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You Can Quote Them

The principal theme of these columns is the slipperiness of quotation attribution. Popular quotation lore, and often the standard quotation dictionaries as well, base many of their attributions on legend, misinformation, and shoddy or nonexistent research. There are also systematic distortions in quote-sourcing. One of the most common distortions is that famous movie lines are invariably credited to their movies—though the lines were often taken verbatim, or with only slight changes, from the book, play, or short story upon which the film in question was based.

Many cinematic quotations can be traced to literary originals.

In the Yale Book of Quotations, I have a large section of film lines, but some of the most famous lines in motion pictures are not included there. Sometimes I am asked, for example, why there are ten quotes from the 1939 movie The Wizard of Oz—such as “Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore" and “Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain!”—but not other celebrated ones. The answer is that the others appeared earlier in L. Frank Baum’s 1900 book, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, and they are listed under Baum’s name:

There is no place like home.

“I am Oz, the Great and Terrible. Who are you, and why do you seek me?” … “I am Dorothy, the Small and Meek. I have come to you for help.”

I’m really a very good man; but I’m a very bad Wizard.

To me, it makes no sense to acribe “There is no place like home” to a movie if it is really a Baumism.

Many of the greatest cinematic quotations can be traced to literary originals. The Yale Book of Quotations records these examples and dozens of others:

My dear, I don’t give a damn.

I’ll make him an offer he can’t refuse.

A census taker tried to quantify me once. I ate his liver with some fava beans and a big Amarone.

Bond—James Bond.

One complication is that subtle changes in the adaptation from novel to film might qualify the movie line as a new creation. Perhaps the screenwriter’s keen sense of diction and cadence was just the touch that resulted in a quotation that earned cultural immortality.  L. Frank Baum wrote, “I never thought a little girl like you would ever be able to melt me and end my wicked deeds” (Chapter 12). In the hands of the screenwriters Noel Langley, Florence Ryerson, and Edgar Allan Woolf, it became “Who ever thought a little girl like you could destroy my beautiful wickedness?” Clearly the latter is the superior version. And “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn” is number one on the American Film Institute’s list of the top 100 movie quotations in American cinema—but would it be there if screenwriter Sidney Howard had not added to Mitchell’s version that one evocative word, “Frankly"?  the end


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