James R. Quirk? Douglas Fairbanks? Walter Winchell? Louella Parsons? Barbara Stanwyck? Jack Osterman? Al Jolson? Walter Huston? Will Rogers? Hedda Hopper? Marie Dressler? Arthur Ashe? Laurence Olivier? Anonymous?
Dear Quote Investigator: The popularity and power of an entertainer, top athlete, or financial whiz can ascend vertiginously, but it can also decline precipitously. A harshly pragmatic family of adages describes the fickleness of admirers. Here is sampling of statements from a variety of domains:
- A star is only as good as her last picture.
- A rock group is only as good as their latest album.
- A columnist is only as good his last column.
- A coach is only as good as the most recent season.
Often the expression employs the pronoun “you”:
- You’re only as good as your last performance.
- You are only as good as your last time at bat.
- You’re only as good as the last song you wrote.
- You’re only as good as your last press release
Would you please explore the history of this collection of sayings?
Quote Investigator: A close precursor appeared in “Photoplay Magazine” in 1924. The journal’s editor, James R. Quirk, conducted a survey of business people who operated movie theaters to identify the stars who achieved the best box-office results. Quirk recognized that the rankings would fluctuate over time. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1
Were a vote taken six months from now the vote might be entirely different. Generally speaking a star is as good as his last few pictures.
The statement above did not use the word “only” and referred to a “few pictures” instead of the “last picture”. Excerpts from Quirk’s article were reprinted in other periodicals. For example, in July 1924 “The Indianapolis Sunday Star” reprinted the star ranking data and the commentary which included the text above. 2
A couple years later in July 1926 “Photoplay Magazine” printed an instance that clearly fit into the family of sayings. The prominent actor, screenwriter, and producer Douglas Fairbanks received credit for the adage: 3
No mere actor-idol can last beyond a short allotted time. Fairbanks, Lloyd, Chaplin are not mere actors. They are artists—producers. We go to see them because their names assure great entertainment.
“A man’s only as good as his last picture,” says Doug, and I heartily concur. An actor who endures as an idol must have not only character but creative force—and the chance to exercise it.
QI conjectures that the saying evolved over time. James R. Quirk crafted a version that was further refined by Douglas Fairbanks into a pithy memorable remark. On the other hand, the members of this family are highly variable and searching for them is difficult. Therefore, future researchers may discover earlier instances necessitating amendments to this conjecture.
Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.
In July 1930 the powerful syndicated gossip columnist Walter Winchell constructed an instance tailored to his own profession: 4
A columnist is only as good as his last column.
In October 1930 Hollywood columnist Louella Parsons published an instance of the adage while disclaiming authorship: 5
If John Ford’s “Up the River” is as good as everyone says, anything connected with his next picture is of special interest. Who was it said an actor is only as good as his last picture and a director too?
In November 1930 the movie star Barbara Stanwyck used the saying while discussing her desire to leave Hollywood: 6
Barbara Stanwyck will abandon the screen as soon as her present contract expires. “A star is only as good as her last picture,” she explains and then another reason for her proposed retirement is that she wants to be able, to give more time to being Mrs. Frank Fay.
In March 1932 Stanwyck employed the saying again. This time she employed a version with the pronoun “you”: 7
“Marriage and a career can go together if you do it sensibly,” she said. “Marriage is the most important. I mean it continues. In the ‘movies’ I’m a success as long as the public likes me. When they stop going to see me I’ll stop work . . . you’re only as good as your last picture.“
In April 1932 Winchell used the saying again, but he applied the statement to Broadway entertainers instead of columnists or movie actors. Winchell’s phrasing was ambiguous, but he apparently wished to attribute the adage to Jack Osterman who was a vaudeville and Broadway star: 8
And that Mrs. Osterman’s upstart, Jack, reminds you that on Broadway—you’re only as good as your last press notice.
In April 1932, the famous singer and movie star Al Jolson also used the expression although he disclaimed authorship: 9
Al seemed a little bitter toward Hollywood for giving him the cold shoulder because some of the pictures were failures.
He said he’d heard the expression. “You’re only as good as your last picture,” but he didn’t think it true.
In February 1934 the saying was attributed to the actor Walter Huston by a Nashville, Tennessee columnist who pointed to an interview conducted by another journalist: 10
In a recent interview with the charming Irene Kuhn, Walter Huston made the statement that “in Hollywood, you’re only as good as your last picture.” Quite true, Mr. Huston–but why confine the thought to Hollywood? It seems to me that all through life, you’re only as good as the last thing you do.
In July 1935 the popular syndicated humorist Will Rogers used the saying while contrasting the careers of politicians and movie people: 11
Say this running a Government is kinder like our movie business. You are only as good as your last picture. Things over which they have no control comes along and yet if it happens and its bad, why out they go.
In 1963 the long-lived gossip columnist Hedda Hopper published “The Whole Truth and Nothing But”, and part of the book was serialized in the “Chicago Tribune”. Hopper credited the adage to actress Marie Dressler who had died almost three decades earlier in 1934: 12
Three flops in a row, and anybody’s out. Marie Dressler said it best years ago: “You’re only as good as your last picture.”
