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The Truth Behind 10 Movie Urban Legends

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clowSometimes, the myths surrounding movies are so strong that it’s hard to separate fact from fiction. Here are 10 movie urban legends, debunked.

1. The Wizard of Oz's Munchkin Suicide

The Urban Legend: As Dorothy, the Scarecrow, and the Tin Man head down the yellow brick road, you can see a mysterious figure dangling from a rope in the background. For years it was believed that a lovelorn munchkin hanged himself while the cameras were rolling during production, unbeknownst to the director, various stagehands, and the actors on the screen.

The Truth: What's actually moving in the background is a large exotic bird on loan from the Los Angeles Zoo. The urban legend started when The Wizard of Oz was released on VHS in 1989, and persisted over the decades, until the most recent Blu-ray edition of the American classic reveals the myth as false.

2. Three Men and a Baby's Ghost

The Urban Legend: After Three Men and a Baby was released on VHS in 1990, a legend emerged—about an hour into the movie, Jack Holden (Ted Danson) and his mother (Celeste Holm) are walking through Jack’s house with his newly found baby girl. In the background, you can see a mysterious figure behind the curtains of one of the windows. It was believed that this figure was the ghost of a boy who used to live in the house where Three Men and a Baby was being shot. The most common myth is that the boy committed suicide with a shotgun, which is why the house was vacant for the movie shoot.

The Truth: The mysterious figure behind the curtain is a cardboard cutout of Danson's character wearing a top hat and tails; it was used as a prop for a storyline that was eventually cut out of the movie. The house is also not a real house, but a set on a soundstage in Toronto.

3. Back To The Future Part II's Hoverboards

The Urban Legend: After the release of Back To The Future Part II in 1989, children and teenagers left movie theaters across the country wanting the Mattel Hoverboards featured in the sequel film. The film’s star Michael J. Fox and director Robert Zemeckis even stated that the Hoverboards were real and the only reason why they’re not available to buy were parents’ groups were worried that children might get hurt riding them.

The Truth: Zemeckis later admitted that all the flying sequences from the sequel were made possible through various special effects.

4. The Lion King's Naughty Sky Spelling

The Urban Legend: When The Lion King was first released on VHS in 1995, many viewers discovered the word “S-E-X” spelled out in dust after Simba flopped down on a mountain’s edge. Conservative activists protested Disney claiming that the movie studio was promoting sexual activities through a subliminal message in the film.

The Truth: In reality, the letter grouping was intended to spell out “S-F-X” as an Easter egg for the animation effects team who worked on the Disney film.

5. Poltergeist's Ghost Director

The Urban Legend: Although Tobe Hooper is credited as the official director of the 1982 horror film Poltergeist, it is widely believed that the film’s producer, Steven Spielberg, directed a majority of the movie.

At the time, Spielberg's contract with Universal Studios contained a clause that didn’t allow him to direct another movie while preparing for E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. Some questioned Spielberg’s role on Poltergeist when reports emerged that Spielberg was a more vocal and active presence than Hooper while on set.

Spielberg always clarified that Hooper wasn’t a take-charge kind of guy and if a problem occurred during production, he would step in with Hooper’s consent. The actors in the film seem to be divided on who the real director was: Some would say Hooper played an active role, while others contend Spielberg made adjustments after Hooper set up camera shots and scenes.

The Truth: The fact of the matter is that Tobe Hooper is Poltergeist’s official director, while Steven Spielberg was the film’s creative force and producer.

6. Ben-Hur's Chariot Race Death

The Urban Legend: During Ben-Hur’s iconic chariot race sequence, it was believed that one of the stuntmen driving a chariot was accidentally killed while filming the race. The footage was left in the final version of the film against the wishes of the stuntman’s widow.

The Truth: The only record of someone dying during the production of Ben-Hur in 1958 was one of the film’s producers, Sam Zimbalist, who died of a heart attack at age 54 while on set.

