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14 Dark Shadows Facts With Bite

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Nearly 50 years after its debut, there’s still never been a television series quite like Dark Shadows. The ABC daytime soap opera, which aired from 1966 to 1971, was a charmingly under-budgeted Gothic melodrama about a spooky seaside town in Maine that blended the supernatural (werewolves, witchcraft, and zombies) with parallel universes and time travel; angst-ridden vampire Barnabas Collins (Jonathan Frid) emerged as the show’s breakout star. General Hospital it wasn’t.

Usually airing in late afternoons, Dark Shadows acquired a large teenage fanbase, with some of its frilly-collared actors appearing in the pages of Tiger Beat, and an even larger cult following. If this all sounds peculiar, you don’t know the half of it. Take a look at the show’s humble special effects attempts, Frid’s forced dates, and how Joseph Gordon-Levitt figures into all of this.  

1. BARNABAS COLLINS WAS AN AFTERTHOUGHT.

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Creator Dan Curtis—who would later conceive of The X-Files predecessor Kolchak: The Night Stalker and the classic TV movie Trilogy of Terror—originally had in mind a dramatic series about the strange residents of Collinsport, Maine, as viewed from the perspective of newly-arrived governess Victoria Winters. Though mystical elements—like ghosts—were present, they were subtle and slow to materialize. When the show premiered June 27, 1966, viewers found its characters as impenetrable as Winters did; Variety called it a “yawn.”

Hoping to improve ratings with a classic horror movie trope—a vampire—Curtis introduced Collins, a brooding bloodsucker tortured by his condition. Originally intended to be a fleeting character who would be staked in the heart after a three-week run, he became so popular with viewers (ratings saw a 62 percent increase) that the show was saved from the guillotine.

2. THE SPECIAL EFFECTS CONSISTED OF SARAN WRAP AND VASELINE.

With a roughly $70,000 budget to shoot its five weekly episodes, Dark Shadows had to approach its special effects conservatively. Camera operator Stuart Goodman found that covering his lens with plastic wrap and then dabbing Vaseline at the edges to create a hazy, dreamlike visual was surprisingly effective. To emulate actors being trapped in a blaze, Goodman would simply put a bucket in front of himself and light it on fire.

3. THERE WAS NO TIME TO GO BACK AND FIX MISTAKES.

Despite its lofty ambitions, sprawling stories and camera tricks, Dark Shadows had to maintain a standard soap schedule that allowed episodes to air daily. Because of the compressed production, actor flubs, focus mistakes, and other gaffes that would normally be re-shot had to remain in the show. Viewers would occasionally see performers read the wrong lines or see a crew member wander into shots. Actress Kate Jackson was wearing a dress that caught fire by accident: She finished her scene before being put out. Most notably, Frid was caught picking his nose when he thought he was off-camera.

4. VIEWERS COULD WIN A DATE WITH JONATHAN FRID.

Despite his questionable manners, Frid quickly became the Robert Pattinson of his day. (In his early 40s and uncomfortable in front of cameras, Frid never expected to find himself the subject of viewer crushes. Too bad a tragic vampire is irresistible.) He was bombarded with requests for personal appearances. He was once invited to a Halloween party at the White House (in character) and judged a Miss American Vampire beauty contest, with the winner earning a small role in the show. Poor Frid was also subject to promotional stunts like magazines promising a date with him. “Yes, ladies,” read TV Radio Talk copy, “finally, your fondest nightmares can come true … you will indulge in a long, eerie candlelit dinner at one of the city’s finer haunts, escorted by none other than … that delicious vampire.”   

5. FRID KNEW THE WHOLE THING WAS A LITTLE DUBIOUS.

No one on Dark Shadows had any illusions that the show’s camp nature, on-the-nose dialogue, and suspect production values were elevating television. Frid was especially candid about its shortcomings. “It’s the worst acting I’ve ever done,” he told The Montreal Gazette in 1969. “I blink too much, I’m not sharp or fast enough, I don’t have enough time to learn my lines … I can’t get angry with people who find the whole thing ridiculous because the scripts are ridiculous, the dialogue is absurd.”

