Tag Archives: 1922

The Ten Best Props (of 1921)

The following article, written by Lisle Bell, first appeared in Theatre Magazine in May of 1922. It’s interesting that theatre-goers from almost a hundred years ago recognized that props were forgotten during awards ceremonies. It’s also cool that one of the ten best props of 1921 was the bar in “Anna Christie”, a prop that I tackled earlier this year.

As the dramatic year draws to a close, the critical pastime of handing out the laurel begins. The producers are sitting in their box offices, counting out the money, and the actors are beginning to look forward to the relaxations of the Atlantic or of Great Neck, but meantime the critical judges, both professional and amateur, are busy thumbing over their accumulated programmes. Those who have blue ribbons to pin, prepare to pin them now.

These exercises usually take the form of “ten best” and “ten best that.” Combing over the productions of the season, the experts select the plays and players who have, in their estimation, contributed most to the advancement of their art. Their choices, alphabetically arranged or else tabulated in the order of merit, are duly published to a waiting world, and mere theatregoers spend many a pleasant evening quarreling with their decisions or improving upon them.

The Drama League makes an authentic choice of those who have rendered the greatest service to the cause, and those thus honored are invited to a banquet, where they occupy such positions of distinction, and are in fact so conspicuous, that one wonders whether they really have a chance to enjoy the food. Perhaps, however, the actors who attend those functions do not have to satisfy an appetite, and so merely go through the motions of eating with evident relish, much as they might do while taking part in a stage meal.

There is something truly fascinating about stage food, and the manner of its histrionic disappearance. Who will ever forget that patient loaf of bread that Margaret Wycherly kept eternally cutting in “Jane Clegg”? And does anyone recall a more intense scene of drama than that opening of the last act of “The Grand Duke”—with no one on the stage but Lionel Atwill and his breakfast? Here was drama reduced to highest nutriment—the conflict between an epicure and his spices which was as packed with thrills as a conflict between a dope fiend and his vices. Atwill gave as much thought and deliberation to the dressing of his salad as Ziegfeld gives to the undressing of his chorus.

The more we think about the importance of this property breakfast, the more we are struck with the fact that the whole domain of stage props has been neglected in the annual awards of the drama experts. Burns Mantle edits a volume of the best plays of the year; the magazine critics issue their ukases of ten best “unfeatured male players,” and “unfeatured female players;” even the reviewers at Podunk and one-night stands get out lists of the best things that have come to the “opry house,”—and all this time the props have languished, unwept and unsung.

Here goes, then, for the ten best props of the season of 1921-22: Continue reading

Qualifications to be a Prop Man in Film, 1922

The following comes from a book titled “Opportunities in the motion picture industry, and how to qualify for positions in its many branches”, published in 1922 by the Photoplay Research Society.

The Property Man: Who Is Qualified to Become One?

By Ray Chrysler, Matter of Properties, Metro Pictures Corporation

Picture a curiosity shop and you can visualize clearly the property room of a large studio. In it, one will find everything from a suit of armor to a canary bird’s nest. From it, several well-furnished homes or hotels could be outfitted. Complete with such appointments as fine linens and such accessories as art objects.

The term “prop” really covers everything. Sometimes it means a stable, another time a bull dog, a box of candy or an automobile, a work of art, of any of a million other things. In a motion picture studio, a “prop” means some object that is used in the making of the picture.

To qualify for fitness in being master of all this vast domain of materials, one must indeed have special training. The property man must be a very resourceful person, for it is up to him to know the location of any one of a thousand articles in his property room, and to be able to place his hand on almost anything that a director could call for in the work of filming a motion picture.

The property man has not as yet received his place in that limelight which seems to bathe all other studio executives. But when it is considered that a property man should have brains, initiative, and a good, retentive memory, it seems that he, too, is entitled to his share of glory. One thing is certain; he has a thousand times more worry and responsibility than his brother property man in the legitimate theatrical world.

It is from the ranks of the stage property men that many of the screen’s property men are recruited. Still there are amateurs as well who have essayed the role of property man and have made good. To become a successful property man one must believe nothing impossible. Should he receive an order to produce a set of furniture of the time of the discovery of America, he must know or find out just what style of furniture was popular in those days.

Once he ascertains just what would be proper, he attempts to locate it and if it is not to be found, he must produce it. So he prepares plans, and then turns them over to the studio carpenter shop, where the needed articles or pieces of furniture are manufactured.

