40 Surprising Stories And Secrets From The Sets Of Your Favorite Hollywood Classics

Every year, you curl up and re-watch It’s a Wonderful Life at Christmas. Or maybe you simply can’t change the channel when you see Singin’ in the Rain playing on TV. Yes, these films from the Golden Age of Hollywood are classics — untouchable, beloved pieces of cinema. But there still might be a story about them that you don’t yet know. Here are 40 secrets from some of history’s most iconic films.

40. A famous Jaws line was actually an on-set inside joke

Richard Zanuck and David Brown produced the 1975 classic Jaws, but they were reportedly very stingy. One of the movie’s screenwriters, Carl Gottlieb, told The Hollywood Reporter in 2016 how “everyone kept telling them, ‘You’re gonna need a bigger boat.’ It became a catchphrase for any time anything went wrong.” And, when cameras were rolling, actor Roy Scheider improvised those six words at the perfect moment — and the rest is cinematic history.

39. A Haunted Spooks photoshoot cost Harold Lloyd two fingers

A photo shoot for his Harold Lloyd’s 1920 silent comedy, Haunted Spooks, wasn’t at all glamorous — it was almost deadly. The actor posed for a shot while a prop bomb was sizzling nearby Lloyd noted that, for a faux device, it was giving off quite a bit of smoke. Seconds later, he found out why: the prop explosive was actually a real bomb. The photographer flew across the room, and Lloyd lost a pair of his fingers.

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38. The Phantom of the Opera’s star did his own makeup

Lon Chaney spent years on stage, and, during that time, he learned how to do his own makeup — and then some. He became so skilled at changing his looks that he started taking character roles over leading-man roles. On the set of 1923’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Phantom of the Opera two years later, he made himself into each movie’s titular character with false teeth, wax and grease-based paint.

37. Lawrence of Arabia: an epic film with an epic filming schedule

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Most Hollywood movies spend about 150 days in pre-production before shooting for just over three months. Now, let’s compare that with Lawrence of Arabia, the 1962 Hollywood classic that clocks in at a whopping 227 minutes in length. The movie spent a jaw-dropping two years in pre-production, and then moved onto shooting for 14 months.

36. Sean Connery had a Bond-worthy disguise in Dr. No

When you think of all the actors who have played James Bond, there’s no-one who has been more iconic in the role than the late Sean Connery. But the truth is, he was missing one element of the spy’s good looks — a full head of hair. Right from 1962’s Dr. No, onwards. Connery wore a toupee to fill out his receding hairline.

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35. Move Over Darling? James Garner quite literally did that to Doris Day

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According to Doris Day, her co-star in 1963’s Move Over Darling, James Garner, simply didn’t know his own strength. For one scene, the brawny actor picked her up under her arms and accidentally cracked a couple of her ribs. So, for the rest of the shoot, Day had to wear adhesive tape that made it hard to breathe and laugh. Luckily, though, her relationship with Garner endured — they remained friends for long after they wrapped. 

34. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? The censors.

Elizabeth Taylor won an Oscar for her performance in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, but the world almost lost out on their chance to see the flick. That’s because the 1966 movie — which peers into the turbulent relationship of a middle-aged married couple — was considered very mature subject matter. Eventually, censors slapped it with an 18-or-over rating, the first of its kind to be released in the U.S., and it went on to impress audiences and critics alike.

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33. Psycho features a now-inoffensive scene that censors tried to cut

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Here’s a fact that might one day come up on a round of movie trivia. Which flick was the first to feature a toilet on screen? How about a flushing commode? The answer to both questions is Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 classic, Psycho. Funnily enough, the director had to fight to have the shot included in his movie — what viewers might find offensive certainly has changed. 

32. Those weren’t real spider webs on the set of Dracula

In 1931’s Dracula, Bela Lugosi’s vampire traveled to London, where he spent his days hiding in a coffin — and his nights stalking the city’s streets for victims. As if that storyline wasn’t creepy enough, designers covered the set in spider webs they made through a very interesting process: they shot rubber cement through rotary guns to create the spooky webs.

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31. Sherlock Jr. was a neck-breaking experience for Buster Keaton

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Buster Keaton historian and writer David MacLeod told Scottish newspaper The Sunday Post in 2020 that the actor had “always said that by the end of his life he’d broken virtually every bone in his body.” While filming Sherlock Jr in 1924, he ticked one off of the list during a daring take. In it, Keaton jumped off the end of a train and grabbed onto a waterspout, pulling it down and releasing a gush of water so forceful that it shattered his neck.

