“It’s too caustic.” “To hell with the cost.”

Who Said It? Samuel Goldwyn? Robert Benchley? Gracie Allen? Alva Johnston? Anonymous?

foxes07Who or What Was Caustic? The Little Foxes? Jim Tully? An Unnamed Actor? Mr. Rosenblatt? An Unnamed Script? An Unnamed Writer? Sidney Howard? Moss Hart?

Dear Quote Investigator: An entertaining legend about the powerful movie mogul Samuel Goldwyn has been amusing people for decades. “The Little Foxes” was a major Broadway hit in 1939 and Goldwyn was considering purchasing the rights to create a film based on the story. He asked his top advisor to see the play and report to him. Here is what the aide supposedly told Goldwyn together with his reply:

“Sam, it’s a great drama, but it might be a little too caustic.”
“I don’t care what it costs, I want it.”

This is my favorite anecdote about Goldwyn, and it is supported by the fact that he did buy the rights and made a classic movie starring Bette Davis. Could you research this quotation?

Quote Investigator:Thanks for sending in this fun story. Unfortunately, there is a problem with the timeline that makes this tale unlikely. In January 1930 the widely-syndicated columnist Walter Winchell reported a version of the joke based on the misconstrual of the word “caustic” that was being disseminated by the popular humorist and actor Robert Benchley. Thus, the core joke was in circulation about nine years before the premiere of “The Little Foxes”.

The tale centered on two movie magnates who began their careers in the garment business. This biographical detail matched Samuel Goldwyn who was a glove salesman before moving to Hollywood. The maladroit line was spoken by one of the magnates. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

They were in conference trying to save a new picture that lacked, what critics usually call, “a wallop.”
“If we could only get someone to fix it up,” said one.
“Why don’t you get Jim Tully?” suggested an executive.
“Jim Tully is too caustic!”
“Oh,” thundered one of the magnates, “the hell with the cost, get him!”

The writer Robert Benchley constructed many humorous stories, and it was possible that he simply invented this anecdote to entertain friends. Alternatively, he may have been present at a meeting when the line was spoken. Special thanks to ace researcher Bill Mullins who located the citation given above.

Here are some additional citations in chronological order.

In May 1930 a different scenario was presented that involved hiring a leading man instead of employing a writer. The producer was still unnamed. Several newspapers reprinted this version of the jest with an acknowledgement to a periodical called “Tit-Bits”: 2 3

The film producer was in difficulty about the leading man for his new film.
“What about So-and-so?” he asked.
“He’s too caustic,” said the studio manager.
“Hang the expense!” roared the producer. “Get him!”—Tit-Bits.

In June 1930 a variant of the joke was printed in Coshocton, Ohio newspaper. This version referred to a fictitious actor named Rosenblatt: 4

Movie Producer—What about Mr. Rosenblatt for the leading part in the next film?
Assistant—Why, he’s too caustic.
Movie Producer—Hang the expense—get him!

In April 1934 the famous comedy duo George Burns and Gracie Allen included a version of the joke in their routine. The two discussed hiring a writer to create gags for their new movie: 5

Gracie favored one writer who is noted for his cynical style, but George objected.
“He won’t do, Gracie,” Burns insisted. “He’s too caustic.”
“But George,” retorted Gracie, “we shouldn’t think of the expense in a case like this.”

The citation above and others were located by top researcher Barry Popik.

In August 1934 the tale was printed in The New Yorker magazine. In this version the caustic entity was a play instead of an actor or a writer: 6

As usual, we’ve got a couple of those Hollywood stories. One’s about a big producer who told an assistant that in his opinion Sidney Howard was the only man for a certain writing assignment they had under consideration. The aide was tactfully doubtful. “Don’t you think perhaps he’s a little too caustic?” he suggested. “Do I care how much he costs?” demanded the producer. “Get him!”

The tale above seemed to be deliberately tailored to fit Goldwyn although the generic label “big producer” was employed. Sidney Howard did work with Goldwyn before and after the date of this joke. Howard’s writing credits included the 1931 film Arrowsmith and the 1936 film Dodsworth. Samuel Goldwyn had producer credits for those two films according to the Internet Movie Database. 7

In September 1934 The Brooklyn Daily Eagle newspaper recounted an anecdote told by the well-known performer Eddie Cantor. Goldwyn was directly named; however, the caustic writer was identified as Moss Hart instead of Sidney Howard or Jim Tully: 8

According to the legend, Goldwyn was sitting in a story conference with several of his writers. He was complaining that he couldn’t quite get the story slant he wanted.

“I know the ideal man to patch this up for you,” suggested one of the writers. “Why not get Moss Hart. He’s the man who wrote ‘As Thousands Cheer’ and he might be able to supply the very things this story lacks.”

“Oh no,” protested another writer, “not Moss Hart. He’s much too caustic.”

“Too caustic!” exclaimed Sam in that inimitable dialect. “What do I care what he costs! Get him!”

In November 1934 the widely-distributed Reader’s Digest published excerpts from The New Yorker article that included the tale of the “big producer”. 9

In August 1935 the anecdote appeared in The Wall Street Journal. The producer was called a “Hollywood magnate” and the writer deemed caustic was not named. The dialog given was the same as that used in the New Yorker article. 10

The most widely propagated version of this quotation appeared in a 1937 biography titled “The Great Goldwyn” by Alva Johnston. The author presented a large collection of Goldwynisms, i.e., humorous or incongruous statements attributed to Goldwyn. In Johnston’s version the object labeled caustic was a script: 11

“It’s too caustic,” said a director, when asked his opinion of a script.
“To hell with the cost,” replied Sam. “If it’s a good picture, we’ll make it.”

