Why Film Prop Men Often Die In Their Youth, 1938

Today’s little chestnut first appeared in 1938. It just goes to show that the difficulties we props people have dealing with directors and actors is nothing new. If anything, it is the one thing in our line of work that has remained unchanged throughout the years.

By Frederick C. Othman.

Hollywood, July (U.P.) – The title of today’s movie story is “Why the Prop Man Went Mad.”

Abe Steinberg was the bedeviled property man, working on the set of a Twentieth Century-Fox picture called “By the Dawn’s Early Light.” Warner Baxter, Alice Faye, and Charles Winninger were the stars, while Gregory Ratoff, the Russian actor-writer, producer-director, was functioning in his fourth category.

When we arrived Steinberg was placing fruit cocktails on a dinner table in the home of the American consul in an unnamed Manchurian town. Winninger was the consul, Miss Faye was a Russian adventuress, Baxter was a roving newspaperman.

With the cocktails carefully placed on the table, the cameraman ready to go, and the performers starting to do the scene, a fly buzzed across Steinberg’s canned fruit. He ran for a spray gun and set a vapor of insecticide across the dinner table. That fixed the fly, but it didn’t appease Ratoff, who paced, and thought and frowned. Everybody was quiet while this went on. Suddenly Ratoff’s face lit up.

Not Fruit, Fish!

“That’s what’s wrong,” he said. “They didn’t have fruit cocktails in Manchuria. They have—maybe—fish. Get me some fish.”

“What kind of fish?” Steinberg wanted to know.

“Shrimp,” snapped Ratoff. “Canned shrimp.”

The property department was fresh out of canned shrimp. So was the studio restaurant. Steinberg sent out to a grocery for a couple of cans of shrimp. This took time, because the Fox lot is many a long mile from the nearest food store.

Finally Steinberg’s shrimp arrived. He dumped the fruit from the cocktail cups and filled them with shrimp. He doused the latter with ketchup and an hour and a half after the cocktail episode began, the cameras again were ready to turn.

Ratoff called his actors. Miss Faye looked at the shrimp and said:

“But I can’t eat shrimp.”

Steinberg staggered away, talking to himself.

Originally printed in The Washington Post, July 19, 1938.