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13 Close-Up Facts About Sunset Boulevard

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Sunset Boulevard, one of Hollywood's most cruelly accurate depictions of itself, is now 65 years old—older, even, than its main character, who's washed up at 50. Sunset Boulevard is no has-been, though. If anything, its observations on the greedy machinations of Tinseltown are truer now than they were in 1950. (Norma Desmond would be quick to point out that, thanks to computers and iPads, the pictures have gotten even smaller.) 

It came out the same year as another behind-the-scenes showbiz classic, All About Eve, which took most of the Oscars. But trophies or not, Sunset Boulevard has stayed near the top of the list of great movies about moviemaking. Here's some backstage information to enhance your experience the next time you visit the Paramount lot. 

1. MAE WEST WAS BILLY WILDER'S FIRST CHOICE TO STAR.

Initially, writer-director Wilder envisioned the movie as a straightforward comedy, and the famously saucy West seemed like a perfect fit. But she wanted to rewrite her dialogue (as was her custom)—a nonstarter for Wilder, who seldom let his actors change their lines even slightly from what was on the page. It's probably just as well, since the darker, more nuanced story that eventually emerged was quite different from West's wheelhouse anyway.

2. MONTGOMERY CLIFT WAS THE FIRST CHOICE FOR JOE GILLIS.

The much sought after but highly finicky leading man accepted the role, then backed out. Some speculated it was because he was dating an older woman at the time (actress Libby Holman, 16 years his senior) and didn't want people to think the movie was a parody of that relationship. Clift's biographers say it was because he had a strong following among older women, who wrote him letters describing how they'd like to mother him, and he didn't want to encourage such behavior.

3. IT WAS PARTLY INSPIRED BY AN EVELYN WAUGH NOVEL.

The British author's satirical The Loved One was published in 1948, after Waugh had spent time in Hollywood observing the film industry and, of all things, the funeral industry. (The book is about a failed screenwriter who works for a cemetery and lives with a forgotten silent-film star.) Wilder and his co-writers reversed several elements, and there was no official connection between the movie and Waugh's book. But as commentator Steve Sailer points out, more than one contemporary source mentions it as an inspiration. Sunset Boulevard's cinematographer, John Seitz, said Wilder "had wanted to do The Loved One, but couldn't obtain the rights." And gossip columnist Hedda Hopper (who appears in the movie as herself) wrote that "Billy Wilder ... was crazy about Evelyn Waugh's book The Loved One, and the studio wanted to buy it." 

4. GLORIA SWANSON AND CECIL B. DEMILLE USED THEIR REAL PET NAMES FOR EACH OTHER.

When Norma Desmond visits her old friend at Paramount, she affectionately calls him "Mr. DeMille" (not Cecil or C.B.), and he calls her "young fellow." In real life, when Swanson and DeMille had worked together, that was what they always called each other. It's kind of sweet, actually. 

5. THE OPENING SCENE HAD TO BE SCRAPPED BECAUSE THE AUDIENCE FOUND IT TOO FUNNY. 

Sunset Boulevard now begins with police cars racing to Norma Desmond's house, where a dead body is floating in the pool. But it originally began in the L.A. county morgue, with toe-tagged corpses—including Joe's—speaking to each other (in voiceover) about how they died. It was meant to be slightly humorous in a morbid way, but the audience at the first test screening found it flat-out hysterical, setting the wrong mood for the rest of the picture. When two more test audiences reacted the same way, Wilder cut the scene and the movie was saved.

6. THE UNDERWATER SHOT WAS NOT FILMED UNDERWATER.

One of the few showy bits of camerawork in the film is near the beginning, when the corpse floating in Norma Desmond's pool is seen from underneath. But it was too difficult to put a camera underwater to get the shot, so Wilder and cinematographer John Seitz came up with an ingenious solution: they put a mirror on the bottom of the pool and filmed the reflection from above.

