The Crowd Came to the Funeral, Not To Mourn, But To Make Sure the Person Was Dead

Who Said It: Samuel Goldwyn? Mr. Jones? S. S. Van Dine? Joey Adams? Whispering Russian?
joey08Whose Funeral: Louis B. Mayer? Fogarty’s Brother? Joseph Stalin? W. Kerr Scott?

Dear Quote Investigator: According to Hollywood legend when the tyrannical chief of a powerful movie studio died many were surprised to see that his funeral was well attended. When the leader of a competing studio was asked for an explanation he said:

The turnout was large because so many people wanted to make sure he was dead.

Would you please explore this sardonic tale?

Quote Investigator: This questionable story was printed in the 1960 biographical work “Hollywood Rajah: The Life and Times of Louis B. Mayer”. Mayer was a very successful movie producer who was a co-founder of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studios. He died in 1957, and the cutting remark above has been attributed to fellow mogul Samuel Goldwyn. The details for this citation are listed further below.

Interestingly, barbs of this type have been circulating for more than 125 years. For example, in 1889 and 1890 multiple newspapers recounted a story from the “San Francisco Chronicle” of California about a longstanding bitter quarrel between two people named Jones and Fogarty. Jones felt some empathy for Fogarty when he learned that his brother had died. So he made an effort to end the dissension by attending the funeral, but his gesture of reconciliation backfired. Bold face has been added to excerpts: 1 2 3

He displayed becoming grief and sorrow, but he did not have a chance to speak to Mr. Fogarty. A few days after he met Mr. Fogarty and went up to him with outstretched hand and a sympathetic look on his face. To his surprise Mr. Fogarty drew himself up and glared at him:

“May I inquire, sir, what the devil you were doing at my brother’s funeral?”

The Christian feeling in Mr. Jones evaporated. He took in the outstretched hand, and said with considerable force: “I went to make sure he was dead.” The war is fiercer than ever.

The story above exhibited a comparable punchline and provided a thematic match; however, it did not refer to a large turnout at a funeral. A different thematic match appeared in multiple newspapers in 1934 when a serialized mystery called “The Kennel Murder Case” by S. S. Van Dine was published. A police officer questioned a suspect: 4 5

“If you think your uncle was such a wash-out and you were so glad to find he’d been croaked, why did you run over to him and kneel down, and pretend to be worried?”

Hilda Lake gave the Sergeant a withering, yet whimsical, look.

“My dear Mr. Policeman, I simply wanted to make sure he was dead.”

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading The Crowd Came to the Funeral, Not To Mourn, But To Make Sure the Person Was Dead

Notes:

  1. 1889 November 28, The Parsons Sun (The Parsons Weekly Sun), Why He Went to the Funeral (acknowledgement to San Francisco Chronicle), Quote Page 2, Column 2,Parsons, Kansas. (Newspapers_com)
  2. 1890 January 12, The Morning Reporter (Independence Daily Reporter), Why He Went to the Funeral (acknowledgement to San Francisco Chronicle), Quote Page 3, Column 2, Independence, Kansas. (Newspapers_com)
  3. 1890 May 20, Arkansas City Traveler (Arkansas City Daily Traveler), Why He Went to the Funeral (acknowledgement to San Francisco Chronicle), Quote Page 2, Column 2, Arkansas City, Kansas. (Newspapers_com)
  4. 1934 January 12, Valley Weekly (Valley Morning Star), ‘The Kennel Murder Case’ Thrilling Tale of a Man’s Death Twice by S. S. Van Dine, Quote Page 6, Column 7, Harlingen, Texas. (Newspapers_com)
  5. 1934 August 31, The Alton Democrat, The Kennel Murder Case by S. S. Van Dine, Quote Page 7, Column 3, Alton, Iowa. (Newspapers_com)

I Want a Film that Begins with an Earthquake and Works Up to a Climax

Samuel Goldwyn? William Pine? William Thomas? Louis B. Mayer? Apocryphal?

goldwyn07Dear Quote Investigator: Some recent Hollywood action movies begin with an explosion and follow with a series of frenetic semi-coherent set pieces. The script writers seem to be channeling the late movie mogul Samuel Goldwyn’s funny advice for creating a blockbuster:

We need a story that starts with an earthquake and works up to a climax.

Is this suggestion an authentic Goldwynism, or is it apocryphal?

Quote Investigator: The earliest evidence located by QI appeared in a theatrical review by Rupert Hart-Davis printed in the London periodical “The Spectator” in 1938. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

There is a legend about a film magnate telling his scenario-writer that he wants a story beginning with an earthquake and working up to a climax.

