Samuel Goldwyn? Humphrey Bogart? Ed Sullivan? Moss Hart? John Ford? Brendan Behan? Harry Warner? Anonymous?
Dear Quote Investigator: Storytellers often wish to do more than simply entertain. They wish to instruct their audiences via a didactic narrative. Yet, the primary concern of the producers of films and plays is financial success. This tension is illustrated by the following dialog:
Storyteller: I plan to tell a tale that has a powerful message.
Producer: If you’ve got a message, send it by Western Union.
Western Union began as a telegraph company, and it operated the dominant communication system in the U.S. for many decades. The telegram service was shut down in 2006.
The sardonic response above has been credited to movie producer Samuel Goldwyn, playwright Moss Hart, Hollywood star Humphrey Bogart, and others. Would you please explore this topic?
Quote Investigator: The earliest match located by QI appeared in the newspaper column of Aleen Wetstein in 1940. She relayed an anecdote from an unnamed screenwriter who was working with a collaborator on a gangster picture for Samuel Goldwyn. The collaborator desired to insert a message of social significance into the film. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1
Finally in Goldwyn’s office, the second writer outlined his idea. “Mr. Goldwyn,” he said, “this is a wonderful opportunity to point out labor’s battle against capitalism. You have a chance here to bring a great message to the people.”
Goldwyn looked at him. “Messages, messages,” he said. “From Western Union you get messages. From me you get pictures.”
Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.
In 1943 gossip columnist Leonard Lyons shared a story about Goldwyn who was attempting to produce a film for comedian Bob Hope. Goldwyn was contacted by a Hollywood writer. Ellipses are in the original text: 2
“I have a wonderful comedy story,” the writer excitedly told him. “It’s ideal for Hope. It’s a great comedy.” . . . “Fine, fine,” Goldwyn said . . . “Not only is it a great comedy,” the writer continued, “but also, it has a message.” . . . “A message?” Goldwyn repeated. “Just write me the comedy. Messages are for Western Union.”
In 1944 “LIFE” magazine published a profile of actor Humphrey Bogart who expressed dislike for message laden films: 3
Completely candid in his self-appraisal, he has an active grudge against performers who take themselves too seriously. People like Paul Muni, whom he suspects of nursing the conviction that their work must convey a message, give him a pain. “If they have a message,” says Bogart, “they should call Western Union.”
In 1945 the anecdote appeared in a newspaper in Quebec, Canada within an article titled “Gag-of-the-day”. The punchline was ascribed to an unnamed “prominent Hollywood producer”: 4
A couple of days later the writer popped into the producer’s office. “I’ve got just the story”, he enthused. “Not only is it sure boxoffice, but it also carries a great message.”
“Look,” grunted the producer. “All I want is a story. Let Western Union take care of the messages.”
In 1951 the powerful show business impresario Ed Sullivan used a variant of the joke while criticizing the musical “Flahooley”: 5
Every time a Yip Harburg musical comes to town, playgoers must examine it for a message. Yip never being content to let Western Union handle messages. “Flahooley,” mighty cute in spots, is embarrassed by its message so confused in its symbolism that I defy the Joint Chiefs of Staff to decipher it.
In 1953 “The Philadelphia Inquirer” of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania reported that Samuel Goldwyn had delivered an address to a luncheon audience at the Warwick Hotel in the city. The article about the event provided direct evidence that Goldwyn used the quip during a question-and-answer period: 6
“Did you ever make a star in any of your pictures?” he was asked. Goldwyn thought a moment then said, “Stars are made by God.”
“Do you try to have your films contain a message?”
Goldwyn’s face crinkled into a broad grin as he answered: “I let the Western Union take care of my messages.”
Also, in 1953 “Some Enchanted Evenings: The Story of Rodgers and Hammerstein” by Deems Taylor credited the jest to Moss Hart: 7
Moss Hart is credited with giving the following advice to budding playwrights: “If you have a message, call Western Union.” If he really said that, it is a somewhat cynical and curiously inconsistent dictum to come from a man who wrote a musical comedy extolling the virtues of psychoanalysis!
In November 1953 an editorial in “The Wall Street Journal” also attributed the quip to Moss Hart: 8
Recently we read a remark attributed to Moss Hart, the playwright. It was in the form of advice to those who would like to see their plays on the Broadway boards, Mr. Hart said: “If you got a message, call Western Union.”