7. NORMA DESMOND'S HOUSE WAS ON A DIFFERENT BOULEVARD, AND WAS LATER SEEN IN ANOTHER MOVIE.

The interiors of Norma's decaying mansion were actually a set at Paramount Studios. The exterior shots were of a house located not on Sunset but Irving Boulevard, near the corner of Wilshire, owned by the J. Paul Getty family. Like most old things in L.A., the house has since been replaced by an office building. But before that happened, it appeared in Rebel Without a Cause as the abandoned mansion in which the kids hang out. Also, the house didn't have a pool, so Paramount paid to have one installed on the condition that if Mrs. Getty didn't like it, they'd remove it after filming was over. (She liked it.)

8. WILLIAM HOLDEN'S WIFE DIDN'T APPRECIATE THAT KISS.

Brenda Marshall, Holden's wife since 1941, was visiting the set when Holden and Nancy Olson had their kissing scene. Wilder, ever the merry prankster, told Holden and Olson to keep kissing until he called "cut": he was going to fade out at the end of the scene, and he needed to make sure the kiss didn't end prematurely. Well, they kissed, and kissed, and kept kissing, and the crew began to snicker, and finally Marshall's voice rang out: "Cut, dammit!" Everyone had a good laugh, though the record doesn't reflect whether Marshall joined in.

9. HEDY LAMARR WANTED $25,000 TO DO A CAMEO.

When Norma visits DeMille at Paramount, he's in the midst of shooting Samson and Delilah, which really is what he was up to at the time. For added meta-truthfulness, Wilder wanted to have that film's lead actress, Hedy Lamarr, be there too, so that DeMille could ask her to let Norma sit in her chair (you know, those behind-the-scenes chairs that have the star's name on them). For this Lamarr wanted $25,000 (which would be about $250,000 in 2015 dollars). Wilder changed the scene so that DeMille offered Lamarr's chair to Norma without Lamarr being present. But even to show a chair with her name on it, Lamarr wanted $10,000. So Wilder gave up, and DeMille (who was already being compensated) gave Norma his own chair. 

10. THE SILENT FILM NORMA WATCHES HAD GREAT BEHIND-THE-SCENES SIGNIFICANCE.

In her private screening room, with butler Max running the projector, Norma cuddles up with Joe to watch one of her own films. The footage we see is from Queen Kelly (1929), which starred Gloria Swanson and was directed by Max himself, Erich von Stroheim. Queen Kelly nearly ruined both of their careers: von Stroheim was replaced as director midway through after complaints from Swanson about the racy material and arguments with the producer (JFK's father!) over the spiraling budget.

An ending for the film was cobbled together, but the movie was never shown in the U.S. The clips in Sunset Boulevard were the first American audiences had seen of it. For Swanson, whose career was already being threatened by the advent of talkies, Queen Kelly was another blow. Still, whatever hard feelings there may have been between Swanson and von Stroheim, they were gone by the time Sunset Boulevard came along.

11. ERICH VON STROHEIM RESENTED THE MOVIE.

The actor-turned-director-turned-actor-again, who had indeed been one of the great silent-filmmakers, winced at playing a character so self-referential and demeaning, but he needed the money. He called it "that goddamned butler role" for the remaining seven years of his life.

12. IT WAS THE END OF A LONG PARTNERSHIP BETWEEN BILLY WILDER AND CHARLES BRACKETT.

Brackett was a New York-born novelist and screenwriter, head of the Screen Actors Guild in the late 1930s, and president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences from 1949 to 1955 (during which time he won two screenwriting Oscars—good news for conspiracy theorists). Brackett was also a frequent collaborator with Billy Wilder, co-writing and producing a dozen movies with him (including The Lost Weekend) before Sunset Boulevard proved to be their last.

Wilder was, well, the wilder of the two, often bawdy and crass, while Brackett was genteel. This dynamic served them well for years, each man's extreme tendencies being balanced by the other's, but during Sunset Boulevard it finally became unworkable. A disagreement over the montage where Norma puts herself through hell getting thinner and younger for her comeback nearly resulted in physical violence: Brackett thought it was too mean, while Wilder felt it was necessary to show what lengths a desperate actor would go to in Hollywood. Wilder's version is the one they went with (he was the director, after all), but the argument marked a turning point for him, and he decided never to work with Brackett again. Their partnership ended in a professional and gentlemanly manner—there was no airing of any dirty laundry—but it did end. 

