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

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10 Witty Facts About The Marx Brothers
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Talented as individuals and magnificent as a team, the Marx Brothers conquered every medium from the vaudeville stage to the silver screen. Today, we’re tipping our hats (and tooting our horns) to Groucho, Harpo, Chico, Zeppo, and Gummo—on the 50th anniversary of Groucho's passing.

1. A RUNAWAY MULE INSPIRED THEM TO TAKE A STAB AT COMEDY.

Julius, Milton, and Arthur Marx originally aspired to be professional singers. In 1907, the boys joined a group called “The Three Nightingales.” Managed by their mother, Minnie, the ensemble performed covers of popular songs in theaters all over the country. As Nightingales, the brothers enjoyed some moderate success, but they might never have found their true calling if it weren’t for an unruly equid. During a 1907 gig at the Nacogdoches Opera House in East Texas, someone interrupted the performance by barging in and shouting “Mule’s loose!” Immediately, the crowd raced out to watch the newly-liberated animal. Back inside, Julius seethed. Furious at having lost the spotlight, he skewered his audience upon their return. “The jackass is the finest flower of Tex-ass!” he shouted, among many other ad-libbed jabs. Rather than boo, the patrons roared with laughter. Word of his wit soon spread and demand for these Marx brothers grew.

2. THEY RECEIVED THEIR STAGE NAMES DURING A POKER GAME.

In May of 1914, the five Marxes were playing cards with standup comedian Art Fisher. Inspired by a popular comic strip character known as “Sherlocko the Monk,” he decided that the boys could use some new nicknames. Leonard’s was a no-brainer. Given his girl-crazy, “chick-chasing” lifestyle, Fisher dubbed him “Chicko” (later, this was shortened to “Chico”). Arthur loved playing the harp and thus became “Harpo.” An affinity for soft gumshoes earned Milton the alias “Gummo.” Finally, Julius was both cynical and often seen wearing a “grouch bag”—wherein he’d store small objects like marbles and candy—around his neck. Thus, “Groucho” was born. For the record, nobody knows how Herbert Marx came to be known as “Zeppo.”

3. GROUCHO WORE HIS TRADEMARK GREASEPAINT MUSTACHE BECAUSE HE HATED MORE REALISTIC MODELS.

Michael Ochs Archives/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Phony, glue-on facial hair can be a pain to remove and reapply, so Groucho would simply paint a ‘stache and some exaggerated eyebrows onto his face. However, the mustache he later rocked as the host of his famous quiz show You Bet Your Life was 100 percent real.

4. HARPO WAS A SELF-TAUGHT HARPIST.

Without any formal training (or the ability to read sheet music), the second-oldest Marx brother developed a unique style that he never stopped improving upon. “Dad really loved playing the harp, and he did it constantly,” his son, Bill Marx, wrote. “Maybe the first multi-tasker ever, he even had a harp in the bathroom so he could play when he sat on the toilet!”

5. THE VERY FIRST MARX BROTHERS MOVIE WAS NEVER RELEASED.

Financed by Groucho, Chico, Harpo, Zeppo, and a handful of other investors, Humor Risk was filmed in 1921. Accounts differ, but most scholars agree that the silent picture—which would have served as the family’s cinematic debut—never saw completion. Despite this, an early screening of the work-in-progress was reportedly held in the Bronx. When Humor Risk failed to impress there, production halted. By Marx Brothers standards, it would’ve been an unusual flick, with Harpo playing a heroic detective opposite a villainous Groucho character.

6. GUMMO AND ZEPPO BECAME TALENT AGENTS.

World War I forced Gummo to quit the stage. Following his return, the veteran decided that performing was no longer for him and instead started a raincoat business. Zeppo—the youngest brother—then assumed Gummo’s role as the troupe’s straight-talking foil. A brilliant businessman, Zeppo eventually break away to found the talent agency Zeppo Marx Inc., which grew into Hollywood’s third-largest, representing superstars like Clark Gable, Lucille Ball, and—of course—the other three Marx Brothers. Gummo, who joined the company in 1935, was charged with handling Groucho, Harpo, and Chico’s needs.

7. CHICO ONCE LAUNCHED A BIG BAND GROUP.

Chico took advantage of an extended break between Marx brothers movies to realize a lifelong dream. A few months before The Big Store hit cinemas in 1941, he co-founded the Chico Marx Orchestra: a swinging jazz band that lasted until July of 1943. Short-lived as the group was, however, it still managed to recruit some amazing talent—including singer/composer Mel Tormé, who would go on to help write the “The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire)” in 1945.