30. Casablanca casting rumors included a U.S. President

Casablanca could have been a totally different movie if initial casting rumors had come to pass. An article in The Hollywood Reporter revealed who the leading man in the 1942 movie would be — and Humphrey Bogart’s name was not in the frame. Instead, the story said that an unknown actor, Ronald Reagan, had nabbed the part. Of course, this was completely false — the enviable role had actually gone to Bogart, but Reagan had leaked the misinformation as a publicity stunt for himself.

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29. A child actor rivalry caused tears on the set of Meet Me in St. Louis

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Margaret O’Brien needed to cry quite a bit in Meet Me in St. Louis, but the then-child actress couldn’t always muster up the tears. She revealed during a pre-show talk at a 2014 screening of the 1944 flick that her mom would bring up her daughter’s rival, June Allyson, to make her sob. O’Brien recalled, “…My mother would come over to me and say, ‘I’ll have the makeup man put the false tears down your face, but June is such a great, great actress — she always cries real tears.’ And then I started crying, because I couldn’t let June win the competition.”

28. Cleopatra nearly busted the 20th Century Fox budget

When filming for Cleopatra began in 1960, the movie had a modest $5 million budget attached to it. But two years later, the film still wasn’t finished, and execs funneled many more millions into getting the job done. In the end, it nearly bankrupted 20th Century Fox and cost the studio somewhere between $35 and $44 million. Adjusted for modern inflation, that would be about $370 million, making it one of the most expensive movies ever made.

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27. Shirley Temple endured some strange punishments on set

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Child star Shirley Temple charmed audiences throughout the ‘30s and ‘40s. Before she made it in Hollywood, though, a then-three-year old Temple got cast in a short film called Baby Burlesks. The adults on set used a strange and cruel punishment to keep the child actors in line. She remembered sitting alone in the dark, black sound booth on a block of ice when she misbehaved. Luckily, as Temple recalled in her 1988 autobiography, Child Star, “The black box did no lasting damage to my psyche.” 

26. Kansas said no to Frankenstein

James Whale’s Frankenstein tells a dark story, to be fair: its eponymous doctor toes the line between life and death, reanimating lifeless body parts and creating a monster. Still, you’d never expect such a classic tale to be censored. But when the flick came out in 1931, that’s exactly what happened — the state of Kansas banned the movie from its theaters because it featured cruelty and low moral standards.  

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25. Kubrick followed only his precise vision on Paths of Glory

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Stanley Kubrick fans will know that the director paid very close attention to detail. As such, he’d often ask for multiple re-takes of the same scene to make sure it matched his vision. On the set of Paths of Glory, though, this process didn’t suit veteran actor Adolphe Menjou. According to his costar, Kirk Douglas, Menjou lost it when the director asked him for another take after he had already done 17. At the end of Menjou’s outburst, Kubrick retorted by calmly asking if he was ready to try again — and the actor went through the scene again. 

24. The Conqueror had a dark ending for its cast and crew

The 1956 Genghis Khan biopic The Conqueror was shot in the middle of a Utah desert, but that location had an explosive past — the U.S. government had previously used it as a test site for nuclear weapons. The feds assured the film’s crew that they were safe working on the land, but the reality was that they and the cast were exposed to dangerous amounts of radiation. So, within 20 years of working on the movie, nearly 50 percent of the movie’s team developed some form of cancer — and almost 50 people ended up dying from disease, including its star, John Wayne.

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23. The Wicked Witch almost burned at the stake

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A fiery stunt can look great on film… but it can also be dangerous if it goes awry. That’s precisely what happened to Margaret Hamilton, who played the Wicked Witch of the West, while filming The Wizard of Oz. A trap door should have opened to help her escape the inferno, but it didn’t open quickly enough. This left the actress in flames that gave her second-degree burns on her face and third-degree ones on her hands.  

22. Miracle on 34th Street almost got a sequel

Miracle on 34th Street is a bona fide Christmas classic — and one that almost got a sequel. John Payne starred in the 1947 film and loved the story so dearly that he wrote a script that continued the story. Unfortunately, he never got to share it with the world. His co-star, Maureen O’Hara, wrote in her 2004 autobiography, ’Tis Herself, “He was going to send it to me but tragically died before he could get around to it. I never saw it and have often wondered what happened to it.” So do holiday movie fans everywhere.

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21. 12 Angry Men had to get angry first

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Director Sidney Lumet wanted to make sure his actors knew what it was really like to be confined in a room with only each other for company before shooting 12 Angry Men. So, he forced them all to sit together for hours, revising the 1957 movie’s script collectively and not interacting with anyone else. Welcome to jury duty 101!

