Invitation to the Devil – Verdun

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 215th installment in the series.  

December 20, 1915: Invitation to the Devil – Verdun 

It was one of the ghastly ironies of the First World War that, as the Allies were planning a huge offensive to end the war at the Somme, the Germans were preparing a similar offensive at Verdun – so that, unbeknownst to either side, two of the greatest battles in history were about to unfold at roughly the same time (Verdun lasted from February 21-December 18, 1916, the Somme from July 1-November 18, 1916), effectively canceling each other out. 

In fact Verdun and the Somme were like wars unto themselves, consisting of multiple engagements, each a major battle in its own right, with a human toll exceeding many previous conflicts. Although some estimates vary, Verdun resulted in around a million casualties on both sides, including 305,000 killed, while the Somme resulted in over 1.3 million casualties, including 310,000 killed. Their combined total is comparable with the death toll of the entire U.S. Civil War, which left around 620,000 dead; historically they are exceeded only by the Battle of Stalingrad in the Second World War, which resulted in approximately two million casualties and about 730,000 dead. 

The “Christmas Memorandum”

Verdun represented a major shift in strategy for the Germany Army, which had previously adhered to its traditional approach calling for a war of maneuver aiming for decisive victory through encirclement, as in the failed Schlieffen Plan. The Germans had scored some spectacular successes with this approach early in the war, most notably at Tannenberg – but now the sheer extent of the battlefield, with interlocking fronts stretching hundreds of miles, made it almost impossible to outflank the enemy without running the risk of being outflanked in turn. Furthermore, so much preparatory bombardment was required to achieve a breakthrough that the enemy would figure out where the attack was coming and quickly reinforce the intended target, or simply withdraw to safer positions at the cost of sacrificing a bit more territory. 

By the same token Germany could not afford to remain on the defensive in the long term, because of the Allies’ advantage in sheer numbers. While the Central Powers had already managed an impressive expansion in manpower from 163 divisions in August 1914 to 310 divisions in December 1915, over the same period the Allies had increased their total from 247 divisions to 440, widening their lead from 84 divisions to 130 divisions. France had reached her maximum strength, but looking ahead Russia and Britain could still draw on a huge pool of untapped manpower, although it would take time to train and equip new units. Germany also faced growing shortages of food and material, and the situation was even worse for her ramshackle allies. In short, she had to win the war soon. 

This was the context in which German chief of the general staff Erich von Falkenhayn (below) wrote his “Christmas Memorandum,” a sweeping strategic appraisal of the war and recommendation for future action presented to Kaiser Wilhelm II as 1915 drew to a close (actually December 20, despite the name). In it Falkenhayn, long a favorite of the Kaiser, proposed shifting from a strategy based on breakthrough, maneuver and encirclement to one of simple attrition; in short, he proposed to “bleed France white.”

Falkenhayn began his memorandum with a high-level overview of the war so far, returning to the oft-stated axiom that Germany’s real enemy was not France or Russia but scheming, duplicitous Britain. Like many Germans, Falkenhayn was convinced that Britain had orchestrated the war out of jealousy and fear of Germany’s industrial prowess, and was now bankrolling, blackmailing, and generally manipulating the Allies into continuing the war against their own interests. Falkenhayn also noted that Britain was prepared to make major sacrifices in pursuit of its hegemonic aims: 

It is true that we have succeeded in shaking England severely – the best proof of that is her imminent adoption of universal military service. But this is also a proof of the sacrifices England is prepared to make to attain her end – the permanent elimination of what seems to her the most dangerous rival. The history of the English wars against the Netherlands, Spain, France and Napoleon is being repeated. Germany can expect no mercy from this enemy, as long as he still retains the slightest hope of achieving his object. 

As in these previous wars, Falkenhayn believed the British, safe on their islands, were hoping to simply wait out their enemy, pushing the Central Powers towards collapse with a blockade and economic warfare, while leaving the bulk of the fighting to her pawns on the continent:

England, a country in which men are accustomed to weigh up the chances dispassionately, can scarcely hope to overthrow us by purely military means. She is obviously staking everything on a war of exhaustion. We have not been able to shatter her belief that it will bring Germany to her knees, and that belief gives the enemy the strength to fight on and keep on whipping their team together. What we have to do is to dispel that illusion… We must show England patently that her venture has no prospects. 

