The Lunatics Have Taken Charge of the Asylum

Edgar Allan Poe? Richard Rowland? Terry Ramsaye? Laurence Stallings? H. L. Mencken? William Gibbs McAdoo? Jack Oakie? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: The leaders of a group often face a variety of criticisms. Harsh detractors employ a vivid metaphor from the domain of mental health. Here are two examples:

  1. The lunatics have taken over the asylum.
  2. The inmates are in charge of the asylum.

This barb has often been aimed at Hollywood. Would you please explore the provenance of this expression?

Quote Investigator: The earliest match for this metaphor known to QI appeared in the 1926 book “A Million and One Nights: A History of the Motion Picture Through 1925” by Terry Ramsaye. The statement was applied to the upstart movie studio United Artists and its four founders: prominent film director D. W. Griffith, popular comic actor Charlie Chaplin, well-known star Mary Pickford, and matinee idol Douglas Fairbanks. Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 1

The classic comment of the occasion came from Richard Rowland, then head of Metro Pictures Corporation. He received the interesting tidings from Arthur James, press and intelligence agent of Metro. Rowland meditated on the significance of the new move for almost a full second.

“So,” he remarked, “the lunatics have taken charge of the asylum.”

It should be added, lest there be an assumption that the comment sprang from snobbery, that Rowland has been philosopher enough to classify himself as “one of the accidentally successful.”

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading The Lunatics Have Taken Charge of the Asylum

Notes:

  1. 1964 (1926 Copyright), A Million and One Nights: A History of the Motion Picture Through 1925 by Terry Ramsaye, Chapter 79: Mary, McAdoo and Monte Carlo, Quote Page 795, Simon and Schuster, New York. (Verified with scans)

A Black Cat Crossing Your Path Signifies That the Animal Is Going Somewhere

Groucho Marx? Jack Oakie? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: Encountering a black cat may bring you good luck or bad luck according to a complicated rule dictated by superstitious beliefs. The nature of the omen depends on whether the cat was traveling from left to right or the reverse. It also depends on whether the cat was moving toward you or away. I prefer the simple analysis credited to the famous comedian Groucho Marx:

A black cat crossing your path signifies that the animal is going somewhere.

Did Groucho really say this? I have been unable to find a solid citation. Would you please help?

Quote Investigator: This question is difficult to resolve. The earliest citation found by QI occurred in January 1931 when the quip was ascribed to the popular actor Jack Oakie. Yet, in July 1931 the joke was credited to Groucho Marx. Currently, Oakie is the leading candidate for authorship although future research may switch the attribution.

“The Marion Star” of Marion, Ohio published a piece about Oakie in January 1931 that included six jokes about superstitious beliefs. Here were three of them. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

Oakie, you know, doesn’t believe in signs and superstitions and has drawn up a list of good and bad signs which can’t fail. Here are a few of them:

“A black cat crossing in front of a person signifies that the animal is going somewhere.

“Throwing salt over one’s shoulder is likely to give the impression that the wearer has dandruff.

“Thirteen is unlucky at a dinner when the host has only twelve chops.

The original phrasing of the black cat joke differed a bit from the common modern version.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading A Black Cat Crossing Your Path Signifies That the Animal Is Going Somewhere

Notes:

  1. 1931 January 15, The Marion Star, Theater News and Reviews: Jack Oakie Spends Pleasant Pastime Kidding Gangsters by Hallie Houck, Quote Page 16, Column 4 and 5, Marion, Ohio. (Newspapers_com)