“Monstrous Chapters of History”

George Grosz, “Explosion,” via Centenaire.org
George Grosz, “Explosion,” via Centenaire.org

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 187th installment in the series.

June 18, 1915: “Monstrous Chapters of History”

On June 18, 1915, the novelist Henry James wrote to his friend Sir Compton Mackenzie, accompanying the Allied forces as an observer at Gallipoli, to congratulate him on his forthcoming novel, some years in the works. But in his letter James couldn’t conceal a deep-seated unease about the implications of the Great War for art and literature produced before the cataclysm—now seemingly a bygone era, though ended only a year before. Would their older work still be relevant, James wondered, in the wake of

… that violence of rupture with the past which makes me ask myself what will have become of all that material we were taking for granted, and which now lies there behind us like some vast damaged cargo dumped upon a dock and unfit for human purchase or consumption. I seem to fear that I shall find myself seeing your recently concluded novel as through a glass darkly… by which time God knows what other monstrous chapters of history won’t have been perpetrated!

A few weeks later and a thousand miles away, on July 8, 1915 a German soldier, Gotthold von Rohden, wrote to his parents:

It seems to me as if we who are face to face with the enemy are loosed from every bond that used to hold us; we stand quite detached, so that death may not find any ties to cut painfully through. All our thoughts and feelings are transformed, and if I were not afraid of being misunderstood I might almost say we are alienated from all the people and things connected with our former life.

James and Rohden were hardly alone in identifying a “rupture” with the past, entailing the loss of contact with a prewar world that was now somehow defunct, and a new awareness of a deeper reality, at once primitive and profound. In October 1914 Rowland Strong, an Englishman living in France, noted: “The people whom I meet on the boulevards are becoming more and more possessed with the idea which has struck me so persistently, that the war marks the beginning of a new epoch… This applies not only to literature and the spoken word generally, but to every phase of life.”  In August 1915 Sarah Macnaughtan, a British volunteer nurse, stated simply in her diary: “Nothing matters much now. The former things are swept away, and all the old barriers are disappearing. Our old gods of possession and wealth are crumbling, and class distinctions don't count, and even life and death are pretty much the same thing.”

While some changes proved fleeting, others endured, leaving a world radically different than the one that existed before the war—and contemporaries were keenly aware of the transformation taking place around them. Indeed many spoke of an entirely “new world,” with wide-ranging effects on society, culture, religion, politics, economy, gender relations, and generational dynamics, among other things. But the root cause of it all was war’s first and most obvious effect: sheer destruction.

“Every One Has Lost Some One”

In her diary entry for June 18, 1915, Mary Dexter, an American volunteer nurse in Britain, summed up the experience on the home front: “It is so awful now—every one has lost some one."

By any standard the numbers were shocking. Among the Central Powers, by the end of June 1915 Germany had probably suffered roughly 1.8 million casualties, including around 400,000 killed. Meanwhile Austria-Hungary’s total casualties topped 2.1 million, including over half a million dead. Figures are harder to find for the Ottoman Empire, but between the defeat at Sarikamish and the continuing hard-fought defensive victory at Gallipoli (not to mention reverses in Egypt and Mesopotamia, as well as rampant disease) total casualties were probably approaching half a million, with well over a hundred thousand killed.

On the Allied side France, which bore the brunt of the fighting on the Western Front in the first year, had suffered over 1.6 million casualties by the end of June 1915, including over half a million dead. As the British Expeditionary Force massively ramped up in size U.K. losses were also mounting rapidly in 1915, hurried by the desperate defense at the Second Battle of Ypres and bloody defeats at Neuve Chapelle and Aubers Ridge: at the middle of the year total casualties were around 300,000, including almost 80,000 killed. In the throes of the continuing Great Retreat Russia was suffering worst of all, with a mind-boggling 3.5 million casualties and a death toll approaching 700,000 (Italy, which joined hostilities at the end of May 1915, had casualties in the mere tens of thousands, although they would skyrocket with the First Battle of the Isonzo, beginning June 23, 1915).

Crunching the numbers, altogether in mid-1915 the Central Powers’ casualties came to around 4.4 million, including over a million dead, while Allied casualties amounted to 5.4 million, with 1.3 million dead. Put another way, in less than a year of fighting Europe’s Great Powers had suffered roughly four times as many deaths as the United States did during all four years of the Civil War.

“The Genie of War”

Most ordinary people now realized that there was no end in sight. On March 29, 1915 Kate Finzi, a British volunteer nurse, wrote in her diary: “To us any condition of ‘apres la guerre’ has become unthinkable. Sometimes it seems it must be the end of the world.” In a letter to her fiancée Roland Leighton written June 15, 1915, British volunteer nurse Vera Brittain predicted, “the war will be so long that the last people who go to the front will have as much of it as they care about… I don’t see what can end anything so tremendous.”

Indeed there was a general sense—terrifying but also strangely liberating—that the war had spiraled out of control, assuming dimensions that simply overwhelmed humanity’s capacity to understand or direct events; in short, it had taken on a life of its own. In May 1915 Madame Edouard Drumont, the wife of a French politician, wrote in her diary, “the Genie of war is loose, and is devouring everything; he rules the elements. It is horrible, and yet somehow magnificent.” Many participants likened it to a natural disaster: on July 10, 1915, an Indian soldier, Sowar Sohan Singh, wrote home, “The state of things here is indescribable. There is a conflagration all round, and you must imagine it to be like a dry forest in a high wind in the hot weather… No one can extinguish it but God himself—man can do nothing.”

Others pictured the war as a massive machine, reflecting its modern, industrial character. In mid-1915 Frederick Palmer, an American correspondent on the Western Front, wrote:

One sees the war as a colossal dynamo, where force is perpetual like the energy of the sun. The war is going on forever. The reaper cuts the harvest, but another harvest comes. War feeds on itself, renews itself. Live men replace the dead. There seems no end to supplies of men. The pounding of the guns, like the roar of Niagara, becomes eternal. Nothing can stop it.