Targeting the British Expeditionary Force itself was not feasible because the weather and ground conditions in Flanders prohibited an attack before the spring – and anyway, even if they succeeded in driving the British from the continent temporarily, “our ultimate aim will not yet have been secured because England may be trusted not to give up even then,” as the impending adoption of conscription indicated. Rather, Germany should focus on crushing Britain’s allies and thereby depriving her of her pawns:

Her real weapons here are the French, Russian, and Italian Armies. If we put these armies out of the war England is left to face us alone, and it is difficult to believe in such circumstances her lust for our destruction would not fail here. It is true there would be no certainty that she would give up, but there is a strong probability. More than that can seldom be asked in war. 

Falkenhayn then considered the various members of the alliance in turn, eliminating them one by one as possible targets for different reasons. He began with Italy: although Austria-Hungary wanted to give priority to crushing the “treacherous” Italians, Italy was not a suitable target simply because the Italian Army mattered so little from a strategic perspective, and Italy was in any event unlikely to alienate Britain, which controlled the Mediterranean and supplied almost all her coal – “Even Italy’s desertion of the Entente, which is scarcely thinkable, will make no serious impression on England. The military achievements of Italy are so small, and she is, in any case, so firmly in England’s grip, that it would be very remarkable if we let ourselves be deceived on that score.” 

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Next Falkenhayn ruled out Russia, citing both the major obstacles to a decisive victory – including its sheer size and challenging terrain and weather – as well as the growing likelihood that the Tsarist regime would collapse under the weight of its own incompetence and neglect

According to all reports, the domestic difficulties of the giant Empire are multiplying rapidly. Even if we cannot perhaps expect a revolution in the grand style, we are entitled to believe that Russia’s internal troubles will compel her to give in within a relatively short period… Moreover unless we are again prepared to put a strain on the troops which is altogether out of proportion – and this is prohibited by the state of our reserves – an offensive with a view to a decision in the East is out of the question for us until April, owing to the weather and the state of the ground… An advance on Moscow takes us nowhere. We have not the forces available for any of these undertakings. For all these reasons Russia, as an object of our offensive, must be considered as excluded. There remains only France.

“The Forces of France Will Bleed to Death” 

France was the logical target for a number of reasons. As a partner in both the Entente Cordiale with Britain and her own defensive alliance with Russia, she was the lynchpin of the Allied coalition, so if she dropped out Russia and Britain might turn on each other. The French economy had already been weakened by the German occupation of the coalfields in the country’s industrial northeast, and a large majority of the German Army was already deployed on the Western Front within easy striking distance.

Most of all, France had suffered huge losses in the first year and a half of fighting: by the end of December 1915 the Republic counted around two million total casualties, including roughly one million wounded, 300,000 taken prisoner, and 730,000 dead. Although not all casualties were permanently incapacitated (in fact most wounded went back to the front eventually) together these losses represented about 5% of the French prewar population, and a much larger proportion of the male population of fighting age. The conscript classes of 1916 and 1917, soon to be liable for conscription, would provide another 270,000 troops, hardly enough to make good these losses. In other words, France was running out of men. 

Thus Falkenhayn predicted: “… the strain on France has almost reached the breaking-point – though it is certainly borne with the most remarkable devotion. If we succeeded in opening the eyes of her people to the fact that in a military sense they have nothing more to hope for, that breaking-point would be reached and England’s best sword knocked out of her hand.” 

At the same time, the stalemate on the Western Front showed that the same basic constraints applied there as elsewhere, ruling out the traditional Prussian war of maneuver for the reasons already noted above: 

Attempts at a mass break-through, even with an extreme accumulation of men and material, cannot be regarded as holding out prospects of success against a well armed enemy, whose moral is sound and who is not seriously inferior in numbers. The defender has usually succeeded in closing the gaps. This is easy enough for him if he decides to withdraw voluntarily, and it is hardly possible to stop him doing so.

