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Oh no! I just noticed that I published an incomplete version of the special Halloween post about “Spoon River” I mow cannot find the full post so, I guess, don’t read that post until I go back and rewrite it (at some time in the future! Right now I am too weak to wrestle any more with the larger themes of that dark cross sectional diagram of American society). Speaking of dark views of society, our Halloween-theme weeks invariably feature a post about Gothic aesthetics. It would be unconscionable not to have a post about Gothic tombs–but there are so many contenders! Where do I even start?

The answer is…Portugal? Above is the exquisite sarcophagus of Pedro I of Portugal who ruled the Iberian nation from 1357 until his death in 1367. The magnificent royal coffin is located in the Royal Monastery of Alcobaça right next to the equally splendid matching sarcophagus of Inês de Castro, a Gallician noblewoman whose life and death was the central story of Pedro’s life and career. The full horrible story of their cursed love has been told in numerous operas and was universally known in Portugal in the 14th century, however since there are few 14th century Portuguese gossip mongers still around, we will have to outline the story here. This is bad news since not only is the story a full-on “Game of Thrones style” disaster, but many of the parties involved shared similar names (which I guess were common to all Iberian princes and princesses).

Pedro I was the son of Afonso IV of Portugal (1291 –1357) an important king who kicked off the age of exploration (and made Portugal a world power), but Afonso IV struggled mightily against his powerful neighbors, the Kings of Castile. In 1325 Alfonso XI of Castile entered a child-marriage with Constanza Manuel of Castile, the daughter of Juan Manuel, Prince of Villena (and great granddaughter of Ferdinand I of Castile) . Two years later, Alfonzo XI of Castile annulled this marriage to Constanza Manuel in order to marry Afonso IV of Portugal’s daughter Maria of Portugal (Pedro’s sister). Unfortunately (but perhaps unsurprisingly) Alfonzo XI of Castile mistreated Maria of Portugal (who would have expected such behavior from a man who threw his child bride to the curb to grasp for more power?)

Anyway, Afonso IV of Portugal reached out to the equally aggrieved Juan Manuel (the powerful father of Constanza Manuel) and Constanza Manuel was married to Prince Pedro (later to become King Pedro I, whose sarcophagus we are writing about). Alas, Constanza Manuel brought the noblewoman Inês de Castro with her to Portugal as a lady-in-waiting. Pedro married Constanza Manuel, but he began a love affair with Inês de Castro which scandalized the nation. In 1345, Constanza Manuel bore Peter a son, Ferdinand, and then died. Afonso IV banished Inês de Castro to a convent, but Pedro kept seeing her (and she kept bearing him children). Fearing Castilian influence (and worried that Pedro’s sickly legitimate son would fall prey to the multitudinous illegitimate ones), Afonso IV sent three courtly assassins to deal with Inês de Castro. In 1355, the king’s goons beheaded her in the convent in front of her children. Afonso IV believed this would solve the problem, but, for some reason, it instead sent Pedro into a towering rage. Prince Pedro rebelled against his father and begin to ravage the heartlands of Portugal. Afonso IV martialed his army and defeated Pedro in battle, but as soon as he was victorious, he died and Prince Pedro became Pedro I, King of Portugal.

“The Death of Inês de Castro”, Karl Pavlovic Brjullov

Two of the assassins who had executed Inês de Castro fled to Castile, but King Pedro I offered Alfonzo XI various hostages in exchange for the fugitives. Once he had the killers back in Portugal he tried them for murder and when they were convicted, he personally, physically, literally ripped their hearts out (although the third killer, Diogo Lopes Pacheco, got away and after many adventures returned to die as an elderly prosperous Portuguese nobleman with his heart in its proper place).

A historical re-enactment

According to legend, Pedro I had a magnificent throne made for the mummified body of Inês de Castro and would force courtiers to kiss her leathery hand. Actual primary sources from 14th century Portugal do not corroborate this detail (although they also don’t explicitly say that Pedro I didn’t build a throne for his mummified posthumous wife). However what is certain is that he arranged for exquisite matching coffins so that she would be the first person he saw after resurrecting (excepting Jesus or super angels or whatever).