13. THE LIVE MUSICAL VERSION WAS ALMOST 40 YEARS IN THE MAKING. 

You probably know about the Andrew Lloyd Webber version of Sunset Boulevard that premiered in London in 1993 and headed to Broadway in 1994 with Glenn Close in the lead role. But attempts to turn the movie into a stage musical began almost immediately, spearheaded by none other than Gloria Swanson. With unofficial permission from Paramount, she worked for a few years with writer Dickson Hughes and actor Richard Stapley developing a show called Starring Norma Desmond (later changed to Boulevard). But in 1957, Paramount formally asked Desmond to stop, the studio bosses having decided not to grant permission after all.

A few years later, Stephen Sondheim became interested in writing a musical version of his own, working with writer Burt Shevelove (with whom he ended up writing A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum). But when Sondheim pitched the idea to Billy Wilder at a party, Wilder said, "You can't write a musical about Sunset Boulevard. It has to be an opera. After all, it's about a dethroned queen." Sondheim respectfully stopped work on the project and, on the same grounds, later declined an offer to write the score for a proposed movie remake. 

Additional Sources:
Blu-ray features and commentary
American Film Institute

On Sunset Boulevard: The Life and Times of Billy Wilder, by Ed Sikov

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13 Fascinating Facts About Nina Simone
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Nina Simone, who would’ve celebrated her 85th birthday today, was known for using her musical platform to speak out. “I think women play a major part in opening the doors for better understanding around the world,” the “Strange Fruit” songstress once said. Though she chose to keep her personal life shrouded in secrecy, these facts grant VIP access into a life well-lived and the music that still lives on.

1. NINA SIMONE WAS HER STAGE NAME.

The singer was born as Eunice Waymon on February 21, 1933. But by age 21, the North Carolina native was going by a different name at her nightly Atlantic City gig: Nina Simone. She hoped that adopting a different name would keep her mother from finding out about her performances. “Nina” was her boyfriend’s nickname for her at the time. “Simone” was inspired by Simone Signoret, an actress that the singer admired.

2. SHE HAD HUMBLE BEGINNINGS.


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There's a reason that much of the singer's music had gospel-like sounds. Simone—the daughter of a Methodist minister and a handyman—was raised in the church and started playing the piano by ear at age 3. She got her start in her hometown of Tryon, North Carolina, where she played gospel hymns and classical music at Old St. Luke’s CME, the church where her mother ministered. After Simone died on April 21, 2003, she was memorialized at the same sanctuary.

3. SHE WAS BOOK SMART...

Simone, who graduated valedictorian of her high school class, studied at the prestigious Julliard School of Music for a brief period of time before applying to Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute of Music. Unfortunately, Simone was denied admission. For years, she maintained that her race was the reason behind the rejection. But a Curtis faculty member, Vladimir Sokoloff, has gone on record to say that her skin color wasn’t a factor. “It had nothing to do with her…background,” he said in 1992. But Simone ended up getting the last laugh: Two days before her death, the school awarded her an honorary degree.

4. ... WITH DEGREES TO PROVE IT.

Simone—who preferred to be called “doctor Nina Simone”—was also awarded two other honorary degrees, from the University of Massachusetts Amherst and Malcolm X College.

5. HER CAREER WAS ROOTED IN ACTIVISM.

A photo of Nina Simone circa 1969

Gerrit de Bruin

At the age of 12, Simone refused to play at a church revival because her parents had to sit at the back of the hall. From then on, Simone used her art to take a stand. Many of her songs in the '60s, including “Mississippi Goddamn,” “Why (The King of Love Is Dead),” and “Young, Gifted and Black,” addressed the rampant racial injustices of that era.

Unfortunately, her activism wasn't always welcome. Her popularity diminished; venues didn’t invite her to perform, and radio stations didn’t play her songs. But she pressed on—even after the Civil Rights Movement. In 1997, Simone told Interview Magazine that she addressed her songs to the third world. In her own words: “I’m a real rebel with a cause.”

6. ONE OF HER MOST FAMOUS SONGS WAS BANNED.

Mississippi Goddam,” her 1964 anthem, only took her 20 minutes to an hour to write, according to legend—but it made an impact that still stands the test of time. When she wrote it, Simone had been fed up with the country’s racial unrest. Medger Evers, a Mississippi-born civil rights activist, was assassinated in his home state in 1963. That same year, the Ku Klux Klan bombed a Birmingham Baptist church and as a result, four young black girls were killed. Simone took to her notebook and piano to express her sentiments.

