Tag Archives: W. C. Fields

We Are Confronted by an Insurmountable Opportunity

Walt Kelly? Don Mitchell? Fred W. Bewley? Leon Shimkin? A. C. Monteith? W. Willard Wirtz? Hubert Humphrey? Howard J. Samuels? George H. W. Bush? W. C. Fields? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: Walt Kelly authored the magnificent comic strip “Pogo” featuring hilarious wordplay. He has been credited with the following oxymoronic phrase:

Our problem is an insurmountable opportunity.

I have been unable to find a solid citation, and now I am unsure about this ascription. Would you please help?

Quote Investigator: QI has not found this saying in Walt Kelly’s oeuvre, and based on current evidence QI would not credit Kelly. However, the comic strip text has not been fully digitized, and this judgment is not definitive.

The earliest match for this joke located by QI appeared in the proceedings of a conference on advertising in 1956. Don Mitchell of the Creative Education Foundation in Buffalo, New York delivered the line while conversing with a staff member of the General Electric Company. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

Mr. Mitchell: Thank you, Ed, very much. You talked about GE having opportunities. I think we ought to tell the folks that GE call their problems opportunities, but there are quite a few people who feel there are some insurmountable opportunities around.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order. Continue reading

Notes:

  1. 1956, Proceedings of the Thirteenth Annual Advertising and Sales Promotion Executive Conference, Held at The Ohio Union, The Ohio State University Campus on October 26, 1956, Brainstorming–It’s Application to Creative Advertising by Don Mitchell (Associate Director, Creative Education Foundation, Buffalo, New York), Start Page 4, Quote Page 19, Ohio State University, College of Commerce and Administration, Columbus, Ohio. (Verified with scans; thanks to the library system of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill)

I’m Looking for Loopholes

W. C. Fields? Ben Hecht? Gene Fowler? Thomas Mitchell? Apocryphal?

fields08Dear Quote Investigator: The brilliant comedian and movie actor W. C. Fields led an unrestrained showbiz life displaying a fondness for alcohol and mistresses. He was not known as a religious man, but as his death approached he began to peruse the Bible. When a friend asked him about this behavior he humorously explained that he was:

Looking for loopholes.

Would you please explore this anecdote and quotation?

Quote Investigator: W. C. Fields died in 1946, and the earliest evidence located by QI appeared many years later in November 1960 in “Playboy” magazine. The prominent screenwriter and director Ben Hecht wrote a nostalgic piece reflecting on his experiences in Hollywood. Hecht recounted a story about the journalist Gene Fowler and his friend Fields that included an instance of the quotation. The nickname “Bill” was used for W. C. Fields. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

Fields was Fowler’s favorite self-destroyer. No man ever worked so patiently at wrecking his soul and body as did this prince of comedians. A Mississippi of gin sluiced through him in his declining years.

Fowler visited his ailing crony shortly before his death. He found Fields sitting in the garden reading the Holy Bible. “I’m looking for loopholes,” Bill explained, shyly.

Another version of the tale was published in 1966; the person visiting Fields was identified as the actor Thomas Mitchell instead of Fowler. Of course, it was possible that Fields used the quip more than once, and therefore both versions might be accurate. The 1966 citation is given further below.

Here are additional selected citations in a primarily chronological order.

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Notes:

  1. 1960 November, Playboy, Volume 7, Number 11, “If Hollywood is Dead or Dying as a Moviemaker, Perhaps the Following Are Some of the Reasons” by Ben Hecht, Start Page 56, Quote Page 134, Column 2, HMH Publishing Company, Chicago, Illinois. (Verified with scans)

Insanity Is Hereditary. You Can Get It from Your Children

Sam Levenson? Oscar Levant? W. C. Fields? Helen Gorn Sutin? Dave Berg? Ann Landers? Erma Bombeck? Grace Kelly?

heredity08Dear Quote Investigator: Many parents concur with a very funny quip that reverses the traditional notion of inheritance:

Insanity is hereditary. You get it from your kids.

