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“This Is the European War!”

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Chronicling America

The First World War was an unprecedented catastrophe that shaped our modern world. Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 132nd installment in the series.

July 23-24, 1914: “This Is the European War!”

On the evening of July 23, 1914, the Austro-Hungarian ambassador to Belgrade, Baron Wladimir Giesl von Gieslingen, delivered an ultimatum to the Serbian foreign ministry accusing Serbia of complicity in the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and presenting a series of demands, including two that no sovereign government could accept: the participation of Austro-Hungarian officials first in Serbia’s internal investigation, and then in the suppression of anti-Austrian subversion in Serbia.

Serbia was bound to reject these conditions, setting the stage for Austria-Hungary to declare war on the small Slavic kingdom, which would very likely bring Russia hurrying to her aid. Disaster was now imminent, but there was still a chance for peace—if only Austria-Hungary could be persuaded to accept a lesser humiliation of Serbia, or at least extend the time limit on the ultimatum to allow negotiations. But Austria-Hungary, determined to avoid another compromise solution, continued to ignore warnings from the other Great Powers until it was too late.

The Austrian Ultimatum

The crisis struck in the middle of a crucial Serbian election that found Prime Minister Nikola Pašić and other key cabinet members off campaigning in the countryside when Baron Giesl delivered the Austrian note to the foreign ministry at 6pm on July 23. Presenting the document to Finance Minister Lazar Paču (filling in for Pašić) Giesl said the Serbian government had 48 hours to respond—and if the response proved unsatisfactory, the Austrian legation would leave Belgrade immediately.

Even before reading the note, Paču understood that the threat to break off diplomatic relations meant war was imminent. Hoping to buy time, he told Giesl that Pašić and most of the other ministers were away, making it difficult for the cabinet to meet on such short notice. But the Austrian ambassador simply left the note on the desk in front of the finance minister, saying the Serbs could do as they wished. The clock was now ticking.

The handful of ministers present read the document and immediately realized its import, according to Slavko Gruić, the secretary general of the foreign ministry, who later recalled: “For a while there was a deathly silence because no one ventured to be the first to express his thoughts. The first to break the silence was the Minister of the Interior, Ljuba Jovanović. After several times pacing the length of the spacious room, he stopped and said: ‘We have no other choice than to fight it out.’”

As the ministers desperately tried to locate and get in touch with Pašić (no easy thing in an age before cell phones), Paču immediately telegraphed all the Serbian embassies around Europe warning that the “demands upon us were such that no Serbian Government could accept them in their entirety.” Paču also informed the Russian charge d’affaires in Belgrade, Strandtmann, and later that night Prince Regent Alexander visited the Russian embassy to request diplomatic intervention on Serbia’s behalf.

Finally contacted by phone at a train station in southern Serbia, Pašić hurried back to Belgrade by 5am on July 24 and at once set diplomatic alarm bells ringing with messages to all the Great Powers, who were also about to receive copies of the Austrian ultimatum. The only hope for Serbia now lay in the Great Powers convincing Austria-Hungary to accept less than full compliance with the ultimatum or agreeing to extend the deadline.

On July 24, the British charge d’affaires, Dayrell Crackanthorpe, reported to Foreign Secretary Edward Grey in London: “Prime Minister who returned to Belgrade early this morning is very anxious and dejected. He begged me earnestly to convey to you his hope that His Majesty’s Government will use their good offices in moderating Austrian demands which he says are impossible of acceptance.” Meanwhile Prince Regent Alexander contacted his uncle, Italy’s King Victor Emmanuel III, to request that he “use his good offices in Vienna in favor of an extension of the time limit and a softening of those terms of the ultimatum which conflict with Serbian law.” Alexander also sent a personal note to Tsar Nicholas II, stating,

We cannot defend ourselves. Therefore we pray Your Majesty to lend help as soon as possible. Your Majesty has given us so many proofs of your precious good will and we confidently hope that this appeal will find an echo in your generous Slav heart. I am the interpreter of the feelings of the Serbian nation which in this dark hour prays Your Majesty graciously to intervene on behalf of the destinies of Serbia. Alexander.

European Shock Waves

These pleas for help and the near-simultaneous arrival of the text of the Austrian ultimatum sent shock waves across Europe. On learning of the ultimatum around 10am St. Petersburg time, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Sazonov exclaimed in French: “C’est la guerre Européenne!” (“This is the European war!”). Furious, Sazonov berated the Austro-Hungarian ambassador, Count Szapáry: “I see what is going on… You are setting fire to Europe! It is a great responsibility you are assuming, you will see what sort of an impression you will make in London and in Paris and perhaps elsewhere. It will be considered an unjustified aggression.” That afternoon Sazonov advised the Serbian ambassador to St. Petersburg, Miroslav Spalajkovic, that Serbia should only accept those demands compatible with its national dignity—in short, not to give in—while Russia tried to defuse the crisis.

This was a tall order. For one thing, despite his warning to Szapáry, Sazonov’s diplomatic leverage was limited. Of course France would back Russia—but Germany and Austria-Hungary were already counting on this, and indeed anticipated conflict with the Franco-Russian alliance in the near future. The key was getting Britain, still on the sidelines, to join them in warning against rash moves. A firm warning from London at this juncture would probably have served to deter Berlin and Vienna, which had no desire for war with the world-straddling British Empire and its powerful navy, or at least brought them to the negotiating table.

