That Memorable Movie Line? You Might Not Get It Past a Good Copy Editor

In Casablanca, Humphrey Bogart didn’t say, “Play it again, Sam.”

Bill Walsh, the late, great Washington Post copy editor, wrote three often-funny books about his craft and he admitted that copy editors sometimes could be spoilsports. In one book, Yes, I Could Care Less: How to be a Language Snob Without Being a Jerk, he took lines from movies that people love to quote and pointed out that the oft-quoted line was not what was actually said in the movie. Some of his favorites:

“Houston, we’ve got a problem.”

If you’re looking for the line from the movie Apollo 13, it’s “Houston, we have a problem.” Historically speaking, however, even the movie was wrong. What astronaut Jim Lovell actually said during the Apollo 13 mission was, “Houston, we’ve had a problem.”

“Play it again, Sam.”

I used to see this misquote from Casablanca more often. Either people have wised up or they’ve forgotten the Woody Allen movie by that name—What Bogart said was simply, “Play it, Sam.”

“What we have here is a failure to communicate.”

Even if people avoid one common error (the line from Cool Hand Luke uses “we’ve got” rather than “we have”), they tend to mistakenly insert that “a.” It was actually just “failure to communicate”—“What we’ve got here is failure to communicate.”

“Are you feeling lucky today, punk?”

The quote from Dirty Harry goes, “You’ve got to ask yourself one question: ‘Do I feel lucky?’ Well, do you, punk?”

“If you build it, they will come.”

The Field of Dreams line is “If you build it, he will come.”

“My mama always said life is like a box of chocolates.”

In Forrest Gump, Forrest is apparently a stickler for the sequence of tenses. Life was like a box of chocolates.

“I vant to be alone.”

Plenty of people use that pronunciation, but Greta Garbo didn’t. What she says in Grand Hotel is straightforward “I want to be alone.”

“We’re going to need a bigger boat.”

The line from Jaws is “You’re going to need a bigger boat.” (Or “gonna,” if you must.)

“Win one for the Gipper.”

This isn’t so much a misquote as an adaptation, but note that the actual line from Knute Rockne, All American is “Tell them to go out there with all they got and win just one for the Gipper.”

“Greed is good.”

A set of ellipses is enough to fix this, but note that the line from Wall Street is “Greed, for the lack of a better word, is good.”

“Mrs. Robinson, are you trying to seduce me?”

What Dustin Hoffman actually said in The Graduate was, “Mrs. Robinson, you’re trying to seduce me. Aren’t you?”

“I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it anymore!”

The actual Howard Beale quote from Network is slightly different—”I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!”—though at least one of Beale’s followers says it the way everyone seems to remember it.
In a March 16 post, “Bill Walsh, a Copy Editor Who Could Make You Smile,” you’ll find entertaining excerpts from his monthly Washington Post web chat. And in an April 6 post, “Bill Walsh’s Favorite Quotes about Editing and Writing,” you’ll find good quotes about editing and writing from his book, The Elephants of Style.



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