The Next Time I Send a Damn Fool for Something, I Go Myself

Samuel Goldwyn? Michael Curtiz? Sheilah Graham? Jones? Scones? Louis Cukela? Fictional?

Dear Quote Investigator: There is an unintentionally hilarious remark credited to the movie mogul Samuel Goldwyn. He sent an assistant on an important errand and was angry when the task was badly botched. In exasperation Goldwyn created this classic rebuke:

The next time I send a damn fool for something, I go myself.

However, I am now told that Michael Curtiz, a Hungarian-American film director, actually spoke this line to a prop man who retrieved the wrong prop three times in a row. Can you resolve this uncertainty?

Quote Investigator: The earliest example of this basic story located by QI does not involve Samuel Goldwyn or Michael Curtiz. In 1889 the following funny tale was told about a person named “Jones”, but this incident was not portrayed as an actual event. Instead, “Jones” was used as a generic name in a fictional gag [JBHM]:

Jones, having sent a stupid servant to do an errand, was greatly annoyed on finding that he had done exactly the opposite of what he had been ordered.

“Why, you haven’t common-sense,” he remonstrated.

“But, sir”—

“Shut up! I should have remembered that you were an idiot. When I’m tempted to send a fool on an errand again I’ll not ask you—I’ll go myself.”

The passage above was printed in the Boston Herald newspaper of Massachusetts; however, an acknowledgment indicated that the words were reprinted from “Judge” an influential humor magazine. Indeed, the joke was published a couple years later in 1891 in the companion magazine “Judge’s Library: A Monthly Magazine of Fun” [JLMJ]. Versions of the tale were also featured in several other newspapers and magazines in succeeding years.

Sometimes a pre-existing comical anecdote is spuriously assigned to a series of famous personalities over a period of decades. When this occurs the attributions are inaccurate and the events are fictitious. These entertaining apocryphal tales can be used to fill column inches in newspapers and pages in books. Yet, in this case, intriguingly, there is eyewitness evidence that a variant of the gag was embodied in an actual occurrence on a film set.

The first connection found by QI between Michael Curtiz and the saying was dated 1936. The syndicated Hollywood gossip columnist Sheilah Graham visited the movie location for “The Charge of the Light Brigade” and observed the behavior of the director Curtiz.

During the filming of one scene an actor playing an English cavalryman shouted “Yippee”, and the incongruous scene required a reshoot. During the second take a horse became recalcitrant and spoiled the action [SGMC]:

It is now 10 minutes to six, and the light is going fast. The third “take” is ruined by a too-eager extra who charges ahead of the order. “Next time I send a fool into the charge, I’ll go myself,” wails the foreign Mr. Curtiz, whose American becomes confused in moments of stress.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Citations in 1889 and 1891 were discussed above. In 1893 a condensed form of the joke was printed in a Sacramento, California periodical. A short article about nonsensical laws claimed that a measure was passed in the Virginia legislature with a title reading: “an act declaring it to be a penal offense to change the mark of an unmarked hog.” After the author presented this example another memory was evoked [THSC]:

This is almost equal to the remark of the man who, disgruntled with the stupidity of his messenger, fretfully remarked, “The next time I want to send a fool on an errand I’ll – I’ll go myself.”

In 1902 the anecdote was retold in a newspaper in Ogdensburg, New York. The text matched the words in the initial version in “Judge” magazine except that “Jones” was replaced by “Scones” and no acknowledgement was listed [ONSC].

In 1913 a version of the key comical statement appeared in an edition of religious works called the Pseudepigrapha. This instance showed that a small modification in the wording could vitiate the humor [PSWF]:

My son, send a wise man and give him no orders; but if thou wilt send a fool, go rather thyself and send him not.

In May 1936 the newspaper columnist Sheilah Graham observed director Michael Curtiz at work as described earlier in this article. After a movie extra ruined a scene depicting a military charge she quoted Curtiz saying this [SGMC]:

Next time I send a fool into the charge, I’ll go myself.

Several months later in November 1936 another Hollywood columnist named Sidney Skolsky attributed an instance of the joke to Curtiz. But, the remark was phrased differently. Skolsky explained how he obtained transcripts of the director’s comments [ACMC]:

A number of script girls, who worked on Director Curtiz’ pictures, have taken down in shorthand his directions in his own words. I have managed to get some of these recordings, so you can see a director really at work.

Here is Director Curtiz trying to explain an electrical effect to his cameraman, Tony Gaudio: “It’s tough to explain you, Tony. It is no different technique. I lose de effect, but I don’t lose de effect of de lamp litten. Look-put your head in de black velvet in de camera, and muffle around. …

Skolsky gave other examples of orders he said were issued by Curtiz and then he wrote [ACMC]:

Favorite of all the Curtiz remarks is the one he pulled when an assistant director failed to bring what he had been sent for. Director Curtiz shouted: “The next time I send a damn fool, I go myself.