The British were just as surprised by the Austrian demands on Serbia, which arrived in the middle of fraught negotiations over Irish home rule. In one of the most memorable accounts of the July crisis, First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill recalled the cabinet meeting that was just winding down when the bombshell landed:

The discussion had reached its inconclusive end, and the Cabinet was about to separate, when the quiet grave tones of [Foreign Secretary] Sir Edward Grey’s voice were heard reading a document which had just been brought to him from the Foreign Office. It was the Austrian note to Serbia. He had been reading or speaking for several minutes before I could disengage my mind from the tedious and bewildering debate which had just closed. We were all very tired, but gradually as the phrases and sentences followed one another, impressions of a wholly different character began to form in my mind. This note was clearly an ultimatum; but it was an ultimatum such as had never been penned in modern times. As the reading proceeded it seemed absolutely impossible that any State in the world could accept it, or that any acceptance, however abject, would satisfy the aggressor. The parishes of Fermanagh and Tyrone faded back in the mists and squalls of Ireland, and a strange light began immediately, but by perceptible gradations, to fall and grow upon the map of Europe.

Grey himself remarked that he had “never before seen one State address to another independent State a document of so formidable a character.” The cabinet immediately understood that the situation called for swift, energetic diplomacy by all the Great Powers, including Britain, if peace was to prevail.

British Hesitation

But the British hesitated to commit themselves fully for a number of reasons, beginning with their history of “splendid isolation” and determination to maintain an appearance of neutrality. Indeed Grey found himself performing a delicate balancing act: any open promise of British support for Russia, he feared, would simply encourage the Russians to be more aggressive in confronting Germany and Austria-Hungary, adding fuel to the fire. It also risked undoing all London’s efforts to reconcile with Berlin over the last few years. Rather, Grey hoped to use Britain’s role as a (supposedly) impartial observer to steer both sides away from armed conflict and towards the negotiating table, as before.

Unfortunately Grey’s efforts to appear impartial were a little too convincing. On July 23, he told the Austro-Hungarian ambassador to London, Count Albert von Mensdorff, that an overly-harsh ultimatum could lead to war between four Great Powers—France, Russia, Germany, and Austria-Hungary—crucially omitting to mention that Britain and Italy might get involved too. The next day he repeated the warning to the German ambassador, Prince Lichnowsky, who reported to Berlin, “he expressly emphasized the figure four,” now leading Germany’s leaders to believe Britain would stay out of the war as well. Grey also told Lichnowsky “if the presentation of this ultimatum to Serbia did not lead to trouble between Austria and Russia, we need not concern ourselves about it,” confirming that Britain wouldn’t get involved as long as the conflict remained localized.

Wikimedia Commons (1,2,3), orientalreview.org

Furthermore Grey hoped that negotiations backed by Germany could keep the conflict from spreading, telling Lichnowsky that “Germany, Italy, France, and [Britain], should work together simultaneously at Vienna and St. Petersburg in favor of moderation.” But the British foreign secretary had obviously failed to deduce that Germany and Austria-Hungary were secretly acting in unison and thus the Germans—far from working for peace—were in fact egging the Austrians on. The Germans sowed even more confusion by pretending they had no influence over Austria-Hungary: on July 23 Foreign Secretary Jagow instructed Lichnowsky to tell Grey “that we had no knowledge of the Austrian demands and regarded them as an internal question for Austria-Hungary in which we had no competence to intervene.”

Meanwhile, the Austrians did everything they could to calm British anxieties by, well, lying: On July 24, Foreign Minister Count Berchtold telegraphed Ambassador Mensdorff in London with instructions “to make clear to Sir Edward Grey that our… [note] is not be regarded as a formal ultimatum... [and] if the time limit expires without result [it] will for the time being be followed only by the breaking off of diplomatic relations...” In other words, the ultimatum was not an ultimatum and Austria-Hungary wasn’t planning to go to war. Of course the British would eventually realize this wasn’t true—but the Austrians were just playing for time, hoping that by the time London realized what was really going on Serbia would be defeated and it would all be over.

Russia Prepares to Escalate

The Austrians tried the same trick on Russia, but St. Petersburg wasn’t buying it. In one of his more outrageous fibs, on July 24 Berchtold told the Russian charge d’affaires in Vienna, Prince Nikolai Kudashev, “nothing was further from our thoughts than the wish to humiliate Serbia … our aim was purely to clear up the untenable relations of Serbia with the Monarchy…” Presented with this laughable assertion, Kudashev asked what would happen if Serbia refused to meet the Austrian demands. Berchtold admitted that the Austrian legation would leave Belgrade, and Kudashev reached the glaringly obvious conclusion: “Then it is war!”

Chronicling America

However, the Germans and Austrians still believed the Russians were bluffing, and clung to this belief in the face of mounting evidence to the contrary. On July 24, the German ambassador to St. Petersburg, Friedrich Pourtalès, reported a meeting with Sazonov in which the Russian foreign minister

declared with the utmost decision that Russia could not possibly admit that the Austro-Serbian difference should be settled between the two parties alone… Austria could not be prosecutor and judge in her own cause… Sazonov added that in his belief Austria-Hungary was seeking a pretext to “swallow” Serbia. “In that case however,” he said, “Russia will go to war with Austria.”

