Category Archives: Alfred Hitchcock

MacGuffin Is the Term We Use To Cover All that Sort of Thing: To Steal Plans or Documents, or Discover a Secret, It Doesn’t Matter What It Is

Alfred Hitchcock? Elbert Hubbard? Theodore Parker?

Dear Quote Investigator: The influential English film director Alfred Hitchcock employed the term MacGuffin when he discussed the plots of his movies. He also told a peculiar story to explain the meaning of the term. Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: In 1967 the prominent director François Truffaut published a volume containing an extensive interview he had conducted with Alfred Hitchcock. While discussing Hitchcock’s film “Foreign Correspondent” Truffaut mentioned that the plot hinged on a secret known to an elderly gentleman: 1

A.H. That secret clause was our “MacGuffin.” I must tell you what that means.
F.T. Isn’t the MacGuffin the pretext for the plot?
A.H. Well, it’s the device, the gimmick, if you will, or the papers the spies are after.

Hitchcock elaborated on the meaning of MacGuffin:

So the “MacGuffin” is the term we use to cover all that sort of thing: to steal plans or documents, or discover a secret, it doesn’t matter what it is. And the logicians are wrong in trying to figure out the truth of a MacGuffin, since it’s beside the point. The only thing that really matters is that in the picture the plans, documents, or secrets must seem to be of vital importance to the characters. To me, the narrator, they’re of no importance whatever.

Hitchcock presented a curious tale to help explain the origin of the term. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI:

It might be a Scottish name, taken from a story about two men in a train. One man says, “What’s that package up there in the baggage rack?” And the other answers, “Oh, that’s a MacGuffin.” The first one asks, “What’s a MacGuffin?”

“Well,” the other man says, “it’s an apparatus for trapping lions in the Scottish Highlands.” The first man says, “But there are no lions in the Scottish Highlands,” and the other one answers, “Well then, that’s no MacGuffin!” So you see that a MacGuffin is actually nothing at all.

QI conjectures that the story above evolved from a humorous anecdote about an imaginary mongoose, and the term MacGuffin was derived from mongoose.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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  1. 1967, Hitchcock by François Truffaut with the Collaboration of Helen G. Scott, Quote Page 98, Simon and Schuster, New York. (Verified with hardcopy)

No Stone Unturned. No Tern Unstoned. No Stern Untoned

Ogden Nash? James Nelson Gowanloch? Frank Colby? Arthur Knight? Alfred Hitchcock? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: The popular creator of light verse Ogden Nash once crafted a poem that playfully altered a common phrase describing a thorough search: “no stone unturned”. The comical transformation produced “no tern unstoned” and “no stern untoned”. Did Nash originate these two phrases?

Quote Investigator: In 1952 Ogden Nash published “The Private Dining Room and Other New Verses” which included a poem titled “Everybody’s Mind To Me a Kingdom Is or A Great Big Wonderful World It’s”. The following lines exhibited the wordplay. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

This I shall do because I am a conscientious man, when I throw rocks at sea birds I leave no tern unstoned,

I am a meticulous man, and when I portray baboons I leave no stern untoned,

Interestingly, both of these phrases were already in circulation as shown below.

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  1. 1953 (U.S Publication 1952), The Private Dining Room and Other New Verses by Ogden Nash, Poem: Everybody’s Mind To Me a Kingdom Is or A Great Big Wonderful World It’s, Start Page 27, Quote Page 27, J. M. Dent & Sons, London. (Verified with hardcopy)

The Country: A Damp Sort of Place Where All Sorts of Birds Fly About Uncooked

Oscar Wilde? Alfred Hitchcock? Joseph Wood Krutch? Margo Coleman? Bennett Cerf? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: Anyone who has grown tired of reading idealized and overly sentimental visions of nature will enjoy the following skewed definition:

Nature is where the birds fly around uncooked.

These words are credited to Oscar Wilde, but I haven’t found any convincing citations. Would you please help uncover the true author?

Quote Investigator: In 1949 the theater critic and biographer Joseph Wood Krutch published a book about nature titled “The Twelve Seasons: A Perpetual Calendar for the Country”. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

Children can be taken occasionally to the country to see what the sun looks like as they are taken now to see a hill or a mountain. Probably many of them will not want to go anyway, for the country will be to them only what it was to the London club man: “A damp sort of place where all sorts of birds fly about uncooked.”

QI believes that the anonymous “London club man” may be viewed as an archetype, and it is reasonable to directly credit Krutch with the joke. Alternatively, one may state that Krutch popularized the remark.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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  1. 1970 (Copyright 1949), The Twelve Seasons: A Perpetual Calendar for the Country by Joseph Wood Krutch, Chapter: June: Spring Rain, Quote Page 33 and 34,(Reprint of 1949 edition by arrangement with William Morrow & Co.), Books for Libraries Press, Freeport, New York. (Verified on paper)

“Which Is My Best Side, Do You Think?” “You’re Sitting On It”

Leon Shamroy? Alfred Hitchcock? Apocryphal?

lifeboat07Dear Quote Investigator: According to Hollywood legend a vain actor or actress was deeply concerned about being photographed in a flattering manner. The following words were exchanged with a famous director:

“You’re not photographing me with my best side to the camera.”
“But how can I when you’re sitting on it?”