8. THEY TESTED OUT NEW MATERIAL FOR A NIGHT AT THE OPERA IN FRONT OF LIVE AUDIENCES.

With the script still being drafted, MGM made the inspired choice to let the brothers perform key scenes in such places as Seattle, Salt Lake City, and San Francisco. Once a given joke was made, the Marxes meticulously timed the ensuing laughter, which let them know exactly how much silence to leave after repeating the gag on film. According to Harpo, this had the added benefit of shortening A Night at the Opera’s production period. “We didn’t have to rehearse,” he explained. “[We just] got onto the set and let the cameras roll.”

9. GROUCHO TEMPORARILY HOSTED THE TONIGHT SHOW.

Jack Paar bid the job farewell on March 29, 1962. Months before their star’s departure, NBC offered Paar’s Tonight Show seat to Groucho, who had established himself as a razor-sharp, well-liked host during You Bet Your Life’s 14-year run. Though Marx turned the network down, he later served as a guest host for two weeks while Johnny Carson prepared to take over the gig. When Carson finally made his Tonight Show debut on October 1, it was Groucho who introduced him.

10. SPY MAGAZINE USED A MARX BROTHERS MOVIE TO PRANK U.S. CONGRESSMEN.

Duck Soup takes place in Freedonia, a fictional country over which the eccentric Rufus T. Firefly (Groucho) presides. In 1993, 60 years after the movie’s release, this imaginary nation made headlines by embarrassing some real-life politicians. Staffers from Spy got in touch with around 20 freshmen in the House of Representatives, asking some variation on the question “Do you approve of what we’re doing to stop ethnic cleansing in Freedonia?” A few lawmakers took the bait. Representative Corrine Brown (D-Florida) professed to approve of America’s presence in Freedonia, saying “I think all of those situations are very, very sad, and I just think we need to take action to assist the people.” Across the aisle, Steve Buyer (R-Indiana) concurred. “Yeah,” he said, “it’s a different situation than the Middle East.”

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12 Facts About the Smithsonian's Collections
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With 19 museums spread along the East Coast, the Smithsonian Institution has become the country’s richest repository of American history. From culture to science, zoos to space exploration, the federally-backed archive has spent nearly 200 years preserving and educating. Check out some facts on its history, how a new species of dolphin was found hiding in its archives, and how the founder eventually became part of the collection.

1. ITS FOUNDER NEVER SET FOOT IN THE STATES.

Wealthy British globe-trotter James Smithson (1765-1829) had acquired an estate worth roughly $500,000 at the time of his death and ordered that all of his assets be inherited by his nephew, Henry James Dickinson. There was one twist: The estate was to be turned over to the United States in the event Dickinson died without an heir of his own so the country could build a hub for the “increase and diffusion of knowledge.” Henry, then 18, died just six years later, and so President James Polk signed the act approving the Smithsonian Institution into law in 1846. Curiously, Smithson had never even visited the U.S. Why leave such a legacy to a foreign nation? Smithson never commented on his decision, leaving people to guess that it was either because he was impressed by democracy or because he wanted to enrich a country that, at the time, had only a few educational hubs.

2. NO ONE WAS REALLY SURE WHAT SMITHSON WANTED.

A portrait of James Smithson

“Increase and diffusion of knowledge” can be interpreted pretty broadly, and it took the United States a long time—roughly 10 years—before anyone could agree on what to do with Smithson’s gift. Educators, politicians, and civilians all had a unique notion of how to spend his fortune, including opening a university, a library, or an observatory. Ultimately, the Smithsonian Institution was a compromise, involving many of these ideas. By 1855, construction on the main building was complete at the National Mall in Washington; it was designated as a National Museum in 1858 [PDF].

3. THEY HAD TO HIDE THEIR COLLECTION FROM AXIS FORCES.

At the height of U.S. involvement in World War II, museum curators knew that Axis forces would have designs on destroying the vibrant culture housed at the museum’s main location at the National Mall. To protect these irreplaceable items, the Smithsonian arranged to have them shipped to an undisclosed location—now known to be near Luray, Virginia—and stored in a climate-controlled warehouse. They didn’t return until 1944.

