Today we're going to point the skeptical eye at legends of the cinema. We're not talking about ridiculous movie science, such as the idea that any computer in the world can control the air conditioning in any office suite anywhere in the world using dramatic full-motion animation of flying through electrical panels and HVAC ducts.
No, we're talking about the folklore of classic Hollywood, the enduring fables that gild the stars with mystique. So let us now dim the lights, raise the curtain, strike a dramatic note on the Wurlitzer, and fade in on:
There are at least two lingering legends about Ben-Hur, the 1959 epic starring Charlton Heston. It was Hollywood's third iteration of the film, with black and white silent versions appearing in 1907 and 1925. The 1925 version rivaled the scope of the 1959 movie, with a chariot race in particular that was larger and more violent. The charioteers are said to have been offered a prize of $5,000 to win, for real, resulting in much onscreen mayhem.
This probably gave rise to the most common myth, that a stuntman was killed during the 1959 chariot race and that its footage was left in the final cut. Although a few sources have made this claim, the studio's records, and the statements of most of those involved including Charlton Heston, say that no stuntmen or horses were seriously hurt. The sequence was very carefully shot over several weeks. The worst injury came from a stuntman whose chin was smashed and cut when he unexpectedly flipped out over the front of his chariot. Articulated dummies were put to very effective use throughout this scene, and the guys you see getting trampled or run over are all dummies.
The source of the myth is probably the 1925 film. Records were poorly kept and incidents often went unreported in those days, so we don't know for sure, but most film historians agree that at least one stuntman was killed, and at least a few horses were injured badly enough that they had to be put down. A lot of this happened in one particular crash where several chariots came around a blind corner and struck another that had overturned.
The other myth from Ben-Hur is that a red sports car, sometimes described as a Ferrari, can be seen in the background of the 1959 chariot race. There's a good reason you won't find any screen captures of this on the Internet; it seems to be a completely untrue rumor. I watched the entire scene carefully on the DVD, and others on the Internet have gone through it frame-by-frame. No red car has been found yet; though there are numerous tire tracks visible onscreen from the camera trucks, which may be the source of the myth.
Goldfinger's Golden Girl
We all remember the classic scene where Sean Connery comes across the gold-painted corpse of Goldfinger's assistant whom he had seduced to betray her boss. Later he observes that she had died of skin suffocation, and that painting the entire body would be lethal unless you leave a small bare patch at the base of the spine, "to allow the skin to breathe". This danger subsequently became something of an urban legend.
Perhaps the writers forgot that we breathe through our lungs, not through our skin. Today, performers are routinely bodypainted, even with latex. People take mud baths. There are certainly other things that can go wrong when you coat your entire body — overheating and hypothermia are two real possibilities — but "skin suffocation" is not one of them.
The Poltergeist Curse
The story goes that all three children who starred in Poltergeist were dead soon after its release, as were a number of other actors from the series. It's partially true, but a few hits and many misses does not really make a good legend.
Dominique Dunne, who played the older daughter, was murdered at age 22 only five months after the movie was released. Heather O'Rourke, the little girl, died from a medical condition at age 12, but only after completing both sequels. In a blow to the curse, Oliver Robins, who played the son, is still alive and well, and is writing and directing.
Other actors from the original Poltergeist and the sequels have since passed away as well, but of expected age related conditions. It's a little like saying there's a Gettysburg Address curse, since everyone who attended is now dead.
The Wizard of Oz Hanging
There's a famous legend that an actor playing one of the munchkins in The Wizard of Oz was distraught over a lost love and decided to hang himself in the background of a live scene shot in the movie. Some versions of the story have it as a stagehand who may have fallen accidentally. Somehow nobody noticed it at the time and the shot was left in the final cut. Right after Dorothy and the Scarecrow pick up the Tin Woodsman, they link arms and go happily singing down the yellow brick road. In the center of the screen, between two trees against the blue backdrop, something can be seen falling to the ground. A few seconds later there is another large movement in the same spot. It's too far away and indistinct to make a clear judgement, but with a little imagination, I suppose it could be taken as someone being hanged.
