Paul Widlicska — The Studio Magician (1937) 🇺🇸
Paul Widlicska creates rain, snow, hail and fog at a moment’s notice. Here’s how a studio can have weather to order at any time of the year within the sound stage. The property man is called upon to provide anything from two hundred sand flies to an eighty mile an hour gale, and he is usually successful if it is humanly possible to satisfy the demands. He invents the item, or the machine to make it; borrows it from a collection, or gets it from across the world. It’s all part of the day’s work.
Alladin had a lamp! Paul Widlicska has thirty handy men and the craziest shop and store-room in Hollywood. With his props and his men he can out — Alladin Alladin any time.
At the Samuel Goldwyn studios, when they want it to snow or rain on the set. or when they want the wind to sigh or howl, or when they want a mooing cow. a crocodile or a cockroach, they yell: “Hey Paul!”’ They give the little Austrian propmaker a rough sketch and less time than he needs to fill the order and he goes to work.
He tackles the job with the firm idea that nothing is impossible; if he allows himself to doubt this theory for one moment, he would lose his job. He must not feel that anything on earth is impossible.
Paul is the Edison of Hollywood’s prop-making shops; an inventive wizard who has perfected more intricate gadgets perhaps than any living inventor. but one who never seeks a patent, and who tosses his inventions into an ash can the moment the cameras cease grinding on the scenes for which they were needed.
“If the others can use my ideas, let ’em have ’em. I have plenty of ideas from others myself,” is the philosophy of this magic maker who has been hearing the “Hey, Paul!” in Hollywood studios for twenty years.
This daddy of all the prop makers wears a sprightly air these days because of two pictures recently released by Samuel Goldwyn. One of the pictures, a screen adaptation of Edna Ferber’s story of an American lumber dynasty, Come and Get It put Paul’s new show shaker to a test. The snow shaker covered itself with glory and a big sound stage with “snow.” The other Sidney Howard’s screen version of Sinclair Lewis’ “Dodsworth” revealed the worth of Paul’s new wind machine, the product of three year’s tinkering.
His snow shaker is a cylindrical contraption which hung high above the Come and Get It set. When snow was ordered, finely cut chicken feather drifted slowly down to be wafted realistically against the log cabins by the miraculously quiet wind machines.
They almost broke Paul’s heart two years ago when they stopped manufacturing “Falco Flakes,” a sort of corn flake breakfast food resembling snow. This was Paul’s favorite “snow.” It was hard to make chicken feathers behave, at first. Paul would put a crew of men to work cutting up the feathers, but from time to time the men would become interested in conversation while so engaged, so that some of the pieces would be entirely too large.
“When our snow began to fall,” related Paul, “once in a while you would see a whole chicken flop down so big were the pieces. Thereafter we began cutting them in an automatic chopping mill. Then I had to perfect a device to shake them down; I found the close-meshed wire the best and it works like a charm.”
He took two cast-off ventilating fans from two of the stages, put their best pieces together and created a wind machine which caused the sound-men to sigh with relief. The “squeak department” (sound department) of all studios had hated the sight of wind machines before Paul’s invention came about. The machines were too noisy. Paul’s machine caused the wind to sigh softly through the white pines in Come and Get It and to howl with fury in an 80-mile an hour gale over the decks of the replica of the Cunard White Star liner “Queen Mary” in the “Dodsworth” sequence; and still the sound men were happy, for there were no mechanical creaks or squeaks to be heard.
Paul and his magicians have fashioned desert flies for the “Sheik;” alligators for a Mary Pickford picture; sharks for “I Cover the Waterfront;” a mechanical man which actually swam, for “The Gaucho;” armor plate for the elephants in “Clive of India;” contented cows which mooed and gave milk for “Kid Millions” and Paul admits having made a bull in “The Kid from Spain.” The bull, no less, that sat on Eddie Cantor during a burlesqued bull-fight.
Paul and his men made every stick of furniture used in “Robin Hood” and “The Thief of Bagdad” because no suitable furniture could be found anywhere. To replace the smoke they used to employ in the studios to create fog effects, Paul developed an odorless fog with crystal oil and a vaporizer he perfected himself. This fog hung low over the “Queen Mary’s” decks in “Dodsworth.”
In the Come and Get It sets are many Widlicska icicles, some of them huge and all of them out of his jugs and cans of hypo, plaster of paris and medicated cotton.
Give Paul and his workers enough wood, sand, cement, plaster of paris. burlap, powdered marble, gypsum, insulex oil, shredded newspaper, paper towels and time and they will show you the end of the world and make you believe that you’re actually seeing it.
Fogging up the “Dodsworth” set! Paul Widlicska working his fog machine.
Left: The Hollywood “snow” man! Mr. Widlicska with his newly-developed snow-shaker, used for the first time in Come and Get It, the Samuel Goldwyn production. The cylindrically-shaped shaker spreads chicken feathers so evenly over a set that even the actors are fooled. No more corn flakes for “snow” nowadays!
Right: Here is Paul’s latest invention, a wind machine which can blow a gentle zephyr for an 80-mile an hour gale without a sound on the set where it is used.
Source: Motion Picture Studio Insider, January 1937