The Coffin of Inês de Castro, Portugal’s posthumous queen

It is a terrible story…but they really are beautiful fancy coffins. I don’t know, though, something about this story makes me wonder if it is actually worth it to be King of Portugal. Maybe supremely high social status is not the panacea we imagine it to be. I guess we can ask King Pedro I.

Sometimes you have to rip out a few hearts

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The Kingdom of Bavaria existed from 1806 to 1918.  Although the region had longstanding cultural, religious, and political differences from the rest of Germany, its existence as an independent kingdom was a direct result of Napoleon’s great wars of conquest.  The French emperor redesignated the former duchy as a sovereign nation (under the Emperor’s control of course) and suddenly Duke Maximilian Joseph (a Francophile who had even served in the French army) became King Maximilian I.  Maximilian had a majestic royal regalia created to go with his new throne, but he never wore his crown in public or even arranged a coronation series (he was known as a somewhat avuncular monarch with some of the eccentricities which marked his descendants).  Maximilan’s first wife died before Napolen made him a king, however his second (Protestant!) wife Caroline of Baden became Queen Consort.  This crown was made for Caroline (Karoline?) in 1806.  It is one of my favorite of the Napoleonic era crowns both for its classical 8 arched shape (which always reminds me of a regal octopus sitting on someone’s head) and for its huge magnificent natural pearls.  The crown of the Queen of Bavaria survived the dissolution of Bavaria as a kingdo (at the end of World War I) and today it is kept in the Bavarian treasury in Munich.   For a landlocked nation, it is one of the most ocean-themed crowns out there, and if it just had some shells and flounders and maybe some corals and aquamarines it would be perfect for Amphitrite.

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The other day I rashly promised a post about Juno—or I will call her “Hera” since the Greeks invented her (?) and their name is more euphonic. Immediately though it became obvious that writing about the queen of the gods is not as simple as it seems.  Hera plays the villain in many myths—particularly those of Heracles (indeed, her name is his name: Heracles means “Hera’s man”).  She is a great and terrible antagonist–even more so than giant sentient animals, or super dragons, or the dark monstrous deities of the underworld.  But why is that? How can a regal woman be so much worse than the gods of charnel darkness and stygian torture?

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The Goddess Juno in the House of Dreams (Luis Lopez Piquer ca. early nineteenth century, oil on canvas)

Hera is the eldest daughter of Rhea and Cronus. She was devoured by her father at infancy, but escaped (via mustard emetic) and joined her brothers and sisters fighting against the titans for world domination.  Once the battle was won, she initially rebuffed the romantic overtures of her youngest and strongest brother, Zeus.  The king of the gods then took the form of a bedraggled cuckoo and cunningly played upon her sympathy for small injured creatures in order to win her heart and her hand.  After their marriage, however, Hera played the cuckoo in their relationship as Zeus dallied with goddesses, nymphs, and comely mortals of all sorts.  Classical mythology is pervaded by a sense that Zeus, king of the gods and lord of creation who fears nothing (except for being replaced by a strong son) is extremely afraid of Hera.  She is often portrayed as jealously lashing out at Zeus’ paramours and their offspring…or otherwise punishing those who act against her will or fail to pay her sufficient respect.

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Juno Discovering Jupiter with Io (Pieter Lastman, 1618, oil on canvas)

Hera’s animals are the lion, the cow, and the peacock (she put the hundred eyes of her dead servant Argus on the bird’s tail to give it even greater beauty).  Her emblems are the throne, the chariot, the scepter, and the crown.  She is sometimes portrayed wearing a strange cylindrical crown of archaic pre-Greek shape (which may indicate that she was a goddess of power borrowed from a pre-Greek society).

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Hera tends to be portrayed as a rich powerful woman of a higher class who barely deigns to notice her inferiors.  She is the goddess of women, marriage, wealth, success, and (above all) power.  Her children are Ares, Hephaestus, Eileithyia (the goddess of childbirth), cruel Eris, and beautiful Hebe, the goddess of youth who married Hercules after his apotheosis.

