Italians Defeated At Third Isonzo

Civici Musei di Storia e Arte di Trieste, via Itinerari Grande Guerra 
Civici Musei di Storia e Arte di Trieste, via Itinerari Grande Guerra 

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 207th installment in the series. 

October 31-November 4, 1915: Italians Defeated At Third Isonzo 

After suffering defeats or Pyrrhic victories during the Primo Sbalzo and First and Second Battles of the Isonzo, by the fall of 1915 Italian chief of the general staff Luigi Cadorna had finally, belatedly, discovered the key element for successful attacks in trench warfare: overwhelming artillery power to break up the enemy’s barbed wire entanglements and blow their trenches out of existence. This approach had worked for the Central Powers during their offensive on the Eastern Front (now at an end) and it was working for them again in Serbia; with luck he could employ the same tactics against the Austro-Hungarian defenders on the Italian front. 

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However luck was not on Italy’s side – and more importantly, neither was the terrain. Cadorna had reined in his ambitions for the Third Battle of the Isonzo, giving up his goal of capturing Trieste to focus, for the time being, on the town of Gorizia in the foothills of the Julian Alps. However the Italian Second Army under General Frugoni and Third Army under the Duke of Aosta, which were supposed to outflank the Habsburg defenders in Gorizia from the north and south, would face the same geographic obstacles that helped frustrate their previous offensives: they were attacking uphill from the bottom of the Isonzo River valley against low-profile trenches and artillery sheltering out of sight behind the ridgelines – meaning the Italian attackers often couldn’t see the enemy, but the enemy had a clear view of them. 

To blast through the Habsburg defenses, Cadorna assembled a formidable artillery force of around 1,400 guns scraped together from all over Italy, including naval guns raided from the navy and coastal defenses. But rather than concentrating on key points Cadorna spread the guns out along a 50-kilometer front, diminishing the impact of the bombardment, and many of the guns were relatively light 75-mm field artillery pieces, which were ineffective at breaking up barbed wire and demolishing trenches. Furthermore Habsburg general Svetozar Boroević – one of the most brilliant commanders of the First World War, defending his Croatian native land – left his first line of trenches practically empty, concentrating his troops in two new lines of trenches behind, from which they could hurry forward to the first line of trenches as soon as the Italian bombardment halted; he also brought positioned reserves in the rear trenches to mount immediate counter-attacks wherever the Italians succeeded in occupying the first trench. 

To top it all off, with Italian preparations clearly visible from the enemy positions there was no hope of achieving surprise (top, an Italian shelter on the Isonzo) and in the weeks leading up the battle the Habsburg artillery constantly harried Italian troops trying to bring up their own guns, shells and supplies. On October 15, Enzo Valentini described witnessing an Austrian bombardment by 210-millimeter shells in a letter to his mother: 

The roar was deafening. When the shell explodes it raises a huge column of stones, earth and sods, in a dense black cloud of smoke, which as it disappears discloses a large hole and a chaos of upheaved earth and snow blackened by the smoke. The first shot was followed by fourteen others, which have upheaved all the hollow ground around the fort… Then our field batteries hidden behind one of the rocks… opened a very lively fire. The small cannon of the enemy replied… The wind had got up and whistled among the rocks, but the roar and the noise of the explosions overpowered it. The sky was rent; the air trembled, impregnated with the acrid smell of war; the mountain resounded as if in fury, and the stones and splinters of shells reached our huts. Then it all ceased, and the noble austere silence of the everlasting mountain brooded over the convulsed valley. 

Nonetheless Cadorna was sure that with their two-to-one advantage in artillery the Italian armies would prevail – and at first his confidence seemed justified. On October 18, 1915 the Italian guns began a bombardment that lasted for three days, followed by the first infantry attack on October 21. Finding Habsburg defenses unbroken in most places, thousands of attackers were caught in the barbed wire and mowed down by machine guns firing down the slopes, but some Italian units did succeed in capturing enemy trenches on Mount Mrzli, north of Gorizia, with desperate bayonet attacks and hand-to-hand fighting – only to lose them to equally desperate Habsburg counter-attacks later that day. 

The Second Army mounted another big push to capture the summit of Mount Mrzli on October 24, but were forced back twice. Meanwhile to the south the Italians fared no better, as Mount Saint Michele traded hands repeatedly and Habsburg defenders repelled literally dozens of futile attempts by the Third Army near the towns of Podgora and Sabotino, cutting down row after row of attackers struggling up hillsides awash with mud from autumn rains. In other places Austro-Hungarian troops simply rolled barrels full of explosives down the hills, with terrifying effects. 

Finding his flank attacks frustrated, Cadorna decided to shift the focus of the Italian offensive to a frontal assault on the enemy positions defending Gorizia itself, but from October 28-31 Italian troops failed to even reach the Austro-Hungarian trenches on Mount Sabotino. Now, in the final Italian effort of the Third Battle of the Isonzo, Cadorna reverted to a flanking strategy with simultaneous attacks at Mount San Michele to the south and the village of Plava, site of a key crossing over the Isonzo. 

