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6 Labyrinths To Get Lost In (not counting the David Bowie movie)

So, I went for a run in the cemetery this weekend. That might sound a little odd, but it's a very park-like cemetery with a big pond and geese and ducks. People bring little kids to feed the ducks all of the time and there are always couples walking their dogs and whatnot. Also, it's an old cemetery with some really interesting tombstones and mausoleums "“ think of a smaller version of Père Lachaise. Plus, I always feel a little bit like Nate Fisher from Six Feet Under when I run in the cemetery.

Anyway, because this is such a big cemetery I always find something new when I'm running or walking the dogs. This weekend I found a labyrinth.

I'll be the first to admit, I didn't know there was a difference between a labyrinth and a maze. In a maze, you're offered different options. You can go this way or that way, left or right, stumble upon dead ends, etc. In a labyrinth you only ever have one option. You enter the labyrinth at the mouth of the path and follow that path until you get to the center. Then you turn around and follow the path back out. "Uh, so, what's the point?" you might be thinking. A lot of people walk labyrinths for prayer or meditation. It's said to have a very calming effect.

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In very ancient times, (Pliny's Natural History, written somewhere around 77 AD, mentions four ancient labyrinths) it's believed that labyrinths weren't necessarily used for prayer purposes "“ instead, they were intended to trap evil spirits. But by medieval times, the design had expanded to include religious motifs such as the path to God (the entrance to the labyrinth was birth and the middle "goal" was God).

Another misconception about labyrinths, at least for me, is that they have "walls" "“ you might be visualizing a hedge maze (I was). And they can, but that's not necessarily the norm. That's why I was a little confused when I happened upon the labyrinth in the cemetery "“ there was a sign explaining the labyrinth, but when I looked to where it pointed, I saw nothing but grass. But when I looked a little closer, there were bricks set level with the grass that marked the path of the labyrinth. That seems to be more typical of labyrinths. And they don't have to be made of grass or hedges at all "“ lots of labyrinths are painted on a floor or inlaid out of marble or something along those lines. After my run this weekend I became very intrigued by the whole labyrinth concept and did a little research, so I'm sharing the most interesting tidbits with you guys.

The First Labyrinth (we think)

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There's an ancient Greek myth about labyrinths that goes something like this: Theseus was trying to save the Greeks from the Minotaur (a half-human, half-bull kind of a thing). The Minotaur was lurking at the heart of the Labyrinth at King Minos' palace at Knosses on the Isle of Crete. To find his way through the Labyrinth, Theseus used a ball of twine to get in, kill the beast and find his way back out (sounds more like a maze then a labyrinth to me, but I'm just relaying the story here).

To honor Theseus and recognize that he saved all of Greece from this horrible monster, the labyrinth was put on coins that date back to three centuries before Christ. The coins are still around "“ that's them in the picture. But interestingly, no bits of the actual palace labyrinth at Knossos have ever been found.

Saffron Walden

saffron walden

Apparently England used to be rampant with labyrinths "“ although there are a bunch around today, only eight of them are considered "old". The Saffron Walden labyrinth is one of them. It's the largest of the eight and has been around at least since 1699. An ash tree used to stand in the center, but now it's just open space.

Nazca Lines

nazca
Could the mysterious Nazca Lines in Peru actually be a form of a labyrinth? There's definitely a labyrinth incorporated in the designs "“ but there is also a theory that the lines themselves were walked just as a labyrinth would be walked. Hmm. I don't know about that, but it sounds just as plausible as any of the other theories surrounding the mysterious Nazca Lines.

Chartres Cathedral

chartres
The labyrinth at Chartres Cathedral in Paris is a good example of a non-turf maze (I know, I know, it's technically not a maze but I'm getting tired of writing 'labyrinth') and a good example of the medieval labyrinth revival. They fell out of fashion for a while, but during the Middle Ages people became interested in them again and labyrinths were often incorporated into church floors or gardens. This one was built in 1200 AD-ish and is an 11-circuit design divided into four quadrants.

3-D Labyrinth

tor
Have you heard of Glastonbury Tor? I hadn't. But I have heard of the mythical (?) Avalon "“ according to some theories, the two places are one and the same. Avalon is where King Arthur was supposedly taken after his last battle at Camlann and also where the legendary Excalibur was forged. Avalon is kind of like Atlantis "“ no one can prove it existed, really, but no one can prove that it didn't exist, either. Some monks reportedly found the bones of King Arthur and Queen Guinevere there in 1191. Some people think it might also be the final resting place of the Holy Grail. But what does all of this have to do with labyrinths? Well, some theories say that Glastonbury Tor/Avalon is really one giant, 3-D labyrinth.

