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More Than Bells and Whistles: How props define films

One of the most enchanting things about Debbie Reynolds (1932 – 2016) was her absolute love and respect for Hollywood – especially its Golden Age. Over her 40-year career in the industry, she amassed an elaborate and truly fabulous collection of costumes, props, and other film memorabilia. But, when her famous dream of opening up a museum dedicated to this collection fell though in 2008, Reynolds sold a great portion of it at an auction.

Photo of Debbie Reynolds (1932 – 2016)
Debbie Reynolds (1932 – 2016)

It may seem obvious to us that such items are worthy of saving for posterity. But, half a century ago, production houses were eager to toss out the ephemera associated with the worlds in their films. That’s what made Debbie Reynolds’ collection particularly special; that’s also why we now strive to preserve movie memorabilia at cultural institutions, like The Museum of the Moving Image in New York or the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County in California.

But, apart from their sentimental value, how do props, costumes, and other memorabilia impact the films they’re in? Fact is these things do a lot more than just decorate a scene. They often become recognizable symbols of specific genres, time periods, and film styles. They serve as pivotal plot devices that can be as memorable and impactful as the actors and characters themselves. So, lets take a look at some examples of how props define films.

Early Props

Percy Stow’s and Cecil M. Hepworth’s 1903 production of Alice in Wonderland shows how a fantastical world can be created using clever props and strategic set design. According to BFI Screen Online, Hepworth wanted the film to stay true to the original Sir John Tenniel illustrations from Lewis Carroll’s book. So, to accomplish this, he utilized the ornate gardens of a nearby estate to shoot several of the outdoor scenes, as well as created playing card costumes for a scene in which Alice joins the Queen’s royal procession.

It should be noted that many of the props Hepworth employed in the film are simple yet very effective. For example, after Alice goes down the rabbit hole, stools of different sizes are used to indicate whether she’s growing or shrinking. As a matter of fact, many of the earliest visual effects in cinema were created with household objects, like the “magical fan” Alice uses to cool herself off once she grows too large fit inside the rabbit’s house.

Recycled Objects

Documentation from the National Film Preservation Board reveals that the laboratory equipment used in James Whale’s Frankenstein (1931) – which includes the infamous restraining table and light-bulbed machines – is the same laboratory equipment used in Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein (1974). And, since both films were shot in black and white and followed a similar horror narrative, earnestly creepy vibes from the 1931 movie are preserved in the 1974 film, even though it’s a comedy.

Similarly, the P.K.E. (psycho kinetic energy) meters in the original Ghostbusters (1984) directed by Ivan Reitman were also reportedly used as alien trackers in John Carpenter’s They Live (1988), and laser-freezing devices in Burt Kennedy’s Suburban Commando (1991). In each film, the props are used to combat otherworldly beings set on infiltrating our world. And because the films predate the digital revolution, the campy devices seemed reasonably futuristic at the time – like fancy remote controls.

Props as Characters

Turns out Steven Spielberg intended for the mechanical shark in Jaws (1975) to be the star of the film. In fact, he made it into such a strong and memorable entity, most people – especially young viewers – were reportedly afraid to go in the ocean for years after watching the film, even though the shark doesn’t appear on screen all that much. But it wasn’t easy; how Spielberg overcame mechanical failures brought on by salt water with strategic camera angles is pretty much legendary.

Both the 1981 DeLorean DMC-12 from Robert Zemeckis’ Back to the Future (1985), and the original Batmobile from Leslie H. Martinson’s 1966 film and subsequent TV series, have just the right combination of camp and coolness to become iconic characters in and of themselves. These pivotal plot devices appear in so many critical and climatic scenes that without them the actors wouldn’t be able to carry the films on their own. That’s why we’re still talking about the iconic automobiles just as often as the actors in the films.

Props Across Worlds

Luc Besson’s The Fifth Element (1997) was out of this world. To create his futuristic, space-travel action-adventure, he heavily relied on hyper-stylized props, costumes, and set-design. He even took inspiration from comic books, like The Cicle of Power (1994) written by Pierre Christin and illustrated by Jean-Claude Mezieres. The resulting ridiculousness of the plot and visual elements made it an instant cult-classic.

Most of Wes Anderson films tend to adhere to a specific aesthetic; his signature style is all about the details. The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014) is a great example of this. Although the story takes place in a fictional town, every little detail in the film is there to make the viewers believe it’s real. From the pastel-hued everything down to the screen-printed cake boxes, Anderson makes sure that every prop supports the overall narrative of his film.

Nature plays a foreboding role in Jane Campion’s films. The representation of the ocean takes the protagonist’s most treasured possession in The Piano (1993). For David Lynch, “there is something so incredibly cosmically magical about curtains opening and revealing a new world,” there’s a good chance we’ll be seeing them in the Twin Peaks reboot.

And so, these kinds of aesthetic choices lend a sense of continuity to the worlds directors create in their films. The industry is constantly evolving with the development and application of new technologies. But the role of props, costumes, and set design continues to be a critical component for situating the story within a particular genre, time period, or world.

Note* Image is in the public domain.


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