Pourtalès was disturbed by Sazonov’s outburst, but oddly gave no sign of this in his report that evening, instead assuring Berlin “that Russia will not take up arms” unless Austria-Hungary tried to annex Serbian territory—something Vienna had promised not to do. The fact that no one took this promise seriously was simply ignored, another victim of wishful thinking, equal parts fatalism and fantasy, in the final days of July 1914.

Indeed a crisis atmosphere now prevailed in St. Petersburg, where Sazonov and other key ministers felt they had to back their threats with military action. On July 24, at their urging Tsar Nicholas II tentatively agreed to order a partial mobilization against Austria-Hungary if the latter didn’t back down.

But this decision reflected a fatal flaw in the Tsarist regime—the failure of civilian officials to understand how their own war plans actually worked. Because the Russian general staff hadn’t drawn up any plans for partial mobilization against Austria-Hungary; the only plan they had was for general mobilization against Germany as well as Austria-Hungary, based on the reasonable assumption that the two allies would fight together. Once the ministers discovered that partial mobilization was impossible, they faced a fateful choice: back down and let Serbia be crushed, or proceed to general mobilization against both Germany and Austria-Hungary.

The latter option was extraordinarily dangerous, because the German Schlieffen Plan counted on Russian mobilization lagging behind Germany’s, which would hopefully give German armies around six weeks to beat France in the west before redeploying to face the Russians in the east. The beginning of Russian mobilization would, in effect, start the clock on the Schlieffen Plan, with each passing moment leaving Germany less time to conquer France, increasing the pressure on Germany’s general staff to set the plan in motion.

On July 23, Kurt Riezler, the friend and confidant of Germany’s Chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg, recorded in his diary: “The Chancellor thinks that if war comes, it will come because of a sudden Russian mobilization, without any talks. Then there will be nothing left to discuss, because then we would need to strike immediately, in order to have any chance of winning.  Then our whole people will feel the danger and support us.”

See the previous installment or all entries.

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20 Facts About Your Favorite Coen Brothers Movies
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Gramercy Pictures

Ethan Coen turns 60 years old today, if you can believe it. Since bursting onto the scene in 1984 with the cult classic Blood Simple, the younger half of (arguably) the most dynamic moviemaking sibling duo in Hollywood has helped create some of the most memorable and quirky films in cinematic history, from Raising Arizona to Fargo and The Big Lebowski to No Country For Old Men. To celebrate the monumental birthday of one of the great writer-directors of our time (though he’s mostly uncredited as a director), here are some facts about your favorite Coen brothers movies.

1. THE COENS THINK BLOOD SIMPLE IS “PRETTY DAMN BAD.”

Fifteen years after Blood Simple’s release, the Coens reflected upon their first feature in the 2000 book My First Movie. “It’s crude, there’s no getting around it,” Ethan said. “On the other hand, it’s all confused with the actual process of making the movie and finishing the movie which, by and large, was a positive experience,” Joel said. “You never get entirely divorced from it that way. So, I don’t know. It’s a movie that I have a certain affection for. But I think it’s pretty damn bad!”

2. KEVIN COSTNER AND RICHARD JENKINS AUDITIONED FOR RAISING ARIZONA.

Kevin Costner auditioned three times to play H.I., only to see Nicolas Cage snag the role. Richard Jenkins had his first of many auditions for the Coens for Raising Arizona. He also (unsuccessfully) auditioned for Miller's Crossing (1990) and Fargo (1996) before calling it quits with the Coens. In 2001, Joel and Ethan cast Jenkins in The Man Who Wasn't There, even though he had never auditioned for it.

3. THE BROTHERS TURNED DOWN BATMAN TO MAKE MILLER’S CROSSING.

20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

After Raising Arizona’s success established them as more than one-hit indie film wonders, the Coens had some options with regard to what project they could tackle next. Reportedly, their success meant that they were among the filmmakers being considered to make Batman for Warner Bros. Of course, the Coens ultimately decided to go the less commercial route, and Tim Burton ended up telling the story of The Dark Knight on the big screen.

4. BARTON FINK AND W.P. MAYHEW WERE LOOSELY BASED ON CLIFFORD ODETS AND WILLIAM FAULKNER.

The Coens acknowledge that Fink and Odets had similar backgrounds, but they had different personalities: Odets was extroverted, for one thing. John Turturro, not his directors, read Odets’s 1940 journal. The Coens acknowledged that John Mahoney (Mayhew) looks a lot like the The Sound and the Fury author.

5. THE COENS' WEB OF DECEPTION IN FARGO GOES EVEN FURTHER THAN THE OPENING CREDITS. 

While the tag on the beginning of the movie reads “This is a true story. The events depicted in this film took place in Minnesota in 1987,” Fargo is, by no stretch of the imagination, a true story. During the film's press tour, the Coens admitted that while not pinpoint accurate, the story was indeed inspired by a similar crime that occurred in Minnesota, with Joel stating, “In its general structure, the film is based on a real event, but the details of the story and the characters are fictional.”

However, any and all efforts to uncover anything resembling such a crime ever occurring in Minnesota come up empty, and in an introduction to the published script, Ethan pretty much admitted as much, writing that Fargo “aims to be both homey and exotic, and pretends to be true." 