The war’s scale and complexity defied comprehension, and ordinary people’s feelings of powerlessness and ignorance were further amplified by the lack of hard news, as censorship and propaganda made it almost impossible to tell what was really going on beyond one’s immediate surroundings. In March 1915 a French officer, Rene Nicolas, noted: “We are narrowed down to our own sector, and know practically nothing of what is happening outside.” Similarly a British officer stationed in Flanders, A.D. Gillespie, wrote in May 1915: “The game is so big that we can never see more than a little bit at one time…” And Mildred Aldrich, an American living in a village east of Paris, confided in a letter to a friend on August 1, 1915: “At the end of the first year of the war the scene has stretched out so tremendously that my poor tired brain can hardly take it in. I suppose it is all clear to the general staff, but I don't know. To me it all looks like a great labyrinth…”

In the vacuum left by official censorship, rumors ran rampant. In his play The Last Days of Mankind, the Viennese critic and playwright Karl Kraus painted a satirical sketch of the rumor mill, with the character “Subscriber” (who is usually seen reading a newspaper despite the lack of news in it) noting: “The rumor circulating in Vienna is that there are rumors circulating in Austria… The government explicitly warns against believing the rumors or spreading them and calls upon each individual to participate most energetically in suppressing them. Well, I do what I can; wherever I go, I say, who pays attention to rumors?”

Face to Face with Death

The endless, incomprehensible war traumatized soldiers and civilians alike, but for obvious reasons men at the front were the most directly affected. Most soldiers witnessed the death of friends and companions, and some also saw their own family members killed in front of their eyes. In May 1915 an anonymous British volunteer nurse wrote in her diary:

Here is a true story. One of our trenches at Givenchy was being pounded by German shells at the time of N. Ch. [Neuve Chapelle]. A man saw his brother killed on one side of him and another man on the other. He went on shooting over the parapet; then the parapet got knocked about, and still he wasn’t hit. He seized his brother's body and the other man’s and built them up into the parapet with sandbags, and went on shooting. When the stress was over and he could leave off, he looked round and saw what he was leaning against. “Who did that?” he said. And they told him.

In the trenches men spent long periods literally staring death in the face, as they watched bodies decompose just a few yards away in no man’s land. J.H. Patterson, a British officer at Gallipoli, confided: “One of the worst trials of trench warfare is to see the dead body of a comrade lying out in the open, gradually fading away before one’s eyes, a mummified hand still clutching the rifle, the helmet a little way off, looking ever so weird in its gruesome surroundings.” Sometimes their duties required physical contact with the dead: in Flanders, in mid-May 1915 a German soldier, Alois Schnelldorfer, wrote his parents, “500 Englishmen lie dead near us just over the front line, black in the face and stinking up to a kilometer away. They are horrible to see and yet men on patrol missions have to crawl close by them and even grope their way among them!”

Soldiers often came across corpses and skeletons while digging new trenches, or when old trenches flooded and collapsed. During periods when it was impossible to leave the trench because of enemy fire, dead bodies were frequently interred in the side or bottom of the trench. One anonymous ANZAC soldier wrote in his diary: “We are living practically on a big graveyard. Our dead are buried anywhere and everywhere—even in the trenches.”

Dead bodies left in no man’s land were subjected to relentless shelling, with grotesque results. In July 1915 Leslie Buswell, an American volunteering with the French ambulance service, recalled meeting French soldiers going to the front:

I could not tell them that they were going to a place where between their trench and the German trench were hundreds of mangled forms, once their fellow-citizens,– arms, legs, heads, scattered disjointedly everywhere; and where all night and all day every fiendish implement of murder falls by the hundred—into their trenches or on to those ghastly forms,—some half rotted, some newly dead, some still warm, some semi-alive, stranded between foe and friend,– and hurls them yards into the air to fall again with a splash of dust, as a rock falls into a lake. All this is not exaggerated. It is the hideous truth, which thousands of men have to witness day and night.

Coping with Humor

Soldiers suffering profound psychological trauma tried to cope as best they could, which often meant focusing on the sheer absurdity of their situation. In many cases they reached a tacit agreement to use humor to avoid acknowledging the horror surrounding them. In November 1914 a British officer in Flanders, Captain Colwyn Phillips, wrote to his mother: “We get some pretty good fun all the same and repeat every joke a hundred times… In our mess we never allow any mention of anything depressing…”

Unsurprisingly soldiers resorted to gallows humor to insulate themselves from reality, including jokes that in ordinary circumstances would be considered in shockingly poor taste. Leonard Thompson, a British soldier in Gallipoli, recalled limbs sticking out from the walls of the trenches: “Hands were the worst: they would escape from the sand, pointing, begging—even waving! There was one which we all shook when we passed, saying ‘Good morning’, in a posh voice. Everybody did it.” Judging by other accounts this macabre “joke” was common on all fronts of the war.

But even gallows humor had its limits. The English poet Robert Graves wrote in his diary on June 9, 1915:

Today… I saw a group bending over a man lying at the bottom of the trench. He was making a snoring noise mixed with animal groans. At my feet lay the cap he had worn, splashed with his brains. I had never seen human brains before; I somehow regarded them as a poetical figment. One can joke with a badly-wounded man and congratulate him on being out of it. One can disregard a dead man. But even a miner can’t make a joke that sounds like a joke over a man who takes three hours to die, after the top part of his head has been taken off by a bullet fired at 20 yards’ range.

