Category Archives: Jack L. Warner

Who the Hell Wants to Hear Actors Talk?

Harry Warner? Sam Warner? Jack L. Warner? D. W. Griffith? Apocryphal?

warners09Dear Quote Investigator: Four brothers: Harry, Albert, Sam, and Jack Warner founded Warner Bros. Pictures which became a powerful long-lived institution in Hollywood. Their extraordinary success did not arise from a pellucid view of the future. In fact, the development of motion pictures with sound impelled Harry Warner to make a statement that is often included in collections of bone-headed predictions:

Who the hell wants to hear actors talk?

Can you find a solid citation for this remark?

Quote Investigator: The earliest match found by QI appeared in the 1965 autobiography of Jack L. Warner who recounted a contentious episode between his two brothers Harry and Sam. In the 1920s Bell Laboratories had developed a new system that enabled the coupling of film with high-quality synchronized sound, but Harry Warner was uninterested because previous technical attempts to combine sound with movies had resulted in commercial debacles.

In 1925 Sam convinced Harry to attend an ostensible meeting with Wall Street financiers, and when he arrived he was actually shown a demonstration of the prototype Vitaphone sound film system. Harry realized he had been deceived but agreed to evaluate the system which produced music of remarkable fidelity from speakers behind the movie screen on the left and right. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

“Now, that is something,” Harry said softly, as the lights came up. “Think of the hundreds of small theater guys who can’t afford an orchestra or any kind of an act. Or even a good piano player! What a gadget!”

“But don’t forget you can have actors talk too,” Sam broke in.

“Who the hell wants to hear actors talk?” Harry asked testily. “The music—that’s the big plus about this.”

Harry was excited by the breakthrough because theater owners would be able to save money by forgoing live musical accompaniment. Yet, he did not perceive the primal importance of the expressive human voice to the future of film.

This anecdote from Jack was published decades after the event occurred. Also, Jack was not present; hence, the quotation must have been relayed to him from Sam, Harry, or another participant.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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Notes:

  1. 1965, My First Hundred Years in Hollywood by Jack L. Warner with Dean Jennings, Quote Page 167 and 168, Random House, New York. (Verified on paper)

Writers Are Just Schmucks with Underwoods

Jack L. Warner? Bill Davidson? Samuel Goldwyn? Louis B. Mayer? Harry Cohn? Apocryphal?

underwood06Insult: Schmuck? Schlep? Schnook?

Dear Quote Investigator: The attitude of Hollywood producers toward writers has been epitomized by the following callous remark:

A writer is a schmuck with an Underwood.

The Underwood Typewriter Company manufactured the best writing implements when the statement was made. Here is another version I’ve seen:

Writers are just schmucks with typewriters.

These words have been attributed to Jack Warner, Samuel Goldwyn, and Harry Cohn. Would you please examine this saying?

Quote Investigator: The earliest evidence located by QI appeared in 1961. Oddly, two different versions were given by a journalist named Bill Davidson in that year. The book “The Real and the Unreal” recounted Davidson’s extensive experiences in Hollywood and included the following passage. Boldface has been added: 1

One of the Warner brothers, for example, used to call all writers—even William Faulkner, who was once under his command—“schmucks with typewriters” (schmuck is a derisive Yiddish expression for a bumpkin, an idiot). He used to make all his writers punch a time clock as they entered and left the studio…

While Faulkner was crafting screenplays he was employed by the powerful studio chief Jack Warner. Hence, Davidson was probably attributing the comment to Jack Warner who continued as an influential figure in the film business into the 1960s. This initial instance referred to “typewriters” instead of the particular brand “Underwood”.

In October 1961 Davidson wrote an article in “Show: The Magazine of the Arts”, and the content overlapped with material in his book. In the following excerpt the quotation incorporated the Yiddish term “schlep” instead of “schmuck”: 2

There are several ways of getting hired in Hollywood. The first, and most difficult, is to have talent. The talented are considered untrustworthy interlopers. One of the Warner brothers, for example, used to call all writers—even William Faulkner, who was once under his command—“schleps with typewriters” (schlep is a derisive Yiddish expression for a bumpkin, an idiot).

It is unclear why Bill Davidson presented two different quotations, and the inconsistency reduces the credibility of the ascription. Perhaps Davidson had collected conflicting reports. Etymologically “schmuck” can be traced to the Yiddish term for phallus, and it was considered vulgar by some speakers. This taboo association might have provided a motivation for replacing one term with another.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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Notes:

  1. 1961, The Real and the Unreal by Bill Davidson, Chapter 14: How to Get Fired in Hollywood, Start Page 241, Quote Page 242, Published by Harper & Brothers, New York. (Verified on paper)
  2. 1961 October, Show: The Magazine of the Arts, Volume 1, Number 1, Hollywood: A Cultural Anthropologist’s View (Place in the Sun) by Bill Davidson, Start Page 80, Quote Page 81, Column 2, Hartford Publications, New York. (Verified on paper)