6. THEY WANTED MARLON BRANDO TO PLAY JEFFREY LEBOWSKI.

According to Alex Belth, who wrote the e-book The Dudes Abide on his time spent working as an assistant to the Coens, casting the role of Jeffrey Lebowski was one of the last decisions made before filming. Names tossed around for the role included Robert Duvall (who passed because he wasn’t fond of the script), Anthony Hopkins (who passed since he had no interest in playing an American), and Gene Hackman (who was taking a break at the time). A second “wish list” included an oddball “who’s who," including Norman Mailer, George C. Scott, Jerry Falwell, Gore Vidal, Andy Griffith, William F. Buckley, and Ernest Borgnine.

The Coens’ ultimate Big Lebowski, however, was the enigmatic Marlon Brando, who by that time was reaching the end of his career (and life). Apparently, the Coens amused themselves by quoting some of their favorite Jeffrey Lebowski lines (“Strong men also cry”) in a Brando accent. The role would eventually go to the not-particularly-famous—albeit pitch-perfect—veteran character actor David Huddleston. In true Dude fashion, it all worked out in the end.

7. JOEL COEN WOOED FRANCES MCDORMAND ON THE SET OF BLOOD SIMPLE.

Ethan Coen, Frances McDormand and Joel Coen at the Oscars
Ethan Coen, Frances McDormand, and Joel Coen celebrate their Oscar wins in 1997.
KIM KULISH/AFP/Getty Images

Coen and McDormand fell in love while making Blood Simple and got married a couple of years later, after production wrapped. McDormand told The Daily Beast about the moment when she roped him in. “I’d only brought one book to read to Austin, Texas, where we were filming, and I asked him if there was anything he’d recommend,” she said. “He brought me a box of James M. Cain and Raymond Chandler paperbacks, and I said, ‘Which one should I start with?’ And he said, ‘The Postman Always Rings Twice.’ I read it, and it was one of the sexiest f*ckin’ books I’ve ever read. A couple of nights later, I said, ‘Would you like to come over and discuss the book?’ That did it. He seduced me with literature. And then we discussed books and drank hot chocolate for several evenings. It was f*ckin’ hot. Keep it across the room for as long as you can—that’s a very important element.”

8. O BROTHER, WHERE ART THOU? WAS ORIGINALLY INSPIRED BY THE WIZARD OF OZ.

Joel Coen revealed as much at the 15th anniversary reunion. “It started as a 'three saps on the run' kind of movie, and then at a certain point we looked at each other and said, 'You know, they're trying to get home—let's just say this is The Odyssey. We were thinking of it more as The Wizard of Oz. We wanted the tag on the movie to be: 'There's No Place Like Home.’”

9. THE ACTORS IN FARGO WENT THROUGH EXTENSIVE TRAINING TO GET THEIR ACCENTS RIGHT.

Having grown up in Minnesota, the Coens were more than familiar with the idiosyncrasies of the “Minnesota nice” accent, but much of the cast—including Frances McDormand and William H. Macy—needed coaching to get the intricacies right. Actors were even given copies of the scripts with extensive pronunciation notes. According to dialect coach Larissa Kokernot, who also appeared as one of the prostitutes Gaear and Carl rendezvous with in Brainerd, the “musicality” of the Minnesota nice accent comes from a place of “wanting people to agree with each other and get along.” This homey sensibility, contrasted with the ugly crimes committed throughout the movie, is, of course, one of the major reasons why the dark comedy is such an enduring classic.

10. NICOLAS CAGE'S HAIR REACTED TO H.I.'S STRESS LEVEL IN RAISING ARIZONA.

Ethan claimed that Cage was "crazy about his Woody Woodpecker haircut. The more difficulties his character got in, the bigger the wave in his hair got. There was a strange connection between the character and his hair."

11. A PROP FROM THE HUDSUCKER PROXY INSPIRED THE MAN WHO WASN’T THERE.

Billy Bob Thornton in the Coen brothers' 'The Man Who Wasn't There' (2001)
© 2001 - USA Films

A bit of set dressing from 1994’s The Hudsucker Proxy eventually led to 2001’s The Man Who Wasn’t There. In a barbershop scene, there’s a poster hanging in the background that features a range of men’s hairstyles from the 1940s. The brothers liked the prop and kept it, and it’s what eventually served as the inspiration for The Man Who Wasn’t There.

12. GEORGE CLOONEY SIGNED ON TO O BROTHER, WHERE ART THOU? BEFORE EVEN READING THE SCRIPT.

The brothers visited George Clooney in Phoenix while he was making Three Kings (1999), wanting to work with him after seeing his performance in Out of Sight (1998). Moments after they put their script on Clooney’s hotel room table, the actor said “Great, I’m in.”

13. A SNAG IN THE MILLER’S CROSSING SCRIPT ULTIMATELY LED TO BARTON FINK.

Miller’s Crossing is a complicated beast, full of characters double-crossing each other and scheming for mob supremacy. In fact, it’s so complicated that at one point during the writing process the Coens had to take a break. It turned out to be a productive one: While Miller’s Crossing was on pause, the brothers wrote the screenplay for Barton Fink, the story of a writer who can’t finish a script.