In January 1938 another instance of the gag was printed in the Sunday magazine section of the San Diego Union newspaper in California. The quote was surrounded by unrelated material, and no information was given about its provenance [SDMC]:

“Next time I send a fool to bring me something,” shouted Director Michael Curtiz “I’ll go myself!”

In 1940 Time magazine published an article that highlighted the malapropisms of the prominent director [TIMC]:

Michael Curtiz (né Kertez) is the butt of more Hollywood stories than Sam Goldwyn. The only one Michael Curtiz bothers to deny is that he once worked as a circus strong man.

Warner jokers once hung signs on a Curtiz set reading “English Broken Here,” “Curtiz Spoken Here.” Some Curtizisms: “Next time I send some fool for something I go myself,” “Sit a little bit more femine (feminine),” “Act easy-go-lucky.”

By the 1950s and 1960s the saying was attributed to a new and colorful figure. Louis Cukela was a Serbian-born gunnery sergeant who successfully assaulted three machine gun positions during a battle and was awarded two Medals of Honor [LCRH]:

Later commissioned, Cukela delighted succeeding decades of Marines by his unique brand of English—”Next time I send a goddam fool, I go myself,” was his blurted reprimand for a job badly done.

In 1965 the powerful film executive Jack Warner published an autobiography titled “My First Hundred Years in Hollywood” and wrote about his recuperation from an automobile accident in Cannes in 1958. In the book he also credited Michael Curtiz with the humorous gaffe, but the setting specified was a bit different [JWMC]:

The doctors said: “Think positive, Jack. One good laugh is worth a dozen oxygen tents.” So I thought about Mike Curtiz, master of the garbled phrase, who once broke up a studio conference by shouting: “The next time I send a damn fool for something, I go myself.”

Many anecdotes and sayings have been reassigned to Samuel Goldwyn including the one under investigation. In 1969 the author of “The Moguls” attempted to emphatically counter this trend [NZSG]:

Goldwyn definitely did not say, “The next time I send a fool for something, I go myself.” That was Hungarian director Michael Curtiz shouting at a hapless messenger who had brought back the wrong article.

In conclusion, this saying initially was published as the punch line of a fictional tale in the late nineteenth century. There is good evidence that Michael Curtiz regularly mangled the English language, and there is testimony that he unwittingly recapitulated a version of the joke. The version given by Sheilah Graham appears to be the most directly supported though Curtiz may have spoken more than one variant.

[JBHM] 1889 November 24, Boston Herald, The Easiest Way [Acknowledgement “From Judge”], Page 23, Column 6, Boston, Massachusetts. (GenealogyBank)

[JLMJ] 1891 August, Judge’s Library: A Monthly Magazine of Fun, A Day Off: The Easiest Way, Page 30, Column 1, Judge Publishing Co., New York. (Google Books full view) link

[SGMC] 1936 May 01, The Hartford Courant, “Miss Graham Sees Films In Making: Director Michael Curtiz Has Trying Time ‘Shooting’ ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade'” by Sheilah Graham, Page 19, Hartford, Connecticut. (ProQuest)

[THSC] 1893 December 16, Themis, Volume 5, Professional Chat, Page 3, Column 3, Sacramento, California. (GenealogyBank)

[ONSC] 1902 June 18, Ogdensburg News, Not What He Meant, Page 4, Column 1, Ogdensburg, New York. (Fulton)

[PSWF] 1913, The Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha of the Old Testament in English, Edited in Conjunction with Many Scholars by Robert Henry Charles Volume II: Pseudepigrapha, Page 734, Column 1, Clarendon Press: Oxford University Press, London. (Google Books full view) link

[ACMC] 1936 November 24, Augusta Chronicle, Hollywood by Sidney Skolsky, Page 4, Column 4, Augusta, Georgia. (Genealogybank)

[SDMC] 1938 January 16, San Diego Union, Section: Magazine: Associated Weekly, Pretty Polynesian Mamo Made Taylor a ‘New Man’, Page 3, Rightmost Column, [GNB Page 73], San Diego, California. (GenealogyBank)

[TIMC] 1940 August 19, Time, “Cinema: The New Pictures: Aug. 19, 1940”, Time, Inc., New York. (Online Time magazine archive; Accessed 2012 February 29)

[LCRH] 1962, “Soldiers of the Sea: The United States Marine Corps, 1775-1962” by Robert Debs Heinl, Jr., Page 206, United States Naval Institute, Annapolis, Maryland. (Verified on paper)

[JWMC] 1965, My First Hundred Years in Hollywood by Jack L. Warner with Dean Jennings, [Second Edition], Page 9-10, Random House, New York. (Verified on paper)

[NZSG] 1969, The Moguls by Norman Zierold, Page 127-128, Coward-McCann, Inc., New York. (Verified on paper)