Last night, I got a call that might puzzle many a parent of a male college student. “Dad,” my younger son said with the sound of distress in his voice. “I’ve got a clingy-girl problem.”
It’s at times like this that I draw on the vast resources of imdb.com, the internet movie database that puts snappy one-liners from famous movies at your fingertips.
“Calm down,” I said to my boy. “Is there anybody else you can hand her off to?”
“Well yeah,” he replies. “There’s this guy down the hall in my dorm who likes her, but he’s a real scrawny type, and he thinks I’ll kill him if he asks her out.”
I clucked my tongue, as only a parent can. “You don’t remember the line from Alfred Hitchcock’s Notorious I’m always quoting–do you?” I asked in a tone that suggested I was terribly disappointed in him.
“Uh, no,” he said. He’s lucky if he can remember when he’s supposed to come home for Thanksgiving.
“I want you to get the girl in your dorm, take her down the hall to the guy’s room, and say these words.”
“The ones I’m going to say to you right now. Got a pencil?”
“Hold on. Okay.”
“‘For what it’s worth she’s telling the truth. I knew her before you and I loved her before you. I just wasn’t as lucky as you.’ Then you gaze at her one last time with a look of regret at how things might have been, turn, and walk back to your room. Got it?”
There was silence for a moment at his end of the line. “Gosh, dad–thanks.”
“You’re welcome,” I say. “Remember to take your Accutane, okay?”
I first realized the power of obscure lines from classic movies coming out of a bar with friends many years ago. A bunch of us had been having drinks after work, and the lone woman left in the group–a beanstalk who topped out somewhere north of 6′–began to complain about her lovelife as we walked through the cold winter air, flakes falling on us as gently as they drift downward in a child’s snow globe.
“I don’t know what it is,” she said. “I can’t seem to find a nice guy.”
A man in the group–a Southerner who was a good deal shorter than her–turned to the woman with the piercing look of a falcon with a field mouse in its sights. He grasped her around the waist, stared up into her eyes, and said “You know what you need? You need to be kissed–and kissed often–by a man who knows how.” And with that he bent her backwards and kissed her–right there in front of the brick-oven pizza joint, shocking her, the rest of the group and people passing by. It was a moment I’ll never forget.
It wasn’t until the two had unlocked their lips and we all broke out laughing that the kisser revealed that he’d borrowed the lines from Gone With the Wind, a movie I’d seen several times but which I remembered principally for a line by Butterfly McQueen that one of the senior partners in the firm used to repeat whenever an associate would complain about a new and difficult assignment.
“But,” a young woman would whine to him as he was about to step out the door for dinner with a client, “I’ve never done a double bank-shot reverse triangular merger before!”
“I don’t know nothin’ about birthin’ babies, Miss Scarlett,” he’d say as he walked off, making it clear that the complaining party was being hysterical and that the task was something that had been done a million times before. He made us understand that we’d figure it out–whatever “it” was–as generations of round-shouldered scriveners before us had.
I keep a stock of these lines with me at all times; some of them trenchant, some of them impenetrably opaque, as is the case with a question that Walter Brennan asks several times in To Have and Have Not. It is particularly useful when a party guest has gone off on a tangent about something that bores you and threatens to derail the feast of reason and flow of soul that alcohol-enhanced dinner conversation can be. I speak in particular of a woman of our acquaintance who was an adoring fan of Donald Trump back when he was a Democrat and known only to few people beyond the East coast.
“You haven’t seen The Apprentice?” she asked, incredulous that I was so benighted that I didn’t share her enthusiasm for a television show that featured a real estate mogul who went into and out of Chapter 11 with mechanical regularity and appeared to wear a wolverine on his head.
I could have responded in kind, admitting that I hadn’t seen it, asking her about its premise, encouraging her to elaborate on the contestants. Instead I put my fork down and asked her Brennan’s question:
“No I haven’t. Have you ever been bit by a dead bee?”
The latter, and not the former, stopped the conversation in its tracks.