Floppy Dummies

Why is it that, in old movies, when people fall to their deaths, they transform into floppy dummies? I know they couldn’t have actual people fall to their deaths, no matter what childish theories Lewis Gilbert may have entertained, but were realistically jointed dummies really beyond the limits of technology back in the sixties?

I love the floppy dummies in Monty Python — but it’s amazing to me that a TV show was presenting as intrinsically ridiculous something that big budget movies expected us to take seriously.

What’s the movie — it’s a guys-on-a-mission film,I think a western — where some team leader makes the point while training his men that if you’re going to fall to your death, please do it silently, as otherwise you could be giving away the presence of your compadres. Subsequently in the film, two men fall silently to their deaths, their floppy dummies tumbling loose-limbed to their dooms in eerie scream-less silence. Without screaming to at least attempt to sell the illusion, the floppy dummies seem even more bathetic and amateurish. I used to be convinced this happened in ULZANA’S RAID but I seem to be wrong.

Perhaps filmmakers knew these shots were unconvincing but didn’t want to alarm the public with anything more real. But that can’t explain this one ~

Hahaha — his arm blatantly comes off, then reattaches in the next shot so he can be played by a human.

Peter Jackson, in his gory juvenilia phase, actually engineered the best falling dummy stuff I ever saw, for a scene where his own character is topped from a precipice. First, he used a rigid dummy, its joints bent as if midway to a foetal curl-up, with flexibility in the torso rather than the limbs.

(The fall is right at the end of this long, gory clip.)

But he still wasn’t satisfied. So he played in the edit and found that adding six frames of his face dropping backwards from extreme closeup to small-and-vanishing-from-frame (wide-angle lens), to the very start of the sequence, was enough to convince us that it was him falling all the way down.

14 Responses to “Floppy Dummies”

  1. Always enjoy silent comedies where the dummy hits the beach at the bottom of the cliff and they stop the camera to sub in a live actor, who springs to his feet and runs around shaking his fists at whoever’s still at the top of the cliff. While the trick is obvious, sometimes the actual substitution is so smooth as to be persuasive in a nightmare kind of way.

    The comedy “Top Secret” had a bit where a guard is pitch off a wall. Instead of a floppy dummy the actor is replaced by what seems to be a mannequin made of plaster, which shatters on impact.

  2. Fee here, with this marvelous bit of nonsense from Top Secret! Floppy dummies a-go-go!

  3. Randy Cook Says:

  4. There’s a very skillful dummy-switch in a episode of Feuillade’s Les Vampires, where the hero’s mother (I think) is lassoed out of a 2nd-floor window. The rope whips around the actress’s neck in the studio set, in the next shot (exterior location) a dummy is pulled from the window and caught by the villains. Then a jump cut within the shot transforms the dummy into the actress. It’s obvious but so well done you gasp a little at its audacity.

  5. henryholland666 Says:

    A similar sub-genre is “car or truck hurtles over a precipice and we see the dummies strapped in to the seats before the car bursts in to flames”.

  6. Paul Clipson Says:

    The setup is important. Lady Macbeth’s (Jeanette Nolan) fall in the Orson Welles’ Macbeth is pretty spectacular. The struggle by the window between Humphrey Bogart and Agnes Moorehead in Dark Passage is also disturbingly effective, because the drapery behind them conceals the wide expanse that Moorehead will suddenly fall into. The Indestructible Man has one of the funniest dummy falls, in the Bradbury building, because the man-scream is cut mid yell (an audio jump cut?) for no apparent reason, or maybe it’s the impact of hitting the ground. Regardless, the incongruous effect is Bunuelian. But the best dummy shots I can think of don’t involve falls, but cars plunging off cliffs, in two sequences in Preminger’s Angel Face. Whatever can be seen of the dummies (representing Herbert Marshall, Barbara O’Neill, Robert Mitchum and Jean Simmons) looks frighteningly real!

  7. Keaton rescuing the dummy heroine in Our Hospitality works extremely well — what he’s doing is already so extraordinary it doesn’t occur to us she’s not real. Showed it to one student who put her hands over her mouth in shock!

  8. Randy Cook Says:

    Here’s a floppy dummy in a pretty big picture, and it’s not nearly as risible as the embarrassing’ Harrison dummy in FUGITIVE. They get points for showing a real actor falling onto SOMETHING off-screen, and the location or set piece is a pretty good match for the real thing… I can’t see any pick points for suspending a platform off the real dam, so they didn’t dare, or did they? And they just can’t resist holding the wide shot for a few too many frames. The flopping starts after the switcheroo at approx 1:35.

  9. That works very nicely — despite the set of the dam sloping OUT while the real dam appears to slope IN. Continuity of movement makes that almost invisible.

  10. It ran its course in 2011, but are you aware of this:


    “The Theory and Practice of Cinematic Prosthetic Demise”

  11. Yes, magnificent!

  12. The floppy dummy is similar to the prematurely exploding car that drives off the cliff. It’s an old, familiar, slightly addled friend.

  13. henryholland666 Says:

    “cars plunging off cliffs, in two sequences in Preminger’s Angel Face”

    Thanks for mentioning that movie, I couldn’t remember the name of it. That’s the one I was mainly thinking of in my comment upthread.

  14. That’s quite a smash-up, yes. I’m fairly sure Otto would have preferred to have both his stars crashing to their doom for real if he could’ve swung it, so he settled for a very realistic substitution.

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