The final phase from October 31 to November 4 was the closest the Italians came to victory in the Third Battle of the Isonzo. On the south Italians almost succeeded in breaking through – at great cost, as always – pushing the Austro-Hungarian forces back from the village of Zagorra and opening the way to the objective of Gorizia. However a Habsburg battalion composed of reliable Austrian troops arrived at the last moment to plug the gap and halt the Italian advance. Meanwhile to the north, on Mount San Michele, it was the same depressing story as in previous weeks. 

By the time the Third Battle of the Isonzo ended on November 4, 1915, the Italians had suffered around 70,000 casualties, including 11,000 dead, compared to 40,000 casualties for the Habsburg forces, with 9,000 dead. But the near-breakthrough in the final days convinced Cadorna that the Austro-Hungarian defenses would collapse if he returned to the attack with fresh troops now arriving from the south. The Fourth Battle of the Isonzo would begin less than a week later, on November 10, 1915. 

Food Shortages Spread Across Europe 

The autumn of 1915 saw the first food riots in several cities across Germany – a sign of how bad things had become in a normally orderly society after a year of war – and in late October the government decreed that there would now be two “meatless days” every week (Tuesdays and Fridays), when shopkeepers were not allowed to sell meat to customers, adding to the previously declared days (Mondays and Thursdays) when they couldn’t sell fats, like butter or lard. The German government had ordered bread rationing in January 1915, and added potato rationing in October. 

Germany was hardly alone: in October 1915 the French government formed a new Ministry of Food Supply, with the right to requisition crops if necessary. Indeed all the belligerents would adopt similar policies as food shortages spread across Europe, resulting from the absence of the male agricultural labor force and the disruption to traditional supply chains caused by military requisition of vehicles and livestock. The Central Powers and Russia also had to contend with the interruption to foreign trade caused by blockades (Britain, France and Italy could still import food from overseas, which meant the food situation never got as bad there). 

While national governments and local authorities tried to fill in the gaps by drafting women, older men and prisoners of war into farm work, many lacked the necessary expertise, and many foreign imports couldn’t be substituted with local production. The situation was even worse for city-dwellers, as peasants unsurprisingly held back food for their own families in times of scarcity – leading to forced requisitions and growing tension between cities and the countryside, not to mention thriving black markets. Last but not least, shortages were compounded by inflation resulting from national governments printing money to pay for armaments, which caused prices to rise even more. 

As early as the autumn of 1914, the anonymous correspondent Piermarini recorded rising prices for food as well as other necessities in the Austrian capital of Vienna: “Milk, potatoes, meat, sugar, etc., are double the usual price; eggs have become a food for the rich, and bread, even of very bad quality, is expensive and scarce… Coal is a luxury… Gas has doubled in price…” It wasn’t just poor families who suffered, he noted: 

Vienna has, at the present moment, scores of families – well-dressed and well-connected – who are starving at home, families which, before the war, used to live up to their full income and generally above it, and which, now the father is unemployed or at the front, are absolutely penniless and too proud to accept anything from public charity. 

Even when there was enough to sustain them, bourgeois Europeans found the whole idea of rationing a humiliating ordeal, as recounted by the German novelist Arnold Zweig in his novel Young Woman of 1914, where he described the plight of middle class women in mid-1915: “By this time bread, meat, potatoes, vegetables, milk, and eggs, were all subject to a detailed system of regulations, which the Germans had to obey or take much trouble to evade. The constant production of food cards stamped the purchaser as the inferior of the seller; it was always with a gasp of relief that women emerged from the shops.” 

Logically enough the belligerents tried to ensure that soldiers serving at the front got enough to eat, increasingly at the expense of civilians, but low-ranking frontline soldiers frequently complained of hunger. Often enough food arrived spoiled or was hoarded by their officers, who also received higher wages, enabling them to supplement their rations by buying extra supplies local peasants. In April 1915 a bricklayer from Franconia noted bitterly in a letter home: 

We only get very little to eat. One doesn’t even get what one deserves. And then there are the idle fellows who are rude to the people and who eat away their things and who get six to seven hundred Marks every month. I am boiling over with rage watching this swindle. It is about high time now to finish it. One gets rich and eats away everything, the other who doesn’t get everything from home is starving or has to pay from the money received from home. 

Another German soldier’s letter home from April 1915 paints a similar picture:

You would not believe how much the men hate those who have just become officers, the sergeant-lieutenants and those who serve as officers. A huge majority of them are still paid their entire salary and on top of that their [monthly] pay of 205 to 250 Mark. Furthermore, they get five Mark each day special ration allowance, whereas the troops are actually going hungry… By all means, the situation is unfair and this outrages everyone. 