In 1964 the Associated Press reported that famous director John Ford attended a tribute program honoring his accomplishments that was conducted by UCLA in California 9
Ford was asked what message his films carry. He turned to director George Sidney and asked “What was it Sam Goldwyn said about messages?”
Sidney supplied the answer: “Let Western Union carry them.”
The prominent Irish poet, playwright, and novelist Brendan Behan died in 1964. His brother Dominic published a memoir titled “My Brother Brendan” in 1965 which included a pertinent tale: 10
Of all the yarns in the book — and there are some beauties — the briefest is probably at once the best and most symbolical of Brendan Behan.
“‘What was the message of your play, Mr Behan?’ somebody asked after the first night of ‘The Hostage.’
“‘Message? Message?’ said Brendan, ‘what the hell do you think I am, a bloody postman?'”
In 1969 “The Moguls” by Norman Zierold attributed the remark to Hollywood studio executive Harry Warner: 11
“We’ll make the pictures; let Western Union deliver the messages,” was the oft-repeated thought of Harry Warner, but it was belied by the daring gambles and innovations made by the brothers.
In 1969 a version using “telegram” instead of ” Western Union” was circulating: 12
In its otherwise favorable cover story on actor John Wayne, Time, in discussing Wayne’s movie, “The Green Berets,” says: “The old Hollywood axiom still holds: ‘If you’ve got a message, send a telegram’.”
In conclusion, Samuel Goldwyn is the leading candidate for creator of this quip. The earliest citation in 1940 attributed the remark to him, and there is direct evidence that he employed the remark in front of an audience in 1953. Humphrey Bogart, John Ford, and others used the joke after it was already in circulation.
Image Notes: Illustration of Telegraphic Relay (Figure 47) from “Electric Telegraphy” (1896) by Edwin J. Houston and A. E. Kennelly.
(Great thanks to the pioneering efforts on this topic by previous researchers including Bill Mullins, Barry Popik, Fred Shapiro, Nigel Rees, and Ralph Keyes.)
- 1940 July 27, The Pittsburgh Press, One Girl Chorus: If Goldwyn Has a Message He’ll Keep It On a Telegram by Aleen Wetstein, Quote Page 17, Column 3, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1943 April 13, New York Post, The Lyons Den by Leonard Lyons, Quote Page 26, Column 3, New York, New York. (Old Fulton) ↩
- 1944 June 12, LIFE, Close-Up: Humphrey Bogart by George Frazier, Start Page 55, Quote Page 55, Time Inc., New York. (Google Books Full View) ↩
- 1945 April 13, The Sherbrooke Telegram, “Gag-of-the-day”, Quote Page 6, Column 2, Sherbrooke, Quebec, Canada. (Google News Archive at news.google.ca) ↩
- 1951 May 17, Boston Globe, The Generals’ Memories by Ed Sullivan, Quote Page 21, Column 1, Boston, Massachusetts. (ProQuest) ↩
- 1953 April 3, The Philadelphia Inquirer, TV Is No Threat to Films, Goldwyn Says by Marion Kelley, Quote Page 22, Column 8, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1953 Copyright, Some Enchanted Evenings: The Story of Rodgers and Hammerstein by Deems Taylor, Quote Page 232, Harper & Brothers, New York.(Verified with hardcopy) ↩
- 1953 November 13, Wall Street Journal, Editorial: Mr. Eisenhower’s Press Conference, Quote Page 6, Column 2, New York. (ProQuest) ↩
- 1964 March 18, Aberdeen American-News, Hollywood by Bob Thomas (Associated Press), Quote Page 2, Column 3, Aberdeen, South Dakota. (GenealogyBank) ↩
- 1966 January 22, The Sydney Morning Herald, Section: Weekend Magazine and Book Reviews, Brendan Behan’s real tragedy (Book reviews by Maurice Vintner of two books: “Confessions of an Irish Rebel” by Brendan Behan and “My Brother Brendan” by Dominic Behan), Quote Page 15, Column 8, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1969, The Moguls by Norman Zierold, Chapter 7: The Brothers Warner, Quote Page 246, Coward-McCann, Inc., New York. (Verified on paper) ↩
- 1969 August 17, The Arizona Republic, Editorial: Send a Telegram?, Quote Page 6, Column 1, Phoenix, Arizona. (Newspapers_com) ↩