7. The Day The Clown Cried's Shelving

  

The Legend: In 1972, Jerry Lewis directed and starred in a film about a German clown who was jailed as a political prisoner at a Nazi camp during World War II. Lewis never released the movie, and rumors swirled that it was because he was embarrassed of the final product. To this day, The Day The Clown Cried has never been released in theaters and has only been screened for a small handful of people.

The Truth: The truth is that The Day the Clown Cried has been in heavy litigation since it went into production in 1972; in fact, Jerry Lewis, the film’s producer Nat Wachsberger, and the source material’s author Joan O’Brien couldn't come to financial terms during the film’s production in Sweden that would allow the movie to be released. Wachsberger was unable to secure the film rights from O’Brien and ran out of money before the film could be completed, so Lewis had to put up the money out of his own pocket to finish The Day The Clown Cried.

The Swedish government seized footage of the film when O’Brien filed the lawsuit, but Lewis managed to smuggle the final reel of the film out of the country. A behind-the-scenes film from The Day The Clown Cried remains the only footage available to publicly watch. According to Lewis's official website, "The film has been tied up in litigation ever since, and all of the parties involved have never been able to reach an agreeable settlement. Jerry hopes to someday complete the film, which remains to this day, a significant expression of cinematic art, suspended in the abyss of international litigation."

8. The Shining's Director Also Directed the Moon Landing

The Legend: Since The Shining was released on VHS, there have been many conspiracy theories and urban legends surrounding the true meaning behind Stanley Kubrick’s horror film. The most interesting of them all is that Stanley Kubrick faked the Apollo 11 Moon landing in 1969 and his film from 1980 is his confession.

The urban legend suggests that the U.S. government approached Kubrick after the release of 2001: A Space Odyssey in 1968. Kubrick’s realistic approach to space exploration impressed government officials, so they felt Stanley Kubrick was the right fit to fake the Moon landing. According to the urban legend, there are many clues in The Shining that “prove” Stanley Kubrick faked the entire lunar mission. A majority of these clues are included in the documentary Room 237.

The Truth: The reality is that NASA landed two astronauts on the Moon on July 20, 1969—they even left some reflectors up there—and Stanley Kubrick had nothing to do with the mission.

9. Goldfinger's Death by Gold Body Paint

The Legend: In 1964, the third film in the James Bond film series featured the death of a young woman by the hand of her evil employer Auric Goldfinger. The woman was covered in gold paint, which led to her eventual asphyxiation. It was believed at the time of the film that the woman, actress Shirley Eaton, died because she covered her entire body in paint.

The belief was that the paint would cover and clog all your pores and you would slowly suffocate because the body “breathes” through your skin. To prevent death, it was important to leave a small part of your body unpainted.

The Truth: The reality is that painting your body would not lead to death. If it did, you’d have to wear the body paint for a prolonged period of time, as your body would suffer from overheating rather than asphyxiation.

10. The Blair Witch Project was a real documentary

The Legend: Footage from three student filmmakers who went missing while making a documentary about the Blair Witch legend (supposedly found one year after they disappeared) was presented as a real documentary. 

The film’s distributor, Artisan Entertainment, played along with the urban legend and centered all the film’s promotional materials with the idea that it was an actual documentary and not a fictional film. The urban legend marketing worked—The Blair Witch Project grossed $248.6 million worldwide against a $60,000 production budget.

The Truth: After its release, it was revealed that The Blair Witch Project was a fictional film from the minds of the film’s writers and directors, Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez. The three student filmmakers were young actors Heather Donahue, Michael Williams, and Joshua Leonard.

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20 Things You Might Not Have Known About Firefly
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As any diehard fan will be quick to tell you, Firefly's run was far, far too short. Despite its truncated run, the show still offers a wealth of fun facts and hidden Easter eggs. On the 15th anniversary of the series' premiere, we're looking back at the sci-fi series that kickstarted a Browncoat revolution.

1. A CIVIL WAR NOVEL INSPIRED THE FIREFLY UNIVERSE.

The Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Killer Angels from author Michael Shaara was Joss Whedon’s inspiration for creating Firefly. It follows Union and Confederate soldiers during four days at the Battle of Gettysburg during the American Civil War. Whedon modeled the series and world on the Reconstruction Era, but set in the future.

