It’s a truism in the world of crosswords that the more you know about a subject, the more likely you’ll find something to object to when the subject appears in a puzzle.
An example: every now and then you’ll see “Velocity” as a clue for SPEED. When it happens, someone, usually with a background in physics, will say, “Hey, that’s not right.” They have a point: “velocity” and “speed” are not the same thing, in certain contexts. If you equate the two on a physics test, good chance you’ll get dinged for it. (If you need to know why, look here.) The trouble with knowing about physics is that you may think about scalar and vector quantities. The non-expert thinks in terms of everyday usage, where “velocity” and “speed” mean very much the same thing. (If you need to confirm that, check the dictionary.) The expert pauses, and maybe objects. The non-expert writes in the answer and moves on.
The same phenomenon happens with movies. A movie wants to tell a story, not give a finely detailed document of reality. It will simulate reality to the point that it makes the world it presents believable. But it does that by approximation. Even if the director gives ten interviews proclaiming the great effort expended to get all the details exactly right, the film at best is still an approximation. The ones who know the difference are the ones who know the world inside the movie best. A scene about meat packing may work for most people, but if there’s an objection from anyone, it’ll be a meat packer.
I’m not a meat packer. I’m a crossword constructor. I see a crossword puzzle in a movie, I pay attention. Most people, even non-solvers, have a fair grasp of what a crossword is, so you’d think it’s not a hard thing to get right in a movie. But apparently it is. Crosswords in movies frequently break the conventions that crosswords in the real world adhere to.
Case in point: The Cotton Club (1984), Francis Ford Coppola’s Jazz Age gangster film set in Harlem. I had it on Sunday and had to stop it around the hour-eleven mark. Here’s a picture. If you don’t see a problem, you probably don’t do puzzles.
First, let me give the film credit for having a crossword at all. As I mentioned last week, a crossword craze hit the country during the mid-1920s. This scene takes place in 1928 or 1929, so it’s fitting for a character to sit down and solve a puzzle. It’s a good period detail to have in the story.
Before saying more, here’s a caveat. I’m no expert on puzzles of that era. I’ve seen puzzles from the 1910s, and from the 1940s on, and what puzzles looked like in the 1920s involves a bit of guesswork. That said, my guess is that this was a 1980s-vintage puzzle modified for the purposes of the film.
The giveaway is the unchecked white square in the middle of the grid, just to the left of the A in RAGES coming down the center. That’s a no-no in the crossword trade. Another no-no is the two-letter word running down the unnumbered white squares to the left of ES in RAGES; standard crosswords require answers to be three letters or longer. While we’re at it, let’s note that the grid lacks symmetry. These are blatant errors. What’s going on?
The puzzle originally was a standard 78-word grid, with regular crossword symmetry, conforming to the usual rules. The filmmakers, however, decided to add a black square near the middle, just to the left of the G in GANGSTER. Why? GANGSTER is the answer being written in during the shot. It’s the the key word for the scene, and that extra black square makes room to fit its eight letters on the row across. No other across answer is eight letters long. GANGSTER had to go somewhere. (It could have gone down but that would’ve been harder for the audience to read.)
The prop department solved the problem by adding a black square. Maybe they didn’t know the errors they were creating. Maybe they didn’t care. Maybe they didn’t think any of the tens of millions of crossword solvers would notice. Maybe they didn’t think an answer like GANGSTER had to follow the rules anyway.
The easy fix would have been to use a different crossword grid, one with an 8-letter answer across. But if you know anything about the making of The Cotton Club, you know easy had nothing to do with it.
The movie cost north of $50 million, and it shows. The film looks great. The cars, the clothes, the dancing, the light falling through the smoky club room, the glass breaking in the phone booth from a fusillade of bullets. Great attention was paid to detail. The crossword puzzle, not so much.
That’s the way it always is. Hey, if you need help, Hollywood, just call. Meanwhile, I’ll be looking for a five-letter answer ending in BW, crossing BEER / WAR. Can’t say I’ve seen that one before.