We Do Them Wrong

Many people mispronounce places of names like Chiang Mai, Hanoi and Nepal. They say “Cheng Mai”, “Honoi” and “Nipple.”

Misquotes are worse.

Many of the most frequently cited motion-picture lines turn out to be misquotations. The speech from Dirty Harry in which Clint Eastwood says, “You’ve got to ask yourself one question: ‘Do I feel lucky?’ Well, do ya, punk?” is commonly compressed to “Do you feel lucky, punk?”

Michael Douglas’s “Greed, for lack of a better word, is good” (Wall Street) is condensed to “Greed is good.”

Expressions of James Cagney like “You dirty, yellow-bellied rat” (Taxi!) and “Dirty, double-crossing rat” (Blonde Crazy) are immortalized as the snappier “You dirty rat.”

Robert Duvall’s “I love the smell of napalm in the morning. It smells like victory” (Apocalypse Now) is shortened from “I love the smell of napalm in the morning. You know, one time we had a hill bombed for 12 hours. When it was all over, I walked up. We didn’t find one of ’em, not one stinkin’ . . . body. The smell, you know that gasoline smell, the whole hill. Smelled like victory.”

In Island of Lost Souls, Charles Laughton’s remarks, “They are restless tonight” have been changed to “The natives are restless.”

Sometimes a specific reference is changed to a generalized one. “If you build it, he will come” from Field of Dreams becomes “If you build it, they will come.”

Fred Shapiro, editor of The Yale Book of Quotations said that the most famous example of a film line improved by the popular mind is, of course, Ingrid Bergman’s request to the pianist in Casablanca: “Play it, Sam. Play ‘As Time Goes By.’ ”

It didn’t take long for the line to begin to shift. Nigel Rees, the British author and quote maven, has noted that Jack Benny included “Sam, Sam, play that song for me again, will you?” in a radio parody of the movie a year later. At some point along the way, it became the memorable “Play it again, Sam,” which Woody Allen helped to cement by using the paraphrase as the title of a 1969 play and a 1972 motion picture.

Another notable instance of the progression of cinematic phrasing toward greater euphony is a line of Mae West’s. For her play Diamond Lil, West wrote: “Why don’t you come up sometime?” The later film She Done Him Wrong made it longer: “Why don’t you come up sometime and see me?” We know it today as “Why don’t you come up and see me sometime?”

Shapiro said when a quotation captures the essence of a performer; we want to believe it was spoken, even if it would have been anachronistic. Mae West and She Done Him Wrong (1933) provide an example. “Is that a gun in your pocket, or are you just happy to see me?” is often ascribed to that film, but it does not appear there or in any of her other early productions: it was too risqué for the time of its supposed use.

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