A Titanic Tale
bA Titani

The New York Times Magazine

William Safire: On Language

March 13, 2005

Money Quote

         BIG PICTURE
In ''The Big Picture: The New Logic of Money and Power in Hollywood,'' the investigative author Edward Jay Epstein holds that what used to be the movie business, centered in ''movie houses,'' has been transformed into the home-entertainment business. As a result, its familiar lexicon has been overtaken.
''Outdated vocabulary,'' he writes, ''includes such terms as B-picture, first run, marquee name, long run, blockbuster and box-office gross -- terms from an era in which the paramount measure of success was the performance and duration of movies in theaters.''
Lest we forget, a B picture was a low-budget film made to accompany the feature film, thereby producing a double feature -- enough to fill three hours of an evening out, or time to air-cool off on a hot afternoon. The theater circuit was so named, Epstein tells me, ''because reels of a single movie could be sent by bicycle from one theater to the next. Show times were sometimes cut so close that one theater was showing the first reel of a film while another theater was showing the last.''
I pick no nits with his thesis of a paradigm-dropping shift in the industry and its lingo, but one of his etymologies is speculative. Blockbuster, he reports, was ''coined in the 1920's to denote a movie whose long line of customers could not be contained on a single city block.'' Though an online encyclopedia suggests a similar origin -- describing a play so successful that competing theaters on the block are ''busted'' -- no specific citation is given, and without a citation, you don't have a coinage you can bite on. I'd say blockbuster is World War II vintage and cite The Los Angeles Times of July 30, 1942: ''The R.A.F. had lost 29 of the 600 bombers sent against Hamburg Sunday, when 175,000 incendiaries and hundreds of explosive bombs, including two-ton 'block busters,' were dumped in a 35-minute raid.''
In that same year, the phrase the big picture had its premiere. In his title, Epstein plays its movie meaning against its current sense of ''an overview that brings perspective.'' Probably (now I'm the one speculating) the phrase grew out of the perspective in a painter's ''broad canvas.'' The Big Picture, with initial caps to signify a theme, was used in 1931 by a Depression-era baseball official to describe the distinction that sportswriters bestowed on the St. Louis Cardinals star Pepper Martin, but its grand-perspective sense was first brought into play by Lt. Col. Robert Allen Griffin, in defining the word strategy in 1942: ''The term applies to the big picture; it is used in direction of campaigns . . . to win wars.''
Griffin's use of the phrase in the present sense may have been from an earlier use in an economics context by the British social scientist Barbara Wootton. His usage is today's money quote, but when somebody comes up with the hard evidence of its origin, security strategists, business gurus and language mavens will consider that a blockbuster.

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