This joke has been attributed to the newspaper columnist Erma Bombeck, the television host Sam Levenson, and the comedian W. C. Fields. Would you please resolve this ambiguity?

Quote Investigator: The earliest evidence located by QI was published on April 6, 1961 in an Oklahoma newspaper within a column containing a miscellaneous set of short comical items. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

Insanity is hereditary. You can get it from your children.
—Sam Levenson

During the same time period, the syndicated columnist Walter Winchell printed the jest with an identical attribution: 2

Sam Levenson’s merciless truth: “Insanity is hereditary. You can get it from your children!”

During the following years: Oscar Levant employed the joke; Ann Landers and Erma Bombeck placed it in their respective newspaper columns; and Grace Kelly used a variant quip. Nevertheless, QI believes that Sam Levenson should receive credit for this witticism.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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Notes:

  1. 1961 April 6, The Ada Weekly News, Strayed From the Heard by Connie Nelson, Quote Page 4, Column 1, Ada, Oklahoma. (Newspapers_com)
  2. 1961 April 7, San Diego Union, Walter Winchell’s America, Quote Page A16, Column 5, San Diego, California. (GenealogyBank)

I Would Rather Have Two Girls at 21 Each Than One At 42

W. C. Fields? Great Lester? Fred Allen? Anonymous Vaudevillian?

wcfields10Dear Quote Investigator: I have been trying to trace the following gag:

I’d rather have two girls at 21 each than one girl at 42.

This line is usually attributed to the famous comedian W. C. Fields who played cantankerous and henpecked characters in movies. Would you please explore its provenance? I recognize that today some would label the joke sexist and ageist.

Quote Investigator: W. C. Fields did sing this line while taking a shower in the 1939 film “You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man”. 1 However, the joke was already well-known to humorists before this film was shot.

The earliest strong match located by QI was printed in “The Seattle Daily Times” of Seattle, Washington in 1915. An advertisement for “The Pantages” theater mentioned a vaudeville performer named Great Lester and described his act as follows: 2

World’s Foremost Ventriloquist in His Cleverest and Funniest Exhibition! (He’s a Riot, Folks.)

The same newspaper page featured a section titled “Lines From Current Vaudeville” which recounted jokes that were being used in local venues. Here were two examples. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 3

“An optimist is a person who doesn’t give a whoop what happens so long as it doesn’t happen to him.”
—Howard & McCane, Orpheum.

“I would rather have two girls at 17 than one at 34.”
—Lester, Pantages.

The number of years specified in the quip was variable, e.g., 16, 17, 18, and 21. QI believes that the line was used by multiple comedians. QI does not know whether Great Lester crafted the statement or lifted it from a fellow performer.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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Notes:

  1. Subzin; Movie Subtitle Search, Movie: You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man, Year of Movie: 1939, Time stamp for quotation: 00:17:15, Quotation Line 01: I’d rather have two girls at 21 each, Quotation Line 02: Than one girl at 42. (Accessed on Subzin on April, 28 2015)
  2. 1915 February 23, The Seattle Daily Times, (Advertisement for the Pantages theater), Quote Page 9, Column 1, Seattle, Washington. (GenealogyBank)
  3. 1915 February 23, The Seattle Daily Times, Lines From Current Vaudeville, Quote Page 9, Column 4, Seattle, Washington. (GenealogyBank)

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)

It Seems As If Anything I Like Is Either Illegal, Immoral, or Fattening

Alexander Woollcott? W. C. Fields? Frank Rand of St. Louis? Anonymous?

woollcott02Dear Quote Investigator: The candor of my favorite saying makes it wonderfully humorous. Here are three versions I have seen:

  • All the things I really like to do are either illegal, immoral, or fattening.
  • Anything in life that’s any fun is either immoral, illegal or fattening
  • Everything good in life is either illegal, immoral, or fattening.

Can you track this down?

Quote Investigator: In the past, this saying has been attributed to the noted wit Alexander Woollcott who was an influential columnist in The New Yorker magazine and a member of the celebrated Algonquin Round Table. Now QI has found a significant piece of new evidence indicating that Alexander Woollcott was not the coiner of this popular phrase, but he was an important locus for its popularization.