Fatalism

It was impossible not to notice the arbitrary nature of fate, as shells landed apparently at random, narrowly missing one man and killing another because of a difference of a few seconds or feet.  The British war correspondent Philip Gibbs admitted it was fascinating “to see how death takes its toll in an indiscriminate way—smashing a human being into pulp a few yards away and leaving oneself alive… How it picks and chooses, taking a man here and leaving a man there by just a hair’s-breadth of difference.”

Some soldiers came to evince total disinterest in their own existence, verging on nihilism. Donald Hankey, a British student who volunteered, wrote home on June 4, 1915: “But at present, sitting in a trench with the bullets pattering round, and the possibilities of mines and bombs and things, one feels that it is rather rash to talk about ‘after the war,’ and one has an odd feeling that, after all, one only has a sort of reversionary interest in one’s own life!”

This fatalistic attitude also gave rise to a dark pastime in the form of a sweepstakes before battles, as described by Graves: “Before a show, the platoon pools all its available cash and the survivors divide it up afterwards. Those who are killed can’t complain, the wounded would have given far more that to escape as they have, and the unwounded regard the money as a consolation prize for still being here.” Also called “tontines,” after a form of annuity, these schemes appealed to the widespread love of gambling among enlisted men: before the landing at Gallipoli, one anonymous ANZAC soldier recalled “Some of the chaps making a book on the event, and laying odds on the chances of the takers getting through the slather-up unharmed. Others tossing up to see if certain of their mates will finish up in heaven or hell!”

Soldiers at the front did their best to prepare their loved ones for the likelihood of their own demise, although they realized that there was little they could say or do to blunt its impact. On May 30, 1915, Lieutenant Owen William Steele of the Canadian Newfoundland Regiment wrote to his wife to expect the worst: “When we go to the front, it will not be one Newfoundlander today, and one to-morrow, &c., but suddenly you may hear of a whole Company being wiped out…” Three days later a French officer, Andre Cornet-Auquier, wrote a letter to his sister in which he stated matter-of-factly, “I shall probably never know your husband or your children. All that I ask is that some day you will take them on your knees, and, showing them the portrait of their uncle, as a captain, will tell them that he died for your country and in part for theirs too.”

It was especially difficult for men who were themselves grieving over loved ones but also unable to comfort their families—particularly when they were so far away that there was no possibility of returning home on leave. One Sikh soldier wrote home to India on January 18, 1915: “Tell my mother not to go wandering madly because her son, my brother, is dead. To be born and to die is God’s order. Some day we must die, sooner or later, and if I die here, who will remember me? It is a fine thing to die far from home. A saint said this, and, as he was a good man, it must be true.”

At the same time, relatively few soldiers embraced the heroic ideal of selfless devotion found in propaganda—especially the clichéd notion that wounded men were eager to return to the fray. In January 1915 Dexter, the American nurse volunteering in Britain, wrote in a letter home: “They all ridicule the idea of wanting to go back—and say no sane man would.” Robert Pellissier, a French soldier stationed in Lorraine, wrote to an American friend on June 23, 1915: “The newspapers talk about men eager to get back to the firing line. Let me assure you that that’s confounded nonsense. Most of them are stoically indifferent, others are determined and also disgusted.”

Spiritual Casualties

On both sides the official religious line, endorsed by state churches and reinforced by propaganda, held that warfare wasn’t incompatible with Christianity, as all the belligerents claimed to be defending themselves against external aggression. In The Last Days of Mankind, Kraus skewered the self-righteous belligerence of sermons delivered by pro-war pastors, including one who assures his congregation:

This war is one of God’s judgments for the sins of the nations, and we Germans, together with our allies, are the executors of divine judgment. There can be no doubt but that the kingdom of God will be immensely furthered and strengthened by this war… Why were so many thousands of men wounded and crippled? Why did so many hundreds of soldiers become blind? Because God thereby wanted to save their souls!

As this mockery indicates many Europeans were skeptical, at least in private, about the concept of a “just war,” especially in light of atrocities against civilians, the use of “inhuman” weapons like poison gas, and the destruction of places of worship (below, a famous scene of the Madonna hanging from the steeple of the cathedral in the French city of Albert). Thus a common theme in letters and diaries from this period is the idea that European civilization had shamefully “turned its back” on the teachings of Jesus Christ.

A typical sentiment was expressed Mabel Dearmer, a British nurse volunteering in Serbia, who wrote in her diary on June 6, 1915: “What chance would Christ have today? Crucifixion would be a gentle death for such a dangerous lunatic.” And Robert Palmer, a British officer in the Indian Expeditionary Force in Mesopotamia, wrote to his mother in August 1915: “It is dreadful to think that we’ve all been denying our Christianity for a whole year and are likely to go on doing so for another. How our Lord’s heart must bleed for us! It appalls me to think of it."

Despite the assurances of spiritual authorities, some soldiers feared that their actions in combat offended God, jeopardizing their chances of salvation. This anxiety was reflected in religious folkways that often seemed to contradict the clergy’s attempts to reconcile war and religion. A German priest, Father Norbert, described seeing a makeshift altar built by Bavarian soldiers in late June 1915:

Only one thing was surprising, the pedestal of the altar cross. On it namely is a larger-than-life (1/2 m), beautifully painted Sacred Heart with a crown of thorns, and pierced by a Bavarian… bayonet bearing the sword knot of the 4th Company. As I attempted to criticize the depiction a bit and asked how the 4th Company had offended the Sacred Heart, the soldiers present were astounded at my ignorance about the symbols they had used. The heart pierced by a military bayonet was supposed to signify that the Sacred Heart had been insulted by the atrocities of war…

These trends weren’t confined to ostensibly Christian nations: the Ottoman Empire also saw growing disillusionment with official Islam, or at least the state-sanctioned Muslim clergy, who were once again unfailingly pro-war. Ordinary Turks were particularly skeptical about the proclamation of “holy war” against the “infidels”—a naked attempt to use religion as ideology (and blatantly inconsistent, considering the empire’s allies Germany and Austria-Hungary were also “infidels”). Adil Shahin, a Turkish soldier at Gallipoli, remembered how Muslim clerics buttressed the authority of the state:

We had hodjas [priests] in the trenches. They would talk to the soldiers and say, “Well, this is how God had ordained it. We must preserve our country, protect it.” They told them they had to carry out their ablutions and say their prayers regularly. We’d pray five times a day—morning, noon, afternoon, evening, and night. If it coincided with the fighting, of course, the prayers would be put off until later.

