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!

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10 Facts About Aspirin
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Aspirin may be one of the world's best-known wonder drugs, able to do everything from cure a headache to reduce a fever, but its powers stretch beyond your medicine cabinet.

1. It's not the same as acetaminophen (used in Tylenol), ibuprofen (used in Advil and Motrin), or naproxen (used in Aleve).

2. There’s more than one way to take an aspirin. Americans swallow their tablets whole. The British dissolve theirs in water. And the French prefer theirs as suppositories.

3. The ancient Egyptians took their painkillers in the form of tree bark. Egyptian doctors used to give their patients willow bark to relieve pain because it contains salicin—the raw ingredient in aspirin.

4. Aspirin broke into the European market in 1763, after British clergyman Edward Stone chewed on some willow bark and felt a renewed vigor. He shared the stuff with his parishioners and relieved 50 cases of rheumatic fever in the process. After Stone reported his discovery to the Royal Society of London, the race was on to package the miracle cure.

5. A century later, French chemist Charles Gerhardt published an article on how to synthesize salicin in the lab, creating acetylsalicylic acid. Nobody paid attention.

6. Forty years after that, in 1897, German scientist Felix Hoffman followed Gerhardt’s process and took credit for inventing aspirin. Hoffman worked for Bayer Industries, which introduced the medicine in 1899 as the first mass-marketed drug.

7. In the mid-1940s, aspirin became a huge hit in Argentina thanks to radio jingles sung by future First Lady Eva Perón. Her country became the biggest per-capita consumer of aspirin in the world.

8. The wonder drug doesn’t just cure headaches; it can also revive a dead car battery. Just drop two tablets into the battery, let the salicylic acid combine with the battery’s sulfuric acid, and you’ve got an instant jump! Just make sure you don’t have any salt on your hands. Adding sodium to the aspirin-and-car-battery combo can cause an explosion.

9. So how does aspirin work? No one knew for sure until the 1970s, when British scientist John Vane discovered that aspirin reduces the body’s production of prostaglandins—fatty acids that cause swelling and pain.

10. Here’s another reason to eat your fruits and veggies: When the body gets a healthy dose of the benzoic acid in those foods, it makes its own salicylic acid, or aspirin.

A version of this story appeared in Mental Floss magazine.

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How Kiss's Alive! Saved Their Record Label—And Changed the Music Industry
Peter Cade, Central Press/Getty Images
Peter Cade, Central Press/Getty Images

It was late 1974, and Neil Bogart, CEO of Casablanca Records, was falling apart. His wife of nine years had divorced him. Warner Bros., Casablanca’s onetime parent company, had cut the fledgling label loose, saddling Bogart with crippling overhead and advertising costs. The company’s headquarters—a two-story house off the Sunset Strip that Bogart (no relation to Humphrey) decorated to resemble Rick’s Café from the film Casablanca—had devolved into a hedonistic playground awash in cocaine and Quaaludes. A few years earlier, he’d made stars of the Isley Brothers and Curtis Mayfield, whose soundtrack for Super Fly had been an instant hit. Now, at 31, he was watching his career crumble.

But Bogart had a plan. As part of the split with Warner Bros., Casablanca inherited a promising project: a double LP of audio highlights from The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. It seemed like a sure thing. In 1974, The Tonight Show drew 14 million viewers a night. The year before, as the CEO of Buddah Records, Bogart had sold more than a million copies of a similar compilation titled Dick Clark: 20 Years of Rock N’ Roll. Bogart was so confident in The Tonight Show project that he envisioned the album as the first of four highlight records, stretching back decades.

Before SoundScan existed to track album sales, the recording industry conferred “gold” status to any album that shipped more than 500,000 copies. Bogart shipped 750,000 copies of Here’s Johnny: Magic Moments From the Tonight Show. As it turned out, no one wanted to listen to audio clips of a late-night talk show. The album was such a flop that distributors even mailed back their free promotional copies. Industry insiders joked that it had been shipped gold and “returned platinum.” Or as Casablanca cofounder Larry Harris put it, “It hit the floor with a lifeless, echoing thud.”

By the end of 1974, Casablanca was broke. To make payroll, Bogart cashed in his line of credit at a Las Vegas casino. The label seemed doomed. It needed a cheap hit just to survive.

One of the bands on Casablanca’s roster was in similarly rough shape. Kiss, a flamboyant heavy metal outfit from New York City, had released three albums by the spring of 1975. The band had a cult following in the Rust Belt. But the moment Kiss stepped into the studio, they deflated, unable to replicate the raucous energy of their live concerts.

This may have been an impossible task. Since their first gig in 1973, the foursome had performed only in Kabuki-style makeup, black leather costumes, and towering platform shoes. Onstage, Gene Simmons, the Israeli-born bassist with a 7-inch tongue, spat fire and fake blood at the audience. Blasts of smoke and pyrotechnics punctuated hard-driving songs like “Strutter,” “Deuce,” and “Black Diamond.” At the end of each set, drummer Peter Criss rose 10 feet above the stage atop a hydraulic drum riser. This intimidating stagecraft belied Kiss’s sound: more pop than metal, closer to David Bowie than Black Sabbath on the ’70s rock spectrum. Kiss’s stage show was so over the top that Bogart pitched the band as a headline act before the foursome had a legitimate hit. Queen, Genesis, and Aerosmith all canceled bookings with Kiss because no one wanted to play after the band.