20. The Great Escape fooled German authorities

Steve McQueen fans will remember 1963’s The Great Escape, one of the most famous movies of his career. The film follows Allied soldiers who tried to flee from imprisonment during World War II. Well, when McQueen’s “Cooler King” makes his grand exit — on the back of a motorcycle, no less — the German authorities swooped in. And, no, we don’t mean the ones from the movie — actual police officers pulled McQueen over and threw him in jail for speeding.

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19. Gone With the Wind has ties to King Kong

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What connects 1939’s epic Gone With the Wind to the classic monster movie? We’ll give you a hint: it has to do with the sets. To create the famous scene in Gone With the Wind where Atlanta burns to the ground, old sets from 1933’s King Kong were set alight and destroyed.

18. Robert Redford wanted the lead in The Graduate

Director Mike Nichols spoke to his friend, Robert Redford, about starring in his 1967 movie, The Graduate. But Nichols had a feeling that the dashing Hollywood star couldn’t believably play the main role. The director recalled to Vanity Fair in 2008, “I said, ‘You can’t play it. You can never play a loser.’ And Redford said, ‘What do you mean? Of course I can play a loser.’ And I said, ‘Okay, have you ever struck out with a girl?’ and he said, ‘What do you mean?’” Clearly, he didn’t get the part – and Dustin Hoffman did.

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17. William Holden didn’t like his Oscar-winning role in Stalag 17

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Holden’s turn in Billy Wilder’s 1953 prisoner-of-war movie Stalag 17 earned William Holden his only Academy Award. Really, though, he didn’t want to be in the film at all — he believed his character wasn’t likable enough to be a protagonist — but the studio made him do it. So, when Holden won his Oscar, he gave one of the quickest acceptance speeches of all time, simply saying, “Thank you.”

16. Almost everyone got dysentery on the set of The African Queen

The cast and crew of 1951’s The African Queen filmed on location, which meant they had to be very careful about drinking contaminated water. Even with purification tabs and boiled H2O many cast and crew members — including Katharine Hepburn — got dysentery. Meanwhile, director John Huston and actor Humphrey Bogart were supposedly able to side-step the infection because they only drank scotch on set.

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15. Filming the iconic hilltop singing scene in The Sound of Music was hardly glamorous

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Julie Andrews danced around and sang on hilltops in the most iconic scene of The Sound of Music (1965) — but filming it was far from carefree. On a July 2017 visit to The Tonight Show With Jimmy Fallon, she revealed that a camera operator roped onto a helicopter had recorded the scene. And, because of that, the actress recalled how “every time the helicopter had finished, it went around me, but the downdraft from the jet engines just flung me into the grass.”

14. Sidney Poitier made a huge sacrifice to have Lilies of the Field made

The 1963 comedy-drama Lilies of the Field had a miniscule production budget, so the cast and crew worked quickly — and for less cash — than they would have otherwise. The movie’s director and producer, Ralph Nelson, used his home as collateral to get the film made. He shot the entire movie in only 14 days. And the movie’s star, Sidney Poitier, took a fraction of his usual payday, in return for a share of box-office profits instead. Ultimately, though, the sacrifices were worth it when Poitier became the first black man to win an Oscar.

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13. Humphrey Bogart reached new heights in Casablanca

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We imagine Hollywood’s leading men, especially those from the classics, to be just as tall as they are dashing. That wasn’t the case with Humphrey Bogart, who measured in at a very average 5 feet, 8 inches. In fact, his Casablanca co-star, Ingrid Bergman, was actually two inches taller than him, so he had to sit on pillows and stand on boxes just to get some height on her. 

12. Tippi Hedren lived the experience of her The Birds character

In her 2016 autobiography Tippi, actress Tippi Hedren revealed that filming The Birds (1963) was just as scary as it looked. Director Alfred Hitchcock promised they’d use mechanical birds for an attack scene, but, on the day of the shoot, his assistant, James H. Brown, told her that the faux feathered foes didn’t work. Instead, the crew hurled live doves, pigeons and ravens at her for five days. She recalled the experience as “brutal and ugly and relentless” in her book.

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11. John Huston left the U.S. for political reasons, taking his production of Moby Dick with him

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The House Un-American Activities Committee sought to uncover film industry professionals who were secret communists in the 1950s. Those who were “caught” — and those who refused to testify — often lost their careers as a result. Director John Huston did not approve of this program, so he ditched the U.S. in protest. He ended up moving to Ireland, as did the production of his 1956 film, Moby Dick. Ironically enough, the movie is set in and around Massachusetts.

