it. Secreted within was a coil spring. Every time the comic swallowed, his Adam’s apple tripped a release lever and set the tie whirling.

From the studios of Hollywood and the East come frequent requests for such curious, absurd, fantastic bits of mechanism. They appear for a few minutes upon the screen, get their laughs and are never used again. Yet, not infrequently, it requires days of study and infinite ingenuity to produce them.

The men who supply these mechanical aids to comedy, are behind-the-scenes workers. They often work on a free-lance basis in little shops of their own. Their names rarely, if ever, appear on the screen when actors, directors, costumers, cameramen and technicians are given their due. However, their skill is vital to almost every comedy flashed upon the screen.

A few months ago, for example, the big laugh in a comedy reel came when the hero went fishing. The trout played tag around his bait and finally came to the surface and squirted water in his eyes. The comedian nonchalantly reached into a pocket, pulled out spectacles equipped with little windshield wipers and went on fishing.

That scene clicked along on the set without a hitch. But, behind it lay days of work and experiment. The spouting fish, I was told, were realistic imitations cast in rubber. Long tubes led off-stage and ended in bulbs. When these were squeezed, water squirted from the fishes’ mouths. A laboratory workshop turned out the trick spectacles. These had invisible threads running down the actor’s sleeves by means of which he operated the midget wipers.

Of comedy propmakers, the New York firm of Messmore and Damon is probably the most famous. With machine shops, papier-mache rooms, carving benches and 27,000 square feet of floor space, it turns out a weird list of products ranging from rubber asparagus to mechanized prehistoric monsters; from sixteen-foot saxophones to animated cupids that shoot arrows; from a winking statue of George Washington to a black stork to deliver a Negro baby!

This concern has made so many comedy props that it can quote prices over the telephone for almost any fantastic mechanism you can think of. A balsa-wood alarm clock, a mechanical spider and a whirling necktie, for example, would together cost you in the neighborhood of a hundred dollars.

On the day I visited the plant, workmen were putting slide fasteners in the hind legs of a horse. The imitation animal was to double for a real horse in a comedy. Two actors in the legs were to go into a comic dance and the slide fasteners would enable them to get in and out. The body was formed of papier-mache and the legs of a special fabric. Viewed from across the room, the real horse and the imitation animal could hardly be told apart.

A few days before, finishing touches had been put upon a nine-foot camel. Slide fasteners in the humps enabled comedy characters to use them for luggage carriers on a burlesque trip across the Sahara. Another ludicrous prop was a horse with rubber-fabric sides. During the action of the comedy, two actors inside the horse were supposed to become mixed up in their signals. The rear legs stood still while the front legs kept on going until the horse was stretched to three times its normal size.

Such orders are all in the day’s work for the propmaker. Requests for trick fountain pens that pour out ink when the point is pressed against paper, for rubber stirrup straps that stretch and then fly back when a comic starts to mount a horse, and for trunks that are designed so they fall apart when a string is pulled, are comparatively easy ones.

An expanding turkey which was ordered last year, however, was not so simple. It was made of special rubberized fabric and contained a heavy rubber balloon. In the comedy in which it was used, bushels of dressing were stuffed into the turkey, the dressing being shoved down through a hole in the table while the balloon expanded farther and farther until the bird was the size of an ostrich. When a knife was stuck into the bird at the Thanksgiving dinner, it collapsed to the size of a robin. Another puzzler for a Hollywood prop designer was a breathing cake for a Hal Roach “Our Gang” comedy. Five children had gathered around a birthday-party table when the huge frosted cake in the center began to breathe, expanding and contracting while the guests’ eyes popped out in amazement. The cake was covered with rubberized fabric over which the frosting was placed. A battery of small balloons encircled the cake beneath the outer covering. Off-stage, workmen pumped air in and out of the balloons, producing the appearance of breathing.

The other day, a comedian on a Hollywood set reached for a broom, intending to frighten his co-star with a playful tap on the head. Instead, his hand grasped a sledge hammer. Swinging it in a great arc, he crashed it down on the skull of the other actor. The blow was so hard that it broke the hammer. However, the complete tool weighed only three ounces and the head and handle, both made of desert yucca, were stuck together with two toothpicks and a little mucilage.

Every fall, Hollywood prop men scour the desert foothills of Southern California, fighting rattlesnakes in their search for yucca plants large enough to yield the raw material for such imitations of hammers, chairs and other heavy objects used for playful socking on the comedy set. Lighter and more fragile than balsa wood, yucca is being widely used in place of it at West Coast studios.

After the sap has gone down, they cut the tall plants, which sometimes gain as much as twelve inches in diameter in a single season. Then they strip off the heavy bark and cut up the pith into boards. Yucca chairs retail for about $7.50 apiece, wine bottles for $7 a dozen, sledge hammers for $3 and giant wrenches for $5.

BECAUSE bottles, plates and other “breakaway” objects made of wax “go mushy” on the sound track, thin plaster is being used instead. It breaks with a realistic crash. Often, the side of such an imitation milk bottle is thinner than a sheet of this paper. The necks of the bottles, where the actors grasp them, are made heavier to withstand the pressure. Painted plaster-of-Paris plates, looking exactly like china, often weigh less than two ounces.