On an average, the property man has about twenty-four hours’ notice of the various “props” that will be needed in a new production. Within that time two or two hundred pieces of furniture, a piano, a phonograph, a harp, a violin, twenty sets of curtains, half dozen rugs of various sizes or anything else imaginable must be in its proper place on the “set” where it is to be used. It is the duty of the Property Department to furnish all interior decorations that are not permanently attached to the walls of the Bettings themselves.

To care for this conglomerate assemblage of things, there is a department head and a corps of prop boys. Every article that goes out of the prop room is checked—the name of the picture in which it is to be used, the number of the stage which it is to be set on, and the number of scenes in which it is to be photographed. This is done for two reasons: first, to keep track of the articles; and second, it is a distinctive object, so that it wll not be used conspicuously in another picture. You see it would be very poor business if a handsome hand-carved chest, which adorned a star’s New York apartment in one picture, were to be used in his Spanish castle in his next. People would say, “Well, they take their furniture right along with them, don’t they?”

Many times articles of great value are used in pictures. These are sometimes rented from antique shops, or private collections. While they are in the studio they are in the care of the “prop” department, and checked out each day along with the rest of the studio props.

To illustrate the variety of props purchased or rented I might mention that Goldwyn recently rented a “freak” prop—a trained mocking bird for which they paid $5.00 a day (the wage of an extra man or woman).

Originally appeared in “Opportunities in the motion picture industry, and how to qualify for positions in its many branches”, published in 1922 by the Photoplay Research Society, pp 83-84.

A Drinking Problem

The following two stories remind us not only why it is important to keep all chemicals properly labelled in your shop, but also to have your props crew meticulously check their presets before the show.

From The New York Times, July 6, 1902:

The reminiscences of J. H. Stoddart recall an experience which came near being his undoing. It was during the run of “A Celebrated Case,” in 1878, in which Mr. Stoddart played the role of the Sergeant.

“I have reason to remember his character,” writes the actor. “In the prologue I had a scene with Mrs. Booth, who played wife of Jean Renaud, the hero, in the course of which she was supposed to give me, as the Sergeant, a cup of wine, which I had to swallow. It so happened that the property man had been using kerosene on the stage during the day, and had left the bottle containing that liquid upon the dresser, where Mrs. Booth was in the habit of finding the drink for the Sergeant. During the business she poured a full cup from this bottle, handed it to me, and I swallowed the contents at a gulp.

“‘Oh, Lord!’ I said, as I received the potion.

“‘What have I done?’ asked Mrs. Booth under her breath.

“I could only gasp out ‘Kerosene!’ and made a hasty exit. For almost a week every one who came within range of my breath sniffed and inquired if I detected the odor of coal oil.”

From The New York Times, February 14, 1922:

Miss Christine Norman appeared in her part in “The Nest” at the Forty-eighth Street Theatre at the holiday matinee yesterday afternoon and, presumably, will continue to appear for the duration of the play, but for some time last Saturday night and Sunday it was doubtful when, if ever, she would come back to the stage. She had looked upon property wine when it was not property wine and found that not even stage beverages are always harmless these days.

In the first act of “The Nest” Miss Norman drinks two glasses of supposed champagne. Usually she tosses them off with every evidence of relish, one almost immediately after the other. But at last Saturday evening’s performance the first glass almost choked her. It burned and she gasped, hardly able to continue her role. When she was offered the second glass, according to the text of the play, she hurriedly improvised the line “No, thank you, no more!” and the audience did not know why she was so emphatic. They merely thought that she did not want another drink, and she didn’t, for the “champagne” she had drunk was furniture polish. An assistant property man had made a mistake and put the wrong bottle where the maid, who brought it on the stage, usually found a bottle containing a harmless liquid that looked like champagne.

Although Miss Norman was made ill by the furniture polish, she fought through the performance without betraying her condition to the audience. When she reached her home Saturday night she sent for Dr. Elliott C. Burrows of 1 West Sixty-ninth Street, who found her suffering acutely and said that only the oil in the polish, which counteracted the effect of the other chemicals, had prevented a critical and perhaps fatal illness. As it was, Miss Norman spent some bad hours, and was still shaky yesterday afternoon.

Props in Movies, 1922

The Property Man

Who Is Qualified to Become One?

By Ray Chrysler, Matter of Properties, Metro Pictures Corporation, 1922.

Picture a curiosity shop and you can visualize clearly the property room of a large studio. In it, one will find everything from a suit of armor to a canary bird’s nest. From it, several well-furnished homes or hotels could be outfitted. Complete with such appointments as fine linens and such accessories as art objects.

