Writers Are Just Schmucks with Underwoods

Jack L. Warner? Bill Davidson? Samuel Goldwyn? Louis B. Mayer? Harry Cohn? Apocryphal?

Insult: Schmuck? Schlep? Schnook?

Dear Quote Investigator: The attitude of Hollywood producers toward writers has been epitomized by the following callous remark:

A writer is a schmuck with an Underwood.

The Underwood Typewriter Company manufactured the best writing implements when the statement was made. Here is another version I’ve seen:

Writers are just schmucks with typewriters.

These words have been attributed to Jack Warner, Samuel Goldwyn, and Harry Cohn. Would you please examine this saying?

Quote Investigator: The earliest evidence located by QI appeared in 1961. Oddly, two different versions were given by a journalist named Bill Davidson in that year. The book “The Real and the Unreal” recounted Davidson’s extensive experiences in Hollywood and included the following passage. Boldface has been added:[ref] 1961, The Real and the Unreal by Bill Davidson, Chapter 14: How to Get Fired in Hollywood, Start Page 241, Quote Page 242, Published by Harper & Brothers, New York. (Verified on paper)[/ref]

One of the Warner brothers, for example, used to call all writers—even William Faulkner, who was once under his command—“schmucks with typewriters” (schmuck is a derisive Yiddish expression for a bumpkin, an idiot). He used to make all his writers punch a time clock as they entered and left the studio…

While Faulkner was crafting screenplays he was employed by the powerful studio chief Jack Warner. Hence, Davidson was probably attributing the comment to Jack Warner who continued as an influential figure in the film business into the 1960s. This initial instance referred to “typewriters” instead of the particular brand “Underwood”.

In October 1961 Davidson wrote an article in “Show: The Magazine of the Arts”, and the content overlapped with material in his book. In the following excerpt the quotation incorporated the Yiddish term “schlep” instead of “schmuck”:[ref] 1961 October, Show: The Magazine of the Arts, Volume 1, Number 1, Hollywood: A Cultural Anthropologist’s View (Place in the Sun) by Bill Davidson, Start Page 80, Quote Page 81, Column 2, Hartford Publications, New York. (Verified on paper)[/ref]

There are several ways of getting hired in Hollywood. The first, and most difficult, is to have talent. The talented are considered untrustworthy interlopers. One of the Warner brothers, for example, used to call all writers—even William Faulkner, who was once under his command—“schleps with typewriters” (schlep is a derisive Yiddish expression for a bumpkin, an idiot).

It is unclear why Bill Davidson presented two different quotations, and the inconsistency reduces the credibility of the ascription. Perhaps Davidson had collected conflicting reports. Etymologically “schmuck” can be traced to the Yiddish term for phallus, and it was considered vulgar by some speakers. This taboo association might have provided a motivation for replacing one term with another.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1976 a book review titled “Hollywood ‘Hacks’ Reconsidered” by Robert Kirsch printed in the “Los Angeles Times” used an instance of the saying with “Underwoods” and credited Jack Warner:[ref] 1976 July 25, Los Angeles Times, Hollywood ‘Hacks’ Reconsidered by Robert Kirsch, (Book Review of “Some Time in the Sun” by Tom Dardis), Quote Page B1, Column 1, Los Angeles, California. (ProQuest)[/ref]

This doesn’t mean that all screenwriting is good or that there aren’t people who have sold out or that the Philistine producers (Jack Warner was reputed to have snarled that writers were just “schmucks with Underwoods”) are products of the imagination.

In 1977 “The Atlantic Monthly” published an article about fishing by the essayist and novelist Page Stegner which contained a self-deprecating remark based on the saying. The words were unattributed:[ref] 1977 July, The Atlantic Monthly, “Wynken, Blynken, and Cod: The back-to-the-sea movement: a firsthand report” by Page Stegner, Start Page 39, Quote Page 44, Column 2, The Atlantic Monthly Company, Boston, Massachusetts. (Verified on paper)[/ref]

I climb wearily back into the truck and watch him chug out into the main channel. He’s right, of course. Enough is enough. The bounty of the sea is going the way of the fat of the land. And I’m going back to being a schmuck with an Underwood. What we all need now is shore leave.

In 1978 the “Washington Post” printed an obituary titled “Jack Warner, Last of First-Generation Movie Tycoons, Dies” that included the caustic saying which was labeled immortal:[ref] 1978 September 11, Washington Post, “Jack Warner, Last of First-Generation Movie Tycoons, Dies” by Gary Arnold, Quote Page C4, Column 6, Washington, D.C. (ProQuest)[/ref]

Noted for flamboyant and often off-color comments (“Writers are schmucks with Underwoods” has achieved immortality). Jack Warner recalled his career in an autobiography, “My First Hundred Years in Hollywood.”

In 1979 the writer Eliot Asinof released “Bleeding Between the Lines” which referenced the saying three times in its pages. In this excerpt “Gunsmoke” referred to a popular Western television series, and “meller” was an abbreviation for melodrama:[ref] 1979, Bleeding Between the Lines by Eliot Asinof, Quote Page 141, Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, New York. (Verified on paper)[/ref]

A writer would say: “I’m doing a ‘Gunsmoke'” or “I’m doing a meller at Metro.” And, typically, we would expend far more energy in pursuit of the job than “doing” it. Not without reason, then, they call screenwriters “schmucks with typewriters.”

In 1982 “New York Times” critic Michiko Kakutani presented a triple-header of comically derogatory comments about writers from successful Hollywood figures:[ref] 1982 April 25, New York Times, Section: Arts and Leisure, The New Writer Vs. Hollywood: The Literati Gripe About Crassness But Can’t Resist The Rewards by Michiko Kakutani, Start Page C8, Quote Page 30, New York. (ProQuest)[/ref]

The studio heads and producers were even more irreverent. “What’s all this business of being a writer,” Irving Thalberg asked. “It’s just putting one word after another.” To Jack Warner, writers were simply “schmucks with Underwoods” and to Joseph Mankiewicz, they were “the highest-paid secretaries in the world.”

