We rarely mention props in our movie reviews, but just try and picture Lars and The Real girl without the blow-up doll, or Fargo without the wood chipper, or American Pie without the pie. You can’t! Because props are actually a really important part of creating the mythology of a movie. Here are some of my favourite, but be sure to share yours in the comments!
I bet this guy is instantly recognizable to you, and I bet you even know his name. Wilson the volleyball was Tom Hanks’ costar in Castaway. Hanks is all alone on a desert island until he unwraps this friend and gives him a smiling face. Pretty soon they’re sharing good times and conversation, and when Wilson is lost during a storm, it’s one of the most heart breaking scenes of the movie.
How about this one? Ring any bells? It’s a Raquel Welch poster, and it’s seen in The Shawshank Redemption. Andy (Tim Robbins) uses this and other posters over a 17 year period to conceal the tunnel he’s been methodically digging with a rock hammer. When the warden finds his cell empty one morning, he angrily throws a rock that tears a hole through poster, revealing its hidden secret. Andy has escaped.
This, of course, is Bill Murray’s alarm clock in Groundhog Day. A frustrated TV reporter providing lacklustre groundhog day coverage, he realizes that he’s stuck in a time loop and he’s the only one who knows it. Every day when this clock flips over to 6am and starts playing I Got You, Babe, Bill Murray is doomed to repeat the same day. He goes from reckless hedonism to eventually a little personal growth, but the clock just keeps telling time.
This is Lloyd Dobler, and that is Lloyd Dobler’s boombox. When John Cusack lifts this hulking music machine above his shoulders to win back the girl of his dreams, we know he’s serious. And so does she. It’s a 1980s serenade that inspired untold tributes and bolstered Peter Gabriel’s In Your Eyes to the top of the charts.
The Maltese falcon from The Maltese Falcon: hard to get more iconic than this. Humphrey Bogart plays P.I. Sam Spade, who wrangles a trio of clients all trying to get their hands on the jewel-encrusted bird statuette. Carved by American sculptor Fred Sexton, the falcon is perhaps THE prime example of a MacGuffin, a plot device that motivates the characters of the story, but has otherwise very little relevance. Still, different versions of the falcon always sell when they come up at auction and fetch very high prices – a metal version sold in 2013 for over $4 000 000.
I am somewhat loathe to include this one because I am no Star Wars fan (never having seen the films) – but really, how could I not? Nearly 40 years after the movie’s release, kids are still playing with these, and grown-ups are too. And look at the thing: it really is so damn cool. I irresistible to the 12-year-old boy, and chub-inducing to any 30-year-old still living in his parents’ basement. The light saber is probably the most iconic weapon in film history. Korean animator Nelson Shin brought it to life by drawing the light with a rotoscope. Its sound effects were designed by Ben Burtt, who layered the hum of an idling interlock motor in an old movie projector with the interference caused by a TV set to get their distinctive noise. John Stears built the hilt from old press camera flash batter packs; set decorator Roger Christian added some surface details, and George Lucas suggested adding a clip so Luke could hang it from his belt. A star is born.
The leg lamp from A Christmas Story. Classic. The super big time award that could only come out of a box stamped frah-gee-leh: the soft glow of electric sex gleaming in the window. This lamp is not only instantly recognizable, it’s also zealously reproduced. Thousands of homes have a replica of this lamp and we can only guess at how many battles have been won or lost as a result.
Confession time: I once dated a man who owned a DeLorean. DeLorean owners are a breed all of their own. They’ve formed a club, and the club meetings consist of getting their cars together, usually in the parking lot of a hand-carwash, and gently stroking their cars under the gaze of their fellow DeLoreaners. Aside from that bout of creepiness, this car was an instant standout in the Back to the Future films, so awesome for its completely 80s vibe, its distinctive gull-wing doors, it could be the only car to be turned into a time machine by the kooky Doc. Six were made for the film and only 3 of those remain – we saw one this summer at Universal Studios. 9000 were produced around 1981 in real life, and 6500 of those are still kicking around today, creeping out girls in car clubs all across this great country of ours.