In October of 1937 the joke appeared again in The Reader’s Digest in an article titled “The Goldwyn Touch” which listed numerous Goldwynisms based on the book by Alva Johnston. However, this instance applied the label “caustic” to a writer instead of a script: 12

On being told that a certain writer was “too caustic,” Sam replied, “To hell with the cost!”

In 1989 the reference “They Never Said It” suggested that the tale was apocryphal: 13

One day Goldwyn’s associates at the studio came to him to warn against a certain property because “it’s too caustic for films.” “To hell with the cost,” Goldwyn is supposed to have exclaimed. “If it’s a good story, I’ll make it.” But Arthur Marx, Goldwyn’s biographer, relegated this story to the large body of Goldwyn apocrypha and thought it was coined either by a gag man for a Goldwyn picture or by a press agent.

An important biography of Goldwyn reprinted in 1998 contained a version of the humorous narrative that suggested the anecdote was credible and identified The Little Foxes as the caustic property: 14

After Lillian Hellman’s The Little Foxes proved to be a Broadway hit in 1939, Goldwyn decided he wanted the rights. “But Mr. Goldwyn,” cautioned his story editor Edwin Knopf, “it’s a very caustic play.”

“I don’t give a damn how much it costs,” Goldwyn snapped back. “Buy it!”

In conclusion, the jocular tale based on a Hollywood producer misunderstanding the word caustic was in circulation by 1930. Multiple versions of the tale emerged, and the phrasing of the punch lines has varied. Based on current evidence the humorist Robert Benchley was the primary source. It was possible that he constructed the story for fun, and Winchell launched it into circulation.

Alternatively, it might be based on an incident that Benchley learned about or observed. Goldwyn was not named directly in the early citations although the imprecise descriptions offered usually matched Goldwyn. The timeline indicated that the anecdote preceded the creation of the play The Little Foxes by many years.

Image Notes: Publicity poster for the 1941 film The Little Foxes. Publicity photo of George Burns and wife Gracie Allen circa 1952. Images have been cropped and resized; accessed via Wikimedia Commons.

(Many thanks to Bill Mullins who found the key January 9, 1930 citation. Great thanks to Barry Popik for his valuable research on this topic locating early citations dated April 15, 1934 and September 25, 1934.)

Update History: On October 23, 2015 the following citations were added: January 9, 1930; May 20, 1930; May 21, 1930; June 22, 1930; April 15, 1934; and September 25, 1934. The article was partially rewritten, and the bibliographic note format was updated.

Notes:

  1. 1930 January 9, The Scranton Republican, On Broadway by Walter Winchell, Quote Page 5, Column 2, Scranton, Pennsylvania. (Newspapers_com)
  2. 1930 May 20, The Oneonta Daily Star, The Cost, Quote Page 9, Column 2, Oneonta, New York. (Newspapers_com)
  3. 1930 May 21, Rockford Republic, The Cast, Quote Page 19, Column 4, Rockford, Illinois. (GenealogyBank)
  4. 1930 June 22, The Coshocton Tribune, Smiles, Quote Page 4, Column 3, Coshocton, Ohio. (Newspapers_com)
  5. 1934 April 15, Amarillo Sunday News and Globe, Musical Cinemas Featured, Burns and Allen in Rialto Show, Quote Page 9, Column 2, Amarillo, Texas. (NewspaperArchive)
  6. 1934 August 11, The New Yorker, The Talk of the Town: No Objection, Page 8, Column 1, F. R. Publishing Corporation, New York. [The New Yorker website lists E. Philip, Harold Ross, Francis Steegmuller, and G. L. Brayshaw as writers for the section: The Talk of the Town] (Verified with page images; Online New Yorker archive)
  7. Internet Movie Database IMDB.com website, Sidney Howard (I), Samuel Goldwyn. (Accessed 2011 April 12) link link
  8. 1934 September 25, Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Reverting to Type by Art Arthur, Version 39658, Quote Page 21, Column 2 and 3, Brooklyn, New York. (Newspapers_com)
  9. 1934 November, Reader’s Digest, The Talk of the Town: Excerpts from The New Yorker, Mogul, Page 63-64, Volume 25, The Reader’s Digest Association. (Verified on microfilm)
  10. 1935 August 12, Wall Street Journal, Pepper and Salt, Page 4, New York. (ProQuest)
  11. 1978 [Reprint of 1937 Random House edition], The Great Goldwyn by Alva Johnston, Page 34, Arno Press Inc. (Google Books preview; Verified on paper in 1978 edition) link
  12. 1937 October, Reader’s Digest, The Goldwyn Touch, Page 36, Volume 31, The Reader’s Digest Association. (Verified on microfilm)
  13. 1989, They Never Said It by Paul F. Boller, Jr. and John George, Page 38, Oxford University Press, New York. (Verified on paper)
  14. 1998, Goldwyn: A Biography by A. Scott Berg, Page 355, Riverhead Books, New York. (Verified with Amazon Look Inside)