I Want a Film that Begins with an Earthquake and Works Up to a Climax

Samuel Goldwyn? William Pine? William Thomas? Louis B. Mayer? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: Some recent Hollywood action movies begin with an explosion and follow with a series of frenetic semi-coherent set pieces. The script writers seem to be channeling the late movie mogul Samuel Goldwyn’s funny advice for creating a blockbuster:

We need a story that starts with an earthquake and works up to a climax.

Is this suggestion an authentic Goldwynism, or is it apocryphal?

Quote Investigator: The earliest evidence located by QI appeared in a theatrical review by Rupert Hart-Davis printed in the London periodical “The Spectator” in 1938. Boldface has been added to excerpts:[ref] 1938 March 4, The Spectator, Volume 160, Stage and Screen: The Theatre by Rupert Hart-Davis, (Review of a play based on the novel “Dodsworth”), Quote Page 359, Column 1, London, England. (Verified on paper)[/ref]

There is a legend about a film magnate telling his scenario-writer that he wants a story beginning with an earthquake and working up to a climax.

The “film magnate” was unnamed and the word “legend” signaled that the story was probably exaggerated or fictional. Nevertheless, the comical phrase was widely disseminated, and by 1941 Goldwyn’s name was attached to an instance in the “Chicago Tribune”. Other movie producers such as William Pine, William Thomas, and Louis B. Mayer have also been linked to the statement.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1939 a conference on education was held in France and a professor named Isaac Leon Kandel from the Teachers College at Columbia University in New York delivered a speech. He ascribed the saying to an unnamed “movie man”:[ref] 1939, Conference on Examinations Under the Auspices of the Carnegie Corporation, the Carnegie Foundation, the International Institute of Teachers College, Columbia University; Conference held at the Hotel Royal, Dinard, France, September 16th to 19th, 1938; Conference organized and proceedings edited by Paul Monroe, Tenth Session Held on September 19, 1938, Speaker: Professor Kandel (Prof. Isaac Leon Kandel of Teachers College, Columbia University), Start Page 309, Quote Page 309, Published by Bureau of Publications, Teachers College, Columbia University, New York. (Verified on paper)[/ref]

I am afraid, coming at the end of the Conference as I do, I am violating an important principle which has just recently been drawn up at Hollywood, where a movie man instructed the scenario writer to begin with an earthquake and work up to a climax. I am afraid that I am working up to an anticlimax in the fact that I have nothing new to report.

In 1941 the columnist June Provines writing in the “Chicago Tribune” presented a second-hand report that attributed the remark to Samuel Goldwyn:[ref] 1941 September 11, Chicago Tribune, Front Views and Profiles by June Provines, Quote Page 16, Column 3, Chicago, Illinois. (ProQuest)[/ref]

A Chicagoan back from Hollywood relays the latest Goldwynism. Mr. Samuel Goldwyn called his script writers together and said he wanted a story. A story of such drama as has never been written before. Something that would start with an earthquake and build up to climax, he said.

In January 1944 “The Washington Post” printed a puzzle feature titled “The Post’s Mind Teaser” by John Henry Cutter. The article listed a set of clues about a person, and the reader was supposed to guess his or her identity. The answer, which was printed upside down, was “Sam Goldwyn”. Here were two of the clues:[ref] 1944 January 23, The Washington Post, The Post’s Mind Teaser by John Henry Cutter Ph. D., Quote Page S13, Column 2, Washington, D.C. (ProQuest)[/ref]

He made Robert Montgomery a star by persuading him to drape his long neck in high collars. He splurges: “I want a film that begins with an earthquake and works up to a climax.”

In February 1944 the powerful syndicated gossip columnist Hedda Hopper printed an instance which she attributed to two movie producers:[ref] 1944 February 29, Chicago Daily Tribune, Looking at Hollywood by Hedda Hopper (Syndicated Column), Quote Page 13, Column 3, Chicago, Illinois. (ProQuest)[/ref]

When asked their formula for a good action picture, Producers William Pine and William Thomas always come back with—”One that starts with an earthquake and works up to a climax!”

In 1953 a reader of the Boy Scouts of America magazine called “Boys’ Life” sent an instance of the joke to the “Think and Grin” humor column:[ref] 1953 May, Boys’ Life, Volume 43, Number 5, Think and Grin, Quote Page 74, Column 2, Boy Scouts of America. (Google Books Full View) link [/ref]

They say that Samuel Goldwyn still wants a picture that starts with an earthquake and works up to a climax.—Edward Beermann, St. Paul, Minnesota.

In 1957 “The Boston Globe” printed a distinctive version of the anecdote in a column called the “Globe Man’s Daily Story”:[ref] 1957 December 6, Boston Globe, Globe Man’s Daily Story, Quote Page 24, Column 1, Boston, Massachusetts. (ProQuest)[/ref]

. . . the late producer Louis B. Mayer was said to have told his script writers at a conference that he wanted another super-colossal movie. The writers asked him whether he had any suggestions.

“Sure,” he fired back. “Start with an earthquake, then work up to a climax!”

In conclusion, QI believes that the line was probably crafted by a humorist and communicated to magazine and newspaper people. It was unlikely that the expression passed through the lips of Samuel Goldwyn. On the other hand, producers William Pine and William Thomas may very well have said it in jest after it was already in circulation.

(Great thanks to anonymous movie aficionado whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration.)

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