Category Archives: Walter F. Kerr

I Spent a Good Part of Last Evening Laughing at a Very Bad Play

Walter Kerr? Groucho Marx? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: Comedies rarely win prestigious awards. Critics are unaccountably hostile to works that make them guffaw. Groucho Marx once described a critic who laughed heartily and repeatedly during the performance of a play, yet crafted and published an excoriating newspaper review the next day using the barbed phrases “tasteless and tatterdemalion” and “very bad play”. Do you know the critic’s name?

Quote Investigator: Walter Kerr was an influential theater critic for the “New York Herald Tribune” in the 1950s and 1960s. After that newspaper closed he continued his efforts at “The New York Times”. In 1958 Kerr evaluated a comedy from Norman Barasch and Carroll Moore: 1

This is not so much a review as a confession. I spent a good part of an evening laughing at a very bad play—”Make A Million.”

. . . tawdry, tasteless, and tatterdemalion as the evening is, “Make A Million” is—as often as not—stubbornly funny.

. . . “Make A Million” isn’t respectable by any standards I can think of; but it does have an unexpected, and just about inexplicable funnybone.

Below are two additional selected citations in chronological order.

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Notes:

  1. 1958 October 30, The Cincinnati Enquirer, This Is No Review; It’s a Confession by Walter Kerr, Quote Page 9B, Column 1 to 4, Cincinnati, Ohio. (Newspapers_com)

Suffering from Delusions of Adequacy

Who was speaking: Walter F. Kerr? Michael Foot? Erskine Johnson? Charlton Heston? David Brin?

grandeur08Who was criticized: Jay Robinson? Dwight Eisenhower? Charlton Heston?

Dear Quote Investigator: The complaint that someone is exhibiting “delusions of grandeur” has become a cliché. However, a clever modification of the phrase was memorably employed by a theater critic who was unhappy with an ostentatious performance:

The actor was suffering from delusions of adequacy.

Would you please reveal the name of the critic and the performer?

Quote Investigator: In 1951 the Pulitzer-winning drama critic Walter F. Kerr writing in the “New York Herald Tribune” reviewed a play on Broadway called “Buy Me Blue Ribbons”. Kerr noted that the main actor in the production had recently been dismissed from another key position, and the thespian’s reaction was eccentric: 1

Jay Robinson producer and virtually star of “Buy Me Blue Ribbons,” is a young man of twenty-one who was last season dispossessed of a leading role in a play which he had himself financed. Mr. Robinson is apparently not bitter about this. He has had Sumner Locke Elliott write a play for him a comedy about a young man who is similarly thrown out of his own production, and he is offering it, for his mortification and for ours, at the Empire Theatre.

Kerr’s critical judgement was harsh, and he employed the phrase under investigation to lambaste Robinson. Boldface has been added to excerpts:

Mr. Robinson is not up to the course he has set for himself. In the play, the character concludes by giving up his dreams of overnight stardom and deciding to learn his trade from the bottom up. All Mr. Robinson can honestly do now is to take his own advice. At the moment, he is suffering from delusions of adequacy.

The passage above contained the earliest instance located by QI; hence, Kerr was probably responsible for its coinage.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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Notes:

  1. 1951 October 18, New York Herald Tribune, The Theaters: Won’t Win Any Ribbons by Walter F. Kerr, Note: “Walter F. Kerr, drama critic of “The Commonweal,” will be the guest critic of the Herald Tribune during the fall season”, (Review of the play “Buy Me Blue Ribbons”), Quote Page 20, New York, New York. (ProQuest)