2. ORIGINALLY, THE SERENITY CREW INCLUDED JUST FIVE MEMBERS.

When Whedon first developed Firefly, he wanted Serenity to only have five crew members. However, throughout development and casting, Whedon increased the cast from five to nine.

3. REBECCA GAYHEART WAS ORIGINALLY CAST TO PLAY INARA.

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Before Morena Baccarin was cast as Inara Serra, Rebecca Gayheart landed the role—but she was fired after one day of shooting because she lacked chemistry with the rest of the cast. Baccarin was cast two days later and started shooting that day.

4. NEIL PATRICK HARRIS WAS ALMOST DR. SIMON TAM.

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Before it went to Sean Maher, Neil Patrick Harris auditioned for the role of Dr. Simon Tam.

5. JOSS WHEDON WROTE THE THEME SONG.

Whedon wrote the lyrics and music for Firefly’s opening theme song, “The Ballad of Serenity.”

6. STAR WARS SPACECRAFT APPEAR IN FIREFLY.

Star Wars was a big influence on Whedon. Captain Malcolm Reynolds somewhat resembles Han Solo, while Whedon used the Millennium Falcon as inspiration to create Serenity. In fact, you can spot a few spacecraft from George Lucas's magnum opus on the show.

When Inara’s shuttle docks with Serenity in the pilot episode, an Imperial Shuttle can be found flying in the background. In the episode “Shindig,” you can see a Starlight Intruder as the crew lands on the planet Persephone.

7. HAN SOLO FROZEN IN CARBONITE POPS UP THROUGHOUT FIREFLY.

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Nathan Fillion is a big Han Solo fan, so the Firefly prop department made a 12-inch replica of Han Solo encased in Carbonite for the Canadian-born actor. You can see the prop in the background in a number of scenes.

8. ALIEN'S WEYLAND-YUTANI CORPORATION MADE AN APPEARANCE.

In Firefly’s pilot episode, the opening scene features the legendary Battle of Serenity Valley between the Browncoats and The Union of Allied Planets. Captain Malcolm Reynolds takes control of a cannon with a Weyland-Yutani logo inside of its display. Weyland-Yutani is the large conglomerate corporation in the Alien film franchise. (Whedon wrote Alien: Resurrection in 1997.)

9. ZAC EFRON'S ACTING DEBUT WAS ON FIREFLY.

A 13-year-old Zac Efron made his acting debut in the episode “Safe” in 2002. He played Young Simon in a flashback.

10. CAPTAIN MALCOLM REYNOLDS'S HORSE IS A WESTERN TROPE.

At its core, Firefly is a sci-fi western—and Malcolm Reynolds rides the same horse on every planet (it's named Fred).

11. FOX AIRED FIREFLY'S EPISODES OUT OF ORDER.

Fox didn’t feel Firefly’s two-hour pilot episode was strong enough to air as its first episode. Instead, “The Train Job” was broadcast first because it featured more action and excitement. The network continued to cherry-pick episodes based on broad appeal rather than story consistency, and eventually aired the pilot as the show’s final episode.

12. THE ALLIANCE'S ORIGINS ARE AMERICAN AND CHINESE.

The full name of The Alliance is The Anglo-Sino Alliance. Whedon envisioned The Alliance as a merger of American and Chinese government and corporate superpowers. The Union of Allied Planets’ flag is a blending of the American and Chinese national flags.

13. THE SERENITY LOUNGE SERVED AS AN ACTUAL LOUNGE.

Between set-ups and shots, the cast would hang out in the lounge on the Serenity set rather than trailers or green rooms.

14. INARA SERRA'S NAME IS MESOPOTAMIAN.

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Inara Serra is named after the Mesopotamian Hittite goddess, the protector of all wild animals.

15. THE CHARACTERS SWORE (JUST NOT IN ENGLISH).

The Firefly universe is a mixture of American and Chinese culture, which made it easy for writers to get around censors by having characters swear in Chinese.