“Alabama's gotten me so upset/Tennessee made me lose my rest/And everybody knows about Mississippi Goddam,” she sang.

Some say that the song was banned in Southern radio stations because “goddam” was in the title. But others argue that the subject matter is what caused the stations to return the records cracked in half.

7. SHE NEVER HAD A NUMBER ONE HIT.

Nina Simone released over 40 albums during her decades-spanning career including studio albums, live versions, and compilations, and scored 15 Grammy nominations. But her highest-charting (and her first) hit, “I Loves You, Porgy,” peaked at #2 on the U.S. R&B charts in 1959. Still, her music would go on to influence legendary singers like Roberta Flack and Aretha Franklin.

8. SHE USED HER STYLE TO MAKE A STATEMENT.

Head wraps, bold jewelry, and floor-skimming sheaths were all part of Simone’s stylish rotation. In 1967, she wore the same black crochet fishnet jumpsuit with flesh-colored lining for the entire year. Not only did it give off the illusion of her being naked, but “I wanted people to remember me looking a certain way,” she said. “It made it easier for me.”

9. SHE HAD MANY HOMES.

New York City, Liberia, Barbados, England, Belgium, France, Switzerland, and the Netherlands were all places that Simone called home. She died at her home in Southern France, and her ashes were scattered in several African countries.

10. SHE HAD A FAMOUS INNER CIRCLE.

During the late '60s, Simone and her second husband Andrew Stroud lived next to Malcolm X and his family in Mount Vernon, New York. He wasn't her only famous pal. Simone was very close with playwright Lorraine Hansberry. After Hansberry’s death, Simone penned “To Be Young, Gifted and Black” in her honor, a tribute to Hansberry's play of the same title. Simone even struck up a brief friendship with David Bowie in the mid-1970s, who called her every night for a month to offer his advice and support.

11. YOU CAN STILL VISIT SIMONE IN HER HOMETOWN.

Photo of Nina Simone
Amazing Nina Documentary Film, LLC, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons

In 2010, an 8-foot sculpture of Eunice Waymon was erected in her hometown of Tryon, North Carolina. Her likeness stands tall in Nina Simone Plaza, where she’s seated and playing an eternal song on a keyboard that floats in midair. Her daughter, Lisa Simone Kelly, gave sculptor Zenos Frudakis some of Simone’s ashes to weld into the sculpture’s bronze heart. "It's not something very often done, but I thought it was part of the idea of bringing her home," Frudakis said.

12. YOU'VE PROBABLY HEARD HER MUSIC IN RECENT HITS.

Rihanna sang a few verses of Simone’s “Do What You Gotta Do” on Kanye West’s The Life of Pablo. He’s clearly a superfan: “Blood on the Leaves” and his duet with Jay Z, “New Day,” feature Simone samples as well, along with Lil’ Wayne’s “Dontgetit,” Common’s “Misunderstood” and a host of other tracks.

13. HER MUSIC IS STILL BEING PERFORMED.

Nina Revisited… A Tribute to Nina Simone was released along with the Netflix documentary in 2015. On the album, Lauryn Hill, Jazmine Sullivan, Usher, Alice Smith, and more paid tribute to the legend by performing covers of 16 of her most famous tracks.

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13 Secrets From the Guinness Archives
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Leon Neal/AFP/Getty Images

Guinness has been a staple in Irish pubs for nearly 260 years. With so much history, it's no surprise that the Guinness Storehouse Archives—which are open to the public—are stuffed with intriguing artifacts that tell some pretty wild stories. Here are a few.

1. THE LEASE TO THE DUBLIN BREWERY WAS INTENDED TO LAST 9000 YEARS.

In 1759, founder Arthur Guinness signed a lease for a four-acre property at St. James’s Gate in Dublin. The lease required a down payment of £100, an annual rent of £45, and a term of 9000 years (not a typo). Such lengthy leases were relatively common back then: “At the time in Ireland, there was a lot of instability to do with land tenure,” explains Fergus Brady, Archives Manager at Guinness. Centuries earlier, the British had begun confiscating land from native Irish in an effort to build plantations, and extra-long leases were a means of avoiding this fate. As Brady explains, “You see these really long leases: 99-year or 999-year leases. It seemed to be a legal custom at the time that they used the number nine.”