The Heart of the Ocean: Bill Paxton spends the entirety of the movie Titanic looking for this necklace, which he believes went down with the ship. Rose’s (Kate Winslet) billionaire boyfriend gives it to her, and she wears it while posing otherwise nude for Jack. It’s a fictional blue diamond, humongous of course, and it inspired the jewel-lust of multitudes of weepy women. London jewelers Asprey & Garrard set cubic zirconias in white gold to make the prop in the film but afterward they were commissioned to create an “authentic” Heart of the Ocean using platinum, a 171-carat sapphire and 103 diamonds. It was donated to Sotheby’s to benefit the Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Fund and was sold for $1.4 million – with the understanding that Celine Dion could wear it 2 nights later at the Academy Awards. The J. Peterman Company would go on to sell cheap knock-offs for wives who just weren’t important enough for the real thing.
To me, Zoltar never existed outside of the movie Big. The two are inseparable, and although I may occasionally come across one on a boardwalk somewhere, it always feels like a movie prop to me. Young Josh puts a coin into an antique arcade fortune-teller machine called Zoltar Speaks, and wishes to be big. It spits out a card saying “Your wish is granted” and despite the fact that the machine was unplugged the whole time, he does indeed wake up in Tom Hanks body the next day, which, let’s face it, would freak anyone out.
Excuse me, I believe you have my stapler. Poor Milton. He really gets the shaft in his office, and the one thing, the only thing he truly prizes is his beloved red Swingline stapler. “And I said, I don’t care if they lay me off either, because I told, I told Bill that if they move my desk one more time, then, then I’m, I’m quitting, I’m going to quit. And, and I told Don too, because they’ve moved my desk four times already this year, and I used to be over by the window, and I could see the squirrels, and they were merry, but then, they switched from the Swingline to the Boston stapler, but I kept my Swingline stapler because it didn’t bind up as much, and I kept the staples for the Swingline stapler and it’s not okay because if they take my stapler then I’ll set the building on fire…”
I wondered for a long time whether to include Mary Poppins’ bag, or her umbrella. She’s famous for both. But as a kid, it was her magic carpet bag that stole my imagination. The thing is bottomless! She pulls out a coat rack, a mirror, a rubber tree plant, and a lamp! What else has she got in there? It occurs to me that now that I carry a purse of my own, any time I search for my car keys, my bag feels pretty bottomless too. Maybe not such a magic trick after all, but you still can’t have this nanny without her baggage.
The spinning top from inception – maybe the most talked-about prop from the past decade. Each member of the team carries their own totem – a small something that they’ve crafted themselves, an anchor to the real world so they’ll always know if they’re dreaming. Leonardo’s is the top: in the real world, it always stops spinning but in the dream world, it can go on forever. In the famous last scene of the movie, the camera cuts out after a very long sequence of spinning, and we never know if it was about to fall, or if it would keep on spinning forever.
Again I’m a fraud because I’ve never seen The Lord of the Rings movies (and I never will) – but even a non-fan knows of this unforgettable prop. I don’t really know what the ring is about, other than it seems to have magic powers – invisibility, I believe, but also some darker forces than that. At any rate, it needed to be destroyed and of course, it was impervious to damage. Stupid ring. So it took three whole movies just to chuck it in a volcano. I’m guessing. I mean, I’m just assuming they were eventually successful. Otherwise, that was a pretty epic failure. Jens Hanson designed the ring for the movie – rings, I should say, because 40 variations were made for the filming – tiny little gold rings for tiny little hobbit fingers, and a special spinning one for the prologue of the first film. None were inscribed; the inscription was computer generated in post-production. Sadly, Hansen died of cancer before he could see his creation on the big screen.
A golden prop that I can get behind, is the golden ticket from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. Willy Wonka operates a mysterious candy factory, and Charlie is one of the lucky winners of a golden ticket that will allow him to see behind the scenes. Charlie is unused to opportunity, and this ticket affords him (and us) a real adventure of the senses (plus a lifetime supply of chocolate, and a sneak peek of his latest creation, the everlasting gobstopper).
I don’t know if I’ve saved the best for last, but it is the most humble: a plastic cup of water. But with this cup, Steven Spielberg creates dread and suspense enough to fill oceans. For a whole generation, every time we see rings in a glass of water, our first thought will always be: T-rex!
Posts devoted to iconic cars and costumes will follow, but as for props, what did I miss?