On September 16, 1933 the Albany Evening News of Albany, New York published a column called “As I Hear It” by “The Listener” which reported on the content of recently broadcast radio programs. The columnist stated that Alexander Woollcott could be heard on the WOKO radio station on Wednesday and Friday nights at 10:30 PM.

The program began with a cry of “Hear ye! Hear ye!” and the ringing of a bell according to “The Listener”. Indeed, Woollcott’s CBS radio show “The Town Crier” used precisely that introduction. Fortunately for 21st century researchers, the columnist decided to record some of the remarks made by Woollcott over the air: 1

As for instance quoting Woollcott’s story about the Mr. Frank Rand of St. Louis who in the interest of his girth was lunching on bouillon cubes and undressed lettuce.

“Do you eat that stuff because you like it?” someone asked Rand.
“No, I hate it,” he replied. “But it seems as if anything I like is either illegal or immoral or fattening.”

Hence, the first known instance of the expression occurred in an anecdote told by Woollcott to his radio audience, and the words were credited to a person named Frank Rand. Top-notch researcher Suzanne Watkins identified “The Listener” as Mary A. O’Neill based on an engagement notice in the Albany Evening News in February 1934 that stated she was the writer of the “As I Hear It” column. 2

The second earliest citation appeared in the mass-circulation Reader’s Digest in December 1933 where the saying was directly credited to Woollcott: 3

All the things I really like to do are either immoral, illegal or fattening. — Alexander Woollcott

The saying was printed on a page titled “Patter” which listed a collection of fourteen unrelated miscellaneous quotations. No precise source was given for the Woollcott attribution. QI hypothesizes that the phrase was derived from the radio broadcast, but a process of simplification and elision resulted in the omission of Frank Rand’s name.

Here are additional comments and selected citations in chronological order.

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Notes:

  1. 1933 September 16, Albany Evening News, “As I Hear It” by The Listener, Quote Page 14, Column 6, Albany, New York. (Old Fulton)
  2. 1934 February 19, Albany Evening News, “Mary O’Neill Engaged to Warren H. Flood; Alliance Tea Wednesday Announcement of Coming Wedding by Parents of Bride-to-Be”, Quote Page 19, Column 2, Albany, New York. (Old Fulton) (Text identifying The Listener as O’Neill: “She is employed in the State Department of Audit and Control and is also the writer of the “As I Hear It” column of The Knickerbocker Press.”)
  3. 1933 December, Reader’s Digest, Volume 24, Patter, Quote Page 109, The Reader’s Digest Association. (Verified on microfilm)

It’s Easy to Quit Smoking. I’ve Done It a Thousand Times

Mark Twain? W. C. Fields? Harris Dickson? Barracuda Pete? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: I mentioned a joke credited to Mark Twain to a friend recently:

It’s easy to quit smoking. I’ve done it hundreds of times.

She said that the jest was actually created by the famous comedian W. C. Fields and not Twain. Also, she claimed the original version was about drinking and not smoking:

It’s easy to quit drinking. I’ve done it a thousand times.

The results of my internet searches were confusing. The phrasing of the comical remark varies; for example, here is another quotation attributed to Twain:

Giving up smoking is the easiest thing in the world. I know because I’ve done it thousands of times.

No one seems to know when or where these statements were made. Could you explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: Mark Twain did write about quitting smoking, but there is no substantive evidence that he made this particular joke. W. C. Fields did deliver a version of the gag about stopping drinking in a comedy routine called “The Temperance Lecture” which was broadcast to radio listeners by 1938. However, the drinking joke was in circulation years earlier.

The earliest evidence located by QI for this humorous schema was in the domain of gambling in 1907 in a novel titled “Duke of Devil-May-Care” by Harris Dickson: 1 2

“Noel,” he said, “I thought you’d quit playing poker?”

