From Casablanca to Back to the Future, certain movies come with their own urban legends

By Drew Mackie
January 05, 2016 03:40 PM

An awkward thing happened to the Leonardo DiCaprio film The Revenant as it trekked into theaters last last year in hopes of picking up award show nominations: A rumor put the film in headlines but for reasons that none of its publicists were happy about. In early December, 20th Century Fox spokespeople were forced to clarify that no, the film does not feature a scene in which its star is raped by a bear.

DiCaprio himself later weighed in on the rumor, calling it "absurd," and when the film finally hit theaters on Christmas Day, audiences saw that the rumor was false – very obviously false, to the point that you have to wonder who might have so badly misinterpreted the scene in which DiCaprio gets attacked by a mother bear.

While this rumor is probably one of the strangest ones to surround a major film, it’s not the only story to attach itself to a major movie despite being untrue, and we’ve collected a few of them – from the entirely plausible-seeming to the outlandishly wrong.

Easily one of the most infamous and stubbornly persistent urban legends surrounding a film specifically in relation to the Oscars is that Marisa Tomei was wrongly awarded the Best Supporting Actress for her turn in the 1992 comedy My Cousin Vinny. As the rumor goes, presenter Jack Palance couldn’t read the card in the envelope and therefore arbitrarily picked a winner or because Tomei being the last nominee called out meant that her name was still scrolling up the teleprompter when he read the winner.

But if you watch the video of Palance reading the card, it’s pretty clear that neither theory is accurate. In fact, this Gawker piece points out that the rumor would never have persisted in an age in which people could easily check video clips online, the way we can now. An actual, live slip-up, however? That’s a different story.

A rumor that has been given new life recently is that the 1996 movie Fargo depicts actual events. This likely results from the fact that the movie opens with the following text: “This is a true story. The events depicted in this film took place in Minnesota in 1987. At the request of the survivors, the names have been changed. Out of respect for the dead, the rest has been told exactly as it occurred.”

However, that claim is just the Coen Bros. jerking around the audience in order to bring them into the universe of the movie straight from the get-go. The movie concludes with the same disclaimer you see at the end of every cinematic work of fiction: “All characters appearing in this work are fictitious. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.” The fact that the FX series Fargo begins with the same “This is a true story” text has done little to make viewers think it’s true, but the Coen Bros. have stated that the original story was completely made up, despite similarities to the real-life crime cases of T. Eugene Thompson and Helle Crafts.

As hard as it may seem to imagine Casablanca with anyone other than Humphrey Bogart in the lead role, there’s a longstanding rumor that the then-actor and future U.S. president was originally up to play Rick. It’s not true, despite its longevity: According to Snopes, an urban legend investigation website, the rumor began when a Warner Bros. press agent leaked a phony story in 1942, saying that Reagan and his King’s Row costar Ann Sheridan would co-star in the film. Why? To keep the stars’ names in the news. As Snopes goes on to point out, Bogart was the only actor considered for the lead role.

The 1934 Clark Gable-Claudette Colbert romantic comedy famously features a scene in which Gable removes his shirt to reveal that he is not wearing an undershirt. The result? Allegedly Gable’s swaggering hunkiness was so great that American sales of men’s shirts plummeted tremendously – as much as 75 percent, in some tellings. And while that statistic is widely cited, it’s never been backed up with proof, as far as anyone can tell. It certainly seems like a tall tale, and Snopes is quick to point out that the Great Depression and changing fashion trends might have had more to do with a change in undershirt sales, if one happened.

It’s as much a part of Little Mermaid lore as “snarfblat” and “dinglehopper,” even if the offending tower was scotched from all but the earliest of VHS box arts for the film. As the urban legend goes, one of the towers appearing behind Ariel and Prince Eric looked slightly more anatomical than it maybe should have.

Disney’s official line on the curious edifice was that any resemblance was purely accidental. Even today, ask most ’80s children if they know about the Little Mermaid tower, and you’ll get both giggles and recollections about the equally (and similarly) famous wedding scene.