2. ARTHUR GUINNESS WAS NOT AFRAID TO DEFEND HIS PROPERTY WITH A PICKAXE.

In 1775, the Dublin Corporation—that is, the city government—demanded that Arthur Guinness pay for the spring water flowing to his brewery. When Guinness argued that he was already paying for water rights through his 9000-year rental agreement, the Dublin Corporation sent a sheriff and a committee to his brewery to cut off the water supply. Guinness was livid. He seized a pickaxe and unleashed a torrent of obscenities so colorful that the Dublin Corporation’s goons eventually retreated.

3. GUINNESS ONCE DEPLOYED FIELD AGENTS TO CATCH COUNTERFEITERS.

Guinness Apology
Guinness Archive, Diageo Ireland

In the 19th century, there was no such thing as brand consistency. Guinness did not bottle its own beer; instead, it shipped the suds in wooden casks to publicans who supplied their own bottles and applied their own personalized labels. Occasionally, these publicans sold fake or adulterated Guinness. To prevent such sales, the company sent special agents called “travellers” into the field to collect beer samples, which it tested in a laboratory. “If a publican was found to be serving adulterated or counterfeit Guinness, they had to give a public apology in their local newspaper—and even the national newspapers,” archivist Jessica Handy says.

4. FOR 21 YEARS, THE COMPANY HIRED A GUY TO TRAVEL THE WORLD AND DRINK BEER.

In 1899, Guinness hired an American ex-brewer named Arthur T. Shand to be a “Guinness World Traveller.” It was arguably the coolest job in the world. For 21 years, Shand traveled the world taste-testing beer. According to Brady, “His job was to travel the world and taste Guinness, say whether it was good or bad, who our bottlers in the market were, who our major competition was, what kind of people were drinking our product.” Shand traveled to Australia and New Zealand, to Southeast Asia and Egypt. “He was sort of a Guinness sommelier,” Brady says.

5. THE COMPANY'S HARP LOGO CAUSED TROUBLE WITH THE IRISH GOVERNMENT.

The Celtic harp—based on the 14th century “Brian Boru Harp” preserved at Trinity College—became a trademarked Guinness logo in 1876. Forty-five years later, when Ireland gained independence from England, the Irish Free State decided to use the same Celtic harp as its official state emblem. This became awkward. Guinness owned the trademark, and the Irish government was forced to search for a workaround. You can find their solution on an Irish Euro coin. Look at the coin, and you’ll notice that the harp’s straight edge faces the right; meanwhile, the harp on a glass of Guinness shows the straight edge facing left [PDF].

6. GUINNESS REPORTEDLY SAVED LIVES ON THE BATTLEFIELD.

The old slogan “Guinness is good for you” sounds like a marketing gimmick, but it was born out of a genuine belief that the beer was, in fact, a restorative tonic. The health claim dates back to 1815, when an ailing cavalry officer wounded at the Battle of Waterloo reportedly credited Guinness for his recovery. For decades, the medical community widely claimed that the dark beer possessed real health benefits—and they weren’t necessarily wrong. “There was little safe drinking water at the time,” Handy says. “But with brewing, consumers knew they were getting a safe beverage.”

7. THE COMPANY CREATED A SPECIAL RECIPE FOR CONVALESCENTS.

A label for Guinness invalid stout
Guinness Archive, Diageo Ireland

From the 1880s to the 1920s, Guinness produced a special “Nourishing Export Stout”—a.k.a. “Invalid Stout”—that contained extra sugars, alcohol, and solids and came in cute one-third pint bottles. “It was very common practice for people to buy a couple bottles and keep them as a tonic, even if it was just a glass or half a glass,” Handy says. In fact, Guinness went as far as asking general practitioners for testimonials attesting to the beer’s medical benefits. According to Brady, “Many of them wrote back and said yes, we prescribe this for various ailments.” One doctor even claimed a pint was “as nourishing as a glass of milk.”