But Falkenhayn imagined a cunning exception to this rule. If the Germans threatened a place of such strategic importance and symbolic value that the French couldn’t possibly give it up, the latter would be forced to continue counter-attacking to remove the threat, regardless of the cost: 

Within our reach behind the French sector of the Western front there are objectives for the retention of which the French General Staff would be compelled to throw in every man they have. If they do so the forces of France will bleed to death – as there can be no question of a voluntary withdrawal – whether we reach our goal or not. If they do not do so, and we reach our objectives, the moral effect on France will be enormous. 

In essence, Falkenhayn envisioned a strategy that would flip the usual battlefield dynamic, allowing the Germans to enjoy the tactical advantage of defenders even while “attacking,” and forcing the French to attack while “defending.” All the Germans had to do was come dangerously close to a key French objective, then dig into strong defensive positions and blast the counter-attacking French forces out of existence with their artillery. 

Only a few places on the Western Front qualified as targets valuable enough to justify such a desperate defense by the French, and one stood out above all: Verdun.

Operation Gericht 

Full of historic meaning as the site of the Treaty of Verdun in 843 CE, which divided Charlemagne’s empire into three parts, creating the kingdom of France, the town was much more than just a national symbol: its strategic location astride the Meuse River and near the line of hills known as the “côtes de Meuse” or “heights of the Meuse” allowed it to dominate the eastern approaches to France from the Saar and Moselle region of Germany, serving as a stronghold against invasion since pre-Roman times.

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Following France’s defeat by Prussia in 1870-1, resulting in the loss of the provinces of Alsace and Lorraine, the government of the new Third Republic began building a line of new fortifications behind the newly shrunken frontier, including massive fortress complexes around the towns of Belfort, Epinal, Toul, and Verdun. The intention was that these fortified towns would channel a future German invasion into several broad pathways, including the Trouée de Stenay and Trouée de Charmes, where the enemy armies could be more easily repulsed by French forces – which is more or less what happened at the Battle of the Trouée de Charmes and the Battle of Grand Couronné in August-September 1914. 

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As the Western Front settled into trench warfare following the German defeat the Battle of the Marne, Verdun served as the keystone of the French defenses along the Western Front – an apparently impenetrable obstacle whose ring of 20 large and 40 small forts formed a mini-salient jutting deep into the larger German line in northern France. In addition to keeping the entire German Fifth Army tied up, Verdun threatened the key east-west railroad which the Germans relied on to supply their armies in France, just twelve miles to the north behind the German front line. 

For all these reasons Falkenhayn guessed – correctly, as it turned out – that the French would fight to the end to defend Verdun from falling to the Germans. And he knew the perfect place for his unusual strategy of an inverse assault by the German Fifth Army. In “Operation Gericht” (“gericht” means “judgment” but also “place of execution”) a massive artillery bombardment would clear the way for infantry to seize the heights of the Meuse northeast of the town, from which artillery could then threaten the citadel of Verdun itself as well as the remaining forts to the west of the town. Threatened with the loss of this key symbolic and strategic position, the French would commit wave after wave of troops in an attempt to dislodge the Germans from the hills – only to be slaughtered by the German artillery en masse. 

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As it happened, Verdun was an even better choice than Falkenhayn could know: from August to October 1915 the French, complacent in their belief that Verdun could not be conquered, stripped the fortresses of over 50 batteries of artillery, leaving some of them virtually defenseless. They had also neglected to build heavily fortified lines of trenches and defensive positions between the forts, leaving the whole complex vulnerable to infiltration and siege.  

Invitation to the Devil 

But Falkenhayn was playing with fire. Indeed, Operation Gericht was an invitation to the devil, because it held the potential to unlock forces beyond the control of either side. 

For one thing, Falkenhayn apparently kept his true intentions secret even from his own commanders, letting them believe he really wanted to capture Verdun. The coldly rational chief of the general staff failed to realize that if Verdun held symbolic importance for the French public as a national bastion, it could acquire similar symbolic importance to the Germans as a glittering goal – and failure to capture it would be such a blow to German prestige and morale that his whole carefully measured plan to let the German artillery do the heavy work might unravel, leaving the infantry slugging it out in an inferno.

