Elvis Presley? Dwight D. Eisenhower? The White Rabbit? Clint Eastwood? Martin Gabel? Adlai Stevenson? Anonymous?
Dear Quote Investigator: Some humorous quotations are created by cleverly transforming prosaic expressions. Most people are familiar with the exhortation:
Don’t just stand there, do something.
However, occasionally inaction is preferable, and the following rearranged sentence has been employed:
Don’t just do something, stand there.
I have seen these words attributed to Dwight D. Eisenhower, Clint Eastwood, and Lewis Carroll’s White Rabbit. Any idea who should be credited?
Quote Investigator: The earliest evidence located by QI was printed in the popular syndicated gossip column of Leonard Lyons in 1945. The phrase was used by an actor and producer named Martin Gabel: 1
At the first rehearsal of Irwin Shaw’s play, “The Assassin,” Producer Martin Gabel noticed a young actress gesticulating wildly instead of remaining motionless. Gabel shouted: “Don’t just do something; stand there.”
This quip has been used by many people over the years including politician Adlai Stevenson and Hollywood star Clint Eastwood.
Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.
The baseline phrase “Don’t just stand there, do something” emerged as a cliché many years in the past; hence, it was ripe for comical mutation. Here is an elaborate version in 1877 of the entreaty which has now become commonplace: 2
“Come, don’t stand there looking like a statue of helplessness: do something or other, will you.”
Here is a simpler version of the oft repeated appeal from a book released in 1878: 3
“Oh, mamma!” cried Susan, with blanched cheek, then gasped out, “Don’t stand there, Jane, do something.”
In 1945, as noted above, the widely-distributed newspaper column of Leonard Lyons ascribed to Martin Gabel the reordered statement: “Don’t just do something; stand there”.
In 1951 Walt Disney’s studio released an animated version of “Alice in Wonderland”, and it included a scene in which the White Rabbit rushed from his house and encountered Alice who was walking on his front pathway. The White Rabbit incorrectly addressed her as Mary Ann and then spoke the amusing phrase. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 4
White Rabbit: Why, Mary Ann! What are you doing out here?
Alice: Mary Ann?
White Rabbit: Don’t just do something, stand there. No no! Go go! Go get my gloves! I’m late!
In April 1954 a columnist in the “Boston Globe” described a group called the “Relaxation Club of America” which had adopted the injunction as a motto: 5
There is a national, nonprofit organization which advocates paraphrasing an irritating directive, to wit: “Don’t just stand there….DO something!” The group, which has dedicated itself to happier living through inertness, would change it to: “Don’t just do something….STAND there!” Relaxation Club of America, it calls itself.
In 1954 the quotation appeared in a gossip column anecdote that was similar to one in 1945. An actress was criticized; however, the domain was shifted from theater to television: 6
A TV director had to deal with one of those young actresses of the new school the other day. She was fluttering her hands, mussing her hair, and in general trying to be as much like Geraldine Page as possible. The director finally shouted, “Don’t just do something. Stand there!”
In February 1956 the U.S. politician Adlai Stevenson used the quip to berate his opponents: 7
He said he had “figured out what the Republican orators mean by what they call moderate progressivism.” All they mean, he said, is “don’t just do something! Stand there!”
In May 1956 Leonard Lyons featured the quotation in his column once again. This time Lyons reported on comments made by Adlai Stevenson who ascribed the remark to President Dwight D. Eisenhower. Stevenson stated that Eisenhower had jocosely chided his Secretary of State with the quip: 8
THE TRAVELER: Adlai Stevenson tells this story about John Foster Dulles: The President managed to catch a glimpse of Dulles while he was temporarily in this country. And the President said to the Secretary of State: “Don’t just do something. Stand there.”
In June 1956 the “Los Angeles Times” reported on “Screwball Signs” which satirized inspirational signs hung in business offices. The following was included: 9
DON’T JUST DO SOMETHING — STAND THERE
By August 1956 the supposed remark by made by President Eisenhower directed at his Secretary of State Dulles was being labeled a legend in the pages of the “New York Times”: 10
Such is the implication of a pleasant legend. Eisenhower summons Dulles to him, saying: “Foster, don’t just do something; stand there.”
In January 1957 the prominent columnist Walter Winchell remarked that the saying was being ascribed to Elvis Presley, but Winchell was skeptical. The spelling “colyums” in the following excerpt was one of Winchell’s deliberate stylistic quirks: 11 12
The “latest” Elvis Presley quip making many colyums is late, indeed: “Don’t just do something — stand there!” was used to tease actress Geraldine Page a few seasons ago.
In June 1957 the barb was reassigned to another anonymous director and aimed at the famous actress Katharine Hepburn: 13
The movie director reversed a familiar saying by exclaiming to Katharine Hepburn, “Don’t just do something…stand there!” That humorous remark is the key to Miss Hepburn’s personality…she is a woman of action.
In 1959 a newspaper in Oklahoma printed an entertaining variant of the expression: 14
Or to put it in simpler language: Don’t just do something. Sit there.