8. DOCTORS REGULARLY PRESCRIBED THE BEER TO NURSING MOTHERS.

From the 1880s to the 1930s, many physicians believed Guinness was an effective galactagogue—that is, a lactation aid. The company sent bottles to hospitals as well as wax cartons of yeast (which supposedly helped skin problems and migraines). Hundreds, possibly thousands, of doctors prescribed the beer for ailments such as influenza, insomnia, and anxiety, David Hughes writes in A Bottle of Guinness Please: The Colourful History of Guinness. According to Brady, the company was sending beer to hospitals as late as the 1970s.

9. THE COMPANY ONCE DROPPED 200,000 MESSAGES-IN-A-BOTTLE INTO THE OCEAN.

A Guinness message in a bottle
The message within every bottle dropped in the Atlantic Ocean in 1959.
Guinness Archive, Diageo Ireland

In 1954, Guinness dumped 50,000 messages-in-a-bottle in the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian Oceans. In 1959, they repeated the stunt again, with 38 ships dropping 150,000 bottles in the Atlantic. The first bottle was discovered in the Azores off Portugal just three months after the initial drop [PDF]. Since then, the bottles have turned up in California, New Zealand, and South Africa. Just last year, a bottle was discovered in Nova Scotia. (If you find one, you just might be offered a trip to the Guinness Storehouse in Dublin.)

10. THE PERSONNEL FILES IN THE GUINNESS ARCHIVES CONTAIN SOME DOOZIES.

The Guinness corporate archives are open to the public. According to Handy, “Some of the stories you get in there are amazing, because you get accident reports and you get crazy stories of people bouncing on bags of hops outside the brewery." This may sound less surprising considering that, back in the day, Guinness employees were given an allowance of two pints of beer every day [PDF].

11. A GUINNESS SCIENTIST MADE A STATISTICALLY SIGNIFICANT MARK IN THE FIELD OF STATISTICS.

If you’ve taken a statistics class, you might be familiar with the Student’s t-test or the t-statistic. (It’s a method of working with a small sample size when the standard deviation is unknown.) The t-test was first described by William S. Gosset, a brewer and statistician at Guinness who was attempting to analyze a small sample of malt extract. Gosset’s discovery not only helped Guinness create a more consistent-tasting beer, it would lay the bedrock for one of the most important concepts in statistics: statistical significance.

12. GUINNESS IS SO BIG IN AFRICA, IT LAUNCHED A SUCCESSFUL FEATURE-LENGTH FILM.

Guinness began exporting beer to Africa in 1827. In the 1960s, it opened a brewery in Nigeria—followed by Cameroon and Ghana. Today, there are reportedly more Guinness drinkers in Nigeria than there are in Ireland. “In Ireland, England, and the United States, everybody thinks that Guinness is synonymous with Ireland,” Brady says. “But in Nigeria, there’s a very very low conception of that.” The beer is such a cultural staple that a fictional character who advertised the product named Michael Power—a James Bond-like, crime-fighting journalist—became the star of a feature film in 2003 called Critical Assignment, which was a box office smash. (Of course, there’s some branding built into the script. As Brady explains, “There are definitely scenes where Michael Power is enjoying a pint of Guinness.”)

13. DISPENSING BEER WITH NITROGEN WAS ORIGINALLY CONSIDERED LAUGHABLE.

In the 1950s, Guinness scientist Michael Ash was tasked with solving the “draft problem.” At the time, dispensing a draft pint of Guinness was ridiculously complicated, and the company was losing market share to draft lagers in Britain that could be easily dispensed with CO2. “The stout was too lively to be dispensed with CO2 only,” Brady says. “Ash worked on the problem for four years, working long hours day or night, and became a bit of a recluse apparently. A lot of doubters at the brewery called the project ‘daft Guinness.’” But then Ash attempted dispensing the beer with plain air. It worked. The secret ingredient, Ash discovered, was nitrogen. The air we breathe is 78 percent nitrogen. Today, a Guinness draft contains 75 percent nitrogen. Not only did the discovery make dispensing the beer easier, it created a creamy mouthfeel that’s been the signature of Irish stouts since.

Full disclosure: Guinness paid for the author to attend an International Stout Day festival in 2017, which provided the opportunity to speak to their archivists.

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