6. BARNABAS DIDN’T TALK MUCH WHILE FANGED.

Dampened vocally by the fangs he had to wear, Frid also told the Gazette of some production trickery: Collins was rarely filmed talking in them. “My words come out slushy when I wear them, so they have to cut away from me when I talk,” he said. Frid would spit out the fangs, deliver the dialogue, then stuff them back in when the camera returned to him.

7. IT WAS ABC’S FIRST COLOR SOAP.

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Though soaps had experimented with color before, Dark Shadows became the first daytime serial on ABC to switch to the format in 1967. (It had spent its first year in black and white.)

8. THERE’S A MISSING EPISODE.

With an unforgiving daily schedule, Dark Shadows produced 1225 episodes during its five-year run. Incredibly, 1224 of them survived. Episode 1219 was discovered to be “missing” when a home video release was being put together. To reconstruct it, an audio recording from a fan was used along with production stills.   

9. IT WAS REPLACED BY PASSWORD.

The daily percussion of intricate stories involving monsters and alternate universes eventually wore on both audiences and creators: Curtis wished to move on from the show and was unwilling to cede control to another producer, and ABC was less than satisfied with declining ratings. Dark Shadows ended on April 2, 1971, and was replaced with a new version of the game show Password.

10. IT’S THE ONLY SOAP TO SPAWN THREE FEATURE FILMS.

It’s a testament to Dark Shadows' rabid following that the series birthed two feature films with the original cast—virtually unheard of for a soap opera of any era. Curtis directed 1970’s House of Dark Shadows, which covered much of the same ground as the series but morphed Collins into more of an antagonist. While a feature budget meant actors actually had the privilege of doing more than one take, reviews were mixed.

After the series ended in 1971, Curtis wanted to continue the story with another film. Night of Dark Shadows was released that same year, but Frid declined to participate. Curtis opted for more of a haunted house theme instead, with the show’s cast popping up in different roles. It’s been alleged MGM cut 30 minutes from the finished film, obliterating some plot and character details. In its released form, reviewers found it “dull,” “monotonous,” and “a bore.” (Tim Burton's 2012 feature, starring Johnny Depp as Collins, didn't fare much better.)

11. JOSEPH GORDON-LEVITT APPEARED IN THE REVIVAL.

Having been largely dormant since going off the air, Dark Shadows was reintroduced to a contemporary audience in 1991. NBC ordered 13 episodes of the series that revived Barnabas (now portrayed by Ben Cross) and rebooted the spooky history of Collinwood Mansion. Joseph Gordon-Levitt, all of 10 years old, played David Collins. Ratings were modest, and the intensifying Gulf War only worsened viewership. The WB tried again in 2004, but the pilot never made it to air. It’s sometimes screened at fan conventions.

12. THERE WAS A COMIC STRIP.

Unlike most daytime soaps, the genre elements of Dark Shadows lent themselves to a variety of merchandising opportunities. Model kits, novels, and toys were in abundance. The series was also adapted into another serialized format: a comic strip ran from 1971 to 1972. Though it effectively picked up the property after the show had ended, it bore little relation. Of the characters, only Frid’s Barnabas was recognizable.   

13. BARNABAS MET KOLCHAK.

In a nod to Curtis’s two most popular fantasy series, Moonstone Publishing issued a Dark Shadows/Kolchak crossover comic book in 2009. Kolchak—a newspaper reporter with an affinity for supernatural cases—receives a letter from Barnabas inviting him to the opulent Collinwood Mansion. After Kolchak tries to murder him, the two have a friendly chat. Fans hoping for more of a confrontation were slightly disappointed.

14. FANS CAN OWN ALL 1225 EPISODES—ON VHS.

VCR enthusiasts of the 1980s will recall that Time-Life, Columbia House, and other videotape distributors would offer television series in their entirety, provided collectors had the money and shelf space to accommodate them. While this was a tricky enterprise even with a short-lived series like 1966’s Star Trek, it was almost unfathomable for Dark Shadows. Airing every weekday for five seasons, the series amassed 1225 half-hour episodes, which meant the entire library from video rights holder MPI needed a staggering 254 cassettes. In 2012, the company released it on DVD in a coffin-shaped collector’s case. It was a paltry 131 discs.