Have you read “The Three Musketeers”? After spending the entire book struggling against the machinations of Cardinal Richelieu, the hero prevails and join forces with…Cardinal Richelieu. Power is like that, and so is Hera. She can’t effectively be fought against.  The world is hers.  She can only be appeased or beguiled… or served outright.

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The way upwards is not through deeds of merit, or valorous acts, or fighting monsters—it is through political wiles, networking, and figuring out how to please extremely rich powerful people who are impossible to please and implacably oppose regarding you as any sort of equal.

 

 

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Ok, a while back Ferrebeekeeper poked some fun at the royal crown of Holland.  Thriftiness is a famous national characteristic of the Dutch and the coronation crown, made of fish paste and thinly gilded metal certainly encapsulates that dubious virtue. However, the Dutch had a globe spanning empire for a long time and do they have some exceedingly nice things.  Here is the Dutch Sapphire tiara, an 1881 love gift from King Willem III of the Netherlands to his wife, Queen Emma.  The magnificent tiara features 33 blue sapphires and 655 diamonds set in platinum.  The shape is meant to evoke the great Gothic cathedrals of the Middle Ages, but the workmanship is the finest the 19th century had to offer. A number of the stones are mounted “en tremblant”, which means they are attached to subtle springs which vibrate slightly with movement causing them to scintillate and glisten even more dazzlingly!

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Here it is being worn by Queen Maxima of Holland.  Maxima is a great name for a queen!

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Here is a mid 14th century crown which was “found in Hungary” (if there are exquisite gold and ruby medieval crowns just lying around there, perhaps I am in the wrong place).   The crown was probably made by French jewelers who, then as now, were among the best in the world. The crown consists of eight ornamental lily segments held together by hinges (pinned with twining vine-leaf ornaments).

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The internet feels that this is the crown of Elizabeth Kotromanic of Bosnia.  Elizabeth was a classic “Game of Thrones” style noblewoman who wedded King Louis I of Hungary and then also became Queen of Poland when Louis’ uncle died. Initially a powerless consort, she surrounded herself with ambitious nobles and worked her way into such a position that, upon her husband’s death, she became the queen regent of Poland, Hungary, and Croatia (and de-facto ruler of southern Italy, Bosnia, Serbia, Wallachia, and Moldavia!). Alas, Elizabeth was good at pitting nobles against each other, but she failed to rule well or carefully and she was captured and strangled by her many enemies.

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This crown was seemingly donated in her name to the shrine of St. Simeon shrine in Zadar (so it wasn’t exactly lying in a truck stop bathroom or a forest glade, like I made it sound in the first sentence). Whether this crown was hers or not, it is certainly a winsome and beautiful piece, but, like all crowns, it looks a little cursed to me. Maybe it is better if Saint Simeon hangs on to it.

Celeste Green 1981 Bianchi Super Pista

Celeste Green 1981 Bianchi Super Pista

I love to bicycle! It is the perfect way to get around. Bicycling is fast, environmentally friendly, cheap, and good for you. From the saddle you can see nature and society up close with an intensity which hermetically sealed up car drivers will never know as they vroom past. And this brings us to the one problem with bicycling. I live in America, where laws, culture, and geography conspire to put everyone behind the wheel of a car. Traveling around by means of a giant steel death chariot driven by explosions is a crazy basis for society (the toxic explosive benzene is refined from the fossil leftovers of long-dead ecosystems!). Unless one is a tradesman or lives deep in the country, a car is just a giant lethal status symbol useful only for impressing shallow people and crushing good-hearted bicyclists and pedestrians. It makes one yearn for Europe, where drivers actually get in trouble for hitting bicyclists with their automobiles (in America, whenever you kill someone with your car the authorities give you a high-five and a sparkly sticker—if you collect five you get a free cheeseburger).

Or can we all hybridize and live together safely?

Or can we all hybridize and live together safely?

But today’s post is not really about bicycles or national transportation policy. I have no strong opinions about the abject idiocy of our slavish reliance on evil automobiles. Today’s post is instead about bicycle color! This is “celeste” a pale greenish turquoise color which is instantly identifiable with Bianchi bicycles. Pale greens are among my favorite colors, and celeste is particularly pretty (although, over time, the exact shade has varied according to taste and manufacturing circumstance).