14. INTOLERABLE CRUELTY IS THE FIRST COEN MOVIE THAT WASN’T THE BROTHERS’ ORIGINAL IDEA.

In 1995, the Coens rewrote a script originally penned by other screenwriters, Robert Ramsey, Matthew Stone, and John Romano. They didn’t decide to direct the movie, which became Intolerable Cruelty, until 2003.

15. THE LADYKILLERS WAS WRITTEN FOR BARRY SONNENFELD TO DIRECT.

A still from the Coen Brothers' 'The Ladykillers.'
Melinda Sue Gordon, SMPSP - © 2004 - Touchstone Pictures. All rights reserved.

The Coens effortlessly jump from crime thriller to comedy without missing a beat. So when they were commissioned to write a remake of the British black comedy The Ladykillers for director Barry Sonnenfeld, it seemed to fall in line with their cinematic sensibilities. When Sonnenfeld dropped out of the project, the Coens were hired to direct the film.

16. BURN AFTER READING MARKED THE FIRST TIME SINCE MILLER’S CROSSING THAT THE COENS DIDN’T WORK WITH THEIR USUAL CINEMATOGRAPHER, ROGER DEAKINS.

Instead, eventual Academy Award-winner Emmanuel Lubezki acted as the director of photography. The Coens would work with Deakins again on every one of their films until 2013’s Inside Llewyn Davis.

17. IT TOOK SOME CONVINCING TO GET JAVIER BARDEM TO SAY “YES” TO NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN

Though it’s hard to imagine No Country for Old Men without Javier Bardem’s menacing—and Oscar-winning—performance as antagonist Anton Chigurh, he almost passed on the role. “It’s not something I especially like, killing people—even in movies,” Bardem said of his disdain for violence. “When the Coens called, I said, ‘Listen, I’m the wrong actor. I don’t drive, I speak bad English, and I hate violence.’ They laughed and said, ‘Maybe that’s why we called you.”’

18. PATTON OSWALT AUDITIONED FOR A SERIOUS MAN.

Patton Oswalt auditioned for the role of the obnoxious Arthur Gopnik in A Serious Man, a part that ultimately went to Richard Kind. Oswalt talked about his audition while appearing on Marc Maron’s WTF podcast, in which it was also revealed that Maron was being considered for the lead role of Larry Gopnik (the role that earned Michael Stuhlbarg his first, and so far only, Golden Globe nomination).

19. THE CAT IN INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS WAS “A NIGHTMARE.”

A photo of Oscar Isaac in the Coen brothers' 'Inside Llewyn Davis' (2013).
© 2013 - CBS Films

Ulysses, the orange cat who practically stole Inside Llewyn Davis away from Oscar Isaac, was reportedly a bit of a diva. “The cat was a nightmare,” Ethan Coen said on the DVD commentary. “The trainer warned us and she was right. She said, uh, ‘Dogs like to please you. The cat only likes to please itself.’ A cat basically is impossible to train. We have a lot of footage of cats doing things we don't want them to do, if anyone's interested; I don't know if there's a market for that.”

20. THE COEN BROTHERS PROBABLY DON’T LOVE THE BIG LEBOWSKI AS MUCH AS YOU DO. 

We’re assuming the Coen brothers are plenty fond of The Dude; after all, he doesn’t end up facing imminent death or tragedy, which is more than most of their protagonists have going for them. But in a rare Coen brothers interview in 2009, Joel Coen flatly stated, “That movie has more of an enduring fascination for other people than it does for us.”

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27 Things You Probably Didn't Know About Unsolved Mysteries
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NBC

Join me. Perhaps you will learn some things you didn't know about the wonderfully spooky Unsolved Mysteries, a show that aired is finale 15 years ago, but still creeps people out to this day.

1. IT STARTED AS A SERIES OF SPECIALS.

An Unsolved Mysteries reenactment
NBC

The three specials, called Missing… Have You Seen This Person?, were hosted by David Birney and his wife Meredith Baxter and aired on NBC in April 1986. The specials were so successful that producers Terry Dunn Meurer and John Cosgrove decided to broaden the scope of the show to include all kinds of mysteries.

2. IT WASN’T ALWAYS HOSTED BY ROBERT STACK.

When what would become the pilot episode of Unsolved Mysteries (but was then just a special) debuted on January 20, 1987, it was hosted by Raymond Burr. Karl Malden helmed the next two specials, and then Stack took over hosting duties, narrating the next few specials and the weekly episodes until the show went off the air in 2002. Later, when the show was revived, Dennis Farina took over hosting duties. (Stack had passed away in 2003.)

3. IN EARLY EPISODES, THE SHOW DIDN'T USE ACTORS IN THE REENACTMENTS.

According to director David Vassar, who directed 100 segments of the show, "In the early episodes, if there were any reenactments, we actually had the real people play themselves." That's why, he said in DVD commentary, "the acting of these first seasons when we were just getting our feet wet was not up to snuff. As we went through the seasons we were able to pay top dollar and get good people, so it just got better and better."