But if Kiss was a circus act, Bogart was its P.T. Barnum. At pitch meetings, he’d unleash fireballs from his hand using magician’s flash paper, declaring “Kiss is magic!” Bogart hounded DJs, TV hosts, critics, and music magazines, pushing the Kiss brand. He even convinced Kiss to record a cover of “Kissin’ Time”—a single by ’60s teen idol Bobby Rydell—as a promotional tie-in for a nationwide kissing contest called “The Great Kiss-Off.”

None of it worked. And Kiss was fed up. The band received a meager $15,000 advance for its first three albums—Kiss, Hotter Than Hell, and Dressed to Kill— and despite Bogart’s fiery efforts, it had yet to see royalties. He’d even produced Dressed to Kill himself because he was unable to afford a professional producer.

Then Bogart had an idea. What if Kiss put out a live album? It’d be less expensive than a studio recording and might preserve some of the band’s incendiary live show. At the time, live records weren’t considered a legitimate product; bands released them mainly to fulfill contracts. But Bogart didn’t care. He knew this was his last chance.

Kiss liked the concept. Within days, Bogart had arranged to record a multicity tour, with stops in Detroit; Wildwood, New Jersey; Cleveland; and Wyoming. Since Bogart couldn’t finance the tour himself, Bill Aucoin, Kiss’s long-suffering manager, put $300,000 of his own money into costumes, expenses, and effects. To oversee the recordings, Bogart roped in Eddie Kramer, a star audio engineer who’d produced albums for Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin.

On May 16, 1975, 12,000 people packed into Detroit’s Cobo Hall—the largest venue in a city many considered the capital of rock ’n’ roll. Bogart and Aucoin went all out on production. To fire up the crowd, a cameraman followed the band from the dressing room to the stage, projecting the shot onto a giant screen overhead. During the song “100,000 Years,” flamethrowers wrapped the band in a curtain of fire. And this time Criss’s drum kit rose to twice its usual height.

The concerts were a massive success, yet the recordings were still mediocre. The energy was there, but the band’s musicianship suffered in its frenzied live performance. In the end, sound engineers recorded over much of the material. Nevertheless, certain core elements remain, including Criss’s drum tracks, lead singer Paul Stanley’s stage banter, and the propulsive fury of early singles “Deuce” and “Strutter,” in which the band’s energy soars in response to the sound of thousands of screaming fans. The physical record was an accomplishment of its own. A double album with a gatefold sleeve, it featured handwritten notes from the band, a glossy eight-page booklet, and a centerfold collage of in-concert photos.

Alive! was released on September 10, 1975. Five days later, Aucoin sent Bogart a letter of termination: Kiss was leaving the label. In desperation, Bogart, who’d recently mortgaged his house, cut Aucoin and the band a check for $2 million to retain them. Then everyone sat back and watched the Billboard chart.

The result was unprecedented. Alive! peaked at No. 9 and remained on the charts for the next 110 weeks, becoming the band’s first record to sell more than a million copies. By the end of 1975, major rock bands from Blue Öyster Cult to REO Speedwagon suddenly found themselves opening for Kiss. Today, Alive! has sold more than 9 million copies, making it the biggest selling Kiss album of all time.

Alive! rescued both Kiss and Casablanca from oblivion. The band’s next three albums—Destroyer (1976), Rock and Roll Over (1976), and Love Gun (1977)—were all certified platinum. In 1977, Kiss topped a Gallup poll as the most popular act among American teens. The late ’70s saw a superstorm of Kiss merchandise, including Kiss makeup kits, pinball machines, Marvel comic books, and even a made-for-TV movie called Kiss Meets the Phantom of the Park.

But Alive! also changed the music industry. “Shortly after it hit, just about every hard rock band issued live albums,” says Greg Prato, a writer for Rolling Stone and the author of The Eric Carr Story, about Kiss’s short-lived drummer Eric Carr. “Some of those albums were the best live rock recordings of all time: Thin Lizzy’s Live and Dangerous, the Ramones’s It’s Alive, Queen’s Live Killers, Led Zeppelin’s The Song Remains the Same, Cheap Trick, At Budokan.”

What makes Alive! a masterpiece, though, is how it captures the essence of Kiss—a hard rock band that was meant to be seen, or at least heard, live. “The emphasis on a live album is the experience itself, specifically how close the record translates and interprets the experience of actually attending the show,” says author and Kiss fan Chuck Klosterman. “[Alive!] jumps out of the speakers. It feels like a bootleg of the highest quality.”

Ultimately, Bogart’s excessive spending habits, along with his prodigious cocaine use at Casablanca HQ, led to his ouster from the label in 1980. By that point, he’d become the reigning king of disco, breaking such acts as the Village People and Donna Summer. He died of cancer two years later at age 39, having just created Boardwalk Records and signed the then-unknown rock goddess Joan Jett. In the decades after his death, the iconic metal band he’d helped bring to the top continues to tour, even making an appearance on American Idol in 2009. For 40 years, Kiss has been sending drum kits aloft (albeit with a different drummer), performing in fully painted faces, setting stages on fire, all in an effort to recapture an impossible sound. With Alive!, Bogart had created a chimera. It was a record that could never exist in real life: part raucous energy, part polished studio overdubs, a “live” masterpiece better than the best live act in rock history.

This piece originally ran in Mental Floss magazine.

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