The roar of a goldfish

Or, Samuel Goldwyn’s legacy of clangers

For the shrewdest analysis of Amazon’s $8.45 billion acquisition of MGM Studios, let’s go to Samuel Goldwyn, the man who put the G in MGM:

“We’re overpaying him but he’s worth it.”

That quip was actually in reference to hiring the great Ben Hecht to adapt Wuthering Heights1 for the screen in 1939, but it fits. Amazon paid 40% more than what was deemed a fair market price for Metro Goldwyn Mayer, but they got both James Bond and Rocky Balboa. Come for the free shipping, stay for the violent buddy comedy!

While he’s relentlessly synergizing, Jeff Bezos ought to take possession of Goldwyn’s legacy. MGM’s middleman was one of Hollywood’s first impresarios, was born Schmuel Gelbfisz and anglicized as Samuel Goldfish. When he went into business with a pair of brothers named Selwyn, they agreed to merge their names and call the studio Goldwyn — and then Goldfish changed his name to Goldwyn, a selfish takeover by another name. It was later said that a self-made man needed a self-made name, but in an alternate timeline the lion’s roar of MGM could have been the glub of a goldfish. 

Goldwyn helped create Hollywood, but he wasn’t particularly good at making movies. In the words of David Thomson, he was “an opinionated loser, edged out by marginally shrewder men.” He found great talent, threw buckets of cash at them, and then micromanaged their work into mediocrity. On top of that, words had a way with him. As Thomson writes:

Goldwyn is likely to survive as the author of so many non sequiturs, a mogul’s clangers. One of those — “Include me out” — could have been the motto of his career.

Goldwyn’s quips were famous in their day, and many of them have the ring of an unreflective businessman’s shoptalk being recounted by the frustrated artists he kept on the payroll.

“That’s the way with these directors, they’re always biting the hand that lays the golden egg.”

“I’m giving you a definite maybe.”

Like Yogi Berra, some of his mixups seemed to stumble toward a higher truth:

“A wide screen just makes a bad film twice as bad.”

And like Berra, he created a cottage industry in apocryphal Goldwynisms such as:

“Too caustic? To hell with cost; we’ll make the picture anyway.”

“I read part of it all the way through.”

“I don’t care if it doesn’t make a nickel, I just want every man, woman, and child in America to see it.”

The flavour of these lines was so distinct that in my trusty copy of The Macmillan Dictionary of Quotations, there’s a section of fake Goldwynisms that “could have been by him but were, in fact, said by others,” including: 

“We’ve got to believe in free will. We’ve got no choice.”
— Isaac Bashevis Singer

“Once you’re dead, you’re made for life.”
— Jimi Hendrix

My favourite Goldwynism is perfectly on the nose for a man who made Hollywood a place of grand visions and so-so follow through: 

“Let’s have some new cliches.”

And as for the Amazon engineering team rapidly extracting, transforming, and loading the MGM library into Prime Video, here’s the relevant citation:

“Why should people go out and pay to see bad movies when they can stay home and see bad television for nothing?”

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Quick quips; lightning

“Hollywood is the only place on earth where you can get stabbed in the back while you’re climbing a ladder.””
— William Faulkner

“Hollywood money isn’t money. It’s congealed snow, melts in your hand, and there you are.”
Dorothy Parker

“Hollywood is a trip through the sewer in a glass-bottom boat.”
— Wilson Mizner


That was Get Wit Quick No. 99, your weekly screening of cliches new, old, and otherwise. For entertaining Hollywood analysis from this millennium, I highly recommend Richard Rushfield’s The Ankler. David Thomson’s film bible is one of my 6½ essentials. Tilt your phone sideways to make it twice as wide. Hyphen fans can look forward to seeing The New Yorker render it as “M-G-M.” The ETL reference above is proof that I was paying close attention during the engineering all hands. Include my book Elements of Wit: Mastering The Art of Being Interesting out of your summer reading plans. Tap part of the ❤️ below all the way through.

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Already available on Prime Video!