I hope your legs are as good as your taste!

I hope your legs are as good as your taste!

Most trade colors have a story or myth associated with them and celeste is no exception. In fact there are three stories of how it came into being. The name itself (Italian for “celestial”) evokes crystal clear Mediterranean skies. The first story of “celeste” is that it is the color of the skies above Milan. I have never been to Milan, but I find it hard to believe the sky there is quite so green! The second (and best) story is that Edoardo Bianchi built a bicycle for a queen with pale green eyes and he became so enthralled with the color that he subsequently painted all of his bicycles that color. As with the sky story this tale requires a certain suspension of disbelief. I have never met a queen (or any other human being) with mint color eyes! But Eduardo lived in a different time and clearly had a closer relationship with royalty than I do.

"Thank you EDUARDO, but our princess is in another castle..."

“Thank you EDUARDO, but our princess is in another castle…”

The final story is the most believable but least poetic. Early on in the history of Bianchi bikes, they had some green paint and lots of white paint and they mixed them together to paint all of their bicycles the same color. That is certainly a story that anyone who has ever painted something can easily believe!

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Personally I think celeste green was an aesthetic choice from the start. It is an extremely attractive and distinctive color. My only complaint with it is that I have never been able to afford a vintage Bianchi bike!

What? This is a car...were you listening to anything I said?

Hey! This is a car! Were you listening to anything I said? But it really is pretty seductive… Maybe I’ll just take it for a quick spin, you know, for research.

The Life Cycle of Phengaris rebeli (image via http://sciencythoughts.blogspot.com)

The Life Cycle of Phengaris rebeli (image via http://sciencythoughts.blogspot.com)

It’s October—the month of costumes, masks…and monsters.  To start out this year’s Halloween season on an appropriately ghastly note, today’s post deals with a horrifying creature which relies upon disguise to feed itself: namely, the Mountain Alcon Blue butterfly (Phengaris rebeli).

Native to temperate grasslands of Central Europe, the Mountain Alcon Blue has silvery blue which are stippled in little black spots with delicate white edges. The butterfly flits harmlessly about in gentle meadows, finds a mate, and then the female lays her eggs on a pretty gentian flower.

Aww, it's on a pretty flower (Photo by Tristan Lafranchis)

Aww, it’s on a pretty flower (Photo by Tristan Lafranchis)

So why is this delicate alpine beauty a creature of nightmares? When the Mountain Alcon blue larva hatches, it eats the gentian until it reaches a certain size whereupon it falls to the ground and releases an allomone—a deceptive chemical which makes it seem identical to an ant larva. Foraging ants discover the caterpillar and tenderly carry it deep within the protection of the ant hive to the nursery room where the ant larvae are fed and cared for.  Then the caterpillar reveals another dark talent: it produces a sound which perfectly mimics the ant queen.  Subject to this all-powerful voice of authority, the ants care for the caterpillar as though it were the queen–even going so far as to attack the actual queen.  Obeying the dictates of the awful song, the ants feed the still living ant larvae to the caterpillar which devours the helpless young ants like so many little wiggling burritos (well, if juvenile butterflies ate burritos).

Caterpillar with slave ant (photo by Darlyne A. Murawski)

Caterpillar with slave ant (photo by Darlyne A. Murawski)

When the butterfly pupates into an adult, it loses its ability to mimic ant chemicals or produce the queen’s voice.  The ants recognize it as an invader and attack, but the butterfly’s scales are designed to resist their mandibles.  It flees the crippled and abused ant colony and begins the cycle over again.

Isn't nature beautiful? (photo by Guy Padfield)

Isn’t nature beautiful? (photo by Guy Padfield)

Yet monsters still must fear other monsters and there is an even more invidious predator which seeks out the Alcon larvae deep within ant hives. This is the parasitic wasp, Ichneumon eumerus, which infiltrates ant colonies which are being preyed on by Phengaris rebeli larvae.  The wasp locates the caterpillar and then releases an allomone which causes the ants to go insane and attack one another.  Then in the chaos that follows, the wasp injects its eggs into the living caterpillar.  When the eggs hatch they eat the interloper from inside and then burst out of its carcass.

