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12 Royal Facts About Roman Holiday

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The not-quite-romantic comedy Roman Holiday introduced the world to Audrey Hepburn, and to Vespa scooters—though only one of those things was subsequently honored with a U.S. postage stamp. (It was Audrey.) Roman Holiday won Oscars for Hepburn’s performance, for its story, and for its costumes, and was nominated for seven more, including Best Picture and Best Director for William Wyler. It also kickstarted a new era of American movies being shot in Rome—“Hollywood on the Tiber,” the trades called it—and has been a beloved classic ever since. Here are a dozen graceful facts about it.

1. ONE OF THE BIGGEST STARS IN THE WORLD SHARED BILLING WITH AN UNKNOWN.

Gregory Peck already had 18 films and four Oscar nominations under his belt when he was paired with Audrey Hepburn, a newcomer who’d had small roles in a handful of movies but nothing substantial. Given his status, it’s no surprise Peck’s contract called for solo top billing in the credits. But shortly after shooting began, Peck called his agent and said Hepburn’s name should appear with his above the title. The agent: “You can’t do that.” Peck: “Oh, yes I can. And if I don’t, I’m going to make a fool out of myself, because this girl is going to win the Oscar in her very first performance.” So maybe he was being pragmatic more than generous, but still. Stand-up guy, that Peck (and a bit of a prophet, too).

2. THE DIRECTOR DELAYED PRODUCTION TO WAIT FOR HEPBURN.

William Wyler, at this point an eight-time Oscar nominee and two-time winner (for Mrs. Miniver and The Best Years of Our Lives), had good instincts. He knew Hepburn was perfect for the role of Princess Ann as soon as he watched her screen test in the fall of 1951, and was unconcerned about her relative lack of film experience. But Hepburn almost immediately became unavailable, starring in Gigi on Broadway starting on November 24. Wyler’s solution? Wait for her to finish. Paramount execs, equally enthusiastic about Hepburn’s screen test, supported the plan, even though nobody knew how long the play would run. It ended up closing on May 31, 1952; shooting on Roman Holiday began 23 days later.

3. HEPBURN CRIED REAL TEARS IN THE FILM BECAUSE THE DIRECTOR YELLED AT HER.

For whatever reason, Hepburn had trouble conjuring the tears for the scene where she and Peck bid an emotional farewell to each other. She later said: “The night was getting longer and longer, and [Wyler] was waiting. Out of the blue, he came over and gave me hell. ‘We can’t stay here all night. Can’t you cry, for God’s sake?’ He’d never spoken to me like that … I broke into such sobs and he shot the scene and that was it.” (She said Wyler later apologized, sort of: “I’m sorry, but I had to get you to do it somehow!”)

4. THAT’S A REAL SCREAM OF SURPRISE WHEN PECK PRETENDS TO GET HIS HAND BITTEN OFF, TOO.

He perpetrates this dad joke in "The Mouth of Truth” scene, where you stick your hand in a statue and it gets bitten off if you’re a liar. (It doesn’t work in real life, by the way.) The script called for Peck to briefly pretend his hand was being chewed off, but he took it one step further, hiding the hand in his jacket sleeve and pulling out the “stump” to horrify Hepburn. Wyler and Peck would both later claim credit for this idea, but their accounts were in agreement that part of the fun was not telling Hepburn beforehand what Peck was going to do. Poor Audrey.

5. IT WAS SHOT IN BLACK-AND-WHITE NOT BECAUSE WYLER WAS OLD-FASHIONED, BUT BECAUSE PARAMOUNT WAS CHEAP.

The studio wanted to make the film on its own Hollywood backlot, but Wyler wouldn’t budge on shooting on location in Rome. Paramount finally agreed, but only if Wyler could finance it with “blocked funds” (a percentage of money that Paramount’s films had made in Italy that could only be spent in that country). When that only amounted to about $1 million, Wyler cut costs by shooting in black-and-white. He would later say that he didn’t even think about color until he was in Rome and it was too late, but in fact he’d always wanted to shoot in color, and had said as much months before production began.

6. THE WRONG SCREENWRITER WON THE OSCAR.

Ian McLellan Hunter was credited as the writer, but he was fronting for Dalton Trumbo, who’d been blacklisted for not cooperating with the communist-hunting House Un-American Activities Committee. (Hunter wrote a subsequent draft, too, but never claimed to have been the screenplay’s originator.) When Roman Holiday won the Oscar for Best Motion Picture Story (then a separate category from Best Screenplay, for which it was also nominated), it went to Hunter, who had refused to attend the ceremony. In the early 1990s, the Writers Guild of America and the Academy Awards people posthumously returned the credit and the awards to Trumbo.