In fact there was a widespread sense of spiritual and moral decline across the Ottoman Empire. In June 1915 an American diplomat in Constantinople, Lewis Einstein, visited an elderly Turkish aristocrat who “deplores the atheism of the young generation. He himself often visits his parents’ tombs, but feels certain that none of his sons will go to his grave. He is terribly pessimistic over the situation… Turkey was ruined.

Beauty in Wartime

As Henry James wrote in his letter to Mackenzie, the rupture with the past would also have a sweeping impact on culture, although it still wasn’t clear what the new art and literature would look like—or even if these idle pursuits could survive in the brutal new world forged by the conflict. But one thing was clear: the elevated, refined culture of the Victorian and Edwardian periods, focused above all on beauty and fine feeling, was dead and buried. Kate Finzi, a British nurse, wrote in January 1915: “Yet, in truth, poetry no longer matters, art no longer matters, music no longer matters to most of us; nothing really matters save life and death and the end of this carnage. Nor will the old regime, the old art, the old literature ever again satisfy those who have seen red and faced life shorn of its trappings of superficiality and conventions.”

Indeed, in the midst of mankind’s ugliness, some called into question the very idea that beauty mattered or even existed. Evelyn Blucher, an Englishwoman married to a German aristocrat and living in Germany, casually noted in her diary: “We arrived at Kissingen on June 20. It is a beautifully peaceful spot, but as there is no peace to be had anywhere, what difference does it really make whether the surroundings are pretty or not?” But the aesthetic impulse ran deep, and others continued to find beauty in wartime – and even in war itself. A German soldier, Herbert Jahn, wrote to his parents on May 1, 1915:

Yesterday evening I was sitting in the ivy-arbour outside our dug-out. The moon shone brightly into my mug. Beside me was a full bottle of wine. From a distance came the muffled sound of a mouth-organ. Only now and then a bullet whistled through the trees. It was the first time I had noticed there can be some beauty in war – that it has its poetic side… Since then I have felt happy; I have realized that the world is just as beautiful as ever; that not even this war can rob us of Nature, and as long as I still have that I cannot be altogether unhappy!

As the Christmas Truce of 1914 showed, shared appreciation of beauty was one of the main ways that soldiers on opposite sides of the war could relate to each other and recognize each other’s humanity. Another German soldier, Herbert Sulzbach, noted in his diary on August 13, 1915:

One of the next starlit summer nights, a decent Landwehr chap came up suddenly and said to 2/Lt Reinhardt, “Sir, it’s that Frenchie over there singing again so wonderful.” We stepped out of the dug-out into the trench, and quite incredibly, there was a marvelous tenor voice ringing out through the night with an aria from Rigoletto. The whole company were standing in the trench listening to the “enemy,” and when he had finished, applauding so loud that the good Frenchman must certainly have heard it and is sure to have been moved by it in some way or other as much as we were by his wonderful singing.

On the other hand sometimes the most profound experience of beauty was solitary, as related by William Ewing, a chaplain at Gallipoli, on July 15, 1915:

… I went up the hill in the dark to watch for a little the flashing shell bursts, the white light of the star shells, the trail of light from the rockets, and the wavering fan of the great search-lights, all picked out in strange distinctness against the gloom. When I turned to come away, a thin, bright silver strip of moon hung in the transparent blue just over the hospital ship, which lay about a mile from the shore. Out of the darkness her lights shone with piercing radiance. You could not see the ship: only a high white light at the bow and stern, a row of green lights along her side, like a string of emeralds, with a great cross of red flaming in the center, all reflected in gleaming streaks wavering in the water. It gave one the impression of a great fairy lantern, hung on the moon, shining with almost unearthly beauty.

But appreciation was inevitably tempered by the juxtaposition of beauty with war’s horrors, and the knowledge that many beautiful things actually served destructive purposes. On the night of June 20, 1915, the novelist Edith Wharton witnessed a spectacular scene from the roof of a chateau in Flanders:

It was the queerest of sensations to push open a glazed door and find ourselves in a spectral painted room with soldiers dozing in the moonlight on polished floors, their kits stacked on the gaming tables. We passed through a big vestibule among more soldiers lounging in the half-light, and up a long staircase to the roof… The outline of the ruined towns had vanished and peace seemed to have won back the world. But as we stood there a red flash started out of the mist far off to the northwest; then another and another flickered up at different points of the long curve. “Luminous bombs thrown up along the lines,” our guide explained; and just then, at still another point a white light opened like a tropical flower, spread to full bloom and drew itself back into the night. “A flare,” we were told; and another white flower bloomed out farther down. Below us, the roofs of Cassel slept their provincial sleep, the moonlight picking out every leaf in the gardens; while beyond, those infernal flowers continued to open and shut along the curve of death.

See the previous installment or all entries. 

17 Funny Facts About Schitt's Creek

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Schitt’s Creek is a classic fish-out-of-water story: After they lose their entire video store fortune to the government because their business manager hasn't been paying their taxes, the Rose family—parents Johnny (Eugene Levy) and Moira (Catherine O'Hara) and their adult children David (Daniel Levy) and Alexis (Annie Murphy)—head to the only asset the government has allowed them to keep: the town of Schitt’s Creek. The cosmopolitan Roses, who had purchased the town as a joke, move in to the local motel, where they share two adjoining rooms; they stick out like sore thumbs in their new home.

