A set director might say the best movie props do not stand out on their own but rather blend into the background. A prop master might say the best props are unique and pivotal to the plot. A collector might say the best props are the most expensive ones. A museum curator may say the best props are the most recognizable. Actors might say the best props were seemingly trivial items that spoke to their character. We’ll cover all the bases in this blog, and if you’re looking for that one unique item, you can count on Movie Prop Rentals to fabricate or procure it for you.
The Most Nondescript Prop
Is there anything outwardly special about a volleyball? Certainly not! Yet, “Wilson” became a character in his own right in the 2000 film Castaway, starring Tom Hanks. Prop Master Robin L. Miller was initially unable to obtain a product endorsement deal from Wilson Sporting Goods. Still, after much haranguing– he was able to procure 20 specially-made volleyballs with the “Wilson” logo on just one side so they could draw a face on the other. The items traveled from China to Fiji for production, with many lost or damaged during the shoot. One survivor later sold for $18,400– and Wilson Sporting Goods did eventually cash-in on the popularity of the film by selling volleyballs designed with bloody handprints on them.
The Most Unique and Pivotal Prop
Judy Garland danced her way into fans’ hearts and arrived back home with the assistance of her magical ruby red slippers in the 1939 classic The Wizard of Oz. Screenwriter Noel Langley suggested changing the shoes from silver to red to stand out better against the contrasting yellow brick road. Hollywood costumer Adrian designed five pairs of shoes with burgundy sequins for production.
One pair rescued from the basement of MGM’s wardrobe department sold to an anonymous buyer at auction for $15,000 in 1970 and was donated to the Smithsonian nine years later. Another pair fetched $666,000 at auction in 2000. According to museum curator Dwight Blocker Bowers, the slippers hold a special place in people’s hearts because the idea of “there’s no place at home” has become a shared memory.
The Most Expensive Prop
Not surprisingly, the most expensive prop comes from a sci-fi film– Forbidden Planet, circa 1956. Robby the Robot cost $133,000 to build– 7 percent of the film’s budget or the equivalent of $1.2 million today. Since his debut, he has appeared in more than 30 movies and TV episodes, including The Invisible Boy, Gremlins, The Addams Family, and The Twilight Zone. He was held onto by horror filmmaker William Malone for decades before selling for $5.375 million at auction in 2017, making it the second-most valuable prop ever sold, next to Marilyn Monroe’s iconic white dress, which sold for $5.5 million.
The Most Recognizable Prop
When you see a DeLorean car, your mind instantly lands on 1989’s Back To The Future. Doc’s time machine! The car with the rear-mounted engine, gull-wing doors, and unpainted stainless-steel body was designed by John DeLorean as the DMC-12 in 1976. Production issues dogged it, and the 130 horsepower lagged significantly behind the competition so that only about 9,000 vehicles were ever made.
In 1981, Back to the Future writers Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale initially imagined a reconfigured refrigerator as their time-traveling device. However, they scrapped the idea, fearing kids would try to imitate the film and become trapped. The film rescued the company, inspired replicas (including a $750,000 one owned by Jay Leno) and became instantly recognizable by fans. The crew modified the DMC-12 with a Porsche engine to reach production speeds of 88 miles per hour– and with a repulsorlift flying unit in Back II the Future Part II so the vehicle could swivel 90 degrees and deploy thrusters to feasibly “take off” into the air.
The Most Coveted Prop
More than 3,000 Twitter movie fans responded to a question of which prop they most wanted to own. Surprisingly, the front-running answer was “Rosebud” from Citizen Kane (1941). “Rosebud” was the last dying words of Orson Welles’ character and also the trade name of the cheap little sled he was playing with– on the day he was taken away from his mother. To represent the simplicity, comfort, and longing for a mother’s love, the film used one pinewood sled seen early in the film and three red-painted balsa wood sleds, all made exclusively.
The first one sold at a Christie’s auction for $233,500 to an undisclosed bidder in December 1996. The remaining sleds were meant to be burnt at the end of the film, but Welles was happy with burning two. So, the third sled went into storage at RKO Pictures. It was rescued from a trash heap by a night watchman, sold to chief archivist John Hall, and eventually landed into the hands of none other than Steven Spielberg, who bought it at Sotheby’s auction for $55,000 in 1982. The item became one of his most prized possessions, moving between his home and office, but eventually, he will hand it over to the new Academy Museum of Motion Pictures, where all can see it. Reproduction sleds currently sell for $200,000.
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This compendium is by no means a complete list. There are countless “greatest movie props in history.” Thrillist lists 100 f you’re interested in perusing more. Movie Prop Rentals owns an enormous warehouse full of tens of thousands of real props used in major motion pictures, theater productions, commercials, and special events. If there is something you need, we are happy to 3D print and hand-finish it for you. Contact us for a free, no-obligation, custom quote.