Fortunately, there are no records of any hanged corpses being discovered when the set was struck. What did happen, though, was that various large birds were borrowed from the Los Angeles Zoo to roam freely around and make the sets look more wild. Although the movement is indistinct, it takes very little imagination to see one of those birds jumping down from the tree then spreading its wings. Or doing some other bird thing. No record survives of bird poop being cleaned up in that spot, so this is just one of those mysteries that we'll never solve. You judge which you think is more likely: A suicide where no body was found and nobody was missing; or some large birds strutting about that are known to have been there.
Brandon Lee's Death
The mysterious death of Bruce Lee's son was sure to achieve a cult status all its own. The story goes that actor Brandon Lee was shot on the set of his final film, The Crow, in the middle of filming a scene; and that his death was left in the final cut of the movie. Many of the same conspiracy claims surrounding his father's death surfaced again: He was assassinated for revealing martial arts secrets, killed by organized crime, or some other such thing.
Brandon Lee was indeed shot while filming. It was a tragic accident involving a gun firing blanks. A fragment of a dummy bullet, from a previous scene, was lodged in the gun and fired into Lee, fatally wounding him. Some mystery remains surrounding the film of the incident, with some saying it was destroyed, and others saying it was confiscated by police. It was not used in the movie. The scene was rewritten and reshot using a double, and the manner of his death is different than what happened in the fatal accident.
No credible evidence links the tragedy in any way to organized crime or martial arts overlords. Everything that happened was fully explained by the events of the day, no external mysterious forces required.
Steven Spielberg's Covert Beginnings
One of director Steven Spielberg's most enduring pieces of fictional entertainment is the story he used to tell about how he got started in show business. He snuck off of a Universal Studios tram, slunk around the studio, and moved into a vacant office, adding his own name to the building directory. From there he met people, introducing himself as a new director on the lot, and finally weaseled his way into his first directing jobs.
Never let the truth get in the way of a good story, especially if the truth is really mundane. Spielberg was once shown around the lot by a friend of a friend of his father's, and returned the next summer for an unpaid internship working on purchase orders. He did make the most of this opportunity, though, finally landing a job directing a TV episode after several summers running errands and stacking paper. The rest is movie history. But among those who worked there with him at the time, none remembers any but legitimate work-related reasons for him to be wherever he was.
James Dean's Killer Car
James Dean, one of Hollywood's prototypical outcast bad boys, enjoyed his motor racing at least as much as he enjoyed acting. To this end he bought a 1955 Porsche 550 Spyder, in which he was infamously killed in a road accident on his way to a race. The legend says that anyone who owns the wrecked Spyder has bad luck; they die or get injured by it or something like that.
The car was pretty comprehensively destroyed in the crash, and its few useful (and valuable) mechanical components were parted out by the insurance company. When the wreck was initially purchased, a man's legs are said to have been broken when it was delivered on a trailer. It's not too surprising, since the car was a non-rolling lump and probably had to be awkwardly lifted onto dollies to roll it down the ramp. Two amateur racers installed the car's engine and transaxle in their own cars. One was later killed and the other was injured in separate racing accidents in cars using the Spyder's components, however none of the James Dean parts caused the accident. A whole great long string of horrible injuries are said to be associated with the car's body, which went on tour with the California Highway Patrol as an exhibit in the late 1950's, but there is no reliable documentation that any of these injuries actually happened.
Bits of the car disappeared (some are currently displayed in various museums), and it's said that the remaining body was mysteriously lost during transport. However no police report was ever filed regarding a theft, so the safe money says that there's probably no appreciably sized remnants of the car unaccounted for; the families of the two amateur racers still have the parts they bought. Certainly there's no good evidence that unusual accidents were associated with the car or its parts, and enough details of the legend are demonstrably fabricated to cast doubt on the whole idea.
But if it were not for these romantic tales, Hollywood would not be Hollywood. Whenever you hear a story that seems too incredible to be true, don't be skeptical if it's from Hollywood. Instead suspend your disbelief, and enjoy the show.