8 Great Moments in the History of Editing
by David Wanczyk
Novels, movies, cartoons, tattoos ... everything is better on the second draft.
1. The Catch in Catch-22: The Edit That Became an Idiom
In 1961, author Joseph Heller finally submitted his manuscript for Catch-18 to his editor, Robert Gottlieb. Although Heller had spent seven years perfecting the story, Gottlieb saw room for improvement. The editor taped the pages to his office wall and restructured the novel, giving more emphasis to the now famous Major Major character and instructing Heller to delete entire 60-page sections. But most importantly, Gottlieb wanted to change the title.
Earlier that year, writer Leon Uris had released a war novel called Mila 18, and Gottlieb didn’t want any confusion between the two books. What followed was an exchange of frantic letters in which Heller and Gottlieb considered and rejected various numbers for the title. They decided 11 didn’t work because of Ocean’s 11; 14 was “an unfunny number;” and 26 just didn’t feel right. “I’ve got it!” Gottlieb blurted out one night in a eureka moment. “It’s Catch-22! It’s funnier than 18.” The edit stuck, and a major, major idiom was born.
2. Hall Marks: The Edit That Resulted in Two Masterpieces
Today, Woody Allen’s 1977 masterpiece Annie Hall is considered the quintessential romantic comedy. Clocking in at just 93 minutes, it’s also one of the shortest movies to ever win Best Picture at the Academy Awards. But the film wasn’t always so romantic ... or so short. Annie Hall was initially shot as a murder mystery that ran two and a half hours long. Then the movie’s producers decided they wanted to go in a different direction. In addition to slicing out all of the crime scenes, they requested a title change. It’s a good thing, too. Originally, the picture was called Anhedonia, a psychological term that refers to the inability to gain pleasure from normally pleasing experiences. But when Anhedonia tested horribly with focus groups, the team tried out other titles—including Me and My Goy and It Had to Be Jew—before landing on the classic Annie Hall.
Were the producers right to worry about Anhedonia’s crime-comedy plot? Perhaps not. Sixteen years later, Allen recycled the story (and even rehired many of the same actors, including Diane Keaton) for his well-received 1993 film Manhattan Murder Mystery. Without the producers’ extreme edits to Annie Hall, it’s likely that only one of those classics would have been made.
3. Guess Who's Going Off Script? The Greatest Ad-Lib Edit on Film
At the end of his legendary acting career, Spencer Tracy decided it was time to start writing his own lines. In 1967, the ailing, 67-year-old Tracy was filming Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, in which an older white couple (played by Tracy and his longtime off-screen lover, Katharine Hepburn) meets their daughter’s black fiancé. During the final scene, Tracy argues on behalf of the couple’s taboo relationship and then ad-libs a goodbye to Hepburn. Originally, the script read, “The only thing that matters is what they feel, and how much they feel for each other,” to which Tracy added, “If it’s half of what we felt, that’s everything.” With his heartfelt edit, Tracy allowed his true emotions to pour out, and Hepburn teared up. After the scene was shot, the crew gave Tracy a standing ovation. The scene ended up being Tracy’s last great performance; just weeks later, the actor died of a heart attack.
4. Virgil's Last Wish: The No-Edit Edit
Since the earliest days of literature, writers have been dissatisfied with their work, and the Roman poet Virgil was no exception. Virgil believed his epic poem, The Aeneid, was so flawed that he wanted it to suffer the ultimate edit: He asked that it be burned upon his death. (In particular, he hated the love scene between Venus and Vulcan, because he thought it was too racy.) However, several of Virgil’s friends, with support from Emperor Augustus, convinced the poet to alter his will and spare the work. But legend has it that before Vigil died in 19 BCE, he changed his will again, this time forbidding anyone from ever revising the poem. If he couldn’t perfect The Aeneid, he didn’t want anyone else to do it, either.
5. Coke Zero-ed: The Product Placement Edit
It’s not unusual for songs to be edited for radio play. For example, the Black-Eyed Peas’ song “Let’s Get Retarded” was changed to “Let’s Get It Started” to avoid offending the mentally challenged. But when the British Broadcasting Company refused to play The Kinks’ 1970 anthem “Lola,” it was for a much stranger reason. While the BBC had no problem with the song’s lyrics, which included lines about sex and drag queens, it did balk at the song’s mention of “Coca-Cola.” Apparently, the government-subsidized network had a strict policy about in-song advertisements, and it considered the reference to be product placement. (Paul Simon’s “Kodachrome” was held up in 1973 for similar reasons.)
Ray Davies, lead singer of The Kinks, learned of the problem while he was on tour with the band in America. To get the song on the air, Davies rushed back to London and re-recorded the line, changing the lyric to the now famous, “you drink Champagne, and it tastes just like cherry cola.” Minor? Perhaps. But the quick fix allowed the song to be played on British radio, where it climbed to No. 2 on the U.K. charts.
6. Winona Forever: The Painful Breakup Edit
In 1989, Hollywood heartthrob Johnny Depp spotted fellow Hollywood heartthrob Winona Ryder at a movie premiere in New York, and an angsty romance sparked. Their whirlwind love story continued through the filming of Tim Burton’s Edward Scissorhands the following year, and Depp and Ryder were soon engaged. Hoping for something more permanent than a ring, Depp had “Winona Forever” tattooed on his right bicep. But three years later, their love had faded. The tattoo had not. In the most physically painful edit on this list, Depp had the ink on his bicep amended to “Wino Forever,” reflecting another of his passions.
7. Poisoning the Welles: The Edit That Ruined a Career
Following the critical success of Orson Welles’ 1941 film, Citizen Kane, RKO Pictures agreed to produce the director’s next project, The Magnificent Ambersons. But when Welles’ gloomy picture tested poorly with audiences, RKO president George Schaefer asked Welles to re-cut the entire film.
Welles happened to be in Rio de Janeiro at the time working on another project, so editor Robert Wise was handed the assignment. At the studio’s insistence, Wise chopped 50 minutes from the mournful tale. When Welles heard about this, he was horrified. He sent Wise urgent directorial notes, followed by a telegram that read, “REALLY DESPERATE.” The studio ignored his suggestions.
The film was released in 1942, and it was a box-office flop. Schaefer was fired, and Welles lost his contract with RKO. “They destroyed Ambersons, and it destroyed me,” Welles said of the hasty edits. Yet, this sorrowful tale about a sorrowful tale has a surprisingly happy ending. Even in its badly truncated form, The Magnificent Ambersons is now considered a classic.
8. Splitting Hares: The Edit That Created a Screen Legend
In 1938, Warner Brothers writer Ben Hardaway directed a short film featuring a very sneaky rabbit. The cartoon was called Porky’s Hare Hunt, but the bunny that starred in it didn’t have a name. So, the best creative minds in the business got together and dubbed the up-and-coming star “Happy Rabbit.”
Ben Hardaway, whose nickname was Bugs, also directed the next short starring Happy Rabbit. As the animators drew up early images for the film, one of them labeled a sketch of the rabbit “Bugs’ Bunny,” to make it clear that the drawing was part of Hardaway’s project. The label was mistaken for the name of the character, and soon enough, all of the animators were calling Happy Rabbit “Bugs Bunny.” The tiny error created an icon, and, as they say at Warner Bros., that’s all folks.
This article originally appeared in a 2011 issue of mental_floss magazine, which is available wherever brilliant/lots of magazines are sold. Get a free issue here!