4. AND THERE'S AN EASY WAY TO TELL IF THE ACTORS WERE BAD.

"This is an Unsolved Mysteries hallmark, and it’s a secret," Vassar said in DVD commentary, "but if the narrator talks a lot, and the actors don’t talk at all, it means the acting is really pretty bad, and the narrator is going to cover everything up. If there’s everything out in the clear between the actors, it means the actors were usually pretty good. So the game was, how many seconds of the sync sound takes could you get to play in the open? The more sync you got to play in the open, the better the scene. Pretty simple."

5. THE REENACTMENTS WEREN'T THE SHOW'S MOST IMPORTANT COMPONENT, THOUGH.

"The interviews were so important to the way Unsolved Mysteries was produced," Cosgrove said. "People would think that the most important thing was the recreations, but really, having articulate people who can summon up the emotions of what it felt like [was key]."

"You trusted the interviews," added director Keva Rosenfeld. "If you didn’t have that, you didn’t have a good episode."

6. THE SHOW'S DIRECTORS CAME FROM DOCUMENTARY FILMMAKING.

A still from season four of Unsolved Mysteries
NBC

"We were all used to real life," Vassar said, "and in the first couple of seasons, it shows. Only occasionally had we worked with actors, and if we did, we worked with actors as hosts because they were hosting a documentary we were making." In the beginning seasons, the show shot with a small crew, too: "On the first season, it was basically director, a director of photography, an assistant photographer, a sound man, a producer, and lighting or grip guy," Vassar said. "There were five or six of us, trying to make these little movies. It was like silent films in the 1900s. We did everything ourselves."

7. IT WAS CHEAP TO MAKE.

In the early ‘90s, an hourlong scripted drama cost about $1.5 million per episode. Cosgrove told the Baltimore Sun that Unsolved Mysteries could be made for 25 to 40 percent of that cost. “If you're the president of NBC Entertainment, which show are you going to buy?” the Sun asked. “The one that costs $375,000 to make and finishes 11th in overall ratings or the one that costs $1.5 million to make and finishes 40th?”

8. STACK COMPARED UNSOLVED MYSTERIES TO THEATER.

"We're balancing two needs here," Stack told the Los Angeles Times in 1990. "We're trying to produce theater and we're trying to do a public service."

Stack’s stage comparisons didn’t end there: He saw his duty as host, according to Cosgrove, as akin to the stage manager of Our Town. The three-act play, written by Thornton Wilder, takes place in the small town of Grover’s Corners and features stories from a period between the years of 1901 and 1913. The stage manager served as the narrator.

9. THE SHOW’S FOUR-SEGMENT FORMAT WAS A DESIGN TO GET VIEWERS.

The show’s segments covered a number of themes, including Murder, Missing Persons, Wanted Fugitives, UFOs, Ghosts, The Unexplained (Paranormal), Missing Heirs, Amnesia, Fraud, and more. Each show consisted of four segments, plus an update on an older case. "Almost every show has an unexplained death in it, and almost every show has a lost love story," Meurer told the Los Angeles Times. "Then we'll mix and match in there a legend or a gold mine, or we'll put in one of our UFO stories."

“The idea,” Cosgrove said in DVD commentary, “was to have four different segments in four different areas so people would find something that they liked.” 

10. THE SPOOKY THEME MUSIC WAS COMPOSED BY GARY MALKIN.

Unsolved Mysteries’ original goosebump-inducing theme was written by Gary Malkin, who also served as the show’s main composer. “One of the things that really worked was the music,” Cosgrove said. “I had a lot of friends whose kids would run out the room because the music scared them so much.” Producer Raymond Bridgers agreed: “The music was so distinctive that you didn’t even have to be in the room to know that Unsolved Mysteries was on,” he said. The theme was updated four times (you can hear the 1995 version here), and when the show was revived in 2008, it came back with a new theme (and new logo) altogether.

11. IT PULLED IN GREAT RATINGS.

In 1990, the show ranked #11 for all TV series that year. “Once a sleeper, the reality series hosted by Robert Stack, former star of The Untouchables, now is just a flat-out smash,” the Los Angeles Times wrote two years later. “In the last four weeks, for instance, the unshowy but rock-solid series has demonstrated its clout—ranking 3rd, 16th, 8th and 10th in the ratings.”

12. IT WAS NOMINATED FOR SIX EMMYS.

The category was the Outstanding Informational Series, and Unsolved Mysteries was nominated in 1989, 1990, 1991, 1992, 1993, and 1995. Unfortunately, the show didn’t win, losing out to PBS’s Nature (1989), Smithsonian World (1990), The Civil War (1991), TNT’s MGM: When the Lion Roars (1992), PBS’s Healing and the Mind with Bill Moyers (1993), and PBS’s Baseball and NBC’s TV Nation (1995).

13. PRODUCERS HAVE SOME IDEAS ABOUT WHY THE SHOW WAS SO SUCCESSFUL.

Robert Stack hosts the first season of Unsolved Mysteries
NBC

Number one, of course, was Robert Stack, whose poker-faced delivery could send chills up anyone’s spine. “Bob’s contributions were immense, really impossible to calculate,” Cosgrove said in a tribute to the actor after Stack’s death in 2003. “His fame and charisma helped attract an audience.” Said Bridges: “No one could deliver a spooky line like Robert Stack.”

Number two: Curiosity. "People are fascinated by the idea that they might be living next door to one of these people, and might be able to help find them," Meurer told the LA Times in 1990.