Similarly Bernard Pares, a British observer with the Russian Army, recalled a postcard found on a Czech prison of war from the Habsburg Army in May 1915: “Here there is no news, only hunger and shortage of bread. Many of the bakeries are closed. Flour is not to be bought; meat is very dear. Soon there will be a general crisis.” And in March 1915 a French soldier, Robert Pellissier, predicted hunger would force the end of the war: “I don’t believe this war will end by great victories for either side. Starvation of civilians and lack of funds and general disgust at the whole business will bring peace.” 

At first people shrugged off the inconvenience and monotonous diets enforced by rationing as the inevitable result of war, but as time went on and monotony turned to hunger, many began to blame the incompetence of their own governments, rather than external circumstances. Ihsan Hasan al-Turjman, a young Arab living in Jerusalem, wrote in his diary on December 17, 1915: 

I haven’t seen darker days in my life. Flour and bread have basically disappeared since last Saturday. Many people have not eaten bread for days now. As I was going to the Commissariat this morning, I saw a throng of men, women, and boys fighting each other to buy flour near Damascus Gate… I became very depressed and said to myself, “Pity the poor” – and then I said, “No, pity all of us, for we are all poor nowadays.”... I never thought that we would lack flour in our country, when we are the source of wheat. And I never in my life imagined that we would run out of flour at home. Who is responsible but this wretched government? 

In Constantinople Lewis Einstein, an American diplomat, noted similar events in a diary entry in September 1915: 

The scarcity of foodstuffs is daily making itself more felt. There is hardly any bread, and there are always fights over the distribution at the bakeries. Only the other day a woman died from the effects of being roughly handled by the police, who are present when it is doled out. There is like scarcity with other staples… Production and transportation have practically ceased…

Indeed many observers predicted that the shortages would lead to social and political upheaval in the not-too-distant future, and in the eyes of nervous authorities every food riot seemed to hold the seeds of revolution. Some of the worst outbursts occurred in Russia, long an exporter of grain but now subject to the same disruptions of production and transportation afflicting the other belligerents, and also cut off from imports by the closing of the Turkish straits. 

Disturbances prompted by high prices and shortages had already broken out in May 1915 in the industrial town of Orekhovo, followed by a full-fledged food riot in Moscow in July and another food riot in Kolpino, a suburb of Petrograd, in August. These incidents often resulted in confrontations with the police, who were widely distrusted and accused of corrupt complicity in merchants’ speculation, hoarding, and price gouging.

However the biggest incident yet occurred on October 1, 1915, when a food riot erupted in Bogorodsk, a textile-manufacturing town outside of Moscow. The disturbance began when several dozen female factory workers found out that there was no more sugar for sale at the local marketplace. The women accused the merchants of hoarding and price gouging and became unruly, prompting the police to try to disperse the crowd; however this only made the situation worse, as the women enlisted help from other townspeople, resulting in an angry crowd of thousands gathering in the town square. 

The mob now went on the rampage, looting shops and destroying property. This was followed by several days of unrest that spread to three neighboring towns, until a paramilitary Cossack unit came to quell the disorder by force, killing two people in the process. However tens of thousands of factory workers went on strike to protest the rising cost of living, finally forcing the factory owners to agree to a 20% percent raise.

But the underlying causes of the disorder were only going to grow worse, as the government’s war spending stoked inflation and wages failed to keep pace. By the end of the second year of the war prices in Moscow and Petrograd had more than doubled from their pre-war levels, and shortages of staples like bread, flour, eggs, sugar and potatoes, as well other necessities like cloth for clothing, became commonplace. Another food riot would follow in Perm province in December 1915.  That same month a police report warned of growing anger in the streets of the capital Petrograd: “All these women, freezing in twenty-degree weather for hours on end in order to receive two pounds of sugar or two to three pounds of flour, understandably look for the person responsible for their woes.” 

Foreign observers noted the growing tension, exacerbated by the Central Powers’ relentless advance from May to September 1915. In August the anonymous British author of The Russian Diary of an Englishman, Petrograd, 1915-1917 (believed to be the diplomatic courier Albert Stopford) noted: “The fear is the people might rise and make peace to stop the German advance, feeling that the Romanovs have had their chance and been found wanting… Things are not at all quiet here. Munition-workers are on strike and even some passers-by shot. My poor little cabman was shot by mistake as he was going down the street.”

In the same vein the British military observer Alfred Knox wrote following the Tsar’s replacement of Grand Duke Nikolai as commander in chief: 

The conversations that took place, even in official circles and in the presence of a foreigner, showed the extent to which mistrust in the Government and the autocracy had gone… More than one officer assured me in September, 1915, that there would certainly be a revolution if the enemy approached Petrograd. They said that such a movement at such a time would be deplorable, but that the Government was bringing it upon itself… On September 19th I reported: “If there has ever been a government that richly deserved a revolution, it is the present one in Russia.” 

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.
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“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.
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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.
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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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