George Bernard Shaw? Winston Churchill? Cedric Hardwicke? Blanche Patch? Leonard Lyons? Apocryphal?
Dear Quote Investigator: According to a Hollywood legend, a famous intellectual or statesman once praised a prominent actor with a left-handed compliment. Here are two versions:
- You are my fifth favorite actor. The first four are the Marx Brothers.
- You are my fourth favorite actor. The first three are the Marx Brothers.
The famous person was supposedly George Bernard Shaw or Winston Churchill. The actor was the English star of the stage and screen Cedric Hardwicke. Would you please explore this entertaining tale?
Quote Investigator: Five Marx brothers were involved in the entertainment business; they employed the following stage names: Chico, Harpo, Groucho, Zeppo, and Gummo. The first four appeared in several movies together, but only the first three achieved stardom.
The earliest strong match for the anecdote located by QI appeared in the Hollywood gossip column of Leonard Lyons in 1946. The quotation emerged via a dialog. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1
Sir Cedric Hardwicke, now, co-starring with Katharine Cornell in “Antigone,” starred in some of Shaw’s plays in London. Shaw once told him: “Cedric, you are my fourth favorite actor.” Hardwicke asked: “G. B. S., who are the other three?” And Shaw replied: “The Marx Bros.”
This version referred to three Marx Brothers instead of four. Lyons indicated that he heard the anecdote from Hardwicke, and QI conjectures that Hardwicke constructed this humorous story by altering a comment made by Shaw. This conjecture is based on the 1951 citation given immediately below and the April 17, 1959 citation given further below.
Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.
In 1951 Blanche Patch who was the long-time secretary of George Bernard Shaw published “Thirty Years with G. B. S.”. Patch provided the most credible report about Shaw’s ranking of contemporary actors. Hardwicke was not the fourth or fifth best. He was the third best in Shaw’s estimation: 2
G.B.S. once told Sir Cedric Hardwicke that he was the third greatest actor of our time, adding that Groucho Marx and Lew Lake came first and second.
QI hypothesizes that Hardwicke wished to construct a memorable and funny anecdote about Shaw to share with friends, acquaintances, and gossip columnists. Hence, he replaced Groucho with the Marx Brothers, and he removed Lew Lake from the list.
Shortly after the death of George Bernard Shaw in 1950, Lyons retold the story, and in this version, there was no dialog; instead, the full quotation was ascribed to Shaw: 3
“You are my fourth favorite actor,” he told Sir Cedric Hardwicke. “The other three are the Marx Brothers”.
In 1953 the tale continued to circulate in the column of Bill Barton in Dayton, Ohio. This version placed Hardwicke in fifth place behind four Marx Brothers: 4
George Bernard Shaw once told Cedric Hardwicke: “Young man, you are my fifth favorite actor,” Hardwicke timidly asked, “And who are the other four?” The answer was, “The Marx Brothers.”
In April 1959 Leonard Lyons published a revelatory column about the anecdote. Hardwicke admitted to Lyons that he had invented the story: 5
One of the oft-repeated lines attributed to G. B. Shaw is that “Hardwicke is the fifth greatest actor, the first four being the Marx Brothers.” Hardwicke now reveals that Shaw really named four other actors of that day. Nobody cared or mentioned it—until Hardwicke himself changed it to the four Marx Brothers.
In 1961 “A Victorian in Orbit: The Irreverent Memoirs of Sir Cedric Hardwicke” appeared. The actor printed a version of the anecdote with “fifth favorite actor”. Recall that the initial published instance in 1946 used “fourth favorite actor”: 6
Probably the handsomest compliment ever paid me was delivered by Bernard Shaw. “You are,” he said, “my fifth favorite actor, the first four being the Marx Brothers.”
In 1979 the biography “Groucho” by Hector Arce appeared, and the author suggested that Groucho was aware of the quotation in the 1951 citation: 7
Groucho was flattered, although he didn’t take the report seriously, when Blanche Patch’s book Thirty Years with G.B.S. was published in early 1951. George Bernard Shaw’s secretary quoted the great man as telling Sir Cedric Hardwicke that he was the third greatest actor of the age, adding that Groucho and British music hall entertainer Lew Lake ranked first and second.
In 1980 the quotation collection “Churchill: Speaker of the Century” compiled by James C. Humes contained an entry implausibly attributing the quip Winston Churchill who had died in 1965: 8
Sir Cedric Hardwicke, British actor
You are my fifth favourite actor. The first four are the Marx brothers.
In conclusion, the earliest citation in 1946 occurred in the column of Leonard Lyons. The statement with the phrase “fourth favorite actor” was attributed to George Bernard Shaw based on the testimony of Cedric Hardwicke. In 1959 Lyons stated that Hardwicke had concocted the quotation.
Shaw’s secretary, Blanche Patch, printed a more plausible version of the compliment in her 1951 memoir “Thirty Years with G. B. S.”. According to Patch, Shaw believed Hardwicke was the third greatest actor of the time, behind Groucho Marx and Lew Lake.
Image Notes: Illustration of Groucho Marx style glasses and mustache from Clker-Free-Vector-Images at Pixabay. Image has been resized.
- 1946 March 14, The Dayton Daily News, The Lyons Den: Pauley Turns Ickes Photo To the Wall by Leonard Lyons, Quote Page 11, Column 3, Dayton, Ohio. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1951, Thirty Years with G. B. S. by Blanche Patch, Chapter 14: Aspiring Methuselah, Quote Page 227, Victor Gollancz, London. (Verified with scans) ↩
- 1950 November 6, The Des Moines Register, Lyons Den by Leonard Lyons, Quote Page 18, Column 1, Des Moines, Iowa. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1953 March 19, The Dayton Daily News, Amusements: Depths Plumbed in Shallow Story by Bill Barton, Quote Page 20, Column 2, Dayton, Ohio. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1959 April 17, The Montgomery Advertiser, The Lyons Den by Leonard Lyons, Quote Page 4A, Column 4, Montgomery, Alabama. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1961, A Victorian in Orbit: The Irreverent Memoirs of Sir Cedric Hardwicke by Sir Cedric Hardwicke as told to James Brough, Chapter 1, Quote Page 16 and 17, Doubleday & Company, Garden City, New York. (Verified with scans) ↩
- 1979, Groucho by Hector Arce, Quote Page 343, Published by G. P. Putnam’s Sons, New York. (Verified on paper) ↩
- 1980, Churchill: Speaker of the Century by James C. Humes, Appendix I: Wit and Wisdom, Topic: Saints and Sinners, Quote Page 265, Stein and Day, Briarcliff Manor, New York. (Verified with scans) ↩