7. IT ALMOST STARRED CARY GRANT AND ELIZABETH TAYLOR, AND FRANK CAPRA ALMOST DIRECTED IT.

The director of such sentimental classics as It’s a Wonderful Life and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington almost made Roman Holiday in the late 1940s, and he supposedly had Grant and Taylor ready to star. (This would have been icky: Taylor would have been about 16, Grant about 44.) But Capra balked at the low budget Paramount proposed (some sources say he was also wary of having anything to do with a script written by a Communist), and he sold the project back to the studio in 1949.

8. IT HELPED VESPA SELL A TON OF SCOOTERS.

The Italian motor scooter Vespa had been around since 1946 and had sold well in its native land. But Roman Holiday introduced it to an international audience, and did so in a manner so appealing that all the money Vespa had could never have bought such advertising. Not only does the movie show a beautiful woman and one of the world’s most beloved actors having the time of their lives as they ride a Vespa around Rome, that image was even featured on the movie poster. Little wonder the company sold 500,000 Vespas between 1953 and 1956, matching the number it sold from 1946 through 1952.

9. IT’S HOW GREGORY PECK MET HIS SECOND WIFE.

Peck’s marriage to the former Greta Kukkonen was an unhappy one at this point, and there were many rumors of his dalliances with other women. Still, they remained together for the sake of their three children, and the whole family went to Rome together. On the way there, however, at Paramount’s request, Peck stopped in Paris to do an interview. The reporter was a lovely young woman named Veronique Passani. She visited Rome to interview Peck again during the shoot, and Wyler said that’s when the two fell in love (though Peck always maintained it wasn’t until later). Whatever the timeline, Peck and Passani were married on December 31, 1955, shortly after his divorce from Greta was finalized. They remained married for the rest of Peck’s life.

10. IT’S ALSO HOW AUDREY HEPBURN MET HER FIRST HUSBAND, INDIRECTLY.

Hepburn and Peck became lifelong friends through Roman Holiday. It was at a cocktail party at Peck’s house after the film’s release that Hepburn met actor Mel Ferrer, whom she subsequently married. They had one child together before divorcing 14 years later.

11. THERE WAS A REMAKE. THERE’S A GOOD REASON YOU DON’T REMEMBER IT.

On December 28, 1987, NBC aired a TV movie version of Roman Holiday starring Catherine Oxenberg (from Dynasty) and Tom Conti (from British TV and the David Bowie film Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence). It was poorly received (“one of the more embarrassing duds of a decade,” said The New York Times) and no one ever spoke of it again. Until just now.

12. AUDREY HEPBURN WON AN OSCAR FOR HER PERFORMANCE, THEN LOST IT.

Misplaced it, that is. At the ceremony in March 1954, she was so excited and overwhelmed by the win that she took the wrong route to get to the stage, gave a breathless speech, and then left the trophy in the ladies’ room. She and Oscar were soon reunited, however, and lived happily ever after.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Michael Ochs Archives/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

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

4. HARPO WAS A SELF-TAUGHT HARPIST.

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

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

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

6. GUMMO AND ZEPPO BECAME TALENT AGENTS.

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

7. CHICO ONCE LAUNCHED A BIG BAND GROUP.

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

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

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

9. GROUCHO TEMPORARILY HOSTED THE TONIGHT SHOW.

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

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

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

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

1. ITS FOUNDER NEVER SET FOOT IN THE STATES.

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

2. NO ONE WAS REALLY SURE WHAT SMITHSON WANTED.

A portrait of James Smithson

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

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

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

4. SMOKEY BEAR LIVED AT THEIR ZOO.

Smokey Bear takes a bath at the National Zoo

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

5. THEY DISPLAY JUST ONE PERCENT OF THEIR COLLECTION.

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

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

17th century human remains found in Jamestown, Virginia

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

7. AN EXHIBIT ON NUCLEAR WAR STIRRED CONTROVERSY.

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

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

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

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

9. THEY TURNED DOWN JIMMY DURANTE’S NOSE.

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

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

A dolphin skull from a recently-discovered species

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

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

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

12. SMITHSON EVENTUALLY BECAME PART OF THE COLLECTION.

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

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

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