April 8, 2024 | Sarah Ng

10 Classic Films With Chilling Backstories


Behind Your Favorite Films

So many delightful classics aren't what they seem. These chilling backstories might make you see your favorite films in a brand new light.

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Gone With The Wind (1939)

1939's Gone with the Wind might be one of the longest films ever made, but it also had its fair share of controversy.

Image - Gone with the wind - 2014Marysol*, Flickr

Prejudice Behind The Scenes

Sadly, some of the disappointing behind-the-scenes stories revolve around the prejudice experienced by some of the actors, most notably, Hattie McDaniel.

Studio Publicity portrait of Hattie Mcdaniel - 1939Unknown Author, Wikimedia Commons

They Weren't Allowed To Attend The Premiere

During the segregation era, Hattie McDaniel and her other Black co-stars faced the upsetting reality of being barred from attending the film's premiere in Atlanta. But that wasn't all.

Gone With The Wind (1939) - Vivien Leigh & Hattie McDanielRossano aka Bud Care, Flickr

She Had To Sit At The Back Of The Room

Even though McDaniel was nominated for her role and became the first African American to bring home an Academy Award, she had no choice but to sit at the back of the room. Even worse? The studio reportedly wrote her speech for her.

Actress Hattie McDaniel at her dressing table - 1940Los Angeles Times, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons

She Still Landed Stereotypical Roles

Sadly, Hattie McDaniel's triumphant win at the Oscars didn't truly set her on a path of success. Like most people of color, she continued filling stereotypical roles, usually supporting the white lead.

Gone With The Wind Featuring Mcdaniel & De Havilland & Leigh - 1939MGM, Wikimedia Commons

Noah's Ark (1928)

1928's Noah's Ark was a huge undertaking. It was part-talkie and part-silent. It also had a very long sequence dedicated to the great flood that covers the earth. Unfortunately, this is where the production took a dark turn.

Dolores Costello-George O'brien In Noah's Ark - 1928Warner Bros., Wikimedia Commons

A Terrible Idea

You see, the production team decided to dump 600,000 gallons of waters on top of the extras—but this was a fatal mistake.

Screenshot from the movie - Noah's Ark (1928)Warner Bros., Noah's Ark (1928)

The Extras Drowned

Horrifyingly, many of the extras had to be rushed to the hospital and three of them drowned. The saddest part of all? Someone had already foreseen these chilling dangers.

Screenshot from the movie - Noah's Ark (1928)Warner Bros., Noah's Ark (1928)

They Ignored The Warning

Hal Mohr, the cameraman, foresaw how dangerous the sequences could be, especially considering that the extras weren't properly trained. There was, however, a silver lining.

Due to this tragic incident, new rules came into play going forward which helped regulate treacherous stunts.

Screenshot from the movie - Noah's Ark (1928)Warner Bros., Noah's Ark (1928)

Imitation Of Life (1959)

1959's Imitation of Life came with scandal and drama—at least off-screen. You see, one of the main stars, Lana Turner, had a shocking personal life that threw a shadow over the production.

Karin Dicker, Juanita Moore, Terry Burnham, and Lana Turner in Imitation of Life (1959) publicity stillBritannica, Picryl

Scandal Behind The Scenes

Following the shocking murder of her partner Johnny Stomapanato, Imitation of Life was Lana Turner's next film. But honestly, the whole bloody affair deserved its very own major motion picture.

Publicity Portrait of Lana Turner - 1940sMGM, Wikimedia Commons

Her Daughter Ended Up In Court

Lana Turner's relationship with Johnny Stompanato was turbulent and dangerous—and it was her daughter Cheryl Crane who allegedly took his life during a domestic dispute.

Cheryl Crane And Lana Turner - 1958Unknown Author, Wikimedia Commons

The Public Blamed Her

In the end, Turner's daughter's actions were deemed justifiable, but rumors ran rampant. Many believed that Lana Turner was the guilty party who made her daughter take the fall for her actions.

