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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).

Set Decorators Society of America

comic by Terry Hart
comic by Terry Hart

I haven’t done any film or television prop work, so I was unaware of them, but the Set Decorators Society of America has quite a handy website. First off, they show off the decor in films which their members have worked on. These are extensive photo-essays showing the sets from these films, often without actors in the way. You can also read interviews with their various members.

They publish many of this in their quarterly magazine. Luckily for you, you can download their back issues in PDF form… for free!

They also have a list of resources for shopping, as well as a healthy list of books to check out. Also, the comic above is by my twin brother; click on it and you can check the rest out!

Monday Link-O-Rama

I didn’t do a Friday link-o-rama, so here’s one for Monday. Hopefully I will be back to writing more better articles once we get out of tech for Bacchae.

  • Flower Power – The McCarter Theatre has to clean the uncleanable. Read about their solution.
  • Theatre on a Shoestring – A number of how-to articles on prop making, such as fake cigars, hefty chain, and sugar glass.
  • Model-Making Techniques – David Neat discusses tips and techniques for making scene design models. A lot of this info is also great for prop making.
  • Master of the Movie Prop – An interview with Kevin Hughes, the prop master for films such as Borat, Freddy Got Fingered and Boogie Nights.

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)

20th Century Props Closing

by Marissa Roth for The New York Times
by Marissa Roth for The New York Times

2oth Century Props is one of the larger prop houses in Hollywood, serving much of the entertainment and event industry as the studios closed down their own in-house prop studios over the past two decades. Unfortunately, it is now closing.

It’s a Wrap for 20th Century Props, by Brooks Barnes in the New York Times, details the full story:

Mr. Schwartz, the owner of 20th Century Props, plans to go out of business next month and auction the inventory. Battered by the surge in out-of-state movie production and the demise of scripted programming on network television, the once-thriving business — one of a handful of its type remaining — is failing.

The company’s inventory, about 93,752 items, will be liquidated during the last week of July. They already have an eBay store, where several hundred of their items are currently up for bid.