Would you please explore this story?

Quote Investigator: The earliest evidence located by QI was published by the powerful syndicated gossip columnist Hedda Hopper in December 1943. Hopper did not name the director, the actress, or the movie. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

I loved the crack a top director made to a young girl who was complaining they were shooting the wrong side of her face. He stood it as long as he could, then said, “Miss, you’re sitting on your best side.”

In 1945 the syndicated Hollywood columnist Jimmie Fidler relayed an anecdote told by the comedian Hugh Herbert about an actress and an unhappy director: 2

He finally got her posed correctly for the wanted shot, but just as the cameras began to whir she suddenly switched from left profile to right. “Why did you do that?” roared the director. “Because I want my best side to be photographed,” she retorted haughtily. “Honey,” said the director sweetly, “you’re sitting on it!”

In 1950 the anecdote collector Bennett Cerf suggested that the punchline was delivered by the prominent cinematographer Leon Shamroy to an aging movie star. But in 1957 the popular columnist Walter Winchell stated that the remark was made by the famous director Alfred Hitchcock. Finally, in 1970 an interview with Hitchcock was published in which he stated that he spoke the line to Mary Anderson. In 1943 Hitchcock was directing “Lifeboat” which was released in 1944, and Anderson was one of the stars of the film. Detailed citations are given further below.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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  1. 1943 December 31, The Harrisburg Telegraph, Hedda Hopper’s Hollywood, Quote Page 7, Column 6, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. (Newspapers_com)
  2. 1945 July 28, Joplin Globe, Jimmie Fidler in Hollywood, Quote Page 4, Column 7, Joplin, Missouri. (Newspapers_com)

All Actors Are Cattle

Alfred Hitchcock? Apocryphal?

hitchcockcattle03Dear Quote Investigator: Alfred Hitchcock was one of the greatest movie directors of the twentieth century in my opinion. A controversial quotation about actors has long been attributed to him:

All actors are cattle.

Did he really say this? Who was he speaking to?

Quote Investigator: There is good evidence that Alfred Hitchcock did refer to actors as cattle by 1940, and his astringent remark became widely known in Hollywood. Eventually he provided elaborations and playful variations. Details are given further below.

Hitchcock was not the first person to describe actors as cattle. A book published in 1900 discussed a court case between a prominent actor named William Charles Macready and a stage manager named Bunn. The manager was portrayed negatively because of his harsh attitude toward actors: 1

The plaintiff in the case got little or no sympathy from the public, for he belonged to the order of manager, not yet totally extinct, who looks upon actors as cattle and plays as mere pens wherein to exhibit them at so much profit.

The earliest instance located by QI of Hitchcock using the phrase was reported by the popular gossip columnist Leonard Lyons in the Washington Post in July 1940. The remark was contained within a larger joke that zinged the acting skills of George Raft who often portrayed gangsters in melodramas: 2

When Raft, incidentally, appeared in “The House Across the Bay,” his director was absent for one day, and Alfred Hitchcock was asked to help, by directing some closeups. “You know,” Hitchcock warned Raft, “that I think all actors are cattle?” Raft replied, “Yes, I know—but I’m no actor.”

In October 1940 an Associated Press article with a Hollywood dateline included an instance of the quotation. The George Raft joke was altered, and the location of the anecdote was moved from a film set to the home of a well-known actress: 3 4

There is a locally-famous story about this Englishman’s attitude toward actors. One evening at Norma Shearer’s, breaking a conversational lull, Hitchcock pulled himself up portentously and announced: “All actors are cattle.” He hoped to provoke a stimulating argument.

After a stunned silence, George Raft, so goes the story, said “But no one ever called me an actor.”
And Hitchcock replied, quietly: “Yes, I know.”

Every actor in town knows the story, but all who have had the pleasure of working with the pudgy director say that whatever he may think of them as a class, he certainly is one of the few who can get the most out of all actors at all times.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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  1. 1900, Twelve Great Actors by Edward Robins, Profile of William Charles Macready, Start Page 207, Quote Page 235, The Knickerbocker Press, G. P. Putnam’s Sons, New York and London. (Verified on paper)
  2. 1940 July 26, Washington Post, The New Yorker by Leonard Lyons, Quote Page 7, Column 2, Washington, D.C. (ProQuest)
  3. 1940 October 19, Miami Daily News, Hitchcock Treats Actors Like Children Or Cattle by Hubbard Keavy, (Associated Press), Quote Page 6A, Column 6, Miami, Florida, (Google News Archive)
  4. 1940 October 20, Trenton Evening Times, Section 2, Hitchcock Sneers at Actors But He Makes Them Stars, (Associated Press), Quote Page 10, Column 8, Trenton, New Jersey. (GenealogyBank)