Review: Show Me the Money!

Fred Reed, Show Me the Money!: The Standard Catalog of Motion Picture, Television, Stage and Advertising Prop Money. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co., 2005. Hb. 800 pp., 2071 b/w illus. throughout. ISBN 0-7864-2037-5. US$ 75.00. Available from the publisher at www.mcfarlandpub.com or by calling 1-800-253-2187.

If you’ve ever pondered such key questions as what denominations make up A Fist Full of Dollars (1964), or what serial numbers appeared on Brewster’s Millions (1985), Fred Reed’s Show Me the Money!, an illustrated catalogue of some 270 types and 2,000 sub-varieties of prop paper money used by the entertainment industry, is probably the book you have been waiting for. You are probably also among the select few who were already aware that there was such a large production of prop money for use in movies, on television, and on the stage. The serious collection and classification of prop money is a relatively recent phenomenon, partially spurred in recent years by the liquidation of the Ellis Props and Graphics Company holdings in 2000.

Luckily, for those of us who are perhaps not so entertainment-savvy in their numismatic interests, the author provides the catalogue with an extensive introduction (pp. 1-202) covering the legal and administrative problems of using real currency on camera that led to the development of prop money as well as a history of its use. The greater part of this section is devoted to extensive lists of film titles that include “money” or its synonyms, and movie scenes that employ paper money. The latter begins with the stick-up in The Great Train Robbery (1903) and continues for 140 pages until reaching the 600 dollars offered to save two kidnapped women in The Missing (2003).

While the main audience for this book seems somewhat more likely to be found among collectors of film and television memorabilia, rather than mainstream students of paper money, it will probably have a special quirky appeal for those interested in the currencies produced during the course of the Mexican Revolution (1910-1920) and the American Civil War (1861-1865). As Reed points out, because of their existence in vast quantities and their utter worthlessness after the victory of Álvaro Obregón over Venustiano Carranza in 1920, Mexican revolutionary notes were quickly snapped up by Hollywood for reuse as movie props, since Federal law prohibited the full scale photography of US currency at the time. However, over time and through use, this supply of money dwindled, leading the film studios to replace it with their own prop currencies copied directly or borrowing major design elements from the Mexican state notes of Chihuahua (B50-B60 and E30-E40), Sonara (B90-B100, BA10, E50-E90 and EA10), and Sinaloa (EA20). These notes continued to be produced well into the late 1960s. Although authentic Confederate States of America currency was not used in the same way as the original Mexican paper, it too was not infrequently copied for props (CA50-CA90) and its design elements were often combined with features of the Mexican currencies or even United States federal issues to produce the respective hybrid notes affectionately known as “Confexian” or “Confedamerican.”

The bulk of the catalogue is taken up by these notes and their derivatives, as well as several large recent series printed to mimic contemporary US currency with greater accuracy. In order to avoid conflict with current laws against counterfeiting, these notes are generally distinguished from real money by their size, legend variants identifying the issuing authority as a production company or fictional countries (the States of America, the United State of Amerind, the Untied States of Anemia, the Untied Steats of Aremica, etc.), the legend FOR MOTION PICTURE USE ONLY, and/or variant portraits. If not for the fact that such notes were produced specifically for the film and television industry, one might be tempted to see them as a modern incarnation of the so-called “evasion” coppers that proliferated in the eighteenth century, often bearing the types of official British half-pence but with modified inscriptions to avoid the capital charge of issuing false coin.

As the catalogue is primarily concerned with prop money used in Hollywood films and American television, the US and Mexican imitative notes predominate. However, some prop currency from foreign productions also appears. There is an especially large selection of paper money for the British television series, including Hancock’s Half Hour (BA80), Only Fools and Horses (O30, P30, T40-T50, UA80), Fawlty Towers (BB60), and many others, as well as an advertising note for the Italian film I Falsari (1950) (F10), and prop currency printed for use in Turkish (S10) and Hungarian (O70) films, but which are not connected to specific productions by the author. Reed includes a number of additional imitations of currencies from a wide spectrum of countries and historical periods, but because many of these do not bear markings to clearly indicate their use as props, we should probably accept them as such only with a caveat. Some of the unmarked early American notes (i.e. remainder Dix notes of the Citizen’s Bank of Louisiana (C80), a $50 Continental Currency note falsely dated to May 9, 1776 (CB10) (the first $50 issue was not issued until September 26, 1778), an 1839 $100 Mississippi Railroad Company note (M50), etc.) seem more like items produced primarily as historical replicas, rather than as props, although further study would be required to make this determination.

Although the title includes prop money printed for the theater, there are very few examples listed in the catalogue beyond a 500 franc note from the Broadway production of Les Miserables (1987-2004), a Walpole State Prison $20 bill from the Tremont Street Theatre (Boston) production of 9 Ball (2004), and advertising stage money printed by the Hammersmith Engraving Company of Milwaukee, Wisconsin (S80) in the 1920s and the Turner Company (T70), prop supplier to Broadway in 1907-1908. For early theatrical notes, specialists should still refer to R. Vlack, An Illustrated Catalogue of Early North American Advertising Notes (New York, 2001).

The selection of advertising notes is similarly sparse, with the majority of the items listed connected to the theatrical and home video releases of movies. Not surprisingly, most of these items were produced for films with the word “money” in the title (It’s Only Money (1962) (E20), Easy Money (1983) (E5), etc.) or which featured money prominently in their plots (Goodfellas (1990) (W50)). The only advertising note listed without explicit reference to the entertainment industry is from the Roxy Clothes Shops of Worcester, Massachusetts (S85) in the 1920s.

One might argue that the number of entries in the catalogue have been somewhat inflated. As already mentioned, it is not absolutely clear that all of the items listed were actually produced as props. Some, such as a mysterious set of probable game scrip (H60) and children’s play money connected with the Batman movie franchise (N30), almost certainly were not, and yet still appear. Likewise, Reed has stretched the meaning of prop money to include a wide variety of prop monetary instruments, such as bonds, checks, and promissory notes from numerous movies and television shows. These include a Frankfurt bank bond (BC20) from Beverly Hills Cop (1984), a financial receipt (FA10) from Evita (1996) and a galaxy of checks from the television series Seinfeld (H50), Caroline in the City (C40), Still the Beaver (M30) and movies like Daddy Long Legs (1919) (M10), The Untouchables (1987) (CA10A), and JFK (1991) (J20), etc. While these extraneous non-numismatic items will no doubt be of interest to scripophiles and fans of the respective films and TV shows for which they were produced, their inclusion tends to give the catalogue the overall flavor of a private collection of entertainment memorabilia, rather than a true “standard catalogue” after the manner of the longstanding and well respected Krause-Mishler publications by that name.

The catalogue entries are generally accompanied by good quality photographs, occasionally with insets depicting the scene from film or television in which the prop money appeared. However, the latter are sometimes on the grainy side, as they are taken from video freeze frames. While most of the photographs included throughout the introductory section are also quite good, some have clearly been taken from the internet or another electronic source without concern for proper formatting. These images often appear heavily pixilated with details very difficult to make out.

Fred Reed has made an interesting and entertaining first attempt to catalogue prop money used for motion pictures, television and the stage. No doubt Show Me the Money! will inspire new enquiries into this little-known and occasionally bizarre numismatic world. Now that Reed has built up a basic corpus, one suspects that in time further additions will also come. Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but soon.

—Oliver D. Hoover