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13 Mysterious Facts About The Maltese Falcon

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By the end of 1941, moviegoers had a new favorite star in Humphrey Bogart, a minor actor whose back-to-back starring roles in High Sierra and The Maltese Falcon catapulted him to fame. The latter film quickly became a classic, viewed as the first major "film noir" and a prototype for the genre of hardboiled detectives, femmes fatales, and carefully placed shadows. It was, to quote its last line of dialogue, the stuff dreams are made of. Here are some facts about the 75-year-old mystery. 

1.  WARNER BROS. MADE IT TWICE BEFORE, INCLUDING ONCE AS A COMEDY.

Dashiell Hammett first published The Maltese Falcon as a serialized story in the crime-fiction magazine Black Mass, following it (in 1930) with a proper hardcover release. Warner Bros. snatched up the movie rights and produced a version in 1931 starring Ricardo Cortez as the hardboiled detective and Bebe Daniels as the femme fatale. (This version is notable for coming out before the Hollywood Production Code started to be enforced, which means it has more sexual innuendo than the films of the late '30s and '40s.) In 1936, the studio made the film again, this time under the title Satan Met a Lady, and with an inexplicable emphasis on the comedy aspects, starring Warren William and Bette Davis. Nobody liked it. The third time was the charm. 

2. IT WOULDN'T EXIST IF HIGH SIERRA HADN'T BEEN A HIT.

John Huston, son of popular stage and screen actor Walter Huston, was a successful scriptwriter for Warner Bros. in the late 1930s, earning Oscar nominations for Dr. Ehrlich's Magic Bullet (1940) and Sergeant York (1941). When he asked the Warners for a shot at directing, they agreed (and even let him choose the project himself), but only if his next script was a hit. That was High Sierra, starring Humphrey Bogart, directed by Raoul Walsh, and released in January 1941. Fortunately for Huston, it was a success, and the Warners kept their word. The Maltese Falcon, also starring Bogart, was shot that summer and released in the fall. It was the first of five movies Huston and Bogart would make together.

3. THE STUDIO WANTED GEORGE RAFT TO PLAY THE LEAD.

George Raft was a handsome actor and dancer who'd narrowly escaped an actual life of crime (his boyhood friends included Bugsy Siegel) to become someone who merely played a lot of gangsters. He was the Warners' first choice for The Maltese Falcon. (He'd been their first choice for High Sierra, too.) The Warners had given Huston free rein to make whatever movie he wanted, but they insisted on keeping some control over the casting. Huston was lucky, therefore, that Raft didn't want to work with a first-time director and turned the movie down, leaving Huston free to cast his pal Bogie. 

4. HUMPHREY BOGART'S ICONIC RAPID-FIRE DELIVERY WAS THE RESULT OF A STUDIO NOTE.

Detective Sam Spade had a lot of speeches, which the Warners felt tended to slow things down. They asked Huston to pick up the pace by having Bogart (and the others) talk faster. Huston, eager to please on his first film, took the note to heart and instructed everyone accordingly. When the film was a hit, the rat-a-tat pace became one of the hallmarks of film noir. 

5. IT GOT AWAY WITH USING AN OBJECTIONABLE WORD, PROBABLY BECAUSE THE CENSORS WEREN'T COOL ENOUGH TO KNOW IT.

Sam Spade uses the word “gunsel” three times in reference to Wilmer, the hitman who works for Kasper Gutman, a.k.a. the Fat Man. Hammett used the same word in his novel, but only after his editor objected to the word he used first: "catamite," which is a young man kept by an older man for sexual purposes. While Hammett's novel identified Cairo (Peter Lorre’s character) as a homosexual and hinted at it for Wilmer and Gutman, this term was considered too explicit. Hammett replaced it with "gunsel," which his editor assumed meant “gunslinger” or some such. But it didn't. Gunsel—from the Yiddish word for "little goose," and passed along in American hobo culture—was merely a synonym for "catamite," but was too new to be familiar. Hammett got away with it in the book, and it slipped past the Production Code censors when it popped up in the screenplay. Because of Hammett's usage, the word came to take on "gunman" as a secondary meaning. But make no mistake, it wasn't Wilmer's possession of a firearm that Sam Spade was referring to. 

