The first movie catchphrases were a result of the revolution in sound technology. The very first catchphrase from the cinema came with the very first talking picture, The Jazz Singer (1927), which actually was a mostly silent movie featuring both title cards and several sound sequences. Al Jolson was just supposed to sing in the sound sequences, but his irrepressible personality could not be contained. A famous ad-libber, the excitable Al addressed the night club audience after one of his songs, saying, “Wait a minute! Wait a minute! You ain’t heard nothing yet!” before belting out another tune.
It was part of Al Jolson’s stage act, but of course, most of America had never seen it, let alone heard his stage patter, though Americans bought Al’s records by the bushel-basketful. He was the most popular singer in the first half of the 20th century, in terms of record sales, until Bing Crosby, a crooner who was influenced by Jolson, set standards for song sales later surpassed by The Beatles. In his time, Al Jolson even outsold the vastly popular opera singer Enrico Caruso.
The first actual all-talking picture was a musical short that, like Topsy of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, “just growed.” It soon became the story of two barbers who leave the sticks of Upstate New York for the Big Town,and get involved with Broadway show girls and gangsters. The Lights of New York (1929) was a dreadful film, but a huge hit, and it introduced the crime argot, “Take him for a ride,” into the national consciousness.
Speaking of shavers, Marlon Brando, Jr. was just a wet-behind-the-ears Nebraska squirt when The Lights of New York came out. (The mellifluous voiced Richard Burton believed that Brando would have been ideally suited for the silent screen, due to his “mumbling.”) Fifty-three years later, the man Frank Sinatra called “Mr. Mumbles, the most overrated actor in the world” won his second Oscar playing a New York gangster boss, Don Corleone, in The Godfather (1972). His line, “I’m going to make him an offer he can’t refuse,” became a popular catchphrase that still survives.
Another catchphrase from the movie, though not so potent, was, “It’s nothing personal. Strictly business,” when Corleone family members were explaining why someone had to rubbed out. (In the early 1950s, many a youth exercised his vocal cords imitating Brando/Stanley Kowalski’s plaintive cry “Stella” from A Streetcar Named Desire in pizzerias and other joints attracting teenage girls, but that was a fad of its time.)
Other famous catchphrases associated with gangster movies are “Mother of Mercy! Is this the last of Rico?!?” gasped by Edward G. Robinson in Little Caesar (1931) after he has been tommygunned. Little Caesar was a big hit, helping inaugurate a cycle of gangster pictures, of which the most notorious — and violent — was Howard Hawks’ Scarface: The Shame of a Nation, which was financed by independent producer Howard Hughes and made Paul Muni a star playing a simulacrum of Al Capone. (Capone, at the height of his fame, allegedly received more fan male than Clark Gable.) While that flick didn’t put any catchphrases into the national argot, it’s 1983 remake, Al Pacino as Cuban drug czar Tony “Scarface” Montana says of his machinegun just before a climactic shoot-out, “Say ‘Hello’ to my little friend!” It’s still a favorite catchphrase of gangbangers.
A close relative of the gangster movie is the prison picture. One of Paul Newman’s biggest hits was Cool Hand Luke (1967), and it provided a catchphrase that lasted a generation, when the chain-gang overseer (Strother Martin) said after the beating of a rebellious Luke (Newman), “What we have here is … failure to communicate” (often rendered as “a failure to communicate”). Paul’s co-star George Kennedy picked up the Oscar that should have rightly gone to Strother Martin, for while Kennedy’s performance is forgotten, Martin’s lives on.
“You can’t handle the truth!” Jack Nicholson’s martinet Marine colonel bellowed at Tom Cruise inA Few Good Men(1992), and that entered the national lingo too, though it was nowhere as ubiquitous as “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore!” from the 1976 movie Network. That catchphase wa a perfect distillation of populist feeling in the post-Watergate, Jimmy Carter years. All that anger helped elect Ronald Reagan, a B-movie and TV actor who was briefly considered by Warner Bros. to star in Casablanca into the biggest role in the world, President o the United States.
Humphrey Bogart became a cinema legend as a detective in The Maltese Falcon and The Big Sleep, though his dangling cigarette often upstaged his screen banter. (A long-time supporting actor before making it to stardom late in his career, Bogie had no vanity when it came to allowing his co-stars to get the best lines or to steal a scene from him.) Yet, it was as a nightclub-owner that he played his most famous romantic role, as Rick in Casablanca, winner of the Academy Award for Best Picture of 1943, one of the great American movies.
Casablanca gave rise to the famous catchphrase, “Round up the usual suspects,” which provided the title for a popular 1997 crime picture, The Usual Suspects. It also gave the world, “Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship,” a line of patter that still persists, as does Bogie’s words to an adoring Ingrid Bergman, “Here’s looking at you, kid.”
Detective movies have given rise to innumerable catchphrases. In our time, Clint Eastwood, in the 1983 Dirty Harry film Sudden Impact, snarled to a crook just before his .44 magnum atomized him, “Go ahead; make my day.” For awhile, it was as famous a catchphrase as that of TV cop Joe Friday (Jack Webb) in Dragnet, “Just the facts, ma’am” (a line that was never actually said, just like Bogie’s “Play it again, Sam” from Casablanca). President Reagan took up the catchphrase for a political season, imprinting it on the era.
The most famous line in all movies undoubtedly was said by Clark Gable’s Rhett Butler to Vivien Leigh’s Scarlett O’Hara in the 1939 blockbuster Gone With the Wind: “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.” However, since the word “damn” if not displays of real emotion were taboo in polite American society for a generation after the World War II era (before the Swinging Sixties really swung), the only place it likely caught on was behind closed doors.
That leads us to Dorothy’s lament to her dog in The Wizard of Oz, another classic movie from 1939: “Toto, I have a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore,” a catchphrase resorted to by countless tens of millions plagued by the feeling that things are askew and all is just not right in this world.
Thankfully, Forest Gump — a hang-over of the Reagan “Morning in America” fugue — has passed into the great ash heap of cinema history, clumped amongst once popular films that will have future generations scratching their heads “Why”? over their phenomenal and inexplicable success. Thus, “Life is like a box of chocolates; you never know what you’re gonna get,” a monster catchphrase during the first Bill Clinton Administration (before his reputation and Monica Lewinsky’s dress were sullied) will one day be forgotten.
Other movie catchphrases that have been worn to the nub in repeating are “I’ll be back,” from the original The Terminator (1984) and “Hasta la vista, baby!” from its 1991 sequel, Terminator 2: Judgment Day. These are fitting mottoes for the many movie catchphrases that never seem to die, and the reaction of a weary public.
The Independent (UK), “You ain’t heard nothing’ yet: How one sentence uttered by Al Jolson changed the movie industry”