A Spectacular Murder Rocks France

Le Petit Journal // Wikimedia Commons
Le Petit Journal // Wikimedia Commons

The First World War was an unprecedented catastrophe that killed millions and set the continent of Europe on the path to further calamity two decades later. But it didn’t come out of nowhere. With the centennial of the outbreak of hostilities coming up in August, Erik Sass will be looking back at the lead-up to the war, when seemingly minor moments of friction accumulated until the situation was ready to explode. He'll be covering those events 100 years after they occurred. This is the 108th installment in the series. 

March 16, 1914: A Spectacular Murder Rocks France

On March 13, 1914, the conservative French newspaper Le Figaro published a private letter written by Joseph Caillaux, a former prime minister now serving as finance minister, to his first wife when she was still his mistress. Among other things, the letter revealed that Caillaux had secretly worked against a tax law he claimed to support, casting him in a bad light politically; this was conservative revenge for his alleged German sympathies and continuing opposition to the controversial Three-Year Service Law. Worse yet, Le Figaro’s editor, Gaston Calmette, threatened to publish more letters showing that Caillaux later cheated on his first wife with his then-mistress (now second wife) Henriette Caillaux.

Three days later, in the early evening of March 16, 1914, Henriette Caillaux visited the offices of Le Figaro and waited an hour to meet Calmette, who was out. When he returned, Caillaux followed him into his office, where she asked him, “Do you know why I have come?” Calmette replied, “Not at all, madame,” at which point Caillaux drew a revolver hidden in her fur hand muff and fired six shots, hitting Calmette four times. He died of his wounds six hours later.

Madame Caillaux later explained that she felt compelled to kill Calmette because the alternative—a duel between the muckraking journalist and her husband—would destroy her husband’s political career, even if he survived (remarkably, her crime didn’t seem to have the same effect, as Caillaux served in the government for most of the First World War).

Unsurprisingly, this sensational crime riveted France and the world, and the ensuing court case had all the makings of a legal circus. Fernand Labori, who previously represented the Jewish army officer Alfred Dreyfus and the writer Émile Zola during the Dreyfus Affair, would defend Caillaux; the roster of witnesses called to testify featured some of the most powerful people in France, including the sitting president, Raymond Poincaré (an unprecedented occurrence); and foreign newspapers dispatched world-famous journalists like Walter Duranty and Wythe Williams to France to cover the trial.

Fascinating as it was at the time, the Caillaux scandal would still probably have been forgotten if not for the coincidental timing of the trial. As it happened, Madame Caillaux’s trial began July 20, just three days before Austria-Hungary’s ultimatum to Serbia, and the legal drama engrossed the French public during the critical final days of July, just as their British counterparts were distracted by the prospect of mutiny and civil war in Ireland. Thanks to these diversions, in August 1914 for millions of ordinary French and British citizens the Great War would seem to come “like a bolt from the clear blue sky.”

See the previous installment or all entries.

Image courtesy of Le Petit Journal, used under Creative Commons license.

The Reason Why the Genie From Aladdin Is Blue

Disney Enterprises Inc.
Disney Enterprises Inc.

Ever since Disney’s original Aladdin movie debuted in 1992, the Genie has always been blue. The Genie in the Broadway musical wears a royal blue costume, and a trailer for the 2019 live-action remake shows a blue, shirtless Will Smith playing the part of the Genie. While Disney has been known to change things up when it remakes classic movies like Beauty and the Beast or The Jungle Book, the Genie’s hue is one area where they're apparently sticking with what worked the last time around.

As Smithsonian explains, the reason for that is both symbolic and stylistic. Eric Goldberg, who oversaw the Genie’s animation for the original Aladdin, said the movie’s color palette was intentional. Specific colors were used to convey subtle messages about what the characters were like, before viewers had the chance to get to know them.

“The reds and the darks are the bad peoples’ colors,” Goldberg told Smithsonian. “The blues and the turquoises and the aquas are the good peoples’ colors.” If you go back and rewatch the movie, you’ll see that Jafar wears black and red, while Aladdin and Jasmine are dressed in cooler shades of blue, purple, and white.

Production designer Richard Vander Wende, who developed the movie’s color script, said the blue hue has even deeper symbolism attached to it. “Certain blues in Persian miniatures and tiled mosques stand out brilliantly in the context of the sun-bleached desert, their suggestion of water and sky connoting life, freedom, and hope in such a harsh environment," he said.

Disney animators and designers often use color to highlight the traits and attributes of different characters. A color wheel created by Venngage shows the colors various Disney characters are associated with, as well as the traits those colors supposedly stand for. For better or worse, crimson-clad characters like Jafar, Mr. Incredible, and the Queen of Hearts remind us of strength, energy, determination, and passion, according to Venngage’s analysis. Blue, on the other hand, stands for trust, loyalty, and confidence.

So even if people aren’t thrilled with Will Smith’s off-putting hue, it would seem the symbolism runs too deep to do away with it now.

