The playwright Terence Rattigan was once asked what was the funniest line he had ever written, and instead of punching the interviewer on the nose which is what he was entitled to do, he said, very cleverly, that the funniest line he had ever put into a character's mouth, in context, was the word "Yes". In the situation in which the character found himself that was immensely funny and got the biggest laugh he had ever got.
I'm sure he was right and I'm sure he was making a very good point about theatre, which is that the best laughs come from character and situation, not from one-liners. I am also sure that if you look Terence Rattigan up in a dictionary of quotations, the one thing you will not find is a listing for Terence Rattigan, playwright, (1911 - 1977 ), open quotes, “Yes”, close quotes, because that's not the way things get remembered. And it's not the way things get quoted. You don't hear people saying, ‘Well, in the immortal words of Terence Rattigan - yes!’
But then I think a lot of good lines have been lost, one way or another, just because nobody was there to record them or recognise them. They had a man on Radio 4 once who had been a film technician during the filming of Night Mail, the famous 1930s short film for which W H Auden wrote the poetic sound track. He said that Auden was there on location for the shooting of the film and was often asked to write extra verses to cover extra scenes.
‘He dashed them off,’ the man said. ‘I remember he wrote a marvellous line in the Lake District, coming up to the top at Shap, about the hillsides looking like the flanks of slaughtered horses. Very striking image. But they didn't put it in. So it got lost.’
If only lines had been put in a film or play, you think, they would have been saved. But that's not true either. You can easily get lines in films and plays which go unnoticed. There's a moment near the start of "Singing In the Rain" where Gene Kelly's character is trying to find the Debbie Reynolds character, and he tracks her down to a dressing room where a chorus of pretty girls are changing costumes. The girl nearest the door looks up as Kelly rushes in and says, flirtatiously, ‘Anything I can do?’ Kelly says, ‘Sorry, don't have time to find out' and rushes on. It's a smart clever line, and I have never heard it quoted; indeed, I have never met anyone who remembers it.
There's another good example in the funniest film ever made, "Some Like It Hot", in the scene on the sleeper train where the all-girl band is travelling overnight to Florida. Jack Lemmon, dressed as a girl, has lured Marilyn Monroe into his bunk for a drink and is about to reveal his true gender when the other girls, sensing a party, start piling into the bunk with them. Lemmon, desperate to be left alone with Marilyn, shouts: ‘Hey! There's thirteen of you in here! That's unlucky! Twelve of you get out!’
I like that line. I have never heard it quoted, though. Indeed, I don't think I have ever heard it even when watching the film. The only reason I know it's there is that I was so enamoured of the film that I once bought a paperback of the script, and there in the book was this line I had never heard. The next time I watched the film I could just make out Lemmon saying it, but you'd have to know what he was saying to hear it. And the reason nobody listens to the line is that, like all one-liners and wise-cracks, it gets in the way of the action, and if people want to know what happens next, they are not going to stop and laugh.
Buster Keaton found this out when he was making his great silent comedy "The Navigator". He tells in his autobiography how there was one scene where he was walking along the ocean floor in a big unwieldy diver's uniform, with helmet and all, and it was very important that he get back to shore. Suddenly he finds his way blocked by a shoal of fish. He waits for them to pass. It is an endless shoal of fish, like a line of city traffic, no end to it. Just as he is getting desperate his eye falls on a starfish lying on the sea bottom. Inspiration. He picks up the starfish, puts it on the chest of his costume, where it looks like a sheriff's star, steps forward and puts his hand up - and the fish, respecting his badge of office, stop and let him through!
It's a nice visual joke. But at the previews the audience never laughed at it, not once. Keaton came to the conclusion that by that time they wanted to know what would happen next, they wanted the hero to get to shore, they wanted thing to get moving and they didn't want the action held up by jokes. So very reluctantly he cut the whole gag out of the film, and somewhere on a cutting room floor there is the funniest starfish gag in history.
Now, this is not exactly a verbal joke, and you may well think that any mention of silent films is out of place in Word of Mouth. But you would be wrong. There is one really quite funny verbal connection with silent films, which I would never have come across if I had not, many years ago, opened an issue of Playboy in which a reader wrote in a letter about the dialogue used in silent films. In love scenes in silent films, he wanted to know, did the maker of the film provide dialogue for the two lovebirds to whisper to each other? They were definitely talking, albeit silently. What were they saying? Was it a script? Or aimless talk about baseball? To my surprise, the letters editor of Playboy found out the answer. He engaged an expert lip reader to watch the dialogue in romantic bits of silent films and was told that generally the two lovebirds improvised their own dialogue - and that much of it was indescribably filthy. In the safety of these platonic clinches, the actor and actress often said the raunchiest and most suggestive things to each other, all the time with a sweet smile on their face.
Isn't that a nice thought?
‘Well’, as Terence Rattigan once said, in quite a different context, ‘yes’.
WORD OF MOUTH - Radio 4