But at its heart, Schitt’s Creek is a show about family. “We’ve used a fish out of water scenario to help dramatize that story,” co-creator and star Daniel Levy told Assignment X, “forcing them into a motel room and ... examining what it means to be a family and what relationships are and having the time to concentrate and focus on who they are to each other and what they mean to each other.” Here are a few things you might not have known about the series.

1. Reality TV inspired some elements of Schitt's Creek.

Annie Murphy as Alexis Rose and Jennifer Robertson as Jocelyn Schitt in Schitt's Creek.
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Daniel told Out in 2015 that “It really just started with me being in Los Angeles, knowing that I wanted to write. I had been watching some reality TV at the time and was concentrating on what would happen if one of these wealthy families would lose everything. Would the Kardashians still be the Kardashians without their money?”

Annie Murphy recounted at 92Y Talks in 2018 that she looked to the Kardashians for inspiration for her character. “I watched a bunch of clips—YouTube clips, because I couldn’t bring myself to watch entire shows—of, you know, Kardashians and that kind of thing” for some of Alexis’s tone and mannerisms, including the particular way she holds her hands, she explained. “When they hold their handbags, they hold their purses [on their arms] with their broken wrist this way,” Murphy said, pantomiming someone holding a bag with their hand hanging limply, palm up. For Alexis, she flipped her wrist so that her hand was hanging palm down (you can see it in action here).

2. Schitt's Creek is a family affair.

To flesh out his idea, Levy turned to his dad, frequent Christopher Guest collaborator (and American Pie star) Eugene. The two had never worked together before; in fact, pre-Schitt’s, Daniel had been adamant about doing his own thing. “People are so quick to judge children of people in entertainment,” he told Assignment X. “I just thought, if nobody knows the association and I’m able to build something for myself, then I can introduce my dad—when people actually respect me for what I’ve done, as opposed to snap-judge why I got the job or what I was doing.”

Why go to him for Schitt’s? As Daniel explained to NPR, he had seen the family-loses-it-all idea “played out on mainstream television and sitcoms, but I'd never really seen it explored through the lens of a certain style of realist comedy that my dad does so well. So I came to him and pitched the idea and asked him if he would be interested at all in just fleshing it out and seeing if there was anything there. And fortunately, there was some interest and we started talking.”

Eugene told The New York Times that he was thrilled to have the chance to collaborate with his son: “My heart was actually palpitating. You could see it over my shirt.”

(Eugene and Daniel aren't the only Levys on the show, either: Sarah Levy, daughter of Eugene and sister of Daniel, also appears on Schitt’s Creek as Twyla Sands, the lone waitress at the town’s most happening diner, Cafe Tropical.)

3. Eugene Levy came up with the title Schitt's Creek.

“It was actually just out of coincidence really," Daniel told Out. "He was having a dinner conversation a few weeks prior, about this theoretical town of Schitt's Creek: You would have Schitt Hardware and Schitt Grocers." When they were researching ways that people had lost their fortunes, they came across stories of people who had bought towns for various reasons and later ended up bankrupt. “We thought, well, what if this family, as a joke for the son's 16th birthday, found this town called Schitt's Creek, bought it as a joke because of the name and then ended up having to live there?” Daniel said.

The show’s name can make promotional tours interesting: Not all TV or radio outlets can say it, for fear of being fined for using profanity. On The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, for example, the name of the show has to appear on screen every time it’s spoken aloud.

4. Annie Murphy also auditioned for the role of Stevie Budd.

At a 92Y Talks discussion in 2016, Murphy revealed that she auditioned for both Stevie Budd—the deadpan concierge at the Schitt’s Creek motel where the Roses make their home—and Alexis, the self-centered socialite character she would eventually play. “I’ve never worked so hard at an audition in my life,” she said. “I made my husband rehearse it with me just into the ground.”

In the presentation pilot—which is meant to secure a season order and not destined to air on TV—Alexis had been played by Abby Elliott, who couldn’t continue on the show because of another project. So auditions were held in Los Angeles, where Daniel said they saw “hundreds” of people for the role.

“There had to be some kind of intrinsic likeability to this family, otherwise there’s really no reason to watch—because on paper they’re not very likeable,” he said. “I had been sitting through two days of auditions, and you see these girls come in and they’re dressed like Paris Hilton and they’re playing that part, which was essentially the part that was written on paper. But what I was looking for was what Annie brought in, which was this wonderfully natural likeability to this girl who is so unlikeable, who is so, like, horrifyingly self-involved … It all kind of fell into place, and I called my dad and said ‘I found Alexis, thank god.’”

But Eugene’s immediate response, according to Daniel, was that Murphy had brown hair, unlike the blonde vision of Alexis he had in his head from the pilot. So they had Murphy read for Stevie, because, Daniel said, “I’m not not having her on the show.” When Murphy landed the role of Alexis, she dyed her hair blonde, and Emily Hampshire was cast as Stevie (who had been played by Lindsay Sloane in the pilot).

5. Emily Hampshire doesn't remember anything about her audition.

Emily Hampshire as Stevie Budd in Schitt's Creek.
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When she got the audition for Schitt's Creek, Hampshire was living in L.A. and going through a rough time. "I literally had $800 in my bank account, hadn't worked in a year, was getting a divorce," she tells Mental Floss.

To make matters worse, she was also breaking out into hives when she went out on auditions. So when her agent called about Schitt's, Hampshire said she absolutely couldn't go read in person; what she could do instead was put herself on tape. But at her agent’s insistence, Hampshire went in to audition in front of Daniel and a casting director—and it was a memorable experience for everyone involved but her: Hampshire says she doesn't remember any of it.

