Bette Davis? Leonora Corbett? Kenneth Tynan? Anonymous? Apocryphal?
Dear Quote Investigator: I love the following catty quotation that was said by one Hollywood actor or actress about another performer who had allegedly slept her way to success:
She’s the original good time that’s been had by all.
Can you tell me who said this and who was the target of the gibe?
Quote Investigator: This wordplay joke is based on a comical modification of a traditional expression of enthusiasm: A good time was had by all. The jest is often attributed to the famous film star Bette Davis and sometimes to the influential English theatre critic Kenneth Tynan.
But neither is credited in the earliest instance of this quip located by QI which was published in a 1946 book by the prominent gossip columnist Earl Wilson. The actress who delivered the barb appeared in multiple films in the 1930s and 1940s but is not well known today. The target of her ire was unidentified [EWLC]:
The tallish, beautiful actress, Leonora Corbett, can also claw with her painted lips. Seeing a reputedly loose woman waggling past, Miss Corbett remarked, “There goes the original good time that’s been had by all.” Of an actress whose ability was said by everybody to be less than negative, Miss Corbett said, “She has more talent to the square head than anybody I know.”
Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.
In June 1946 the joke was printed in a trade publication called “The Oil Weekly”. Neither the speaker nor the target of the remark was identified [OWQD]:
An actress, upon seeing a questionable dame passing, sweetly remarked: “There goes the original good time that was had by all.”
In 1973 the saying was attributed to Bette Davis in a compendium assembled by the movie enthusiast Leslie Halliwell titled “The Filmgoer’s Book of Quotes”. The following comment was purportedly directed by Davis at an unknown actress who “slept her way to the top” [BDLH]:
I see – she’s the original good time that was had by all.
In 1974 Kenneth Hurren, a critic for The Spectator (UK), used the expression while describing a character in a play he was reviewing [KHCS]:
… a willowy but rather worn lady named Carmel Scott who is probably spoken of in Sydney literary circles as the good time that’s been had by all and whose approach to prospective authors might easily raise a few eyebrows even in Bloomsbury.
In 1980 a column in the Seattle Times discussed “The Book of Hollywood Quotes: the Insults, the Insights, the Famous Lines” by Gary Herman. Several quotes were reprinted including one ascribed to Davis. In this variant the word “who” was substituted for “that” in Halliwell’s version [STBD]:
Bette Davis, on an unnamed starlet: “She’s the original good time — who was had by all.”
In 1986 the saying was printed in “The Penguin Dictionary of Modern Humorous Quotations” where it was attributed to Bette Davis. The wording was similar to that used in Halliwell’s compilation [BDPD].
According to the Oxford Dictionary of Humorous Quotations the following has been attributed to the drama critic Kenneth Tynan who was born in 1927. The reference suggests that he deployed the quip while he was an undergraduate at Oxford University [OHKT]:
There, standing at the piano, was the original good time who had been had by all.
In conclusion, the earliest firm citation located by QI is in Earl Wilson’s 1946 book, and Wilson attributed the words to the actress Leonora Corbett. It is possible that Bette Davis and Kenneth Tynan also used the quip. Indeed, either one may have used it before Corbett, but the evidence currently available to QI suggests that Corbett should receive the credit.
[EWLC] 1946, Pikes Peek or Bust by Earl Wilson, Page 221, Doubleday & Company, Inc., Garden City, N.Y. (Verified on paper)
[OWQD] 1946 June 24, The Oil Weekly, Squeaks from the Bull Wheel, This Curious World, Page 170, Houston, Gulf Pub. Co. (Verified on paper)
[BDLH] 1974, The Filmgoer’s Book of Quotes by Leslie Halliwell, Section: Last Round Up, Page 215, [Reprint of 1973 edition Granada Publishing, London], Arlington House, New Rochelle, New York. (Verified on paper)
[KHCS] 1974 September 14, The Spectator, Section: Review of the Arts, Kenneth Hurren on a busy night Down Under, [Review of the play “What If You Died Tomorrow?” by David Williamson], Page 342, Spectator, London. (Verified on microfilm)
[STBD] 1980 July 20, Seattle (Daily) Times, Quips and Quotes from the Hollywood greats by Victor Wilson, Page E12, Seattle, Washington. (GenealogyBank)
[BDPD] 1986, The Penguin Dictionary of Modern Humorous Quotations compiled by Fred Metcalf, Section: Promiscuity, Page 203, Column 1, Viking Penguin, New York. (Verified on paper)
[OHKT] 2008, Oxford Dictionary of Humorous Quotations edited by Ned Sherrin, Category Character, Page 49, Oxford University Press, New York. (Verified on paper)