And number three: “One of the things that attracted people to the show,” Cosgrove said, was that “they wanted to be scared.”

14. THANKS TO JACK THE RIPPER, THERE WAS AN UNSOLVED MYSTERIES HALLOWEEN SPECIAL.

In its first year on the air, Unsolved Mysteries had a Halloween special—an entire hour devoted to ghosts. "Bob was pretty skeptical at this point about doing an entire hour about ghosts," Cosgrove said on DVD commentary. "He definitely, I don’t think, thought it was a great idea for us to change the formula of having four segments of different categories for this Halloween special. It was a little risky doing an hour on one topic."

NBC had asked the producers to create a one hour special, Cosgrove said, because the network "had gotten wind that there was going to be a Jack the Ripper special in syndication, one of those live event specials, that revealed the secret identity of Jack the Ripper at the end of the show. And they said, 'We want you to come up with a stunt program on Halloween.' But we said, 'Wait, we’re the people producing the Jack the Ripper special—we don't want to do that!' And they said 'We don’t care!' So we came up with this, which clobbered the Jack the Ripper special."

After this, though, the show would occasionally do single-topic episodes.

15. THE SHOW ONCE BLEW UP A CHURCH.

The segment "Lucky Choir" tells the story of a choir that met to practice every Wednesday night at 7:25 p.m. Except one night, when every choir member was late—and, as a result, avoided an explosion at 7:27 p.m. that surely would have killed them. The producers chose a church in Unadilla, Nebraska, that was slated for demolition, and planned an explosion. They flew a special effects expert to the site and surrounded the church with five cameras framed by plywood boxes that would protect the gear and the cameramen. "We were supposed to cave in the roof, and we framed [the shot] slightly above the roof," Rosenfeld, who directed the segment, recalled. "[The special effects guy] blew it up way bigger than we expected. A fireball went into the air, probably a quarter mile. We were all scared."

Shrapnel speared the plywood boxes around the cameras and their operators, and debris rained down for 20 minutes. "The cameraman walked up to the macho special effects guy, pretty angry, and said 'What did you put in there?' And this macho guy goes, 'Ninety-five sticks of dynamite and three 10 gallon tubs of gasoline,'" Rosenfeld remembers. "We immediately rushed the site to film the scene because we couldn’t recreate that. We knew we weren't doing that again."

16. A NUMBER OF STARS GOT THEIR BREAKS ON UNSOLVED MYSTERIES.

Matthew McConaughey in an episode of Unsolved Mysteries
CBS

In his first professional acting gig, Matthew McConaughey appeared as a (shirtless, of course) murder victim in an episode of Unsolved Mysteries. "They got the guy," the Academy Award winner told Entertainment Weekly in 2014. "They found him around Bryan, Texas, about two weeks after that show." Virginia Madsen also co-hosted the show with Stack in 1999. Curb Your Enthusiasm’s Cheryl Hines, MADtv’s Stephnie Weir, Saw’s Ned Bellamy, and Lost’s Daniel Dae Kim also appeared in episodes.

17. ONE OF THE SHOW'S MOST POPULAR SEGMENTS WAS ALSO TOUGH TO SHOOT.

It was called "Mystery Hum," about the Taos Hum, so named because the low-frequency sound began to be reported in Taos, New Mexico, in 1992. (In other parts of the world, it's called the Bristol Hum, the Bondi Hum, or just "The Hum.") Director Bob Wise said the segment was particularly difficult to film because there weren't many visual elements for the audience—and the hum's low frequencies didn't come through televisions well. Still, he said, "we got a lot of response to this, because a lot of people around the country and the world are hearing this same thing, and there’s a whole network of people who hear this thing."

18. THE SHOW USED A VISUAL EFFECTS COMPANY CALLED AREA 51.

That company was tasked with creating the show’s effects, from sparking clocks to creepy ghosts to, appropriately, aliens. In fact, the “Allagash Abduction” segment featured some of Cosgrove’s favorite effects created by Area 51. “We had such detailed paintings and drawings from [the abductees], and we based our special effects session on their drawings and paintings, not just from the descriptions,” Bridgers said.

19. BUT SOMETIMES, THEY DID EFFECTS THE OLD FASHIONED WAY.

In Unsolved Mysteries's early years, visual effects weren't very advanced and the show didn't have a huge budget for them, either. "When you’re shooting ghost stories, it gets kind of tricky if you want to do it without special effects," director Bob Wise said in DVD commentary. The crew was forced to get creative: For the episode "Gordy's Ghosts," Wise chose to give the ghosts an overblown white look. "We put a lot of light on [the actor's] face," Wise said. "The poor little girl could barely keep her eyes open."

For another sequence that showed a ghost lying down next to the little girl on the bed, the crew took off the mattress and had the actor lie on boxes, and pulled on springs underneath to achieve the effect. Ghostly effects in other episodes were created in camera using double exposure and projection.

20. ROBERT STACK—AND THE PRODUCERS—WERE PRETTY SKEPTICAL OF THE PARANORMAL STUFF.

DVD cover of Unsolved Mysteries: UFOs
Alchemy

Though Stack was, in Cosgrove’s words, “terribly proud of our contributions to catching bad guys,” he was pretty skeptical of the show’s paranormal and extraterrestrial segments. “In some of those narration sessions, he’d be like, 'Come on, Raymond!'” Bridgers recalled. But even Stack found some stories—like the “Allagash Abductions” segment—pretty compelling. “[That] one even nailed Bob,” Cosgrove said. “[It] got under his skin. These guys were so normal and credible and stood to gain nothing by making up a story.”