Duke smiled back blandly. “I have; I’ve quit more’n a thousand times, every time the game breaks up. Shucks, boy, it’s dead easy to quit playing poker. But I must have a little sport when I go to town—that don’t count. I’ve got to tear down the gates and take the bridles off for a day or so; my system needs it.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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Notes:

  1. 1905, Duke of Devil-May-Care by Harris Dickson, Quote Page 14 and 15, D. Appleton and Company, New York. (Google Books full view) link
  2. 1906 August 27, Racine Daily Journal, Duke of Devil-May-Care by Harris Dickson, Page 7, Column 2, Racine, Wisconsin. (NewspaperArchive)

Now We’re Just Haggling Over the Price

George Bernard Shaw? Winston Churchill? Groucho Marx? Max Aitken? Mark Twain? W. C. Fields? Bertrand Russell?

Dear Quote Investigator: There is a famous story about sex and money that I have heard in myriad variations. A man asks a woman if she would be willing to sleep with him if he pays her an exorbitant sum. She replies affirmatively. He then names a paltry amount and asks if she would still be willing to sleep with him for the revised fee. The woman is greatly offended and replies as follows:

She: What kind of woman do you think I am?
He: We’ve already established that. Now we’re just haggling over the price.

This joke is retold with different famous individuals filling the roles. Often Bernard Shaw is mentioned. Did anything like this ever happen? Who was involved?

Quote Investigator: The role of the character initiating the proposal in this anecdote has been assigned to George Bernard Shaw, Winston Churchill, Groucho Marx, Mark Twain, W.C. Fields, Bertrand Russell, H.G. Wells, Woodrow Wilson and others. However, the earliest example of this basic story found by QI did not spotlight any of the persons just listed. In addition, the punch line was phrased differently.

In January 1937 the syndicated newspaper columnist O. O. McIntyre printed a version of the anecdote that he says was sent to him as a newspaper clipping. This tale featured a powerful Canadian-British media magnate and politician named Max Aitken who was also referred to as Lord Beaverbrook [MJLB]:

Someone sends me a clipping from Columnist Lyons with this honey:

“They are telling this of Lord Beaverbrook and a visiting Yankee actress. In a game of hypothetical questions, Beaverbrook asked the lady: ‘Would you live with a stranger if he paid you one million pounds?’ She said she would. ‘And if be paid you five pounds?’ The irate lady fumed: ‘Five pounds. What do you think I am?’ Beaverbrook replied: ‘We’ve already established that. Now we are trying to determine the degree.”

Note that this newspaper version does not use the blunt phrase “sleep with”. Instead, a more oblique expression, “live with”, is employed to conform to the conventions of the period.

Top-researcher Barry Popik has performed very valuable work tracing this tale, and we have incorporated some of his discoveries in this article. Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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I Spent a Week in Philadelphia One Sunday

W. C. Fields? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: Humorous remarks about Philadelphia are often credited to the well-known actor and comic W. C. Fields. In the past the activities and nightlife in Philadelphia were limited because of strict laws. Hence, time seemed to move slowly, and someone created the following quip:

I spent a week in Philadelphia one day.

Was W. C. Fields responsible for this joke?

Quote Investigator:  The earliest evidence for this jest located by QI appeared in 1908 in a magazine called “Life”. The cartoon containing the joke had an elaborate signature affixed, but QI does not know who drew this comical illustration. Two men in bowler hats discussing the city were depicted [LPCB]:

“. . . AND I SPENT A WEEK IN PHILADELPHIA.”
“WHEN?”
“DAY BEFORE YESTERDAY.”

The quip appeared many times in the following decades but the earliest evidence found by QI of a connection to W. C. Fields did not appear until the 1970s. In 1972 an article in the Washington Post described a social event celebrating the birth date of W. C. Fields [WPWF]

A group of Philadelphia businessmen are throwing a 92d birthday party for the late comedian at a local “Y,” which has a no-liquor rule. They’ll show old Fields films, give guests a chance to kick a stuffed dog and insult a live child—all in an effort to keep alive Philadelphia’s heritage. But ginger ale? It makes it easy to understand what Fields meant when he said that in one night he spent a week in Philadelphia.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order. Continue reading