All I Want Is a Story. If You Have a Message, Send It by Western Union

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.

Continue reading All I Want Is a Story. If You Have a Message, Send It by Western Union

Notes:

  1. 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)

“It’s too caustic.” “To hell with the cost.”

Who Said It? Samuel Goldwyn? Robert Benchley? Gracie Allen? Alva Johnston? Anonymous?

Who or What Was Caustic? The Little Foxes? Jim Tully? An Unnamed Actor? Mr. Rosenblatt? An Unnamed Script? An Unnamed Writer? Sidney Howard? Moss Hart?

Dear Quote Investigator: An entertaining legend about the powerful movie mogul Samuel Goldwyn has been amusing people for decades. “The Little Foxes” was a major Broadway hit in 1939 and Goldwyn was considering purchasing the rights to create a film based on the story. He asked his top advisor to see the play and report to him. Here is what the aide supposedly told Goldwyn together with his reply:

“Sam, it’s a great drama, but it might be a little too caustic.”
“I don’t care what it costs, I want it.”

This is my favorite anecdote about Goldwyn, and it is supported by the fact that he did buy the rights and made a classic movie starring Bette Davis. Could you research this quotation?

Quote Investigator:Thanks for sending in this fun story. Unfortunately, there is a problem with the timeline that makes this tale unlikely. In January 1930 the widely-syndicated columnist Walter Winchell reported a version of the joke based on the misconstrual of the word “caustic” that was being disseminated by the popular humorist and actor Robert Benchley. Thus, the core joke was in circulation about nine years before the premiere of “The Little Foxes”.

The tale centered on two movie magnates who began their careers in the garment business. This biographical detail matched Samuel Goldwyn who was a glove salesman before moving to Hollywood. The maladroit line was spoken by one of the magnates. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

They were in conference trying to save a new picture that lacked, what critics usually call, “a wallop.”
“If we could only get someone to fix it up,” said one.
“Why don’t you get Jim Tully?” suggested an executive.
“Jim Tully is too caustic!”
“Oh,” thundered one of the magnates, “the hell with the cost, get him!”

The writer Robert Benchley constructed many humorous stories, and it was possible that he simply invented this anecdote to entertain friends. Alternatively, he may have been present at a meeting when the line was spoken. Special thanks to ace researcher Bill Mullins who located the citation given above.

Here are some additional citations in chronological order.

Continue reading “It’s too caustic.” “To hell with the cost.”

Notes:

  1. 1930 January 9, The Scranton Republican, On Broadway by Walter Winchell, Quote Page 5, Column 2, Scranton, Pennsylvania. (Newspapers_com)