The Grammarphobia Blog

Mogo on the gogo

Q: What in God’s name is “mogo on the gogo”? I heard it the other day while watching Spellbound. Did Hitchcock (or, rather, his screenwriter) coin the phrase?

A: The expression “mogo on the gogo” didn’t originate with Alfred Hitchcock or with Ben Hecht, the main screenwriter on the 1945 film Spellbound.

It was apparently a catchphrase in certain Hollywood circles in the 1930s and ’40s, though it had much earlier show-biz origins in vaudeville, burlesque, and minstrel shows.

The expression is hard to define since it isn’t in any of our slang dictionaries. But it’s generally used as a comic phrase for a mental or physical malady, like lovesickness or an exotic fictional disease.

The expression crops up several times in the works of Hecht, who wrote the screenplay along with Angus MacPhail.

In the script, the man posing as Dr. Edwardes (actually an amnesia patient played by Gregory Peck), delivers the “mogo on the gogo” line to a psychologist, Dr. Petersen (played by Ingrid Bergman).

The two are discussing the psychological aspects of love, and Dr. Petersen is tossing around psychoanalytic theories on the subject. Below the surface, a mild flirtation is developing. 

So when Edwardes says, “Professor, you’re suffering from mogo on the gogo,” the line can be read in two ways: (1) he’s poking fun at all the psychobabble, or (2) Dr. Petersen has sex on the brain.

In his other works, Hecht seems to have regarded “mogo on the gogo” as meaning infatuation of one kind or another.

The expression apparently means lovesickness in The Great Magoo (1933), a play Hecht wrote with Gene Fowler.

In one scene, a character says: “You meet some guy—get mogo-on-the-gogo. Finis! Listen, Julie, this is just a friendly tip. Lay off that stumblebum if you wanna get somewhere. He’s just a lot of dog-meat.”

Hecht used the phrase again in his novel I Hate Actors! (1944): “You’re just a typical half-baked artistic goop—with nothing but mogo on the gogo. You’re a sweet kid in many ways but as an artist you’re still wet behind the ears.”

It appears yet again in Hecht’s memoir A Child of the Century (1954). Here Hecht recalls a dinner conversation with John Barrymore near the end of the actor’s life:

“ ‘In my early years,’ said Barrymore, ‘when I was still callow and confused, and still a-suckle on moonlight—I used to prefer Romeo and Juliet to all the other plays. But, as my ears dried, I began to detest the fellow, Romeo. A sickly, mawkish amateur, suffering from Mogo on the Gogo. He should be played only by a boy of fifteen with pimples and a piping voice. The truth about him is he grew up and became Hamlet.’ ”

Where did the expression come from? As we said, it probably came from the touring burlesque and minstrel shows of the previous century.

For example, Al Jolson, who played the minstrel circuit early in his career, was known to use the phrase.

“Al had a vocabulary all his own,” Herbert G. Goldman writes in his book Jolson: The Legend Comes to Life (1988). “Anything bad was ‘mogo on the gogo.’ ”

And W. C. Fields used variations on the phrase too. Fields got his start at the turn of the century as a vaudeville juggler on the Keith and Orpheum circuits, both of which booked minstrel acts at the time.

Later, in his films, Fields used “mogo on the gogogo” to mean a fictitious disease.

In The Bank Dick (1940), where he plays the immortal Egbert Sousè, Fields warns another character about “Malta fever, beriberi and that dreaded of all diseases—mogo on the gogogo.”

Fields himself wrote the screenplay for The Bank Dick, under the alias Mahatma Kane Jeeves—as in “My hat, my cane, Jeeves.”

He probably got “mogo on the gogogo” from the stage musical that gave him his Broadway debut, The Ham Tree (1905).

The three-act show, which ran on Broadway for two seasons, is about the adventures of a touring vaudeville troupe and contains a minstrel act as a sort of show within the show. 

In Man on the Flying Trapeze: The Life and Times of W.C. Fields (1997), Simon Louvish writes that the minstrel routine included this passage:

“If we come across a ham tree don’t touch a ham without it’s got the cover [wrapper] on. If you do you’ll get that disease called more-go on the go-go.”

The lines, Louvish writes, came directly from the 19th-century minstrel sketch that was the basis for the musical. 

He goes on to explain that the original sketch, also called  “The Ham Tree,” was developed around 1874 by a famous 19th-century vaudeville partnership, James McIntyre and Tom Heath.

The pair, portraying tramps in blackface, performed their act on the minstrel circuit for more than 50 years, touring virtually every part of the country until well into the early 1900s.  

It’s possible that a phrase sounding like “more-go on the go-go” was an African-American expression. McIntyre and Heath, according to Louvish, claimed that “their stories and dances were taken from genuine black sources.”

But as historians have written, many white minstrel performers made similar claims. Until further evidence crops up, a black origin for this phrase can only be conjectured.

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