As many as 80 percent of the supernatural cases were dismissed outright, according to Bridgers. But, like Stack, the producers found themselves swayed by certain stories. “When we pick a ghost story, we’re always mindful of those stories where there seems to be a historical reason for there to be a haunting,” Cosgrove said in the DVD commentary for “Black Hope Curse.” “I don’t think any of us, when we started Unsolved Mysteries, really believed in ghosts ... we’ve all had to take a second look at our preconceived notions after the experiences that we’ve had. Initially we’d be very skeptical of stories, but when you find that there is a story, that there are facts and history and accounts from the past that match up to what people see ... it takes your breath away, and makes the stories a lot more credible.”

21. NOT EVERYONE WANTED THEIR MYSTERY ON UNSOLVED MYSTERIES.

In the early days of Unsolved Mysteries, it could be tough to get people who'd had supernatural experiences to appear on the show—they were afraid, Cosgrove said, of exposing themselves to potential ridicule. "Back then, people didn’t want to come out of the woodwork to say that they’d seen ghosts," he said. "It was really tough to get people to agree to do the interviews." Still, there seemed to be some therapeutic value in it for the interviewees. "Having us talk to them and pay such close attention to them and help them explain it to the public seems to help them," Cosgrove said.

22. THEY FILMED MANY OF STACK’S SEGMENTS AT A MASONIC TEMPLE.

The temple was located in Pasadena, California. “We liked it as a set because it evoked ghostly spirits and things like that,” Cosgrove said.

23. UNSOLVED MYSTERIES RAN ON FOUR NETWORKS.

The show spent 10 seasons on NBC before moving to CBS, where it aired for two seasons before being cancelled. It later ran on Lifetime and on Spike TV.

24. THE REALITY SHOW SPAWNED TV MOVIES.

Victim of Love: The Shannon Mohr Story, which aired in September 1993, was based on an Unsolved Mysteries segment from November 1987. In the movie, Mohr (Sally Murphy) marries Dave Davis (Dwight Schultz) in a quickie Vegas ceremony. She soon discovers that he’s a pathological liar who neglected to tell her about his first wife. When Mohr dies of what appears to be a horse riding accident, her parents become suspicious. John J. O’Connor, who reviewed the movie for the New York Times, wrote,

The parents embark on a 10-year campaign to seek justice. A journalist and a detective prove most helpful. Confronted with mounting evidence against him, Dave flees the country, finally ending up in American Samoa. How can he be found? There's one possibility left, says the detective: "Unsolved Mysteries." And so we find the actors in this movie recreating the interview the real parents gave on the "Unsolved Mysteries" broadcast. The repackaging turns out to be an ingenious plug for the series itself. … Actually, Dave wasn't captured for more than two years after the original telecast. Credit, it seems, must go to the reruns. Marketing comes full circle.

Other TV movies followed: Escape From Terror: The Teresa Stamper Story (1995), Voice from the Grave (1996), and The Sleepwalker Killing (1997).

25. IT HAD A DRAMATIZED SPIN-OFF.

It was called Final Appeal: From the Files of Unsolved Mysteries. According to a synopsis from the New York Times, the show was “a reality-based series based on the NBC series, Unsolved Mysteries. [It] examines real-life cases of potential injustice involving convicted persons who, according to impartial observers, may be innocent.” Stack hosted. Final Appeal premiered in September 1992 and was cancelled shortly after.

26. MANY OF THE MYSTERIES ACTUALLY GOT SOLVED.

“Join me. Perhaps you may be able to help solve a mystery,” Stack said at the beginning of each episode. The show asked its viewers to call police or a tipline if they had any information on a crime, missing person, or lost loved one—and boy, did they. The LA Times wrote about one case that appeared on Unsolved Mysteries in 1988:

It was no mystery to Jerry Strickland and Melissa K. Munday when police showed up at their door in Moses Lake, Wash. Hours earlier they had been watching television as the show "Unsolved Mysteries" mentioned them in connection with the unsolved robbery and slaying of a gas station worker near Pontiac, Mich. Police got about 15 calls from area residents after the program aired, and Officer John Mays and Sgt. Dennis Duke arrived to find the couple waiting for them, Mays said.

Unsolved Mysteries covered more than one thousand cases, and according to its website, more than half of the episodes featuring wanted fugitives have been solved. Over 100 separated families have been reunited—including LeeAnn Robinson, who ran away from her father’s home when she was 16 and found her brother and sister years later through the show. "I was standing there in the studio (after the program ran) and this guy came over and said, 'I have your sister on the phone,'" Robinson said. "I just started to cry. I cried for a week."

27. AND YOU CAN STILL HELP SOLVE A MYSTERY.

Though the show isn’t currently in production, visitors can submit information that might pertain to an unsolved crime on the show’s website. But just because it isn't currently in production doesn't mean it won't be back: in April, the show's creators participated in a Reddit AMA where they said that they were actively "in the process of reaching out to networks to see if there is interest in ordering new shows. Let's keep our fingers crossed!”

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