Carved into the Tor "“ the WHOLE hillside "“ are seven deep, mostly symmetrical terraces. A person walking the terraces will eventually end up in the same place they started "“ just like a labyrinth. This is pretty hard to prove, though, so for now it's just a theory. Another (outlandish?) theory is that the Tor was shaped into a spiral maze for religious purposes and that the Tor was where the underworld king's spiral castle was located.

Scandinavian

scandinavian
Northern European countries such as Denmark have embraced the effects of the labyrinth as well. Stone labyrinths along the Baltic coast have been dated as far back as the 13th century. There used to be thousands of labyrinths in this area alone, many of them close to the sea. Some think these were done by fishermen and other seafarers; they were used to trap evil spirits who brought bad luck and shipwrecks. If the spirits were trapped at the center of the labyrinth, they would not be free to wreak havoc on the seas.

I have to say, all of this talk of labyrinths plus the warm weather that seems to have FINALLY hit Iowa this weekend has me wanting to go in our (miniscule) backyard and build my own labyrinth. Maybe this summer.

Do you guys know of any labyrinths in your areas? If not, check out the world-wide Labyrinth Locator. It doesn't have my tiny little cemetery labyrinth on there, but maybe you'll have better luck than I did! Let us know if you've discovered any in your town or on your travels.

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25 Wonderful Facts About It’s a Wonderful Life
Paramount Pictures
Paramount Pictures

Mary Owen wasn’t welcomed into the world until more than a decade after Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life made its premiere in 1946. But she grew up cherishing the film and getting the inside scoop on its making from its star, Donna Reed—who just so happens to be her mom. Though Reed passed away in 1986, Owen has stood as one of the film’s most dedicated historians, regularly introducing screenings of the ultimate holiday classic, including during its annual run at New York City’s IFC Center. She shared some of her mom’s memories with us to help reveal 25 things you might not have known about It’s a Wonderful Life.

1. IT ALL BEGAN WITH A CHRISTMAS CARD.

After years of unsuccessfully trying to shop his short story, The Greatest Gift, to publishers, Philip Van Doren Stern decided to give the gift of words to his closest friends for the holidays when he printed up 200 copies of the story and sent them out as a 21-page Christmas card. David Hempstead, a producer at RKO Pictures, ended up getting a hold of it, and purchased the movie rights for $10,000.

2. CARY GRANT WAS SET TO STAR IN THE ADAPTATION.

When RKO purchased the rights, they did so with the plan of having Cary Grant in the lead. But, as happens so often in Hollywood, the project went through some ups and downs in the development process. In 1945, after a number of rewrites, RKO sold the movie rights to Frank Capra, who quickly recruited Jimmy Stewart to play George Bailey.

3. DOROTHY PARKER WORKED ON THE SCRIPT.


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By the time It’s a Wonderful Life made it into theaters, the story was much different from Stern’s original tale. That’s because more than a half-dozen people contributed to the screenplay, including some of the most acclaimed writers of the time—Dorothy Parker, Dalton Trumbo, Marc Connelly, and Clifford Odets among them.

4. SCREENWRITERS FRANCES GOODRICH AND ALBERT HACKETT WALKED OUT.

Though they’re credited as the film’s screenwriters with Capra, the husband and wife writing duo were not pleased with the treatment they received from Capra. “Frank Capra could be condescending,” Hackett said in an interview, “and you just didn't address Frances as ‘my dear woman.’ When we were pretty far along in the script but not done, our agent called and said, ‘Capra wants to know how soon you'll be finished.’ Frances said, ‘We're finished right now.’ We put our pens down and never went back to it.”

5. CAPRA DIDN’T DO THE BEST JOB OF SELLING THE FILM TO STEWART.

After laying out the plot line of the film for Stewart in a meeting, Capra realized that, “This really doesn’t sound so good, does it?” Stewart recalled in an interview. Stewart’s reply? “Frank: If you want me to be in a picture about a guy that wants to kill himself and an angel comes down named Clarence who can’t swim and I save him, when do we start?”