[h/t Smithsonian]

Why Are the Academy Awards Statuettes Called Oscars?

Getty Images
Getty Images

In 2013, the Academy Awards were officially rebranded as simply The Oscars, after the famed statuette that winners receive. "We're rebranding it," Oscar show co-producer Neil Meron told The Wrap at the time. "We're not calling it 'the 85th annual Academy Awards,' which keeps it mired somewhat in a musty way. It's called 'The Oscars.'" But how did the statuette get that nickname in the first place?

The popular theory is that the nickname for the Academy Award of Merit (as the statuette is officially known) was coined by Academy Award librarian and future Director of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Margaret Herrick. The story goes that when Herrick first saw the statue in 1931, she said that it looked like her Uncle Oscar. According to Emanuel Levy, author of All About Oscar: The History and Politics of the Academy Awards, columnist Sidney Skolsky was there when Herrick said this and would later write that, “Employees have affectionately dubbed their famous statuette ‘Oscar.’”

While the first documented use of “Oscar” as the nickname for the statuette was made by Skolsky—in a 1934 New York Daily News article—there doesn’t seem to be any evidence that Skolsky was actually responsible for the above quote. Skolsky, in his 1975 memoir Don’t Get Me Wrong, I Love Hollywood, claimed he first used the nickname referencing a classic vaudeville joke line, “Will you have a cigar, Oscar?” in an attempt to mock the Academy Awards:

"It was my first Academy Awards night when I gave the gold statuette a name. I wasn’t trying to make it legitimate. The snobbery of that particular Academy Award annoyed me. I wanted to make the gold statuette human. ... It was twelve thirty when I finally arrived at the Western Union office on Wilcox to write and file my story. I had listened to Academy, industry, and acceptance talk since seven thirty ... There I was with my notes, a typewriter, blank paper, and that Chandler feeling.

You know how people can rub you the wrong way. The word was a crowd of people. I’d show them, acting so high and mighty about their prize. I’d give it a name. A name that would erase their phony dignity. I needed the magic name fast. But fast! I remembered the vaudeville shows I’d seen. The comedians having fun with the orchestra leader in the pit would say, “Will you have a cigar, Oscar?” The orchestra leader reached for it; the comedians backed away, making a comical remark. The audience laughed at Oscar. I started hitting the keys ...

“THE ACADEMY awards met with the approval of Hollywood, there being practically no dissension … The Academy went out of its way to make the results honest and announced that balloting would continue until 8:00 o’clock of the banquet evening … Then many players arrive late and demanded the right to vote … So voting continued until 10 o’clock or for two hours after the ballot boxes were supposed to be closed … It was King Vidor who said: “This year the election is on the level” … Which caused every one to comment about the other years … Although Katharine Hepburn wasn’t present to receive her Oscar, her constant companion and the gal she resides with in Hollywood, Laura Harding, was there to hear Hepburn get a round of applause for a change…”

During the next year of columns, whenever referring to the Academy Award, I used the word 'Oscar.' In a few years, Oscar was the accepted name. It proved to be the magic name."

"Mouse's Return," a September 11, 1939 article in TIME magazine, seems to back up Skolsky’s above claim, stating:

"This week Sidney Skolsky joined the growing stable of writers that Publisher George Backer is assembling for his New York Post. Hollywood thought Publisher Backer had picked the right horse, for Skolsky is one of the ablest columnists in the business (he originated the term “Oscar” for Academy Awards) and by far the most popular …"

Though Skolsky has actual evidence to back his claim, his assertion that he coined the nickname is still slightly in doubt. Many claim that during Walt Disney’s Academy Award acceptance speech for Three Little Pigs in 1934—the same year Skolsky first covered the Awards—Disney referred to the statuette his little "Oscar," which was supposedly an already well-established nickname for it within the industry. The term Oscar was commonly used as a mocking nickname for the Academy Award (as Skolsky claims he used it), but in this theory, Walt Disney was supposedly the first in the industry to publicly use the name in a positive light.

Perhaps Herrick really did think the statuette resembled her uncle. Or maybe Skolsky really did come up with the moniker (whether he did or not, he certainly helped popularize it). In the end, nobody really knows why the Academy Award statuette is called an Oscar.

The idea for the design of the Academy Award statuette was thought up by MGM director Cedric Gibbons. His idea was to have a knight gripping a sword while standing on a film reel. Sculptor George Stanley was then hired to create the actual statuette based on this design idea. The first Academy Awards ceremony was held on May 16, 1929 in the Blossom Room of Hollywood's Roosevelt Hotel. The nickname Oscar wasn’t officially adopted for the statuette by the Academy until 1939.

Incidentally, the Academy states that the five spokes on the film reel the knight is standing on signify the original five branches of the Academy: writers, directors, actors, producers, and technicians.

Daven Hiskey runs the wildly popular interesting fact website Today I Found Out. To subscribe to his “Daily Knowledge” newsletter, click here.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

This article originally appeared in 2013.

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