In 1973 and 1974 tennis great Arthur Ashe kept a diary which was published in book form in 1976. Ashe recorded his disagreement with the adage: 13
I tell myself that it is crap about how you’re only as good as your last game. I tell myself that my record stands. I tell myself there is too much emphasis on winning. But I must watch that I am not just telling myself these things to explain my losing lately or to excuse myself from not trying hard enough.
In 1986 renowned English actor Laurence Olivier published the memoir “On Acting” which included the saying: 14
This doesn’t happen so much in the theater as it does in other businesses; in the theater there is much more equality; in a way, you are only as good as your last job.
In 2016 an update for the important reference work “The Dictionary of Modern Proverbs” appeared in the journal “Proverbium”. An entry with the following title was included together with citations beginning in November 1935. 15
You’re only as good as your last PERFORMANCE (game, film, song, etc.).
In conclusion, a precursor expression penned by James R. Quirk appeared in “Photoplay Magazine” in 1924. An instance of the adage appeared in the same magazine in 1926 with an ascription to Douglas Fairbanks. Currently, QI would split credit for the founding of this family of sayings between Quirk and Fairbanks. During subsequent years many Hollywood entertainers and columnists employed the expression. Barbara Stanwyck used a version with the pronoun “you” by March 1932. Future researchers will probably learn more.
Image Notes: Picture of the Hollywood sign from skeeze at Pixabay.
(Great thanks to K. whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Special thanks to researcher Bill Mullins who located the key 1924 citation. Thanks to researcher Barry Popik who examined this topic in an article posted on his website located here. Popik found citations beginning in July 1935. Thanks also to Charles Doyle and Wolfgang Mieder for their research results containing citations beginning in November 1935. In addition, thanks to Jonathan Weinberg who recognized that Winchell was referring to Jack Osterman in the April 1932 citation.)
Update History: On December 18, 2018 citations dated 1924 and 1926 were added and the conclusion was updated. Also, Jack Osterman was added to the list of people linked to the saying.
- 1924 May, Photoplay Magazine: The National Guide to Motion Pictures, Volume 25, Number 6, The Greatest Box Office Attractions By Vote of Moving Picture Exhibitors by James R. Quirk, Start Page 44, Quote Page 109, Photoplay Publishing Company, Chicago, Illinois. (Internet Archive) link ↩
- 1924 July 6, The Indianapolis Sunday Star, Mary Pickford Leads Stars in Drawing Power, Section 7, Start Page 1, Quote Page 3, Indianapolis, Indiana. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1926 July, Photoplay Magazine, Volume 30, Number 2, Close-Ups and Long-Shots: Satire Humor and Some Sense by Herbert Howe, Start Page 44, Quote Page 45, Photoplay Publishing Company, Chicago, Illinois. (Internet Archive) link ↩
- 1930 July 16, The Akron Beacon Journal, Winchell On Broadway, Quote Page 15, Column 1, Akron, Ohio. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1930 October 14, Beaumont Enterprise, Sophisticated Plays Continue Popular by Louella O. Parsons, Quote Page 5, Column 2, Beaumont, Texas. (GenealogyBank) ↩
- 1930 November 7, The Hartford Courant, The Show Window, Quote Page 20, Column 6, Hartford, Connecticut. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1932 March 6, The Hartford Courant, Barbara Stanwyck Takes Rank With Box Office Stars, Quote Page D2, Column 4, Hartford, Connecticut. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1932 April 11, The Akron Beacon Journal, Winchell on Broadway by Walter Winchell, Quote Page 17, Column 1, Akron, Ohio. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1932 April 18, Wilmington Morning News, Screen Life in Hollywood by Hubbard Keavy, Quote Page 6, Column 4, Wilmington, Delaware. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1934 February 8, The Nashville Tennessean, All In A Day by Mark Hellinger, Quote Page 4, Column 5, Nashville, Tennessee. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1935 July 19, The Richmond Palladium, Things Are Looking Up! by Will Rogers, Quote Page 11, Column 7, Richmond, Indiana. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1963 February 26, Chicago Tribune, Marilyn—A Child of Tragedy by Hedda Hopper with James Brough, Part III, Quote Page 13, Column 2, Chicago, Illinois. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1976 (1975 Copyright), Arthur Ashe: Portrait in Motion by Arthur Ashe with Frank Deford, Chapter 11: Nasty Times, Diary Entry Date: Sunday, October 21, 1973, Diary Location: Madrid, Quote Page 114, Ballantine Books, New York. (Originally published in 1975; verified with scans of 1976 paperback edition) ↩
- 1986, On Acting by Laurence Olivier, Part 2: The Great Shakespearean Roles, Chapter 10: The Merchant of Venice, Quote Page 174, Simon and Schuster, New York. (Verified with hardcopy) ↩
- 2016, Proverbium: Yearbook of International Proverb Scholarship, Volume 33, The Dictionary of Modern Proverbs: A Supplement by Charles Clay Doyle and Wolfgang Mieder, Start Page 85, Quote Page 112, Published by The University of Vermont, Burlington, Vermont. (Verified on paper) ↩