4. SMOKEY BEAR LIVED AT THEIR ZOO.

Smokey Bear takes a bath at the National Zoo

Yes, that Smokey Bear. (And there’s no “the” in his name.) In 1950, a bear cub that survived a raging forest fire in Capitan, New Mexico, was adopted by the U.S. Forest Service and named Smokey after the popular ad campaign mascot of the era. As a living symbol of the effort, he spent his remaining 26 years at the National Zoo, a constant recipient of visitor attention and hundreds of jars of honey.

5. THEY DISPLAY JUST ONE PERCENT OF THEIR COLLECTION.

In order to execute Smithson’s mission statement, the Smithsonian has had to morph into the greatest display of hoarding the world has ever seen. All told, the Institution’s various artifacts, specimens, and other arcana is believed to number in the neighborhood of 137 million, with an official museum estimate of 154 million. Just 1 percent of that is available for viewing at any given time.

6. ONE CATEGORY IS USUALLY OFF-LIMITS FOR VIEWING.

17th century human remains found in Jamestown, Virginia

Evolving public attitudes over the decades have prompted the Smithsonian to be very wary of displaying human remains. While they’ve collected everything from shrunken heads to the “soap man”—a corpse whose body turned to a soap-like substance thanks to a chemical reaction to soil—most of it remains out of public view.

7. AN EXHIBIT ON NUCLEAR WAR STIRRED CONTROVERSY.

For a planned exhibit of the Enola Gay, the bomber plane that dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima during World War II, museum organizers drew criticism in 1994 for presenting material that some veterans groups and members of Congress felt was politically charged. The museum agreed to omit text near the display that some felt dwelled on the horrific effects of the bomb, as well as references estimating the U.S. and rival casualties that might have been suffered if the bomb had not been deployed.

8. THE WEIRDEST ITEM THEY’VE CATALOGED IS A CRAPPY VIDEO GAME.

The box art for the Atari 2600 game E.T.

Amidst many internet lists of strange Smithsonian catalog items—taxidermied animals, beards, and other miscellanea—nothing seems more incongruous than the 2014 inclusion of a 1982 Atari video game based on E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. Renowned for being produced quickly and for helping to fuel the video game crash of the early 1980s, supplies of the cartridge were buried in a New Mexico landfill and only recently excavated. One went into the museum's archives.

9. THEY TURNED DOWN JIMMY DURANTE’S NOSE.

In the 1950s, actor and comedian Jimmy Durante was easily identified by his bulbous nose, a three-inch-long (from bridge to tip) feature that led to his nickname, “the Great Schnozzola.” Sensing a publicity opportunity, Durante’s management arranged for a makeup artist to create a plaster cast of Durante’s nose and offer it up to the Smithsonian as a piece of Americana. Frank Setzler, the museum’s head of anthropology was unimpressed. “Heavens, no,” he was quoted as saying. “Who would want that? The only place we could use it would be in the elephant display.”

10. AN UNDISCOVERED SPECIES OF DOLPHIN WAS LURKING IN THEIR INVENTORY.

A dolphin skull from a recently-discovered species

With so many specimens, the bowels of the Smithsonian almost certainly harbor secrets that can surprise even scientists. In 2016, two researchers in search of fossilized marine mammals stumbled across the skull of a 25-million-year-old river dolphin they named Arktocara yakataga. Said to have been found in Alaska, the dolphin may have dwelled in the Arctic. It was estimated that the skull—plucked from obscurity because one of the researchers found it “cute”—sat on the shelf for 50 years before being identified.

11. THEY’RE COMMITTED TO PRESERVING DOROTHY’S SLIPPERS.

Possibly the most iconic pair of footwear in pop culture, Dorothy’s ruby slippers from the 1939 film adaptation of The Wizard of Oz have become a Smithsonian trademark. In 2016, the Institution successfully raised over $300,000 on Kickstarter to build a state-of-the-art preservation case to protect the kicks from deterioration. While star Judy Garland wore several pairs during filming and the Smithsonian’s are mismatched, it’s clear that visitors want to keep them in condition for any future travels along the yellow brick road.

12. SMITHSON EVENTUALLY BECAME PART OF THE COLLECTION.

James Smithson's final resting place within the walls of the Smithsonian

In 1904, some 75 years after his death in Italy, Smithson’s remains were about to be disturbed. U.S. Smithsonian officials were alerted that his grave site would be displaced because of a nearby stone quarry expansion. The Institution took the opportunity to have his casket shipped to America so he could be interred at the site of his legacy—the Smithsonian itself. Escorted by Alexander Graham Bell, the casket traveled 14 days by sea. The body was entombed and topped off by a marker in the Smithsonian, where it remains viewable by the general public.

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