The parasitic wasp Ichneumon eumerus preying on Phengaris caterpillar while an ant stands by waiting for doom. (Image: J.Thomas/Natural Visions)

The parasitic wasp Ichneumon eumerus preying on Phengaris caterpillar while an ant stands by waiting for doom. (Image: J.Thomas/Natural Visions)

Naked Mole Rat Queen with Offspring

Naked Mole Rat Queen with Offspring

Naked Mole Rats (Heterocephalus glaber) are unique among mammals in that they are eusocial (well actually Damaraland mole rats might be eusocial too, but they are in the same family, the Bathyergidae).  Like bees or ants, mole rats live in a hive society: only one naked mole rat female is fertile and she gives birth to sterile workers who maintain and protect the underground burrows where the colony lives.  A queen breeds with 3 or 4 male naked mole rats and she jealously guards her reproductive monopoly.  If other female naked mole rats begin to produce sexual hormones or behave in a queenlike manner, the queen will viciously attack them.  When the old queen dies, violent battles can break out to become the new queen.  Once a victor emerges, the spaces between her vertebrae expand and she becomes longer and larger. Mole rats breed all year and they can produce a litter of three to twelve pups every 80 days.

Naked Mole Rat (Heterocephalus glaber)

Naked Mole Rat (Heterocephalus glaber)

Naked mole rats live in the arid parts of Kenya, Somalia, and Ethiopia.  They feed on huge tubers which weigh as much as all the mole rats in a colony.  The mole rats eat the tubers slowly from the inside, which give the roots time to regrow.  Additionally mole rats can efficiently recycle food, so newly weaned mole rats are fed feces (which can also provide sustenance for adults).    Naked mole rats have huge sharp incisors for tunneling.   Their lips close in such a way that the incisors always remain outside their mouth–so the mole rats can tunnel indefinitely without getting dirt in their mouths.   Worker mole rats are 8 to 10 cm (3 to 4 in) long and weigh 30 to 35 grams (1.1 to 1.2 oz), although the queen grows much larger.  Naked mole rats have weak eyes and tiny skinny legs.  In effect they are pale pink wrinkled tubes with a few long sensitive whisker-like hairs sprouting from their bodies.  They move equally quickly forwards and backwards through their elaborate tunnels (which can measure up to 5 kilometers (3 miles) in total length).

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Mole rats are unusual among mammals in other significant ways as well.  Naked mole rats do not maintain same thermal homeostasis as other mammals.  Their body temperatures are much closer to the ambient temperature in their burrows.  If they become unduly cold, they move to the top tunnels of their burrows and huddle together.  If they become hot, the naked mole rats retreat into the bottom levels where the temperatures are cooler.

Oxygen is a precious commodity in the underground tunnels of mole rats, so the fossorial roents have evolved extremely efficient blood and lungs in order to maximize oxygen uptake.   Additionally mole rats have very low metabolic rates compared to other (non-hibernating) mammals.  Their hearts beat slowly:  they breathe shallowly and eat little. In times of drought or famine, they are capable of going into a survival mode where their already slow metabolisms drop another 25 percent.  Naked Mole rats lack a critical neural transmitter which would allow them to feel certain sorts of pain sensations (such as pain caused by acid or hot pepper).  It is believed that the mole rats lost the ability to feel such sensations because the high carbon dioxide levels in their tunnels lead to extremely acidic conditions (mole rats are also surprisingly acid resistant, although I shudder to think of how we know this).

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Mole rats live a long time—some captive mole rats are in their early thirties—and they do not age like other mammals but remain young and fit throughout their lives.  Additionally mole rats are untroubled by cancers.  It seems the underlying cause of this remarkable cancer-free long life is a certain hyaluronan (HMW-HA), a gooey peptide which fills up gaps between cells.  The fact that cells do not grow closely together prevents tumors from ever forming.  Hyaluronans exist in all other mammals (and in other animals).  The complex sugars are part of our joints and cartilage.  However the hyaluronan found in naked mole rats is much larger and more complicated.