6. IT WAS DONNA REED’S FIRST STARRING ROLE.


Getty Images

Though Donna Reed was hardly a newcomer when It’s a Wonderful Life rolled around, having appeared in nearly 20 projects previously, the film did mark her first starring role. It’s difficult to imagine anyone else in the role today, but Reed had some serious competition from Jean Arthur. “[Frank Capra] had seen mom in They Were Expendable and liked her,” Mary Owen told Mental Floss. “When Capra met my mother at MGM, he knew she'd be just right for Mary Bailey.”

7. MARY OWEN IS NOT NAMED AFTER MARY BAILEY.

Before you ask whether Owen was named after her mom’s much beloved It’s a Wonderful Life character, “The answer is no,” says Owen. “I was named after my great grandmother, Mary Mullenger.”

8. BEULAH BONDI WAS A PRO AT PLAYING STEWART’S MOM.

Beulah Bondi, who plays Mrs. Bailey, didn’t need a lot of rehearsal to play Jimmy Stewart’s mom. She had done it three times previously—in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Of Human Hearts, and Vivacious Lady—and once later on The Jimmy Stewart Show: The Identity Crisis.

9. CAPRA, REED, AND STEWART HAVE ALL CALLED IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE THEIR FAVORITE MOVIE.


Liberty Films

Though their collective filmographies consist of a couple hundred movies, Capra, Reed, and Stewart have all cited It’s a Wonderful Life as their favorite movie. In his autobiography, The Name Above the Title, Capra took that praise even one step further, writing: “I thought it was the greatest film I ever made. Better yet, I thought it was the greatest film anybody ever made.”

10. THE MOVIE BOMBED AT THE BOX OFFICE.

Though it has become a quintessential American classic, It’s a Wonderful Life was not an immediate hit with audiences. In fact, it put Capra $525,000 in the hole, which left him scrambling to finance his production company’s next picture, State of the Union.

11. A COPYRIGHT LAPSE AIDED THE FILM’S POPULARITY.

Though it didn’t make much of a dent at the box office, It’s a Wonderful Life found a whole new life on television—particularly when its copyright lapsed in 1974, making it available royalty-free to anyone who wanted to show it for the next 20 years. (Which would explain why it was on television all the time during the holiday season.) The free-for-all ended in 1994.

12. THE ROCK THAT BROKE THE WINDOW OF THE GRANVILLE HOUSE WAS ALL REAL.


Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain 

Though Capra had a stuntman at the ready in order to shoot out the window of the Granville House in a scene that required Donna Reed to throw a rock through it, it was all a waste of money. “Mom threw the rock herself that broke the window in the Granville House,” Owen says. “On the first try.”

13. IT TOOK TWO MONTHS TO BUILD BEDFORD FALLS.

Shot on a budget of $3.7 million (which was a lot by mid-1940s standards), Bedford Falls—which covered a full four acres of RKO’s Encino Ranch—was one of the most elaborate movie sets ever built up to that time, with 75 stores and buildings, 20 fully-grown oak trees, factories, residential areas, and a 300-yard-long Main Street.

14. SENECA FALLS, NEW YORK IS “THE REAL BEDFORD FALLS.”

Though Bedford Falls is a fictitious place, the town of Seneca Falls, New York swears that it's the real-life inspiration for George Bailey’s charming hometown. And each year they program a full lineup of holiday-themed events to put locals (and yuletide visitors) into the holiday spirit.

15. THE GYM FLOOR-TURNED-SWIMMING POOL WAS REAL.

Though the bulk of the film was filmed on pre-built sets, the dance at the gym was filmed on location at Beverly Hills High School. And the retractable floor was no set piece. Better known as the Swim Gym, the school is currently in the process of restoring the landmark filming location.

16. ALFALFA IS THE TEENAGER BEHIND THAT SWIMMING POOL PRANK.

Though he’s uncredited in the part, if Freddie Othello—the little prankster who pushes the button that opens the pool that swallows George and Mary up—looks familiar, that’s because he is played by Carl Switzer, a.k.a. Alfalfa of The Little Rascals.

17. DONNA REED WON $50 FROM LIONEL BARRYMORE ... FOR MILKING A COW.

Though she was a Hollywood icon, Donna Reed—born Donnabelle Mullenger—was a farm girl at heart who came to Los Angeles by way of Denison, Iowa. Lionel Barrymore (a.k.a. Mr. Potter) didn’t believe it. “So he bet $50 that she couldn't milk a cow,” recalls Owen. “She said it was the easiest $50 she ever made.”

18. THE FILM WAS SHOT DURING A HEAT WAVE.

It may be an iconic Christmas movie, but It’s a Wonderful Life was actually shot in the summer of 1946—in the midst of a heat wave, no less. At one point, Capra had to shut filming down for a day because of the sky-high temperatures—which also explains why Stewart is clearly sweating in key moments of the film.

