Thank you, Hollywood
Ah, the movies. How we love ‘em. As kids, we showed up faithfully at our local movie theaters on Saturday afternoons, and with the cost of admission, a quarter—or even a dime!—were transported to the wonders of Hollywood’s imagination. When the curtain went up, first came the black-and-white newsreels. Nobody paid any attention to these, but spent that 15 minutes or so yelling at friends or classmates not seated nearby, switching seats, or making last-minute concessions runs.
Next came cartoons. Some, like Felix the Cat and Mighty Mouse, insulted our collective intelligence, while Daffy Duck, Bugs Bunny, and Tom and Jerry hilariously met our sophisticated approval.
After the cartoons came serials, which were usually westerns, and each episode was a continuation of the previous week’s. Roy Rogers and Gene Autry were as familiar to us as our next-door neighbors, and the actor William Boyd, who played Hopalong Cassidy, was as well known to us as Al Pacino or Meryl Streep are to today’s moviegoers.
Finally, the week’s serial came to its cliff-hanger ending, and we settled down to the serious business of watching the main feature. Audie Murphy and Randolph Scott were our western heroes week after week, as was Lex Barker in Tarzan pictures as he swung through the trees yelling his signature jungle cry. And what a thrill when Abbott and Costello or The Three Stooges were the headliners.
While, yes, movies are for many of us a beloved form of escapism, over the years their writers have given us some lines that have stayed with us long after the curtain fell. These one-liners have come to convey a message beyond their original use and are easily understood shorthand in certain situations. Some of the most unforgettable are:
“Houston, we have a problem,” which was spoken in the film Apollo 13, by astronaut Jack Swigert (played by Kevin Bacon). The actual quote from Swigert’s mission was, “Okay, Houston, we’ve had a problem here,” which was then paraphrased by fellow astronaut Jim Lovell (Tom Hanks), “Uh, Houston, we’ve had a problem here.” The phrase has come to say, in an understated way, that an urgent situation has arisen.
And who could forget, “You’re gonna need a bigger boat”? This reality check came from local police chief Brody (Roy Scheider), in the 1975 film Jaws when he catches an up-close glimpse of the great white shark that has been terrorizing his town’s beaches. Brody has joined professional shark hunter Quint (Robert Shaw) and marine biologist Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) on Quint’s boat to track down and kill the menacing shark. The phrase is now used when it is recognized that the success of a mission is unattainable without major changes.
In All About Eve, veteran actress Margo Channing (Bette Davis) utters the words, “Fasten your seatbelts. It’s going to be a bumpy night”—this was before gonna found its way into our everyday lexicon—at a cocktail party where she presages an encounter with understudy Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter) whose real goal is to replace Margo in the spotlight. Like the Apollo 13 misquote, the actual dialogue is usually misspoken as, “Fasten your seatbelts. It’s going to be a bumpy ride.” Now both quotes are used to denote “Get a grip. Trouble’s ahead.”
From the peerless Judy Garland in her timeless role as Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, we get, “Toto, I have a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.” Nowadays, it’s usually shortened to, “We’re not in Kansas anymore,” and is a quick way to say things don’t seem right, something is undefinably askew.
Another famous line comes not from the main character, Luke Jackson (Paul Newman), but by the consummate character actor Strother Martin. In the film Cool Hand Luke, Martin plays the role of the Captain, the warden of a Florida prison in which Luke proves to be a stubbornly oppositional convict. Even minor infractions are punished, and before the Captain dishes out punishment, he is fond of saying the now-famous line, “What we’ve got here is failure to communicate.” While the line is usually spoken verbatim and its meaning is unambiguous, it has become a facetious and often demeaning way of telling someone (usually a subordinate) that their behavior is inconsistent with what is expected.
Going back to Hollywood’s golden year, 1939, we find another misquote. The familiar phrase is, “Elementary, my dear Watson, elementary,” and is credited to Sherlock Holmes (Basil Rathbone) speaking to his friend and confidant, Dr. John Watson (Nigel Bruce) in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. In reality, however, that phrase does not exist in any of the Sherlock films or books. Rather, it was Watson who spoke the line to Holmes, not the other way around. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J6AJK2jPAuk). In the scene Holmes is trying to shoo a fly by playing the violin, only to have Watson swat it with his newspaper and declaring, “Elementary, my dear Holmes, elementary.” The phrase has come to mean one is stating the obvious.
And in closing, a line that’s almost as famous as Gone With the Wind’s “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.” In both Mario Puzo’s book The Godfather and its film adaptation, Don Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando) is visited by his godson Johnny Fontane (Al Martino) who asks the “Don” to help him land a film role to boost his lagging career. While it has been rumored that the Fontane characterization was based on Frank Sinatra, many who knew Sinatra deny this. In the film, Fontane complains to Corleone that a particular studio chief has refused to give him the part he wants. In response to Fontane’s request for help, Vito tells him not to worry, “I’m gonna make him an offer he can’t refuse.” None of us can forget the scene when the defiant film mogul Jack Woltz (John Marley) wakes up only to find the severed head of his prized horse in his bed. When someone uses the phrase now, he is saying that he will take control of the situation, that negotiation is not an option. More commonly, however, it does not convey Vito’s sinister message. It’s just a playful way of saying, “No worries. It’ll be taken care of.”
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