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25 Wonderful Facts About It’s a Wonderful Life
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Paramount Pictures

Mary Owen wasn’t welcomed into the world until more than a decade after Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life made its premiere in 1946. But she grew up cherishing the film and getting the inside scoop on its making from its star, Donna Reed—who just so happens to be her mom. Though Reed passed away in 1986, Owen has stood as one of the film’s most dedicated historians, regularly introducing screenings of the ultimate holiday classic, including during its annual run at New York City’s IFC Center. She shared some of her mom’s memories with us to help reveal 25 things you might not have known about It’s a Wonderful Life.

1. IT ALL BEGAN WITH A CHRISTMAS CARD.

After years of unsuccessfully trying to shop his short story, The Greatest Gift, to publishers, Philip Van Doren Stern decided to give the gift of words to his closest friends for the holidays when he printed up 200 copies of the story and sent them out as a 21-page Christmas card. David Hempstead, a producer at RKO Pictures, ended up getting a hold of it, and purchased the movie rights for $10,000.

2. CARY GRANT WAS SET TO STAR IN THE ADAPTATION.

When RKO purchased the rights, they did so with the plan of having Cary Grant in the lead. But, as happens so often in Hollywood, the project went through some ups and downs in the development process. In 1945, after a number of rewrites, RKO sold the movie rights to Frank Capra, who quickly recruited Jimmy Stewart to play George Bailey.

3. DOROTHY PARKER WORKED ON THE SCRIPT.


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By the time It’s a Wonderful Life made it into theaters, the story was much different from Stern’s original tale. That’s because more than a half-dozen people contributed to the screenplay, including some of the most acclaimed writers of the time—Dorothy Parker, Dalton Trumbo, Marc Connelly, and Clifford Odets among them.

4. SCREENWRITERS FRANCES GOODRICH AND ALBERT HACKETT WALKED OUT.

Though they’re credited as the film’s screenwriters with Capra, the husband and wife writing duo were not pleased with the treatment they received from Capra. “Frank Capra could be condescending,” Hackett said in an interview, “and you just didn't address Frances as ‘my dear woman.’ When we were pretty far along in the script but not done, our agent called and said, ‘Capra wants to know how soon you'll be finished.’ Frances said, ‘We're finished right now.’ We put our pens down and never went back to it.”

5. CAPRA DIDN’T DO THE BEST JOB OF SELLING THE FILM TO STEWART.

After laying out the plot line of the film for Stewart in a meeting, Capra realized that, “This really doesn’t sound so good, does it?” Stewart recalled in an interview. Stewart’s reply? “Frank: If you want me to be in a picture about a guy that wants to kill himself and an angel comes down named Clarence who can’t swim and I save him, when do we start?”

6. IT WAS DONNA REED’S FIRST STARRING ROLE.


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Though Donna Reed was hardly a newcomer when It’s a Wonderful Life rolled around, having appeared in nearly 20 projects previously, the film did mark her first starring role. It’s difficult to imagine anyone else in the role today, but Reed had some serious competition from Jean Arthur. “[Frank Capra] had seen mom in They Were Expendable and liked her,” Mary Owen told Mental Floss. “When Capra met my mother at MGM, he knew she'd be just right for Mary Bailey.”

7. MARY OWEN IS NOT NAMED AFTER MARY BAILEY.

Before you ask whether Owen was named after her mom’s much beloved It’s a Wonderful Life character, “The answer is no,” says Owen. “I was named after my great grandmother, Mary Mullenger.”

8. BEULAH BONDI WAS A PRO AT PLAYING STEWART’S MOM.

Beulah Bondi, who plays Mrs. Bailey, didn’t need a lot of rehearsal to play Jimmy Stewart’s mom. She had done it three times previously—in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Of Human Hearts, and Vivacious Lady—and once later on The Jimmy Stewart Show: The Identity Crisis.