Janet Leigh’s shower scene in the 1960 thriller Psycho is one of the most famous examples of knifework in cinema, and to this day it can make people wary of the vulnerability of standing in the shower, defenseless about whatever may be approaching from behind the curtain. Allegedly the scene was so effective that it prompted Leigh herself to stop taking showers, preferring instead to bathe in a tub.

In this case, the rumor is apparently true. In a 2010 NPR interview in honor of Psycho‘s 50th anniversary, David Thompson, author of the book The Moment of Psycho: How Alfred Hitchcock Taught America to Love Murder, said that Leigh herself confirmed it. “I interviewed her once in her home, and I sort of arched my eyebrow, maybe, when she said that, and she said: ‘Do you want to see my bathroom?'” Thompson recalled. “And she showed it to me, and there was no shower in there. So I believe her. I think that the experience of it was a deep and profound thing, and I think it did have an effect on her.”

Leigh’s daughter, Jamie Lee Curtis, had no such compunctions, however, and re-created the scene in an episode of Scream Queens last year.

Peter Pan’s fairy sidekick has become such a big part of Disney iconography, sprinkling pixie dust during the opening credits of Disney productions for years, so it’s maybe odd to think about her as a sex symbol. But she’s got a figure and she’s rather skimpily dressed, and the fact that Peter Pan hit theaters in 1953, the same year that real-life bombshell Marilyn Monroe starred in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and How to Marry a Millionaire, may have led to the rumor that she had inspired the character’s look. She didn’t.

Despite the rumor, the live action model for Tinkerbell was actress and dancer Margaret Kerry, who spent six months pantomiming Tink’s movements for animators. And as Snopes points out, when Peter Pan was in its production stages, Monroe wouldn’t have yet become the well-known entity she’d be when the film finally hit theaters.

As the story goes, Davis, had found trouble landing roles in spite of her lengthy resume and posted an ad touting her talents, and the stunt scored her the role in the 1962 film What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? She would eventually score her 11th and final Oscar nomination for her performance in the film. In October, actress Heather Matarazzo retweeted a cropped version of the ad, noting that it seemed like a good tactic.

However, the story is only partly true. The best part is that yes, she really did post a classified ad advertising her talents in The Hollywood Reporter. Snopes, which notes that the stunt was at least partly done tongue-in-cheek, claims that by the time the ad was published, Davis had already completed work on Baby Jane by the time the ad ran.

Apparently some viewers (and we’re hoping it was the youngest ones only) of the second Back to the Future movie left the theater thinking that the hoverboard that Michael J. Fox’s character rides was real. This was compounded by the fact that the film’s director, Robert Zemeckis, joked in a behind-the-scenes featurette that the devices seen in the film weren’t props: They were real, but pulled from the market because they were deemed too dangerous for use by the general public. The clip even featured footage of stuntmen allegedly using the hoverboards.

It was all a joke, however, but that surely didn’t stop more than a few overeager Back to the Future fans from asking for them for Christmas – a request that surely resulted in crushing disappointment. Zemeckis still jokes that he has a working hoverboard.

In real life, of course, we’re now beset with “hoverboards” that are actually just two-wheeled scooters that don’t hover at all, despite Back to the Future Day having come and gone already. It’s hard not to be a little bitter.

In the same way that similar allegations have been made about the Omen movies and Rosemary’s Baby, there’s a longstanding rumor of a curse attached to the Poltergeist movies. As it’s often stated, key cast members died prematurely as a result of some unspecified punishment for making a movie about dark supernatural phenomenon. (Surprised to see this here? The original film was nominated for a trio of technical Oscars, and won a BAFTA for Best Special Visual Effects.)

We’re going to restate what we wrote about in our round-up of the Poltergeist series trivia: Spreading that rumor is beyond dumb. It’s tacky, and it takes away from the real-life tragedies that claimed the lives of Heather O’Rourke and Dominique Dune, the actresses who played the central family’s daughters. These are sad things that just happened to people who happened to be in a movie about ghosts. Knock that curse nonsense off. It’s 2016.

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