16. THE UNIFORMS ARE RECYCLED FROM STARSHIP TROOPERS.

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The uniforms for Alliance officers and soldiers were the costumes from the 1997 science fiction film Starship Troopers. The same costumes were repurposed again for the Starship Troopers sequel.

17. "SUMMER!" MEANS SOMEONE MESSED UP.

Every time a cast member flubbed one of his or her lines, they would yell Summer Glau’s name. This was a running gag among the cast after Glau forgot her lines in the episode “Objects In Space.”

18. THE SERENITY SPACESHIP WAS BUILT TO SCALE.

The interior of Serenity was built entirely to scale; rooms and sections were completely contiguous. The ship’s interior was split into two stages, one for the upper deck and one for the lower. Whedon showed off the Firefly set in one long take to open the Serenity movie.

19. "THE MESSAGE" SHOULD HAVE BEEN THE SHOW'S FAREWELL.

Although “The Message” was the twelfth episode, it was the last episode filmed during Firefly’s short run. Composer Greg Edmonson wrote a piece of music for a funeral scene in the episode, which served as a final farewell to the show. Sadly, it was one of three episodes (the other two were “Trash” and “Heart of Gold”) that didn’t air during Firefly’s original broadcast run on Fox.

20. FIREFLY AND SERENITY WERE SENT TO THE INTERNATIONAL SPACE STATION.

American Astronaut Steven Ray Swanson is a big fan of Firefly, so when he was sent to the International Space Station for his first mission (STS-117) in 2007, he brought DVD copies of Firefly and its feature film Serenity aboard with him. The DVDs are now a permanent part of the space station’s library.

This post originally appeared in 2014.

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10 Hush-Hush Facts About L.A. Confidential
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On this day 20 years ago, a rising star director, a writer who thought he’d never get the gig, and a remarkable cast got together to make a film about the corrupt underbelly of 1950s Los Angeles, and the men and women who littered its landscape. This was L.A. Confidential, a film so complex that its creator (legendary crime writer James Ellroy) thought it was “unadaptable.” In the end, it was one of the most acclaimed movies of the 1990s, a film noir classic that made its leading actors into even bigger stars, and which remains an instantly watchable masterpiece to this day. Here are 10 facts about how it got made.

1. THE SCRIPTING PROCESS WAS TOUGH.

Writer-director Curtis Hanson had been a longtime James Ellroy fan when he finally read L.A. Confidential, and the characters in that particular Ellroy novel really spoke to him, so he began working on a script. Meanwhile, Brian Helgeland—originally contracted to write an unproduced Viking film for Warner Bros.—was also a huge Ellroy fan, and lobbied hard for the studio to give him the scripting job. When he learned that Hanson already had it, the two met, and bonded over their mutual admiration of Ellroy’s prose. Their passion for the material was clear, but it took two years to get the script done, with a number of obstacles.

"He would turn down other jobs; I would be doing drafts for free,” Helgeland said. “Whenever there was a day when I didn't want to get up anymore, Curtis tipped the bed and rolled me out on the floor."

2. IT WAS ORIGINALLY INTENDED AS A MINISERIES.

When executive producer David Wolper first read Ellroy’s novel, he saw the dense, complex story as the perfect fodder for a television miniseries, and was promptly turned down by all the major networks at the time.

3. JAMES ELLROY DIDN’T THINK THE BOOK COULD BE ADAPTED.

Though Wolper was intrigued by the idea of telling the story onscreen, Ellroy and his agent laughed at the thought. The author felt his massive book would never fit on any screen.

“It was big, it was bad, it was bereft of sympathetic characters,” Ellroy said. “It was unconstrainable, uncontainable, and unadaptable.”

4. CURTIS HANSON SOLD THE FILM WITH CLASSIC LOS ANGELES IMAGES.

To get the film made, Hanson had to convince New Regency Pictures head Arnon Milchan that it was worth producing. To do this, he essentially put together a collage of classic Los Angeles imagery, from memorable locations to movie stars, including the famous image of Robert Mitchum leaving jail after his arrest for using marijuana.

"Now you've seen the image of L.A. that was sold to get everybody to come here. Let's peel back the image and see where our characters live,” Hanson said.

