Prop Driven History

Hollywood scriptwriters have a reputation for never letting history interfere with the story they want to tell, even in those “based on a true story” pics. I was surprised to learn that set decorators and prop masters have the opposite reputation.

The LA Times interviewed Jim and Pam Elyea, owners of History for Hire, a movie prop rental business located in North Hollywood not terribly far from the LASFS clubhouse. They are on a mission:

“Richard Attenborough told us that people learn their history from the movies, so it’s important to get it right,” Pam Elyea said. “That has been our philosophy.”

The Elyeas emphasize that people don’t simply rent an item from them, customers rely on their knowledge about the right way to use or display the item.

Painstaking historical research is a key part of the business. Hope Parrish, a veteran property master who worked with the couple on “The Aviator,” recalls how Jim drew a diagram on butcher paper showing precisely where microphones and cameras should be placed to re-create the actual Senate hearings depicted in the film.

“Their attention to detail makes my job 120% easier,” Parrish said.

Sounds like they run their business with the same passion for authenticity that drives the writing of Connie Willis and Harry Turtledove.

Old 1950s TV cameras like my father used at NBC.

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5 thoughts on “Prop Driven History

  1. When I was teaching college history, I had problems with the students who were also “learning” their history from Hollywood. They write tests papers and essays positive that what they saw in the movies was real because seeing it there was so much more visceral than what they read in the book or heard in lectures. When they were graded down for their Hollywood factoids, they would come to office hours to argue. This really came to a head after Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves came out.

    See also George MacDonald Fraser’s The Hollywood History of the World: From One Million Years B.C. to Apocalypse Now.

  2. “George MacDonald Fraser’s The Hollywood History of the World: From One Million Years B.C. to Apocalypse Now.” is OP, but used copies are available from the usual online sources, and fairly reasonably priced too!

  3. As much as I love Robin Hood movies of almost any era, from Errol Flynn to Richard Greene to Sean Connery and beyond, anyone who used one of them as the basis of an historical paper, if I were the teacher, would get an automatic ‘F’.

  4. “That came from the movie you saw, and not the book you were supposed to read” – Prof. Michael A. Foster.

    The disconnect you describe turned up in the movie in question, and you know which movie I’m talking about. Millions for lovingly crafted and authentic set design and costumes, and not one cent for a decent script.

  5. I’ve told the story about my encounter with Stephen Cannell in 1978 on my first trip out here elsewhere. “We’re not making a documentary” is a common attitude. But others. like David Milch, insist on getting is right, “Deadwood” being a case in point. He recruited a NYPD detective as a collaborator going into “NYPD Blue”.

    But one of the surprising things I’ve found is how far off the accepted record can be and how often professional historians who are supposed to know better get it wrong. With Civil War history there are real problems with the post war distortions created by Jubal Early and the rest of the Southern Historical Society, which is finally being recognized as a gigantic and pervasive disinformation campaign which seeks to justify the unjustifiable. Contemporary newspapers were all tied to one political cause or another and memoirs and autobiographies seldom hurt their authors. Letters are filtered because soldiers seldom want their relatives to know the hard truth of battle.

    So accuracy, while a laudable goal, is seldom attained. When it comes time to sell the film rights to “The Shenandoah Spy” I will cash the check and hope for the best. But I won’t make myself crazy by trying to set anyone straight. It’s entertainment.

    Which is why I write novels.

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