Thanks to their ant-like colonial life and bizarre appearances, naked mole rats might seem quite alien, but they are near cousins to humans (primates and rodents are close relatives—which will surprise nobody who has ever known a businessperson).  They even come from the same part of Africa as us. The naked mole rats are social animals and they care deeply for one another over their decades of life.  Additionally our kinship with the wrinkly pink rats could provide other benefits.  Humans suffer greatly from aging and cancers.  Mole rats–with their remarkable hyaluronans–could provide workable insights into how to alleviate cancer and aging.

Family Portrait?

Family Portrait?

Dr. Brian May, astrophysicist, CBE

Dr. Brian May, astrophysicist, CBE

Brian May is an astrophysicist who pursued a career in music. He is the guitarist for the rock band Queen and he is more famous for writing “Fat Bottomed Girls”, “We Will Rock You”, & “Who Wants to Live Forever” than for anything he wrote while obtaining his Astrophysics degrees.  Brian was popularizing Galaxy Zoo on his blog (Galaxy Zoo is an online project which seeks public help in classifying vast numbers of galaxies.  A Dutch fan, Hanny van Arkel (a schoolteacher by trade), became interested in the project and started working on the site when she spotted a huge weird glowing green thing below spiral galaxy IC 2497.  She presented her findings to professional astronomers, who were also perplexed by the ghostly shape.  They duly named the object in her honor “Hanny’s Voorwerp” (which is Dutch for “Hanny’s thing”).

Hanny's Voorwerp and Galaxy IC2497 (Hubble Space Telescope)

Hanny’s Voorwerp and Galaxy IC2497 (Hubble Space Telescope)

So what is Hanny’s Voorwerp? The leading theory is that the supermassive black hole in the center of IC 2497 created huge jets of energy and gas as it (messily) devoured great masses of matter at the center of that galaxy.  These esoteric plumes interacted with an unrelated stream of gaseous matter hundreds of thousands of light years long (which is longer than our galaxy).  The thin clouds of glass then fluoresced like a krypton sign or a Scooby-Doo ghost.

Hanny Van Arkel

Hanny Van Arkel

Thanks Brian May and Hanny! This is one fancy voorwerp.

Viggo Mortensen in "Return of the King" 2003

Viggo Mortensen in “Return of the King” 2003

The 85th Annual Academy Award Show just happened this past Sunday.  While memories of Hollywood magic are fresh in everyone’s mind, this is an ideal time to present a list of fantasy crowns from various movies and TV shows.  I borrowed the concept (and a couple of crowns) from this online gallery, however I certainly found crowns everywhere on the silver screen & the small screen.  Something about the theatric pomp of royalty makes royal headdresses a favorite part of costume & fantasy dramas.

Rachel Weisz in "The Fountain" 2006

Rachel Weisz in “The Fountain” 2006

As is often the case with movies, some of these crowns look far better than actual crowns (which tend to be bizarre medieval or colonial relics).  It is funny to think that rhinestones, paste, foil, and gold paint sparkle more brightly than actual gold and gems (in fact, there is probably a broad moral somewhere in that fact).   Of course that is in only relevant the cases where there is even a physical actor—there were so many cartoon princesses and kings that I only included a smattering here.

Vincent Price in "Tower of London" 1939

Vincent Price in “Tower of London” 1939

Charlize Theron in "Snow White and the Huntsman" 2012

Charlize Theron in “Snow White and the Huntsman” 2012

King Neptune from "Sponge Bob" (TV & 2004 movie)

King Neptune from “Sponge Bob” (TV & 2004 feature movie)

Kenneth Branagh as "Henry V" 1989

Kenneth Branagh as “Henry V” 1989

 

Sean Connery in "The Man Who Would Be King" 1975

Sean Connery in “The Man Who Would Be King” 1975

 

Billie Burke in "The Wizard of Oz" (1939)

Billie Burke in “The Wizard of Oz” (1939)

King Candy from "Wreck-It Ralph"

King Candy from “Wreck-It Ralph”

Arnold Schwarzenegger in "Conan the Barbarian" 1982

Arnold Schwarzenegger in “Conan the Barbarian” 1982

 

 

 

 

 

 

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