Thankfully, Levy does. “Emily came in and immediately said, ‘I’m sorry, this is going to be terrible,’” he recalled at 92Y Talks in 2018. “She did it, and it was great, and I remember saying … ‘Why don’t we just try it where she gets a little more kick out of these people. She’s not just judging them, she’s like, enjoying them, too.’ So she did it again, and you can tell when it clicks … and I remember saying, ‘Great, we’re good,’ and she was like, ‘no, it was—oh god, it was terrible, it was so bad.’” Then, she covered her head with her shirt to hide. Hampshire doesn’t remember that part, either, but, said Levy, “I remember it fondly.”

6. Stevie is the audience's stand-in.

“The character of Stevie has always acted as the eyes of the audience," Daniel said during a 92Y Talks in 2018. "She is the person who is going to say the things that the audience is probably saying to each other while watching it. And I think it’s always important to have that one character on the show that you can trust.”

That was something that resonated with Hampshire. "I think what I connected to in Stevie is that she really stands in for the audience in a way," Hampshire says, "and I felt like I just had to watch these people around me and take them in in an honest way and it would be funny."

In the character breakdown she received when she auditioned, Hampshire says that Stevie was described as "being from a small town, and she's very deadpan." But over the course of four seasons, Stevie has evolved. In season one, Hampshire says, "I don’t think she had any attachment to the motel or to anyone—on purpose. To not be attached or kind of be emotionally invested in anything is a much safer place to be. Over four seasons, she has opened up. I think Stevie grows up a lot this season and really learns to take responsibility for things that I don't think she ever wanted to take responsibility for."

In the fourth season, viewers will see how deep Stevie and David's friendship is, and her partnership with Johnny in running the motel gives her "a new support system that allows her to bloom into whatever kind of special thing she's going to become," Hampshire says.

7. Catherine O'Hara brought something special to the character of Moira Rose.

It was Eugene who suggested O’Hara—his frequent collaborator in Guest’s mockumentaries—for the part of Moira Rose. “I was not going to say, ‘No, that’s not a good idea,’” Daniel told The New York Times. “When he offers up Catherine O’Hara, you take it and run with it.”

And Moira’s eccentricities are all O’Hara’s doing. “We always knew Moira was an actress, an ex-soap star, who became a socialite, chairing major charity events around the world,” Eugene told The Hollywood Reporter. “But Catherine, who always brings something so creative to the table, added a very extreme affectation to her actress character that made Moira so much funnier than we had imagined her.”

O’Hara told Awards Daily that her character’s voice is “kind of a mix of people I’ve met. There’s one woman who’s very feminine and lovely. She just has a unique way of putting sentences together.” Inspiration can come from other sources, too: In the Season 3 episode “New Car,” O’Hara at one point had to use a British accent. “There’s a woman on Sirius radio who claims to be a dog whisperer or pet psychic. Have you heard this woman?” she asked Awards Daily. “That’s basically the accent I’m doing.”

8. Moira's aesthetic is based on Daphne Guinness.

Eugene Levy as Johnny Rose and Catherine O'Hara as Moira Rose in Schitt's Creek.
Pop TV

“Catherine came in with a reference, when we first started exploring what the aesthetic of this strange woman would be, and she brought in a picture of Daphne Guinness, who is the heir to the Guinness fortune,” Daniel said at 92Y Talks in 2018. “And she was a McQueen muse, and I looked at it, and I said ‘How do we translate this to television?’ And we thought if we kept it in black and whites and went just far enough, I think we can sort of rein it in.”

Moira’s over-the-top looks (which include a number of wigs that, according to Hampshire, have names) are created by Dan and Debra Hanson. “They shop all year because these characters have to have extremely high-end, designer wardrobes, but [the Roses] don’t have that money anymore,” O’Hara told Awards Daily. “I’ve never enjoyed wardrobe fittings in my life until now!”

9. The wardrobe on Schitt's Creek tells a story.

“Dan plays a big hand in the costuming, along with the costume designer Debra Hanson, who is amazing,” Murphy told Build. “Catherine and I do hours and hours of fittings before we start shooting. And I’ll come out of the room and Dan will be like, ‘Mm mm,’ and send me back in.”

After joking that that “makes me sound crazy,” Daniel said that “the mandate, from a creative standpoint … was that the wardrobe on this show is able to tell a story that we don’t have to write … we’re constantly reminded of who these people are and where they came from.”

Because the show is on a tight budget, lots of the wardrobe, he said, comes from eBay and thrift stores. Levy told Vulture in 2019 that all the clothes have to come from around the time when the Roses lost their money—and that the most he'll pay for any item is $200.

10. The location of Schitt's Creek is purposefully ambiguous.

Schitt’s Creek is a Canadian production, and the Rose family had a place in New York, but when people ask him where the town of Schitt’s Creek is located, Eugene says that he tells them it’s wherever they think it should be. “We didn’t set Schitt’s Creek in any location or any country, it’s just Schitt’s Creek,” he said at 92Y Talks in 2016. “We honestly wanted the focus of the show to be on this town, and if you put it in a country with real states or put it in a country with real provinces, then things become tangible … it kind of diffuses the focus to me.”

11. There's not a lot of improv on the Schitt's Creek set.

That fact might surprise fans of Eugene and O'Hara’s work on Guest films like Waiting for Guffman and Best in Show, where the cast works from an outline of the action with no dialogue rather than a traditional script. “[Schitt’s] is completely a scripted show, but we do an awful lot of playing around with the lines when we get to the set,” Eugene told The Hollywood Reporter. “What looked good on paper doesn’t always play when you hear the words out loud. So, we do change things until they end up sounding right.”

