This is the thirty-eighth in a series of examinations of urban legends from movies and the people who make them and whether they are true or false. Today we figure out whether Black Sabbath inspired the Stonehenge scene in This is Spinal Tap, we learn about Albert Finney’s turn in drag in Miller’s Crossing and we discover the movie star whose own studio spread false rumors of her death!
Click here to view an archive of the previous movie urban legends.
MOVIE URBAN LEGEND: The Stonehenge scene in This is Spinal Tap was inspired by one of Black Sabbath’s tours.
This is Spinal Tap is a widely popular 1984 “mockumentary” following the exploits of a fictional rock group, satirizing (among many things) the pretensions of rock bands.
One of the, if not THE most, famous scenes in the film is when the band unveils what they think will be an elaborate stage prop of a giant replica of Stonehenge. They think that a giant replica of Stonehenge is lowering behind them while it is, in fact, a tiny replica of Stonehenge (they were shown the replica earlier and presumed that it was a scale model of the actual prop and not the actual prop itself).
For years, people have presumed that the scene specifically satirizes the outlandish 1983 tour of the band Black Sabbath to promote their 1983 album, Born Again…
In a 1994 interview with Mojo Magazine, Ian Gillan (the lead singer on that Black Sabbath album) recalled their Stonehenge stage prop…
Mojo Magazine: Ian Gillan, you briefly joined Black Sabbath in 1983, tell us about the infamous Born Again tour that provided such valuable inspiration for Spinal Tap?
Ian Gillan: We were up at a company called LSD (Light and Sound Design) in Birmingham, and the lighting engineer asked if anyone had any ideas for a stage set. Geezer Butler suggested Stonehenge. “How do you envisage it, Geezer?” asked the engineer. “Life size, of course,” replied Geezer. So they built a life-size Stonehenge. We hired the Birmingham NEC to rehearse in and they couldn’t get these bloody things in there. We opened in Montreal and Don Arden had hired Maple Leaf ice hockey stadium for a week, so they shipped the set over there and could still only get a few of those damn stones up, one each side of the stage, one behind the drums and two cross-pieces.
It seems pretty straightforward, right?
Especially since the film was released in 1984 and the Sabbath tour was in 1983.
However, the gag actually PREDATED the Sabbath tour!
You see, before Rob Reiner and the rest of the Spinal Tap creative team (Christopher Guest, Michael McKean and Harry Shearer – who also make up the band in the film) were given the money to finance the film, they were given a small sum to film a 20 minute version of the film to demonstrate to the financiers what the film would look like (it was, after all, a bit of an unusual premise for the time). So they put together a 20-minute version that repeated many of the same jokes that would later appear in the film…including the Stonehenge bit!
So no, the Stonehenge gag in This is Spinal Tap is not, in fact, based on Black Sabbath’s Born Again tour. It is just a happy coincidence (or a great case of predicting the pretensions of rock bands, whichever you prefer).
Thanks to Mojo Magazine and Ian Gillan for the quotes!
MOVIE URBAN LEGEND: A movie studio spread rumors of the death of one of its actresses for publicity.
Florence Lawrence was one of the earliest movie stars. In fact, she is often nicknamed “The First Movie Star.”
She began appearing in silent films in 1906 and soon became director D.W. Griffith’s go-to leading lady for his short films that he made for Biograph Films in the early 20th Century.
In the early days of silent films, actors and actresses were not credited, so Lawrence gained her fame as “The Biograph Girl.”
Lawrence and her fellow Biograph star, leading man (and her husband) Harry Solter, tried to get work at another movie studio while working for Biograph. The other studio reported their efforts to Biograph and they were both promptly fired.
Lawrence was wooed by Carl Laemmle, founder and owner of Independent Moving Pictures Company of America (IMP) (the company would later become Universal). He wanted stars and Lawrence was one of the biggest in the business. However, having a star who was identified with a rival studio did not make Laemmle particularly happy, so he (or someone at IMP, at leaat) hatched up an outlandish publicity stunt. They would first spread rumors that “The Biograph Girl” had been killed in a car accident.
Then, after a suitable amount of time, IMP took out full page ads “debunking” the “lie” about her death, and, of course, noting her name and the fact that she was now starring in films for IMP.
The publicity did wonders and Lawrence did many pictures for IMP and remained a star well into 1910s.
Kelly R. Brown did a book on Florence Lawrence that is quite good. It is called Florence Lawrence, the Biograph Girl: America’s First Movie Star. It is well worth a read.
MOVIE URBAN LEGEND: Albert Finney had a bizarrely hilarious hidden cameo in drag within his own film, Miller’s Crossing.
Miller’s Crossing is a 1990 gangster film by the Coen Brothers…
In it, Gabriel Byrne plays the right-hand man to an Irish-American mob boss (played by Albert Finney) while also having an affair with his boss’s girlfriend (played by Marcia Gay Harden).
While everyone in the film is quite good, Finney’s Leo O’Bannon is certainly a stand out, especially a wonderful sequence where he fights off an assassination attempt while in his home in a robe listening to “Danny Boy.”
However, amusingly enough, this is not the only character Finney plays in the film!
In one of the early scenes in the film, Byrne’s Tom Reagan storms into a ladies’ restroom to confront Harden’s Verna Bernbaum.
This naturally offends the ladies within the room at the time.
Check out who one of the ladies is (click on the image to enlarge)…
Yep, it is Finney dressed as a woman.
I don’t know WHY he did it, but it sure is hilarious (and I assume that this is all the reason needed – that it was a funny bit)!
Okay, that’s it for this week!
Feel free (heck, I implore you!) to write in with your suggestions for future installments! My e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
Tags: "Danny Boy", Albert Finney, Biograph Films, Black Sabbath, Born Again, Carl Laemmle, Christopher Guest, Coen Brothers, D.W. Griffith, Ethan Coen, Florence Lawrence, Gabriel Byrne, Harry Shearer, Harry Solter, Ian Gillan, Independent Moving Pictures Company of America, Joel Coen, Leo O'Bannon, Marcia Gay Harden, Michael McKean, Miller's Crossing, Rob Reiner, The Biograph Girl, This is Spinal Tap