In 1985 “Newsweek” magazine printed comments made by Clint Eastwood about the desirability of deemphasizing technique while acting. 15 Eastwood stated that he heard the remark from his drama coach: 16
I don’t like showing the technique. I don’t like people who say, “Here, I’m going to act, but first I have to bounce off this wall.” If you have to bounce off the wall, do it by yourself. Don’t feature the technique. My old drama coach used to say, “Don’t just do something, stand there.” Gary Cooper wasn’t afraid to do nothing.
In conclusion, Martin Gabel is currently the leading candidate for crafter of this quip based on the 1945 citation. The joke was repeated by others including Adlai Stevenson. Reordering the words in an expression is a known mechanism for constructing witticisms; hence, the quotation may have been created independently on more than one occasion. Nevertheless, some of the anecdotes after 1945 appear to be apocryphal.
Research Note: QI’s research on this topic was conducted in May 2011 and appeared on the ADS mailing list. Barry Popik conducted excellent research in this area independently and shared his results in October 2011.
Image Notes: Publicity poster for1951 film of Alice in Wonderland. See rationale for Fair Use under copyright law given here. Image of Dwight Eisenhower and John Foster Dulles from Wikimedia Commons. Public domain image from U.S. National Archives
(Great thanks to Professor Jonathan Lighter who initiated a discussion about this saying on the ADS mailing list in May 2011. Thanks to Dan Goncharoff who located the February 1956 citation, and to the other discussants. Special thanks to Daniel Gackle who also asked about this expression. Also thanks to Daryl Sng for mentioning independent reinvention.)
Update History: On February 21, 2015 the 1985 citation was updated to include a larger excerpt and a direct Newsweek citation.
- 1945 August 31, Amarillo Daily News, The Lyon’s Den by Leonard Lyons, Quote Page 10, Column 3, Amarillo, Texas. (NewspaperArchive) ↩
- 1877, A Perennial Courtship; and Other Tales by Ephron (pseudonym), A Perennial Courtship, Start Page 1, Quote Page 4, Charing Cross Publishing Company, London. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1878, Aunt Betsy’s Foresight by Mrs. Warren Creed, Page 8, Remington and Co., London. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1951, Film: Alice in Wonderland, Animation Studio: Walt Disney Productions, Adapted from Lewis Carroll’s “The Adventures of Alice in Wonderland” and “Through the Looking Glass”, Quotation Location: 21 minutes into total runtime 1 hour 15 minutes. (Verified by viewing film) ↩
- 1954 April 30, Boston Globe, Sitting in with Ted Ashby: It’s What the Man Said, Quote Page 21, Column 1, Boston, Massachusetts. (ProQuest) ↩
- 1954 October 25, El Paso Herald-Post, Females 16 to 60 Aflutter Over Two Future TV Idols by Faye Emerson, Page 7, Column 3, El Paso, Texas. (NewspaperArchive) ↩
- 1956 February 26, New York Times, “Stevenson Gibes at the President as Inept ‘Coach'” by Richard H. Parke, Start Page 1, Quote Page 65, New York. (ProQuest) ↩
- 1956 May 21, Chicago Defender, Lyons Den by Leonard Lyons, Quote Page 5, Column 4, Chicago, Illinois. (ProQuest) ↩
- 1956 June 24, Los Angeles Times, “Screwball Signs: The old-fashioned ‘pep’ signs are coming in for some kidding in today’s offices” by Charles D. Rice, Quote Page 15, Los Angeles, California. (ProQuest) ↩
- 1956 August 29, New York Times, Foreign Affairs: New Role for the Secretary of State by C.L. Sulzberger, Quote Page 27, New York. (ProQuest) ↩
- 1957 January 22, Springfield Union, Walter Winchell On Broadway, Quote Page 18, Column 2, Springfield, Massachusetts. (Typo “Geralding” has been replaced with “Geraldine” in the excerpt)(GenealogyBank) ↩
- 1957 January 23, Boston Daily Record, Walter Winchell On Broadway: More Red than Rosy, Quote Page 27, Column 3, Boston, Massachusetts. (GenealogyBank) ↩
- 1957 June 30, Washington Post, Keep in Trim: Thin Girls Can Copy Katie by Ida Jean Kain, Quote Page F15, Washington, D.C. (ProQuest) ↩
- 1959 July 31, Ada Evening News, Column of Comment, Quote Page 4, Column 2, Ada, Oklahoma.(NewspaperArchive) ↩
- 2006, Brewer’s Famous Quotations, Edited by Nigel Rees, Section: George Shultz, Page 430 and 431, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London. (Verified on paper)(According to this reference the Clint Eastwood quotation appeared in the Newsweek issue of September 23, 1985; however, this date may be for the U.K edition; the date of the U.S. edition containing the quotation was July 22, 1985; see the separate citation) ↩
- 1985 July 22, Newsweek, Movies: ‘Rebel in My Soul’, (Gerald Lubenow, San Francisco Bureau Chief of Newsweek recorded the words of Clint Eastwood), Start Page 54, Quote Page 54, Column 1, Newsweek, Inc., New York. (Verified on microfilm) ↩