“When we make rocks,” one veteran prop man told me, “we clean house, throwing in everything soft we have lying around.”

The smaller rocks are formed of layers of newspaper covered with brown building paper and filled with excelsior and similar materials. The larger bowlders, such as roll down mountain sides to block the path of the villain, are likewise made of layers of paper. First, strips of brown paper are glued around a rattan frame. When they are dry, the covering is cut open and removed from the frame. Then it is glued together again and additional layers of paper are cemented in place over it. A “two-ton” rock of this sort could land squarely on your head without injuring you, since it weighs only a couple of pounds.

When a comedian stumbles through a glass door he doesn’t really endanger himself. For the glass isn’t glass at all, but candy. Thin, transparent sheets of hardened sugar and water look exactly like glass on the studio set and are widely used. Because of the fragile character of most breakaway objects, the propmakers turn out six times as many as are actually needed in a scene, to take care of accidental breakage.

In one recent comedy, the biggest laugh came from a trick shirt front. A pompous gentleman entered a room in full dress, unbuttoned his coat with a sweeping gesture, and his shirt bosom rolled up like a window curtain! The prop man who made it sewed a coil spring from a clock at either side of the shirt bosom. Unbuttoning the coat released the spring and permitted it to coil up again, rolling the shirt front with it.

A jumping-bean gag, which was the high point in another reel, depended upon the ingenuity of a propmaker for its success. In the comedy, a blundering actor fills a pot by mistake with Mexican jumping beans and puts it in an oven. Later, when he tries to taste the beans to see if they are done, they hop out of the ladle before he can get them to his mouth. The dipper was fitted with an interior spoon set on a spring. A wire, running down the handle and ending on a ring that fitted over the comic’s little finger, enabled him to trip the release lever by a twitch of his finger, and send the beans flying.

ONE mechanical device, supplied as a comedy prop, worked too well for its own good. Several months ago, an eastern studio was filming a comedy about an eccentric inventor. He had devised a rocking chair with a motor attachment to do the rocking. In the play he pulls the wrong lever and the chair begins to hop around the porch like a hen on a hot plate. The chair, loaded down with gears, cams, and flywheels, appeared at the studio during the noon hour. By the time the camera was ready to shoot, the directors and actors had had so much fun riding the jumping chair that its machinery had broken down and it had to be sent back to the plant for repairs.

Queer inventions are always a fertile field for comedy gags. Scores of them have appeared on the screen in recent years. Of them all, the weirdest undoubtedly was the taxicab rigged up not long ago for a western production.

WHEN the driver pulled one cord, a boxing glove on a telephone extension swung out to indicate a right or left turn. A jerk on another cord started a fan revolving in front of the radiator and this in turn set in motion a mechanical hand which played a tune on a cornet to warn pedestrians. When a jaywalker was struck, the bumper automatically swung around, pivoting on one end, and swept the victim into the gutter.

To start the contraption, the driver pulled a cord which opened a feed box at the rear. A mule, hitched behind, started forward to get the oats and’ propelled the taxi forward. With the animal never quite catching up with the oats, the ludicrous vehicle rolled down the street.

Another puzzler that took some figuring out, was a horse that scratched its chin with its left hind hoof. Western prop-men finally solved the problem with one of the largest puppets ever filmed. This huge horse had twenty-one wires leading up into the rafters of the big sound stage. Here “puppeteers” operated the wires that gave life to the imitation animal.

Not infrequently, sound plays a big role in making the comedy picture funny. In a film recently released, the comedian steals barefooted down a long hall carrying a sack of roofing nails which he intends to scatter in a rival’s bedroom. As he tiptoes along, the nails pour in a steady stream from a hole in the bag. Since the microphone could not be held close enough to the falling nails to record the sound at full strength, a record was made later and dubbed in at the proper place. In making the record, a technician poured the nails into a metal container.

Lifelike dummies of papier-mache and other materials are often used to replace comedians in dangerous situations. Usually, they are photographed from a distance. But, in one film, at least, a dummy of this sort was shot at close range. In a train wreck, a dog rushes up to what appears to be its master and grabs a leg in an effort to pull him out. The leg stretches and stretches and stretches. Rubberized cloth permitted this ludicrous anti-climax to a tense scene.

Oftentimes, the dummies serve as “stand-ins” for actors, taking their positions under the hot lights until the director is ready for action. Because of the effect of the heat and light upon real foods, rubber asparagus, plaster-of-Paris fruit and papier-mache meats are turned out by propmakers to take the place of the genuine articles.

Virtually every comedy filmed these days depends for many of its laughs upon the skill and mechanical ability of prop men. Endless variety, rarely the same thing twice—that is the story of their work. The telephone rings; the mailman arrives; a telegraph messenger appears. And in comes an order that may be for anything from a twenty-foot monkey wrench to a dancing sardine—curious, laugh-getting mechanisms that form the strangest product list on earth.

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