Tuesday, 5 November 2013

Why are bags always empty in films?

I have been terribly bored of late. Consequently I have been posting fake answers in the Notes & Queries section of The Guardian website. They closed the comments before I could add the following  response:

Why are bags always empty in films?


As is generally the case with Hollywood, one must separate the prosaic reality from the glitter and bullshit myth that becomes received wisdom by virtue of repetition.

The reality first:  An unforeseen consequence of the 1937 Deary Labour Laws was that actors and extras in films and stage productions, who were required as part of their performance to lift a weight equal to, or over, 5kgs, were re-classified as manual labourers and eligible for additional payment from their employers. A further inconvenience (from the point of view of the studio bosses) was that labour unions began to actively recruit actors into their ranks. Union representatives started turning up unannounced at theatres and film sets, with portable weighing scales in tow, and disrupting shoots and rehearsals. Some corrupt union officials would also attempt to extort additional  fees from productions that were known to be on a tight schedule. It is not surprising that eventually the industry collectively threw up its hands and emptied all the boxes, bags, and cases. In the words of the director Dennis Oritz to one of his extras: “Act like you've got the body of your overweight twin in that trunk. It's what I'm paying you $5 a day for.”

Around the same time, the actress Betty Landes was shooting her part in the musical comedy – A Lion Named Harold (directed by Jake Barby). There is a scene in which she and her on-screen husband (the poker-faced James Vale, miscast in the role of the Cecil Frobisher) pull up outside the Rushton Hotel & Zoological Gardens, in uptown Manhattan. Cecil bounds into the foyer of the building, leaving Betty's character to lug a pair of heavy cases out of the trunk of their car and then stagger inside with them. John Ashley who was the lighting director for the movie remembers the scene well:

“Jake wanted Betty to really struggle with those cases, which was partly because he wanted the scene to be as realistic as possible, but mostly because, at the time, he and Betty weren't getting along. She would make a point of turning up late on set because she knew that she had him over a barrel. So this was Jake's opportunity for revenge. He had the prop manager fill the cases with as many heavy objects as they could lay their hands on. There was even a small anvil that they swiped from the set of Robin Hood. If you watch that film [Robin Hood (1938)] you can see that an anvil goes missing from the sheriff’s castle halfway through a sword fight. That's because we took it.

“On the day we shot the scene, Betty couldn't get either one of the trunks out of the car. Finally, after the third take she said to Jake:

'Jake, I've decided that from now on I'm not lifting anything heavier than a Tom Collins.'

Then she breezed imperiously off the set and we didn't see her for three days.”

Production on the film resumed with both cases nearly empty: Barby in a moment of pettiness had shaken the following items from his satchel into the topmost one:

- A blue pencil
- A slip of paper from a fortune cookie, bearing the message: 'You will shortly embark upon a great journey'.
- A hasty pencil rubbing of the George Linzell memorial plaque from the Seals Building on Wall Street.
- The key to a locker at Grand Central Station.
- A 'liberty head' dime dating from 1932.
- A Washington quarter from 1935.
- A small blue-black ball of lint (allegedly mined from Barby's bellybutton)

Betty Landes returned one of these items to the director at the end of the shoot, along with a card that read: 'Dear Jake. You know what you can do with your blue pencil.' As  Ashley recalls: “Watching Jake and Betty sparring with each other was funnier than anything in the movie. We should have turned the cameras around and filmed them instead.”

The incident was forgotten about until 1970 when it was repeated as an anecdote in the first edition of Robert Lovelock's comprehensive Encyclopedia of Californian Film and Theater. (Henceforth known as Lovelocks, the encyclopedia  was updated and republished annually up until 2011. It now exists as a website, most of which lies behind a paywall.

Michael Pilgrem (who was filming the espionage thriller - The Leningrad Affair ) was amused by the story and had a number of 'Barby Bags' made up, each containing the same items as Betty Landes' case. The practice spread through the industry, first as a kind of in-joke, then later one of those things that is done for good luck, and finally as a Hollywood tradition. Modern prop stores will keep large supplies of the seven items in stock (the coins are specially minted / the locker key is an exact replica but there is no longer a matching lock at Grand Central / the ball of lint is just fluff and is not harvested from anybody's bellybutton).

It also became common for aspiring actors and actress who journeyed to Hollywood from out of state, seeking fame and fortune, to include these items among their travelling possessions as good luck charms. Jimmy Darwin – a former detective who investigated some of the murders committed by the serial killer, Glenn Keep, in the late 1970s recalled: 

“We kept finding the bodies of these blonde girls. They all had their throats cut. In all but two of the cases they had these identical miscellaneous items among their personal belongings. First off we thought that they were calling cards left by the killer, mainly because of the fortune cookie message. Later we realised that the victims were young girls from the sticks, fresh off the bus and hoping to make it big. In fact Glenn Keep picked up most of them at the bus terminal. But it was this realisation that was instrumental in helping us to crack the case.”

There is another sad coda to this story: Betty Landes, who had since retired from acting, found herself inundated with blue pencils, which were sent to her by fans and pranksters. An interview given to 60 Minutes by her daughter, Ariel Penton, paints a distressing picture of the effect that this had on her:

“At the end of her life, my mother suffered from Alzheimer's  Disease... People were sending her blue pencils through the mail, thinking it was funny and that it was the first time anyone had  thought to do it. Some days she was getting anywhere between ten and a hundred envelopes, all containing blue pencils. She was a fiercely independent woman, struggling to maintain a grip on reality, and this became a great source of torment for her.”

When Betty Landess died, in 1985, over 20,000 blue pencils were found in her New York apartment. To this day her former address, along with that of her agent's, regularly receive blue pencils in the post. These are donated to local schools and education projects.


  1. I cannot help but feel that you'd be a tremendous asset to the Museum of Jurassic Technology.

  2. I enjoy these things a lot. Yours are often the best bits of The Guardian.