Pretend Driving Lessons Were No Lie
After getting curious, doing research and connecting various dots which initially seemed completely unrelated, I pieced together the unusual, unknown and uncredited story of Linus Applebaum.
My wife and I watch a lot of old black and white Hollywood movies, mostly noir, but we are not overly discriminating in our preference for films from the 1930s-1940s. In the 200+ films from that era we have seen together over the years, I always smile when I see the rear projection technique in a film. It is such a fun, interesting, dated analog effect.
After watching so many films with rear projection I started to notice similarities and wondered about the technique and its common use in Hollywood. I was mostly interested in scenes where an actor appears to be driving a car.
I always understood the technique, so it was not a pursuit about that aspect, but more about whether I could trace the origins of the technique to a specific studio or person. The short answer is yes and no. The more interesting answer has to do with a man named Linus Applebaum.
I came across his name after sleuthing through some of the earliest issues of the Hollywood Reporter and Daily Variety from the 1930s. His name kept appearing in connection with rear projection-driving.
To create the rear projection-driving effect in a movie, an actor sits in a car in front of a projection screen while the screen plays a pre-filmed road sequence so the actor appears to be driving. The rear projection technique creates an economical, controlled studio setting of placing an actor in context, whether it is walking, running or another type of action, like driving. Some rear projections are more dynamic and realistic than others, depending on the quality of the pre-filmed footage and the actor’s ability to simulate the movements of driving, ideally in sync with what is projected on the screen.
The movement can be created several ways so the car bounces and bumps like a real car on the road. Depending on the need and budget, the car or rig can be moved in place by a crew member out of the picture frame to simulate simple movement or with a set of pulleys for more complicated moves.
Turns in rear projection-driving are especially tricky to sync with the projected footage and the actor’s movements. Sometimes the concept of time and space is too difficult to simulate and continuity is not so smooth — resulting in fewer turns.
Applebaum was an avid and studied driver, documenting his own driving habits and observing those of other drivers. Ironically, he was uninsurable due to the numerous accidents he caused or was involved in. However, he turned this situation into a livelihood which ultimately influenced the film industry — Applebaum became the first rear projection driving coach. He taught actors how to “drive” during scenes with rear projection.
From his own extensive driving experience, he could show an actor how to drive on any type of road, at different speeds. Whether the road was bumpy, flat, windy, hilly, dirt or paved, trafficked or open, or some combination, he could show actors how to make their movements realistic.
The similarity among the studios’ rear projection practices were due to Applebaum. He set many of the techniques’ standards. Applebaum also made recommendations for how to rig a car for rear projection. There was not much difference in the range of cars placed in front of a rear projection: generic dark colored, two door or four door, convertible or hardtop. This explains why the cars look so similar in rear projections of that era even though the pre-filmed projections were different.
Rear project scenes vary in their authenticity and believability, but what intrigued me was the consistent way the actors drove the same way. Typically with both hands on the wheel most often with the actor’s left hand at 10 and right hand at 2, as if the steering wheel was a clock. From a screen standpoint, positioning an actors hands that way removed any question of safety, and did not cause viewers to wonder, “why doesn’t he have two hands on the wheel…what’s he doing with his other hand?” Realistically, hands at 10 and 2 was a necessary requirement of driving at the time when power steering was not available. By the time power steering became an option in the early 1950s, Applebaum was out of the projection driving coach business (hands at 10 and 2 were no longer needed for simple driving and turning since power steering did not require as much muscle on the steering wheel). Occasionally, Applebaum consulted on a particular driving sequence, for example with a convertible sports car or an actor too short to sit behind the wheel of a car.
Applebaum also helped actors make the transition from manual to automatic drive. This ultimately led to being hired by several actors, agents and others for private driving lessons, even though he still did not have car insurance. As competition increased for rear projection driving coaches (many of them protégé’s of Applebaum), the studios eventually found they did not need someone to show an actor how to act when driving. Actors themselves were driving more in their personal lives and projection technology was advancing.
For Applebaum, this pointed the way for him to leave coaching. He then started the Hollywood Dial Driving School. The business was even more lucrative than his coaching, and finally enabled him to gain proper car insurance. He successfully franchised the school throughout the country. At the height of the Hollywood Dial Driving School, Applebaum had 11 instructors on staff at his Seward Street location in Hollywood and 5 instructors at the Van Nuys location in the San Fernando Valley. After reading an article on self-driving cars in Popular Mechanics, he saw it as the beginning of the end for his driving schools. Thinking he would shortly be out of business, Applebaum sold the schools. He then pivoted to a different line of business and started The Lie Detector Training Institute (LDTI). How and why he started this business is unclear. He anticipated an on-going, ever-increasing demand for Lie Detector technicians. Perhaps he thought the truth was becoming more difficult to determine politically, socially, culturally, personally? Though I may be projecting my thoughts of today. The school taught students how to use the equipment, administer a lie detector exam, how to ask questions and interpret the exam results.
I can only guess the outcome of Applebaum’s lie detector school, but I plan to continue my research on him. In the meantime, I located a distant relative of Applebaum living in Corona del Mar, in southern California. She is the great-great niece of Applebaum’s second cousin’s great-grandfather. I talked with her briefly and plan to formally interview her about her family’s history, particularly around rear projection-driving, the Hollywood Dial Driving School and the Lie Detector Training Institute. More to come with this fiction.