19. CAPRA ENGINEERED A NEW KIND OF MOVIE SNOW.

Capra—who trained as an engineer—and special effects supervisor Russell Shearman engineered a new type of artificial snow for the film. At the time, painted cornflakes were the most common form of fake snow, but they posed a bit of an audio problem for Capra. So he and Shearman opted to mix foamite (the stuff you find in fire extinguishers) with sugar and water to create a less noisy option.

20. THE MOVIE WASN’T REQUIRED VIEWING IN REED’S HOUSEHOLD.

Though It’s a Wonderful Life is a staple of many family holiday movie marathons, that wasn’t the case in Reed’s home. In fact, Owen herself didn’t see the film until three decades after its release. “I saw it in the late 1970s at the Nuart Theatre in L.A. and loved it,” she says.

21. ZUZU DIDN’T SEE THE FILM UNTIL 1980.

Karolyn Grimes, who played Zuzu in the film, didn’t see the film until 1980. “I never took the time to see the movie,” she told Detroit’s WWJ in 2013. “I never just sat down and watched the film.”

22. THE FBI SAW THE FILM. THEY DIDN’T LIKE IT.

In 1947, the FBI issued a memo noting the film as a potential “Communist infiltration of the motion picture industry,” citing its “rather obvious attempts to discredit bankers by casting Lionel Barrymore as a ‘Scrooge-type’ so that he would be the most hated man in the picture. This, according to these sources, is a common trick used by Communists.”

23. THE MOVIE’S BERT AND ERNIE HAVE NO RELATION TO SESAME STREET.

Yes, the cop and cab driver in It’s a Wonderful Life are named Bert and Ernie, respectively. But Jim Henson’s longtime writing partner, Jerry Juhl, insists that it’s by coincidence only that they share their names with Sesame Street’s stripe-shirted buds. “I was the head writer for the Muppets for 36 years and one of the original writers on Sesame Street,” Juhl told the San Francisco Chronicle in 2000. “The rumor about It's a Wonderful Life has persisted over the years. I was not present at the naming, but I was always positive [the rumor] was incorrect. Despite his many talents, Jim had no memory for details like this. He knew the movie, of course, but would not have remembered the cop and the cab driver. I was not able to confirm this with Jim before he died, but shortly thereafter I spoke to Jon Stone, Sesame Street's first producer and head writer and a man largely responsible for the show's format … He assured me that Ernie and Bert were named one day when he and Jim were studying the prototype puppets. They decided that one of them looked like an Ernie, and the other one looked like a Bert. The movie character names are purely coincidental.”

24. SOME PEOPLE ARE ANXIOUS FOR A SEQUEL.

Well, two people: Producers Allen J. Schwalb and Bob Farnsworth, who announced in 2013 that they would be continuing the story with a sequel, It’s a Wonderful Life: The Rest of the Story, which they planned for a 2015 release. It didn’t take long for Paramount, which owns the copyright, to step in and assure furious fans of the original film that “No project relating to It’s a Wonderful Life can proceed without a license from Paramount. To date, these individuals have not obtained any of the necessary rights, and we would take all appropriate steps to protect those rights.”

25. THE FILM’S ENDURING LEGACY WAS SURPRISING TO CAPRA.

“It’s the damnedest thing I’ve ever seen," Capra said of the film’s classic status. "The film has a life of its own now and I can look at it like I had nothing to do with it. I’m like a parent whose kid grows up to be president. I’m proud… but it’s the kid who did the work. I didn’t even think of it as a Christmas story when I first ran across it. I just liked the idea.”

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Listen to What Darth Vader Sounded Like On the Star Wars Set
Star Wars © & TM 2015 Lucasfilm Ltd. All Rights Reserved.
Star Wars © & TM 2015 Lucasfilm Ltd. All Rights Reserved.

The voice of Darth Vader, provided by James Earl Jones, is one of the most iconic aspects of the original Star Wars movies. But James Earl Jones wasn't the actor wearing that outfit—it was British actor David Prowse, who was cast in part because he was huge (reportedly 6'5" and a former body-building champion).

George Lucas always intended to replace Prowse's voice, but it's still a bit of a shock to hear a muffled British voice coming out of Darth Vader's helmet. Here's video showing what Darth Vader sounded like on the set before James Earl Jones re-recorded the dialogue.

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