Lana Turner In The Big Cube (1969)Unknown Author, Wikimedia Commons

Singin' in the Rain (1952)

Singin' in the Rain is arguably one of the best films ever made—but the production of the film was not smooth sailing.

Gene Kelly in Steven Miller, Flickr

Gene Kelly Was Sick 

For starters, Gene Kelly was allegedly sick as a dog during his most famous scene wher he performs the title number. He had a raging fever of 103.

Singin in the Rain, Gene Kelly and Debbie ReynoldsSilver Screen Collection, Getty Images

Donald O'Connor Ended Up In The Hospital

Donald O'Connor also went through the wringer. His beloved performance of "Make 'Em Laugh" took a terrible physical toll on his body and he ended up in the hospital.

Singin In The Rain CastSilver Screen Collection, Getty Images

Debbie Reynolds Broke Down In Tears

Finally, Debbie Reynolds, who wasn't a trained dancer, had to put up with Gene Kelly's penchant for perfectionism—and he reportedly made her cry on numerous occasions.

Debbie Reynolds in Singin' in the Rain looking at the cameraMGM, Singin' in the Rain (1952)

She Danced Until She Bled

The pitch-perfect number "Good Morning" wasn't a joyous filming experience at all. It took 15 hours to finish. By the time everyone was happy with the takes, Reynolds had danced so much, her feet were were bleeding.

She'd later confess that "Singin' in the Rain and childbirth were the two hardest things I ever had to do in my life."

Singin In The Rain Promo PhotoSilver Screen Collection, Getty Images

The Viking (1931)

1931's The Viking was an early sound film—and it has gone down in history for a variety of reasons. To begin with, it recorded dialogue and sound on location, making it the first film to do so. 

Image of - The Viking (1931 film)The Viking, J.D. Williams

A Dangerous Production

Unfortunately, The Viking was also a very dangerous production to be a part of. While filming aboard the SS Viking, the crew ran into trouble while trying to capture some action scenes. 

Uss Viking -1898Naval History and Heritage Command, Picryl

Stuck In The Ice

You see, the SS Viking found itself trapped in ice. But in attempting to release the ship, a number of explosives accidentally went off inside the vessel. The consequences were fatal.

Boat stuck in the Ice.New York Public Library, Picryl

Fatal Explosions

Tragically, these explosions ended the lives of 20 people, including Varick Frissell, the co-director and producer, and Alexander Penrod, the cinematographer.

This explains the sad tribute at the beginning of The Viking.

Promotional Picture from The Film Lovers Annual - 1932.Unknown Author, Wikimedia Commons

The Birds (1963)

1963's The Birds was a rough experience for the lead actress, Tippi Hedren—and this had a lot to do with the obsessive director, Alfred Hitchcock.

Tippi Hedren and Alfred Hitchcock in The Birds teaser, Picryl

A Lovesick Director

Reportedly, Hitchcock was interested in Hedren as more than just his lead actress. He had romantic intentions and seemed disturbingly possessive of her. He even made her sign a contract that held her back from working with other directors.

Alfred Hitchcock 1947oneredsf1, Flickr

She Turned Him Down

Allegedly, when Hedren refused to reciprocate Hitchcock's amorous feelings, his behavior took a vengeful turn. Apparently, he decided to make the filming conditions especially difficult for her.

Alfred Hitchcock and Tippi Hendren - The Birds (1963)James Vaughan, Flickr

She Paid The Price

Perhaps most famously, Tippi Hedren fought off live birds during the epic climax of the horror film. Mechanical birds were supposed to be used, but Hitchcock opted for real ones. They were tied to her dress and ended up genuinely cutting her.

Tippi Hedren And Seagull - The-Birds 1963The Birds trailer, Picryl

The Conqueror (1956)

The Conqueror may be one of the best examples of miscasting in Hollywood history. John Wayne playing Genghis Khan just doesn't sit right. However, the film also has a very tragic backstory.