Milchan was sold.

5. KEVIN SPACEY WAS ON HANSON’S WISH LIST FOR YEARS.

Though the other stars of the film were largely discoveries of the moment, Kevin Spacey was apparently someone Hanson wanted to work with for years. Spacey described Hanson as a director “who’d been trying for years and years and years to get me cast in films he made, and the studio always rejected me.” After Spacey won an Oscar for The Usual Suspects, Hanson called the actor and said “I think I’ve got the role, and I think they’re not gonna say no this time.”

6. SPACEY’S CHARACTER IS BASED ON DEAN MARTIN.

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Though he cast relative unknowns in Russell Crowe and Guy Pearce, Hanson wanted an American movie star for the role of Jack Vincennes, and decided on Kevin Spacey. In an effort to convince Spacey to take the role, Hanson invited him to dine at L.A.’s famous Formosa Cafe (where scenes in the film are actually set). While at the cafe, Spacey asked a vital question:

“If it was really 1952, and you were really making this movie, who would you cast as Jack Vincennes? And [Hanson] said ‘Dean Martin.’”

At that point, Spacey looked up at the gallery of movie star photos which line the cafe, and realized Martin’s photo was right above him.

“To this day, I don’t know whether he sat us in that booth on purpose, but there was Dino looking down at me,” Spacey said.

After his meeting with Hanson, Spacey watched Martin’s performances in Some Came Running (1958) and Rio Bravo (1959), and realized that both films featured characters who mask vulnerability with a layer of cool. That was the genesis of Jack Vincennes.

7. HANSON CHOSE MUCH OF THE MUSIC BEFORE FILMING.

To help set the tone for his period drama, Hanson began selecting music of the early 1950s even before filming began, so he could play it on set as the actors went to work. Among his most interesting choices: When Jack Vincennes sits in a bar, staring at the money he’s just been bribed with, Dean Martin’s “Powder Your Face With Sunshine (Smile! Smile! Smile!)” plays, a reference to both the character’s melancholy, and to Spacey and Hanson’s decision to base the character on Martin.

8. THE CINEMATOGRAPHY WAS INSPIRED BY ROBERT FRANK PHOTOGRAPHS.

To emphasize realism and period accuracy, cinematographer Dante Spinotti thought less about the moving image, and more about still photographs. In particular, he used photographer Robert Frank’s 1958 collection "The Americans" as a tool, and relied less on artificial light and more on environmental light sources like desk lamps.

"I tried to compose shots as if I were using a still camera,” Spinotti said. “I was constantly asking myself, 'Where would I be if I were holding a Leica?' This is one reason I suggested shooting in the Super 35 widescreen format; I wanted to use spherical lenses, which for me have a look and feel similar to still-photo work.”

9. THE FINAL STORY TWIST IS NOT IN THE BOOK.

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[SPOILER ALERT] In the film, Jack Vincennes, Ed Exley, and Bud White are all chasing a mysterious crime lord known as “Rollo Tomasi,” who turns out to be their own LAPD colleague, Dudley Smith (James Cromwell). Though Vincennes, Exley, and White are all native to Ellroy’s novel, the Tomasi name is entirely an invention of the film.

10. ELLROY APPROVED OF THE MOVIE.

To adapt L.A. Confidential for the screen, Hanson and Helgeland condensed Ellroy’s original novel, boiling the story down to a three-person narrative and ditching other subplots so they could get to the heart of the three cops at the center of the movie. Ellroy, in the end, was pleased with their choices.

“They preserved the basic integrity of the book and its main theme, which is that everything in Los Angeles during this era of boosterism and yahooism was two-sided and two-faced and put out for cosmetic purposes,” Ellroy said. “The script is very much about the [characters'] evolution as men and their lives of duress. Brian and Curtis took a work of fiction that had eight plotlines, reduced those to three, and retained the dramatic force of three men working out their destiny. I've long held that hard-boiled crime fiction is the history of bad white men doing bad things in the name of authority. They stated that case plain.”

Additional Sources:
Inside the Actors Studio: Kevin Spacey (2000)

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