Tag Archives: George Burns

If At First You Don’t Succeed, Try, Try Again. Then Quit. There’s No Use Being a Damn Fool About It

W. C. Fields? Stephen Leacock? Justin J. Burns? Henry Morgan? George Burns? Anonymous?

leacockquit01Dear Quote Investigator: A well-known saying about persistence has become an energyless cliché:

If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.

The following parody version is usually attributed to the famous comedian W. C. Fields:

If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. Then quit. There’s no point in being a damn fool about it.

Did Fields create this twisted proverb?

Quote Investigator: Based on current evidence QI believes that it is unlikely W. C. Fields wrote or said the statement above. He died in 1946, and the earliest known instance of the quotation attributed to him was published in September 1949. An anonymous version of the saying was already in circulation by 1946. Details are given further below.

A very similar joke was crafted by the Canadian humorist Stephen Leacock and published in 1917. QI hypothesizes that the 1940s quip evolved from Leacock’s words. Here is an excerpt from his comical essay “Simple Stories of Success or How to Succeed in Life”: 1

According to all the legends and story books the principal factor in success is perseverance. Personally, I think there is nothing in it. If anything, the truth lies the other way.

There is an old motto that runs, “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.” This is nonsense. It ought to read—”If at first you don’t succeed, quit, quit at once.”

If you can’t do a thing, more or less, the first time you try, you will never do it. Try something else while there is yet time.

In September 1917 a Flint, Michigan newspaper printed a short filler item with a parody saying: 2

Motto of the Russian army: If at first you don’t succeed, quit, quit again.

In 1925 the Buffalo Evening News of Buffalo, New York reprinted Stephen Leacock’s essay which included the excerpt given previously. The following title was bannered across the top of the page: 3

“If at First You Don’t Succeed, Quit, Quit at Once”

In April 1946 a version of the saying under investigation was printed in a trade magazine called Commercial Car Journal. A page titled “Laugh It Off” presented a collection of jokes compiled by Skag Shannon. This instance used the word “silly” instead of “damn fool” and the words were attributed to an anonymous “Fireman”: 4

Our Fireman says, “If you don’t succeed, try, try again. Then stop. No use being silly about it.”

The day after the death of W. C. Fields in December 1946 the Associated Press news service released an obituary that included a discussion of lawsuits that were filed by Fields and his physician over compensation. Fields lost the lawsuit, and he appealed the decision. Interestingly, Fields was quoted using a simple instance of the cliché maxim. He did not employ the derisive quotation that has been attributed to him in modern times: 5

“I struck out this time,” Fields told reporters, “but next time I’ll hit a home run. Onward and upward’s my motto. Try, try again.” He appealed and the judgment was pared to $2000.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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Notes:

  1. 1917 Copyright, Frenzied Fiction by Stephen Leacock, Simple Stories of Success or How to Succeed in Life, Start Page 243, Quote Page 245, John Lane Company, New York. (Google Books full view) link
  2. 1917 September 13, Flint Journal, (Freestanding filler item), Quote Page 4, Column 2, Flint, Michigan. (GenealogyBank)
  3. 1925 December 5, Buffalo Evening News, “If at First You Don’t Succeed, Quit, Quit at Once” by Stephen Leacock, Quote Page 6, Buffalo, New York. (Old Fulton)
  4. 1946 April, Commercial Car Journal, Volume 71, “Laugh It Off” with Skag Shannon, Start Page 102, Quote Page 102, Column 2, Chilton Class Journal Co., Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Verified with scans from the University of Denver library system; great thanks to the helpful librarian)
  5. 1946 December 26, Boston Daily Globe (Boston Globe), “W. C. Fields Dies at 66; Famous for Nose, Quips”, (Associated Press), Start Page 1, Quote Page 10, Boston, Massachusetts. (ProQuest)

The Main Thing Is Honesty. If You Can Fake That, You’ve Got It Made

Groucho Marx? George Burns? Jean Giraudoux? Celeste Holm? Ed Nelson? Samuel Goldwyn? Daniel Schorr? Joe Franklin? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: The funniest advice I was ever given as a sales associate was from another seasoned employee:

The most important thing is honesty. Once you can fake that, you’ve got it made.

Later, I read or heard this type of advice several times. For example, a television actor being interviewed said something like:

The secret of success is sincerity. Fake that and you’re in.

The expression varies but the basic joke is the same. Could you explore this saying to see where it began?

Quote Investigator:  Groucho Marx, Samuel Goldwyn, and George Burns have each been credited with versions of this remark. George Burns did include a version in his third memoir in 1980, but this was a relatively late date. QI has located no substantive evidence supporting an ascription to Marx or Goldwyn.

The earliest evidence QI has found for this type of remark appeared in a syndicated newspaper column by Leonard Lyons in 1962. The popular Oscar-winning actress Celeste Holm attributed the words to an anonymous theater actor [LLCH]:

Westinghouse Broadcasting Co. invited a panel of performers – including Celeste Holm and Shelly Berman – to discuss the trends in show business. Miss Holm spoke of the vogues in acting, and said she heard one actor say: “Honesty. That’s the thing in the theater today. Honesty … and just as soon as I can learn to fake that, I’ll have it made.”

In 1969 an actor named Ed Nelson who played the character Dr. Michael Rossi on the soap opera Peyton Place stated a version of the maxim in Life magazine. QI believes that multiple later occurrences of the expression can be traced back to this instance, but usually the actor’s name was omitted [ENPP]:

… Ed Nelson (Dr. Rossi) summed up what he had learned in his five years on the show. “I’ve found that the most important thing for an actor is honesty,” he said. “And when you learn how to fake that, you’re in.”

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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“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.

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Notes:

  1. 1930 January 9, The Scranton Republican, On Broadway by Walter Winchell, Quote Page 5, Column 2, Scranton, Pennsylvania. (Newspapers_com)