Second, Falkenhayn anticipated that the Allies would mount their own offensive somewhere else on the Western Front in order to relieve German pressure on the French at Verdun – but he had no idea of the magnitude of the offensive being planned at the Somme (which would gain new urgency after Verdun began).

Third, Falkenhayn’s obsessive secrecy would also lead to disaster with Germany’s allies. Enraged by his German colleague’s failure to consult him about Verdun, Austro-Hungarian chief of the general staff Conrad von Hötzendorf felt free to arrange an offensive of his own, moving Habsburg troops from the Russian front to Italy for a so-called “Strafexpedition” or “Punishment Expedition” in May 1916. This in turn weakened the Central Powers on the Eastern Front, setting the stage for a massive push by the Russians – their most successful campaign of the war, masterminded by the brilliant general Alexei Brusilov. 

British Evacuate Suvla Bay, ANZAC 

In addition to agreeing on a (sort of) coordinated strategy for 1916, at the Second Inter-Allied conference in Chantilly from December 6-8, 1915, the Allies also decided to throw in the towel on the failed Gallipoli campaign and begin withdrawing from the peninsula. Some of the troops freed up by the withdrawal would head to Egypt and Mesopotamia (where thousands of troops under Major General Charles Townshend were now under siege by the Turks at Kut), while others would be shifted to reinforce the Allied presence at Salonika. The first troops to go would be the British, Australians, and New Zealanders at Suvla Bay and ANZAC. 

Although the evacuation hopefully spelled the end of incredible misery for the troops, there was one last hurdle to surmount, as it was actually incredibly dangerous to attempt to withdraw units from the trenches, march them miles overland, and then embark them on waiting boats and rafts to be taken aboard ships (above). If the Turks and their German “advisors” caught wind of what was happening, they would rush the undefended trenches, rain shells on the helpless columns of retreating troops, and drive them into the sea. 

Thus preparations went forward in complete secrecy, with multiple diversionary operations to mislead the Turks and their German officers. There was also a great deal of subterfuge during the evacuation of Suvla Bay and the ANZAC positions, which proceeded every night from December 10-20, 1915, including tricks to make the Turks think the trenches were still inhabited. Frank Parker, an Australian soldier, recalled: 

They still had rifle fire, and there was no one there to fire ‘em. It was done by water – an engineering feat, it was. They had the triggers of the rifles tied with string or wire or something attached to a rock on the top which was attached by string to a tin below. Water was dripped into this tin and when it was full it pulled the rock down, which pulled the trigger and fired the shot – it was most remarkable. 

According to Owen William Steele, a Canadian officer from Newfoundland, the departing troops also left plenty of unpleasant surprises for the Turks, in the form of elaborate booby traps. Steele wrote in his diary on December 20, 1915:

… when they begin to move forward they will have all kinds of plots to contend with, for the R.E. [Royal Engineers] have various kinds of wires laid, such as “trip-wires” and those which will explode when one walks on them, by a falling box etc. Then in many “Dug-outs” wires have been laid attached to a table-leg which will be exploded by a movement of the table, etc.  

After dishing out a brutal lesson in the power of the elements the month before, Mother Nature was merciful and the weather aided the final evacuation of Suvla Bay and ANZAC on December 20, 1915. Adil Shahin, a Turkish officer, remembered: 

There was a heavy fog, so we had no idea. They had made use of the fog and all the gun noises had stopped. It was early morning and we sent out a scout. He found the trenches deserted… So all of us went all the way down to the shore, looked in the trenches and saw, too, they were deserted. They’d gone!... Well, what could we do? We left one regiment there, and the rest went back. 

After the evacuation was complete, timed explosives destroyed the remaining stores which couldn’t be evacuated safely (above, supplies burning at Suvla Bay). Incredibly the Allies managed to evacuate 105,000 men and 300 heavy guns from the positions at Suvla Bay and ANZAC without major losses to enemy fire. The evacuation of the final 35,000 men at Gallipoli, holding the position at the Cape Helles on the tip of the peninsula, would be completed in early January 1916. 

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.
Pop TV

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

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

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

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

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

16. Hampshire regularly borrows Stevie's clothes.

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

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

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

This piece was updated in 2019.

Batmania: When Batman Ruled the Summer of 1989

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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