6. IT INSPIRED THE NAMING OF ONE OF THE BOMBS THAT ENDED WORLD WAR II.

The atomic bombs that the United States dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were code-named Little Boy and Fat Man, respectively, after their shapes. "Fat Man" is what Spade and others call Kasper Gutman in The Maltese Falcon, and it's what inspired Manhattan Project physicist Robert Serber when he named it. It has been falsely reported that "Little Boy" also came from The Maltese Falcon, as the epithet Spade uses for Wilmer. The problem with that theory: Spade never calls him that. (He calls him "boy" a lot, but never "little boy.") "Little Boy" was, in fact, simply a variation of a third type of bomb code-named Thin Man, after the movie based on a different Dashiell Hammett book. 

7. SYDNEY GREENSTREET HAD NEVER BEEN IN FRONT OF A CAMERA BEFORE.

The rotund British thespian had spent almost four decades on English and American stages before he finally consented to be in movies at the age of 61. Despite his abundant acting experience, he was terrified to be in front of a camera, and asked co-star Mary Astor to hold his hand. Greenstreet was nominated for an Oscar for this performance and would go on to make 24 more movies, all in the 1940s, before retiring. 

8. THE DIRECTOR'S DAD APPEARS AS THE GUY WHO DELIVERS THE FALCON (AND IS SHOT FULL OF HOLES).

The ship's captain who finally puts the dingus in Spade's possession is Walter Huston, father of the first-time director. John would direct his father in two more movies, including 1948’s The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, for which the elder Huston won his first and only Oscar.

9. TO MAINTAIN PRIVACY ON THE SET, MARY ASTOR SWORE AT SOME PRIESTS.

Thanks to Huston's detailed planning, the shoot ran smoothly and on schedule, giving the cast plenty of time to bond in a low-stress atmosphere. They quickly became tight-knit and protective of the movie they were making, and they sought to keep outsiders away. Mary Astor wrote in her memoirs that it began when the film's publicist brought a small group of priests to visit the set. Just before the camera started rolling, Astor said, "Hold it a minute, I've got a g**damn run in my stocking!" The men of the cloth were quickly ushered out. After this, the cast (with Huston's full participation) would regularly engage in pre-planned "shock the tourists" pranks anytime there were visitors, including one where Bogart would pretend to blow up at Greenstreet for upstaging him.

10. IT SERVED AS INGRID BERGMAN'S GUIDE TO ACTING WITH BOGART.

Bergman didn't know Bogart when she was cast opposite him in Casablanca, and she found him hard to know. "He was polite naturally," she wrote in her autobiography, "but I always felt there was a distance; he was behind a wall." To get a better read on him, she watched The Maltese Falcon (then in current release) several times. 

11. THERE WAS ALMOST A SEQUEL.

Lest you think the near-automatic greenlighting of sequels to popular movies is a modern trend, Warner Bros. strongly considered a Maltese Falcon follow-up as soon as the film proved to be a hit. Jack Warner even approached Hammett to write it, but the author wanted $5000 (about $80,000 in 2016 dollars) in advance as a guarantee. Warner balked, and that was the end of it. 

12. THE CAST REUNITED FOR A REMAKE OF SORTS.

In 1943, Bogart, Astor, Greenstreet, and Lorre reprised their roles for a 30-minute radio adaptation of the film, which you can listen to here (it's episode 144). 

13. THE TITULAR STATUETTE TURNED OUT TO BE PRETTY VALUABLE IN REAL LIFE, TOO.

Several falcon props were made for the film, most of them lightweight (which you can see in the casual way Bogart carries them). But two 45-pound versions were also made, one of which has markings identifying it as one that definitely appears in the film. In 2013, that prop was sold for $4 million to an anonymous buyer, one of the highest prices ever paid for a piece of movie memorabilia. 

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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.

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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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