The term “prop” really covers everything. Sometimes it means a stable, another time a bull dog, a box of candy or an automobile, a work of art, of any of a million other things. In a motion picture studio, a “prop” means some object that is used in the making of the picture.

To qualify for fitness in being master of all this vast domain of materials, one must indeed have special training. The property man must be a very resourceful person, for it is up to him to know the location of any one of a thousand articles in his property room, and to be able to place his hand on almost anything that a director could call for in the work of filming a motion picture.

The property man has not as yet received his place in that limelight which seems to bathe all other studio executives. But when it is considered that a property man should have brains, initiative, and a good, retentive memory, it seems that he, too, is entitled to his share of glory. One thing is certain; he has a thousand times more worry and responsibility than his brother property man in the legitimate theatrical world.

It is from the ranks of the stage property men that many of the screen’s property men are recruited. Still there are amateurs as well who have essayed the role of property man and have made good. To become a successful property man one must believe nothing impossible. Should he receive an order to produce a set of furniture of the time of the discovery of America, he must know or find out just what style of furniture was popular in those days.

Once he ascertains just what would be proper, he attempts to locate it and if it is not to be found, he must produce it. So he prepares plans, and then turns them over to the studio carpenter shop, where the needed articles or pieces of furniture are manufactured.

On an average, the property man has about twenty-four hours’ notice of the various “props” that will be needed in a new production. Within that time two or two hundred pieces of furniture, a piano, a phonograph, a harp, a violin, twenty sets of curtains, half dozen rugs of various sizes or anything else imaginable must be in its proper place on the “set” where it is to be used. It is the duty of the Property Department to furnish all interior decorations that are not permanently attached to the walls of the Settings themselves.

To care for this conglomerate assemblage of things, there is a department head and a corps of prop boys. Every article that goes out of the prop room is checked—the name of the picture in which it is to be used, the number of the stage which it is to be set on, and the number of scenes in which it is to be photographed. This is done for two reasons: first, to keep track of the articles; and second, it is a distinctive object, so that it wll not be used conspicuously in another picture. You see it would be very poor business if a handsome hand-carved chest, which adorned a star’s New York apartment in one picture, were to be used in his Spanish castle in his next. People would say, “Well, they take their furniture right along with them, don’t they ?”

Many times articles of great value are used in pictures. These are sometimes rented from antique shops, or private collections. While they are in the studio they are in the care of the “prop” department, and checked out each day along with the rest of the studio props.

To illustrate the variety of props purchased or rented I might mention that Goldwyn recently rented a “freak” prop – a trained mocking bird for which they paid $5.00 a day (the wage of an extra man or woman).

Originally printed in Opportunities in the motion picture industry, and how to qualify for positions in its many branches; published by the Photoplay Research Society, 1922 (pp 83-84).

The Movie Prop-Hunters’ Museum

The Movie Prop-Hunters’ Museum

by Charles Abbott Goddard

The prop man must scratch the word “can’t” from his vocabulary. The property man of the studio, the man who gets various articles that appear to make the setting realistic, has to know what to get for the studio to develop settings which the audience sees completed.

In order to achieve this vital aim, the chief of the department and his men are ever on the alert. They don’t wait until something is requested before they start looking for it. They always strive to be a little ahead of the game. They get a line upon everything which they think will ever be used as a prop and enter it in their index. They never miss an opportunity. If they see a strange vehicle, an unusual antique or anything else which isn’t on their lists, they get all possible information concerning such an article, where it may be found at a moment’s notice, and put that information down in black and white in the department files. Only a few weeks ago the chief of props in one studio, while driving in the business section of Los Angeles, saw a Ford taxicab of the 1913 model. He noted immediately that it possessed a very unusual feature — that despite its age, it looked almost new, having received excellent care and perhaps little usage. The value of such a condition lay in the fact that pictures are often produced wherein the action supposedly takes place some years ago, but in which new or almost new properties are required. The property must be physically new, yet it must be suited to the period of time in which the action takes place. He chased the taxicab for twelve blocks and finally caught it. He obtained the address where it might be obtained and a description of the car, which he entered in his index. Not more than two weeks later a director asked for just such a car for a comedian to drive. Without difficulty the machine was secured and rented.

In the studio department there are two property indexes. One is a list of the properties on hand in the prop room and names, describes, and numbers something like sixty-five thousand items. The other is a list of obtainable props, much larger than the first list, and contains all necessary information about properties not on hand but which may be secured on short notice. This list includes a ridiculous variety of entries, ranging from trained monkeys, snakes, and canary birds to false teeth.

from Illustrated World, March 1922, Vol. 37, No.1 (pp. 849-851, 939)