The “film magnate” was unnamed and the word “legend” signaled that the story was probably exaggerated or fictional. Nevertheless, the comical phrase was widely disseminated, and by 1941 Goldwyn’s name was attached to an instance in the “Chicago Tribune”. Other movie producers such as William Pine, William Thomas, and Louis B. Mayer have also been linked to the statement.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading I Want a Film that Begins with an Earthquake and Works Up to a Climax

Notes:

  1. 1938 March 4, The Spectator, Volume 160, Stage and Screen: The Theatre by Rupert Hart-Davis, (Review of a play based on the novel “Dodsworth”), Quote Page 359, Column 1, London, England. (Verified on paper)

Give the People What They Want and They’ll Come

Humorist: Red Skelton? George Jessel? Goodman Ace? Groucho Marx? Bert Lahr? James Bacon?

jessel07Funeral: Harry Cohn? Louis B. Mayer?

Dear Quote Investigator: A show business platitude states that success at the box office is achievable by simply giving the people what they want.

A harsh comical anecdote about a funeral reinterpreted this saying. The memorial service of a powerful and disliked movie mogul was surprisingly well attended. One ambivalent mourner asked another to explain the existence of the large crowd of attendees. The acerbic response was:

Give the public what they want, and they’ll come to see it.

Would you please explore this tale? What was the name of the movie potentate who had died? Who was telling the joke?

Quote Investigator: The earliest evidence known to QI appeared in “The Washington Post” in 1941. A columnist relayed a quip made by the popular actor and comedian George Jessel: 1

And there was George Jessel’s box-office-ish remark about a funeral which was drawing enormous crowds of people into a church door as he passed—”Well, there you are, you see,” said Jessel. “Give ’em what they want.”

The text above was located by top researcher Bonnie Taylor-Blake. Jessel was presenting a joke, and he was not actually attending a funeral. The adage was recognizable to readers even when it was truncated. The memorialized individual was nameless in the quip.

In later years this comical remark was linked to other wits such as Red Skelton, Goodman Ace, and Groucho Marx. In addition, the barb was precisely aimed at the prominent movie producers Harry Cohn and Louis B. Mayer.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading Give the People What They Want and They’ll Come

Notes:

  1. 1942 March 8, Washington Post, Strictly Screwball by Katharine Brush, Quote Page L1, Column 3 and 4, Washington, D.C. (ProQuest)

Writers Are Just Schmucks with Underwoods

Jack L. Warner? Bill Davidson? Samuel Goldwyn? Louis B. Mayer? Harry Cohn? Apocryphal?

underwood06Insult: Schmuck? Schlep? Schnook?

Dear Quote Investigator: The attitude of Hollywood producers toward writers has been epitomized by the following callous remark:

A writer is a schmuck with an Underwood.

The Underwood Typewriter Company manufactured the best writing implements when the statement was made. Here is another version I’ve seen:

Writers are just schmucks with typewriters.

These words have been attributed to Jack Warner, Samuel Goldwyn, and Harry Cohn. Would you please examine this saying?

Quote Investigator: The earliest evidence located by QI appeared in 1961. Oddly, two different versions were given by a journalist named Bill Davidson in that year. The book “The Real and the Unreal” recounted Davidson’s extensive experiences in Hollywood and included the following passage. Boldface has been added: 1

One of the Warner brothers, for example, used to call all writers—even William Faulkner, who was once under his command—“schmucks with typewriters” (schmuck is a derisive Yiddish expression for a bumpkin, an idiot). He used to make all his writers punch a time clock as they entered and left the studio…

While Faulkner was crafting screenplays he was employed by the powerful studio chief Jack Warner. Hence, Davidson was probably attributing the comment to Jack Warner who continued as an influential figure in the film business into the 1960s. This initial instance referred to “typewriters” instead of the particular brand “Underwood”.

In October 1961 Davidson wrote an article in “Show: The Magazine of the Arts”, and the content overlapped with material in his book. In the following excerpt the quotation incorporated the Yiddish term “schlep” instead of “schmuck”: 2

There are several ways of getting hired in Hollywood. The first, and most difficult, is to have talent. The talented are considered untrustworthy interlopers. One of the Warner brothers, for example, used to call all writers—even William Faulkner, who was once under his command—“schleps with typewriters” (schlep is a derisive Yiddish expression for a bumpkin, an idiot).

It is unclear why Bill Davidson presented two different quotations, and the inconsistency reduces the credibility of the ascription. Perhaps Davidson had collected conflicting reports. Etymologically “schmuck” can be traced to the Yiddish term for phallus, and it was considered vulgar by some speakers. This taboo association might have provided a motivation for replacing one term with another.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading Writers Are Just Schmucks with Underwoods

Notes:

  1. 1961, The Real and the Unreal by Bill Davidson, Chapter 14: How to Get Fired in Hollywood, Start Page 241, Quote Page 242, Published by Harper & Brothers, New York. (Verified on paper)
  2. 1961 October, Show: The Magazine of the Arts, Volume 1, Number 1, Hollywood: A Cultural Anthropologist’s View (Place in the Sun) by Bill Davidson, Start Page 80, Quote Page 81, Column 2, Hartford Publications, New York. (Verified on paper)