“When we get the script, I kind of work on it on my own and play with it then,” O’Hara told Awards Daily. “The Levy gentlemen give me respect, and I respect them and email them with possibilities. I don’t feel the need to improvise because our scripts are great.”

Which is not to say that everything is shot as written: Levy said at 92Y Talks in 2018 that Murphy’s “you get murdered first!” from the pilot episode was improvised.

12. The baseball team in the town where Schitt's Creek films changed its name to honor the show.

Schitt’s Creek films in Canada, in Goodwood, Ontario. “We did dingy up the town tremendously,” Daniel told NPR. “It is a lovely town that we had turned into the town of ‘Schitt's Creek.’”

All of the show's interiors are shot at a studio, but the buildings are actual structures in Goodwood, dressed to look like Schitt's Creek. According to Hampshire, many of the buildings are on a single intersection. "There’s Bob’s Garage, which is a garage, but we put a sign up, and then the café and the apothecary are stores," Hampshire says. "When we shoot there, we make them into our stores." The motel was, at one point, actually a motel. "It’s been since turned into this basketball boys club sleeping quarters camp thing," she says. "When we go in, it really smells like a locker room."

In the first season, locals set up lawn chairs to watch filming and wandered through shots; by the second season, Eugene told 92Y Talks in 2016, they were “proud citizens of Schitt’s Creek.” The town seems to have embraced its alter ego, as evidenced by the actions of its minor league baseball team. “They had a minor league kind of baseball team there that actually changed their name from the Goodwood Bears to the Schitt's Creek Bears for an entire month,” Eugene told NPR.

13. When it comes to Schitt's Creek, Daniel Levy leaves no detail unconsidered.

And that includes the wear and tear on the carpets in the mote. “In my head it’s like, ‘We should all know that they don’t vacuum their carpets all the time,’” Levy told GQ in 2019. "These are lived-in carpets. We’re in a motel. If we’re going to vacuum the carpets, which I know has to be done, we also need to scuff them up a bit after." He does all the scuffing himself: "It’s in the details for me, and when the details aren’t executed perfectly, I get a bit … ornery," he said. (But Daniel doesn't bring that energy to set: "It’s crazy how comfortable he is doing this, how calm and confident he is running the show," O'Hara told GQ.)

14. Chris Elliot makes Eugene break constantly.

Eugene Levy as Johnny Rose and Chris Elliott as Roland Schitt in Schitt's Creek.
Pop TV

According to Murphy, Eugene “giggles like a schoolboy” in scenes with Chris Elliot, who plays Schitt’s Creek Mayor Roland Schitt. “He’s got my number,” Levy said in an interview with Build. “He’s constantly making me laugh on set … He does it intentionally, of course, and he actually succeeds.”

One scene in the show’s third season was particularly tough to get through and resulted in hours of outtakes: “[Chris] gets in kind of behind me, trying to show me how to hold a [golf] club properly,” Levy recalled. “That’s one of the times I think I laughed the hardest in the three seasons, was trying to get through that scene.” He couldn’t stop laughing and was eventually admonished by the director. (They did eventually get the shot.)

15. Cafe Tropical's menu is Murphy's favorite prop.

Jennifer Robinson as Jocelyn Schitt and Catherine O'Hara as Moira Rose in Schitt's Creek.
Pop TV

Cafe Tropical’s huge menu is often played for laughs on Schitt’s Creek, and it’s Murphy’s favorite prop on the show. “I wish everyone could see the inside of the menu because it’s very detailed and there’s literally every dish you could possibly imagine,” Murphy said at 92Y Talks in 2018. “There are literally 150 things you could order on this menu, and they’re all described.” The props department couldn’t find a big enough real-life menu, so they ended up creating massive ones in a custom size.

16. Hampshire regularly borrows Stevie's clothes.

With her Chucks, flannels, and overalls, Stevie easily has the most comfortable wardrobe on Schitt's Creek. It's so comfortable, in fact, that Hampshire often borrows items to wear on her time off. "I always take this one pair of Stevie’s jeans that I love—they’re like the perfect baggy boyfriend roll-up jeans," Hampshire says. "I take hoodies. I actually take Stevie’s Converse because they’re better than my exact Converse for some reason. I always take her stuff, which Dan doesn't understand at all. He’s like, 'What is there to take? Like, why would you ever borrow this stuff?' But for some reason, the wardrobe women, they just find the perfect hoodie or the perfect jean—so I take those."

17. Season 6 of Schitt's Creek will be its last.

Daniel announced the news on Twitter in a letter written by himself and Eugene. "We are so grateful to have been given the time and creative freedom to tell this story in its totality, concluding with a final chapter that we had envisioned from the very beginning," they wrote. "It’s not lost on us what a rare privilege it is in this industry to get to decide when your show should take its final bow. We could never have dreamed that our fans would grow to love and care about these characters in the ways that you have.” The final season, which will consist of 14 episodes, will air on the CBC and Pop in 2020.

This piece was updated in 2019.

Batmania: When Batman Ruled the Summer of 1989

JD Hancock, Flickr // CC BY 2.0
JD Hancock, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

“Flop” is how marketing research group Marketing Evaluation Inc. assessed the box office potential of the 1989 Warner Bros. film Batman. The big-budget production, directed by Tim Burton and co-starring Michael Keaton as Batman and Jack Nicholson as the Joker, was expected to be one of the rare times a major Hollywood studio took a comic book adaptation seriously. But according to the marketing data, the character of Batman was not as popular as the Incredible Hulk, who was then appearing in a slate of made-for-television movies. And he was only a quarter as appealing as the California Raisins, the claymation stars of advertising.

That prediction was made in 1988. The film was released on June 23, 1989, and went on to gross $253.4 million, making it the fifth most successful motion picture up to that point.

