Running Guns for a Mobster: Providing Prop Pistols for Hollywood’s ‘Public Enemies’

A still from the movie "Public Enemies," starring Johnny Depp. This is not one of the prop guns I provided for the movie.

Being an antique and memorabilia dealer is the most fun job in the universe. I get calls from prop masters all the time to work on projects for movies and plays, and each time a request is made it’s like a new treasure hunt to find that perfect prop that will make the movie or play pop. We have been blessed to work with some of the most well-known prop masters in the business. They know what they want, even when most of the time, their requests don’t make any sense to me. But I find what they want and we both end up happy for the collaboration.

One of the more interesting projects I worked on was for the film “Public Enemies,” starring Johnny Depp as John Dillinger. My job was to find guns that would suit the era, as well as other sundry props that would work well with the colors of the scenery and, of course, look realistic and true to the era and setting.

My first order of business was finding the weapons that the actors would be using in the movie. The production house was not looking for real guns, but for toy guns. They said toy guns would translate onto film better than the real McCoy! It would later be quite exciting for me to see the guns on the big screen, used in a way I could never dream of. I don’t think I heard one line of dialog the movie the first time I saw it, as I was busy playing identify the props I provided.

The prop master bought my whole stock of "Dragnet" water pistols for the movie. On the screen, they look real.

For “Public Enemies,” my first thought for toy guns was to find—within my vast amounts of stock—a box of old Joe Friday “Dragnet” water guns that I had picked up from a defunct toy store in Ohio many years ago. Up close, the guns look like dime store toys, but as soon as the prop master saw them he bought up the entire stock, ensuring me that with a little “Hollywood Fairy Magic,” they would look like the real thing. I think we sold them the entire stock of 100 still-in-its-original-packaging pistols. This sale alone was a thrill, but they needed more for the set.

So I went to work digging through all my old novelty store displays from that the 1930s and came upon an old Star Pistol gun display filled with black snub guns. I was a little shy about showing this product to them, because they don’t really look all that realistic, but I took a photo and sent it to them, hoping and praying that they wouldn’t laugh. To my surprise they thought these were equally wonderful for the scenes that they had in mind.

Along with the toys guns, my hunt for period items came up with old packs of Lucky Strike cigarettes, matchboxes, cigarette holders, cuff links, labels for cans, as well as vintage clothing of that era, all of which was delivered to the prop master and the wardrobe people.

When the movie finally made it to the big screen and I got to see how they put it all together, it was truly Hollywood magic at its best. Everything looked so real that I could barely recognize the props I had sold to the production house.

The box of Star Pistols. I was afraid to even suggest these because they don't look real.

To my surprise, they bought the whole stash. I don't know what they did to them, but nothing that looks like these are in the movie.

I remember staying until the end of the movie to see if I could see my name as in the credits, but my eyes are getting bad, and the writing is too small. I’m sure I was not that important anyway. Still, it is always an extreme thrill when we work on these projects and can come up with items for a movie production and see it translated into a different vision.

Many people have asked me over the years why the studios select props from me instead of having their production houses build them. What I was told long ago by a prop master was this: “Even though an item looks great when custom-built for the movies, real object translates much more powerfully on screen.”

I hope every dealer in their lifetime gets the experience to work with their items in this way. It’s truly a fun, rewarding part of the antique business.

GoAntiques seller Laura Trueman runs Rene’s Vintage Treasures and RVT’s Primatives.

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  1. Bill Castle says:

    We sold a toy baby carriage to be used in a play. We also placed a churn that was going to be used in an interactive display in the Smokey Mountains. It is a pretty cool feeling knowing where things are going that way.