9. CAPRA, REED, AND STEWART HAVE ALL CALLED IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE THEIR FAVORITE MOVIE.


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Though their collective filmographies consist of a couple hundred movies, Capra, Reed, and Stewart have all cited It’s a Wonderful Life as their favorite movie. In his autobiography, The Name Above the Title, Capra took that praise even one step further, writing: “I thought it was the greatest film I ever made. Better yet, I thought it was the greatest film anybody ever made.”

10. THE MOVIE BOMBED AT THE BOX OFFICE.

Though it has become a quintessential American classic, It’s a Wonderful Life was not an immediate hit with audiences. In fact, it put Capra $525,000 in the hole, which left him scrambling to finance his production company’s next picture, State of the Union.

11. A COPYRIGHT LAPSE AIDED THE FILM’S POPULARITY.

Though it didn’t make much of a dent at the box office, It’s a Wonderful Life found a whole new life on television—particularly when its copyright lapsed in 1974, making it available royalty-free to anyone who wanted to show it for the next 20 years. (Which would explain why it was on television all the time during the holiday season.) The free-for-all ended in 1994.

12. THE ROCK THAT BROKE THE WINDOW OF THE GRANVILLE HOUSE WAS ALL REAL.


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Though Capra had a stuntman at the ready in order to shoot out the window of the Granville House in a scene that required Donna Reed to throw a rock through it, it was all a waste of money. “Mom threw the rock herself that broke the window in the Granville House,” Owen says. “On the first try.”

13. IT TOOK TWO MONTHS TO BUILD BEDFORD FALLS.

Shot on a budget of $3.7 million (which was a lot by mid-1940s standards), Bedford Falls—which covered a full four acres of RKO’s Encino Ranch—was one of the most elaborate movie sets ever built up to that time, with 75 stores and buildings, 20 fully-grown oak trees, factories, residential areas, and a 300-yard-long Main Street.

14. SENECA FALLS, NEW YORK IS “THE REAL BEDFORD FALLS.”

Though Bedford Falls is a fictitious place, the town of Seneca Falls, New York swears that it's the real-life inspiration for George Bailey’s charming hometown. And each year they program a full lineup of holiday-themed events to put locals (and yuletide visitors) into the holiday spirit.

15. THE GYM FLOOR-TURNED-SWIMMING POOL WAS REAL.

Though the bulk of the film was filmed on pre-built sets, the dance at the gym was filmed on location at Beverly Hills High School. And the retractable floor was no set piece. Better known as the Swim Gym, the school is currently in the process of restoring the landmark filming location.

16. ALFALFA IS THE TEENAGER BEHIND THAT SWIMMING POOL PRANK.

Though he’s uncredited in the part, if Freddie Othello—the little prankster who pushes the button that opens the pool that swallows George and Mary up—looks familiar, that’s because he is played by Carl Switzer, a.k.a. Alfalfa of The Little Rascals.

17. DONNA REED WON $50 FROM LIONEL BARRYMORE ... FOR MILKING A COW.

Though she was a Hollywood icon, Donna Reed—born Donnabelle Mullenger—was a farm girl at heart who came to Los Angeles by way of Denison, Iowa. Lionel Barrymore (a.k.a. Mr. Potter) didn’t believe it. “So he bet $50 that she couldn't milk a cow,” recalls Owen. “She said it was the easiest $50 she ever made.”

18. THE FILM WAS SHOT DURING A HEAT WAVE.

It may be an iconic Christmas movie, but It’s a Wonderful Life was actually shot in the summer of 1946—in the midst of a heat wave, no less. At one point, Capra had to shut filming down for a day because of the sky-high temperatures—which also explains why Stewart is clearly sweating in key moments of the film.

19. CAPRA ENGINEERED A NEW KIND OF MOVIE SNOW.

Capra—who trained as an engineer—and special effects supervisor Russell Shearman engineered a new type of artificial snow for the film. At the time, painted cornflakes were the most common form of fake snow, but they posed a bit of an audio problem for Capra. So he and Shearman opted to mix foamite (the stuff you find in fire extinguishers) with sugar and water to create a less noisy option.