While Marketing Evaluation may have miscalculated the movie’s potential, they did hedge their bet. By the time profits from the movie’s merchandising—hats, shirts, posters, toys, bed sheets, etc.—were tallied, the company said, Warner Bros. could be looking at a sizable haul.

When the cash registers stopped ringing, the studio had sold $500 million in tie-in products, which was double the gross of the film itself.

In 1989, people didn’t merely want to see Batman—they wanted to wear the shirts, eat the cereal, and contemplate, if only for a moment, putting down $499.95 for a black denim jacket studded with rhinestones.

Batmania was in full swing. Which made it even more unusual when the studio later claimed the film had failed to turn a profit.

 

The merchandising blitz of Star Wars in 1977 gave studios hope that ambitious science-fiction and adventure movies would forever be intertwined with elaborate licensing strategies. George Lucas's space opera had driven audiences into a frenzy, leading retailers to stock up on everything from R2-D2 coffee mugs to plastic lightsabers. It was expected that other “toyetic” properties would follow suit.

They didn’t. Aside from 1982’s E.T., there was no direct correlation between a film’s success and demand for ancillary product. In 1984 alone, Gremlins, Ghostbusters, and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom were smash hits. None of them motivated people to flock to stores and buy Gizmo plush animals or toy proton packs. (Ghostbusters toys eventually caught on, but only after an animated series helped nudge kids in their direction.)

Warner Bros. saw Batman differently. When the script was being developed, producers Jon Peters and Peter Guber were urging writers to make sure scenes were aligned with planned merchandising. They scribbled notes insisting that no onscreen harm come to the Batmobile: It should remain pristine so that kids would want to grab the toy version. As Batman, millionaire Bruce Wayne had a collection of vehicles and gadgets at his disposal—all props that could be replicated in plastic. Batman's comic book origins gave him a unique iconography that lent itself to flashy graphic apparel.

In March 1989, just three months before the film's release, Warner Bros. announced that it was merging with Time Inc. to create the mega-conglomerate Time-Warner, which would allow the film studio to capitalize on a deep bench of talent to help drive the “event” feel of the film.

Prince was signed to Warner's record label and agreed to compose an album of concept music that was tied to the characters; “Batdance" was among the songs and became a #1 hit. Their licensing arm, Licensing Corporation of America, contracted with 300 licensees to create more than 100 products, some of which were featured in an expansive brochure that resembled a bat-eared Neiman Marcus catalog. The sheer glut of product became a story, as evidenced by this Entertainment Tonight segment on the film's licensing push:

In addition to the rhinestone jacket, fans could opt for the Batman watch ($34.95), a baseball cap ($7.95), bicycle shorts ($26.95), a matching top ($24.95), a model Batwing ($29.95), action figures ($5.95), and a satin jacket modeled by Batman co-creator Bob Kane ($49.95).

The Batman logo became a way of communicating anticipation for the film. The virtually textless teaser poster, which had only the June 23 opening date printed on it, was snapped up and taped to walls. (Roughly 1200 of the posters sized for bus stops and subways were stolen, a crude but effective form of market research.) In barber shops, people began asking to have the logo sheared into the sides of their heads. The Batman symbol was omnipresent. If you had forgotten about the movie for even five minutes, someone would eventually walk by sporting a pair of Batman earrings to remind you.

At Golden Apple Comics in Los Angeles, 7000 packs of Batman trading cards flew out the door. Management hired additional staff and a security guard to handle the crowds. The store carried 36 different kinds of Batman T-shirts. Observers compared the hysteria to the hula hoop craze of the 1950s.

One retailer made a more contemporary comparison. “There’s no question Batman is the hottest thing this year,” Marie Strong, manager of It’s a Small World at a mall in La Crosse, Wisconsin, told the La Crosse Tribune. “[It’s] the hottest [thing] since Spuds McKenzie toward the end of last year.”

 

By the time Batman was in theaters and breaking records—it became the first film to make $100 million in just 10 days, alerting studios to the idea of short-term profits—the merchandising had become an avalanche. Stores that didn’t normally carry licensed goods, like Macy’s, set up displays.

Not everyone opted for officially-licensed apparel: U.S. marshals conducted raids across the country, seizing more than 40,000 counterfeit Batman shirts and other bogus items.

Collectively, Warner raked in $500 million from legitimate products. In 1991, the Los Angeles Times reported that the studio claimed only $2.9 million in profit had been realized from merchandising and that the movie itself was in a $35.8 million financial hole owing to excessive promotional and production costs. It was a tale typical of creative studio accounting, long a method for avoiding payouts to net profit participants. (Nicholson, whose contract stipulated a cut of all profits, earned $50 million.)

Whatever financial sleight-of-hand was implemented, Warner clearly counted on Batman to be a money-printing operation. Merchandising plans for the sequel, 1992’s Batman Returns, were even more strategic, including a tie-in agreement with McDonald’s for Happy Meals. In a meta moment, one deleted script passage even had Batman’s enemies attacking a toy store in Gotham full of Batman merchandise. The set was built but the scene never made it onscreen.

The studio was willing to give Burton more control over the film, which was decidedly darker and more sexualized than the original. Batman Returns was hardly a failure, but merchandising was no longer as hot as it was in the summer of 1989. Instead of selling out of shirts, stores ended up marking down excess inventory. McDonald’s, unhappy with the content of the film, enacted a policy of screening movies they planned to partner with before making any agreements. By the time Warner released 1995’s Batman Forever, the franchise was essentially a feature-length toy commercial.

It paid off. Licensing for the film topped $1 billion. Today, given the choice between a film with Oscar-level prestige or one with the potential to have its logo emblazoned on a rhinestone jacket that people would actually want to buy, studios would probably choose the latter. In that sense, the Batmania of 1989 endures.

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