In 1986 a columnist in the periodical “American Book Collector” assigned the remark to movie mogul Samuel Goldwyn instead of Warner:[ref] 1986 April, American Book Collector, Volume 7, Number 4, “Cat Chat” by Bernard McTigue, Start Page 55, Quote Page 55, Moretas Press, New York. (Verified on paper)[/ref]

Hollywood, as in “El Lay,” is not known for its readers nor for its respect for literature. You will doubtless recall Sam Goldwyn’s characterization of a writer as “a schmuck with a typewriter.” Since some of the “schmucks” involved in film work at the time he uttered his immortal words included William Faulkner, Dorothy Parker, and George S. Kaufman, one may imagine how deeply felt was his attitude.

In 1987 an article in “The Partisan Review” attributed an instance to “Lewis B. Mayer” which was probably a reference to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer film producer “Louis B. Mayer”:[ref] 1987, The Partisan Review, Volume 54, Number 3, Kishkas by Leonard Michaels, Start Page 373, Quote Page 376, Published by Partisan Review, Inc. at Boston University, Boston, Massachusetts. (Verified on paper)[/ref]

Lewis B. Mayer puts it differently: “A screenwriter is a schmuck with an Underwood.” I used an Olivetti, small grey machine, nice touch.

In 1992 the book “Fatal Subtraction” about the high-profile lawsuit between newspaper columnist Art Buchwald and the major film studio Paramount was published. After Buchwald triumphed in his legal action the congratulatory words of news anchor Peter Jennings were reported, and he employed an alternate phrase with “schnooks” substituted for “schmucks”:[ref] 1992, Fatal Subtraction: The Inside Story of Buchwald v. Paramount by Pierce O’Donnell and Dennis McDougal, Chapter 29, Pyrrhic Victory, Quote Page 341, Doubleday, New York. (Verified on paper)[/ref]

“Art Buchwald took on a big guy—Paramount Pictures—and won,” Jennings said. “In Hollywood that’s a victory for all screenwriters, the men and women that the late Jack Warner once called ‘schnooks with typewriters.'”

In 1997 Larry Gelbart who was best known for producing the long-running television series “M*A*S*H” penned a book review for the “New York Times”. He reprinted the saying which appeared in the book under examination, and he also constructed a humorous variant:[ref] 1997 March 2, New York Times, A Beginning, a Muddle and an End: A screenwriter’s view of the making of a movie script, eight years and 27 drafts later by Larry Gelbart, (Book review of Monster: Living Off the Big Screen by John Gregory Dunne), Quote Page BR8 and BR9, New York. (ProQuest)[/ref]

The movie mogul Jack Warner’s favorite appellation for writers, John Gregory Dunne informs us in “Monster: Living Off the Big Screen,” was “schmucks with Underwoods.”…

You remember Shakespeare. He was that schmuck with a quill.

In 1998 the 25th Anniversary Edition of “The Princess Bride: S. Morgenstern’s Classic Tale of True Love and High Adventure” was published, and it included a new section about “Buttercup’s Baby”. The author William Goldman referenced the saying:[ref] 1998, The Princess Bride: S. Morgenstern’s Classic Tale of True Love and High Adventure by William Goldman, 25th Anniversary Edition, Section: Buttercup’s Baby, Quote Page 331, Ballantine Publishing Group, New York. (Verified on paper)[/ref]

I would be a real writer once more, not just some schmuck with an Underwood, as screenwriters are still thought of Out There.

In 2007 “Time” magazine printed a letter with an entertaining riposte:[ref] 2007 November 29, Time, Inbox, (Letter to the editor from Paul Scott, Woodland Hills, California), Time Inc., New York. (Online Time magazine archive; accessed April 2, 2014)[/ref]

It might also be fair to say that Mr. Warner was just a schmuck with a Rolodex…

In 2011 the actor and writer Ben Stein wrote about his former days pitching ideas and scripts to film studios. Stein ascribed the remark to movie man Harry Cohn:[ref] 2011, What Would Ben Stein Do: Applying the Wisdom of a Modern-Day Prophet to Tackle the Challenges of Work and Life by Ben Stein, (Quote appeared on unnumbered page), John Wiley & Sons, Hoboken, New Jersey. (The original text included “Harry Cohen” which has been replaced by “Harry Cohn”, former President of Columbia Pictures) (Google Books Preview)[/ref]

Many a time I arrived at a studio to try to sell a story line. Of course, I was basically just a beggar there to sell pots and pans. But because I had arrived in a Porsche 928, I felt as if I were someone of note—a winner—not “…a schmuck with an Underwood…” as Harry Cohn, former head of Columbia Pictures, once called Hollywood writers.

In conclusion, the evidence in 1961 indicated that Jack Warner could be credited with calling writers “schmucks with typewriters”. Yet, the citation was indirect, and the same source also ascribed the phrase “schleps with typewriters” to Warner.

Later attributions to Samuel Goldwyn, Louis B. Mayer, and Harry Cohn were inadequately supported. Also, the word “schmuck” was recurrently supported when compared to “schlep” or “schnook”.

Image Notes: Jack Warner public domain press photo. Photograph of a woman with Underwood typewriter circa 1918. William Faulkner portrait from Library of Congress. These three files from Wikimedia Commons have been cropped and modified.

(Special thanks to A. K. M. Adam for his comment to QI about the constraints on the use of the word schmuck in the early 1960s. Errors are the responsibility of QI.)

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