Frankly My Dear, I DO Give a Damn — What makes a Great Line

About five years ago the American Film Institute compiled a list of the greatest quotes in the history of film. I didn’t envy their task. There have been some great ones. How to get it down to a hundred? The AFI almost could have come up with that many from the film Casablanca alone: “Here’s looking at you kid.””This could be the start of a great friendship” “You wore blue, the Germans wore grey” “I’m shocked, shocked to discover there has been gambling going on in this establishment.” “Of all the gin joints in all the towns all over the world, why did she have to come into mine?” (The line was originally supposed to be “bars.”  Humphrey Bogart changed it to “gin joints.” Writers beware.)

But the AFI did a good job narrowing it down to 100, and their top 3 picks tell us a lot about what it takes to reach people. The big lines they picked out all say something about what makes a great line great — not just in a film, but in a speech, an article or any communications vehicle.

The AFI’s top 3 choices were:

1. “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn.” The producers of Gone With the Wind had a hard time getting that one past the censors in 1939, but I think what makes it so memorable decades later is the way it expressed Rhett Butler’s core value. He was deeply in love, but nothing was more important to him than maintaining his self-respect. It wasn’t even a close call for him.

2. “I’m going to make him an offer he can’t refuse.” This line, originally in The Godfather novel, summed up the character of Don Corleone as played by Marlon Brando. He was always willing to negotiate, always willing to cut a deal. But he had the power to make sure he got what he wanted, at a price he was willing to pay. Bargaining session over.

3. “I coulda had class. I coulda been a contender. Instead of a bum, which is what I am.” Brando again, this time up against the mob in On The Waterfront.  The line (delivered by Brando to Rod Steiger as his brother in the film) expressed the frustration of a character struggling on the docks after glimpsing the prospect of fame. But the line’s real meaning didn’t become fully clear until later in the movie, when the Marlon Brando character “ratted” out the crooked union boss, after his brother was killed. It was when the Brando character testified against the mobsters who were running the docks (and who had killed his brother) that he showed he did have class, he was a contender — and no longer a bum doing the mob’s bidding.

All three of these lines were great, I believe, because they expressed the characters’ core values — what they really stood for, what mattered to them, what they did give a damn about. Just like a speech should.

Allan Golombek

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