The Conqueror (1956) at CinemaIISG, Flickr

The Film Caused Cancer

You see, The Conqueror was filmed dangerously close to nuclear testing sites in the desert. In the following years and decades, a startling number of the cast and crew got cancer. This included John Wayne, Agnes Moorehead, Susan Hayward, and more. Many believe that the filming location was to blame.

Portrait of John Wayne with hat  - 1960Hugo van Gelderen / Anefo, CC BY-SA 3.0 NL, Wikimedia Commons

The Producer Felt Guilty

Howard Hughes, the producer of the film, reportedly felt terribly guilty about the consequences of The Conqueror—so much so that he made sure to keep the film out of circulation.

Jane Russell factsFlickr, SDASM Archives

Babes In Arms (1939)

In the late 1930s and early 1940s, Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney were a match made in heaven. 1939's Babes in Arms helped make them one of Hollywood's most popular duos. However, behind the scenes, there were some shady things going down.

Garland & Rooney - A black and white photo - 1939Wikimedia Commons, Picryl

They Had To Take Pills

The filming schedule was quite demanding. Many of the stars, including Garland and Rooney, took stimulants and sleeping pills to help them get through the day.

Mickey Rooney FactsMGM, Clarence Bull, Wikimedia Commons

He Was An Addict

Down the road, Mickey Rooney denied many of Judy Garland's claims about the studio and the prescription medication they had to take. However, in his late life, Rooney reportedly had an addiction to sleeping pills.

Studio publicity portrait of Mickey Rooney - circa 1940Studio publicity still, Wikimedia Commons

She Met A Tragic End

Of course, as most know, Judy Garland met her own tragic end at the young age of 47—her addictions no doubt playing a hand in her early demise.

Judy Garland In Presenting Lily Mars - 1943Clarence Sinclair Bull - MGM publicity photographer, Wikimedia Commons

The Wizard Of Oz (1939)

The Wizard of Oz might be a feel-good favorite, but its behind-the-scenes stories are the stuff of legend—and not in a good way.

Screenshot of Judy Garland - from The Wizard of Oz (1939)MGM, The Wizard of Oz (1939)

The Actors Ended Up In The Hospital

Perhaps, most of all, the production was a hazard to one's health. Margaret Hamilton, AKA the Wicked Witch of the West, was a victim of a special effects mistake. She ended up getting severely burned. But she wasn't the only one.

The Wizard of Oz factsUnknown Author, Wikimedia Commons

The Original Tin Man Lost His Role

The original Tin Man was actor Buddy Ebsen. Tragically, the aluminum dust in his makeup affected his breathing and he had to be rushed to the hospital. He lost out on the role.

Jack Haley in The Wizard Of Oz - 1939MGM, Wikimedia Commons

Judy Garland Had To Lose Weight

Judy Garland not only faced the vicious cycle of her prescription medication requirements, but was also instructed to drop some weight for the role. Reportedly, the director and the Munchkins also tormented her during production.

Image of Judy Garland in The Wizard Of Oz - 1939CBS, Wikimedia Commons

Song Of The South (1946)

There's a reason nobody talks much about 1946's Song of the South. Even for its time, the film caused quite a stir. You see, though Walt Disney was in conversation with Black creatives, he turned a blind eye to their criticism of the story's inherently prejudiced plot. Yikes.

Screenshot from - Song of the South (1946)Walt Disney, Song of the South (1946)

The Critics Hated It

Once Song of the South came out, Black publications criticized it harshly. The film's politics were questionable, to say the least.

Screenshot of James Baskett (Uncle Remus) - from Song of the South (1946)Walt Disney, Song of the South (1946)

Disney Wants To Erase The Film

Presently, Disney has begun taking down any remnants of Song of the South from its theme parks. Though many want to bury this film due to its controversy, some argue that watching the film can be an educational experience.

Walt Disney 1946Boy Scouts of America, Wikimedia Commons


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