20. THE MOVIE WASN’T REQUIRED VIEWING IN REED’S HOUSEHOLD.

Though It’s a Wonderful Life is a staple of many family holiday movie marathons, that wasn’t the case in Reed’s home. In fact, Owen herself didn’t see the film until three decades after its release. “I saw it in the late 1970s at the Nuart Theatre in L.A. and loved it,” she says.

21. ZUZU DIDN’T SEE THE FILM UNTIL 1980.

Karolyn Grimes, who played Zuzu in the film, didn’t see the film until 1980. “I never took the time to see the movie,” she told Detroit’s WWJ in 2013. “I never just sat down and watched the film.”

22. THE FBI SAW THE FILM. THEY DIDN’T LIKE IT.

In 1947, the FBI issued a memo noting the film as a potential “Communist infiltration of the motion picture industry,” citing its “rather obvious attempts to discredit bankers by casting Lionel Barrymore as a ‘Scrooge-type’ so that he would be the most hated man in the picture. This, according to these sources, is a common trick used by Communists.”

23. THE MOVIE’S BERT AND ERNIE HAVE NO RELATION TO SESAME STREET.

Yes, the cop and cab driver in It’s a Wonderful Life are named Bert and Ernie, respectively. But Jim Henson’s longtime writing partner, Jerry Juhl, insists that it’s by coincidence only that they share their names with Sesame Street’s stripe-shirted buds. “I was the head writer for the Muppets for 36 years and one of the original writers on Sesame Street,” Juhl told the San Francisco Chronicle in 2000. “The rumor about It's a Wonderful Life has persisted over the years. I was not present at the naming, but I was always positive [the rumor] was incorrect. Despite his many talents, Jim had no memory for details like this. He knew the movie, of course, but would not have remembered the cop and the cab driver. I was not able to confirm this with Jim before he died, but shortly thereafter I spoke to Jon Stone, Sesame Street's first producer and head writer and a man largely responsible for the show's format … He assured me that Ernie and Bert were named one day when he and Jim were studying the prototype puppets. They decided that one of them looked like an Ernie, and the other one looked like a Bert. The movie character names are purely coincidental.”

24. SOME PEOPLE ARE ANXIOUS FOR A SEQUEL.

Well, two people: Producers Allen J. Schwalb and Bob Farnsworth, who announced in 2013 that they would be continuing the story with a sequel, It’s a Wonderful Life: The Rest of the Story, which they planned for a 2015 release. It didn’t take long for Paramount, which owns the copyright, to step in and assure furious fans of the original film that “No project relating to It’s a Wonderful Life can proceed without a license from Paramount. To date, these individuals have not obtained any of the necessary rights, and we would take all appropriate steps to protect those rights.”

25. THE FILM’S ENDURING LEGACY WAS SURPRISING TO CAPRA.

“It’s the damnedest thing I’ve ever seen," Capra said of the film’s classic status. "The film has a life of its own now and I can look at it like I had nothing to do with it. I’m like a parent whose kid grows up to be president. I’m proud… but it’s the kid who did the work. I didn’t even think of it as a Christmas story when I first ran across it. I just liked the idea.”

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Listen to What Darth Vader Sounded Like On the Star Wars Set
Star Wars © & TM 2015 Lucasfilm Ltd. All Rights Reserved.
Star Wars © & TM 2015 Lucasfilm Ltd. All Rights Reserved.

The voice of Darth Vader, provided by James Earl Jones, is one of the most iconic aspects of the original Star Wars movies. But James Earl Jones wasn't the actor wearing that outfit—it was British actor David Prowse, who was cast in part because he was huge (reportedly 6'5" and a former body-building champion).

George Lucas always intended to replace Prowse's voice, but it's still a bit of a shock to hear a muffled British voice coming out of Darth Vader's helmet. Here's video showing what Darth Vader sounded like on the set before James Earl Jones re-recorded the dialogue.

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