10. There was a lot of drama on the set of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?

Actresses Joan Crawford and Bette Davis hated each other, which created a lot of drama on the set of 1962’s What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? Davis once kicked Crawford with such force that she needed stitches. So, she retaliated by loading her pockets with weights in a scene where her nemesis had to drag her around so Davis would strain her back. After the movie’s release, Crawford launched an anti-Davis campaign so that her co-star didn’t win an Academy Award for her work.

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9. Alfred Hitchcock had to strategically cast North by Northwest

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Alfred Hitchcock had a dilemma — he wanted to cast Cary Grant in his 1959 movie, North by Northwest, but his frequent collaborator, Jimmy Stewart, thought he was a cert for the role. To avoid conflict, the director waited until the actor was cast in another movie, Otto Preminger’s Anatomy of a Murder. He then asked Stewart to star in North by Northwest, but the actor had to turn it down because it clashed. This freed up the director to hire Grant, as he had long planned to do.

8. Charlie Chaplin’s Hitler parody got him blacklisted from Hollywood

Charlie Chaplin parodied Adolf Hitler in his 1940 film, The Great Dictator, and that lost him his American career. Because of the movie, FBI marked him as a “premature antifascist.” He then had to stand in front of the Senate and the House Un-American Activities Committee, who branded him a communist. From there, the U.K. born Chaplin lost his American visa, and he didn’t return to the country until 1972, when he won an Honorary Academy Award. The trophy was likely a giant sorry for the time Hollywood blacklisted him for… criticizing Hitler.

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7. Gene Kelly made Debbie Reynolds bleed and cry on the set of Singin’ in the Rain

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Starlet Debbie Reynolds was only 19 when she filmed the 1952 classic Singin’ in the Rain, incredibly going toe-to-toe with her more experienced co-stars Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connor. But Kelly didn’t make it easy for the young actress and first-time dancer — he put her through a 15-hour filming session of the movie’s iconic “Good Morning” scene, which left her struggling to move on her two bloody feet and, confined to bed for two days rest on doctor’s orders. Kelly never let up, either, so, on another day of rehearsal, the actress snuck out, hid under a piano and cried. 

6. It’s a Wonderful Life revolutionized cinematic snow

When you think of technical award-winning movies, you probably think of CGI-filled epics — not It’s a Wonderful Life. But Russell Shearman, the 1946 movie’s special effects artist, won a Technical Achievement Award at the Oscars for his innovation in on-screen snowfall. See, in the past, filmmakers had used painted cornflakes to replicate snow. But director Frank Capra found that method too noisy — imagine actors walking on crunchy cereal while delivering dialogue — so Shearman invented a new artificial type of snow with soap, sugar, water and fire extinguishing foam. 

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5. Citizen Kane angered one of the media’s most powerful men

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Newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst was the main inspiration for the character of Charles Foster Kane in Citizen Kane. The mogul did not take imitation as a form of flattery, though — instead, he used his newspapers to slander director Orson Welles, calling him a communist. He also forbade anyone on his 20 newspapers to review the film when it came out in 1941.

4. Steve McQueen owes his role in The Magnificent Seven to a car crash

Steve McQueen signed on to star in a television show called Wanted: Dead or Alive — and then, he got an even better offer. He wanted to take a leading role in The Magnificent Seven (1960) but he was under contract to the show. To achieve this, he used his training as a racing driver to strategically crash his car without hurting himself. Yes, the actor got himself into a wreck on purpose so he could say he was too injured to do the TV show. During his break, then, he went to Mexico to film the movie, which made him a superstar

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3. Dr. Strangelove was supposed to end with a pie fight

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Yes, you read that properly — Stanley Kubrick initially envisioned his 1964 Cold War comedy ending with a pie fight. In his mind, George C. Scott’s General “Buck” Turgidson would watch as a cream pie smacked the President in the face. Then, he’d scream, “Gentlemen! Our gallant young president has just been struck down in his prime!” But Kubrick didn’t feel he could include that line after the assassination of President Kennedy in 1963. He also came to realize that such a slapstick ending didn’t fit with the rest of the film.

2. MGM execs fed stimulants to Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney to keep them working

Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney starred in 10 movies together, and MGM studio executives wanted the teen stars to churn them out quickly — for reference, they made 1941’s Babes on Broadway in 31 days. Garland later revealed that she and her co-star were able to power through because the studio fed them stimulants to keep them working for three days straight. Then, the young pair would receive sleeping pills to help them rest for a few hours before doing it all again.

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1. Producer David O. Selznick incurred a huge fine for an iconic moment in Gone With the Wind

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Even if you haven’t seen Gone With the Wind, you’ll know its most famous line: “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn.” Well, when the movie was released, the word “damn” got producer David O. Selznick in big trouble. He had to pay a $5,000 fine for bad language, which is hard to believe, considering the language in modern movies.

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