Fragment #27: Mae West & Charlie McCarthy Redux


Last year, I posted a fragment (#4) featuring transcribed dialogue from a saucy exchange between Mae West and Charlie McCarthy. Now, thanks to my current penchant for messing about with iMovie’s editing software, I can give you the audio of their talk with some accompanying photographs, my first attempt at this kind of thing. This is a supplement to the short Bergen and McCarthy film, Nut Guilty, that I posted yesterday. Here’s the explanatory text from my earlier post:

On 12 December 1937, Mae West appeared on the Chase and Sanborn Hour with ventriloquist Edgar Bergen and his monocled knee-pal (dummy), Charlie McCarthy. [You can hear the whole broadcast here.] Stars of stage and screen and airwaves, Bergen and McCarthy had a huge following, and West was keen to promote her latest film, Every Day’s a Holiday. She appeared in two sketches, including “The Garden of Eden” with Don Ameche, and a flirtatious banter with McCarthy. The announcer introduces the meeting as “the romantic battle of the century”, a contest of seduction which the dummy might just prove strong enough to resist. There follows a blistering back-and-forth, during which West describes Charlie as “all wood and a yard long”. This was too much for many listeners (though the studio audience found it hilarious), especially on a Sunday, and the Federal Communications Commission deemed it indecent. NBC banned West (you couldn’t even mention her name) from all their radio stations. She didn’t appear on radio until January 1950.

Picture of the Week #62: The Diehl Puppets


[Princess Puppet from Die Sieben Raben, Diehl Brothers Collection, Frankfurt.]

Sorry, dear readers – I’ve been stringing you along with little more than pictures-of-the-week this year. Normal service will be resumed shortly. I have a very packed publishing schedule this year, which will take up a lot of my time, but will also produce a lot of notes with which I can feed my blog. In the meantime, I promised some photographs of the Diehl brothers’ puppets, which I viewed in one of the archives of the Deutsches-Filmmuseum, at Rödelheim, Frankfurt last week. After watching a selection of the Diehl films at the Wiesbaden archive (thankyou to Michael Schurig and Jochen Enders for technical assistance at the Steenbeck, and for their excellent interpretations of the dialogue), I had the pleasure of handling the puppets themselves. It was a real thrill to pull them out of their archival hibernation. They’re beautifully preserved and carefully stored, but they don’t get out much, and are likely to remain in their boxes for the foreseeable future. I wouldn’t want to make the case that the Diehls’ films are all neglected masterpieces, but there is enough distinctive artistry there to justify further study. In particular, the lighting and camera movement they achieve is truly extraordinary, and the faces of their puppets are unusually expressive, thanks to their patented replacement animation techniques.

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Fragment #4: Mae West and Charlie McCarthy


On 12 December 1937, Mae West appeared on the Chase and Sanborn Hour with ventriloquist Edgar Bergen and his monocled knee-pal (dummy), Charlie McCarthy. [You can hear the whole broadcast here.] Stars of stage and screen and airwaves, Bergen and McCarthy had a huge following, and West was keen to promote her latest film, Every Day’s a Holiday. She appeared in two sketches, including “The Garden of Eden” with Don Ameche, and a flirtatious banter with McCarthy. The announcer introduces the meeting as “the romantic battle of the century”, a contest of seduction which the dummy might just prove strong enough to resist. There follows a blistering back-and-forth, during which West describes Charlie as “all wood and a yard long”. This was too much for many listeners (though the studio audience found it hilarious), especially on a Sunday, and the Federal Communications Commission deemed it indecent. NBC banned West (you couldn’t even mention her name) from all their radio stations. She didn’t appear on radio until January 1950. Here’s a transcript of some of the offending dialogue. Watch out for those splinters:

Charlie: Could you even like Mr. Bergen?
Mae : Ah, Mr. Bergen. He’s very sweet. In fact, he’s a right guy. Confidentially, you’ll have to show me a man I don’t like.
Charlie : That’s swell! Bergen’s your man. You know, he can be had.
Mae : On second thought, I’m liable to take him away from you.
Charlie : Well, if you take Bergen away, I’m speechless.
Mae : Why don’t you come up … uh, home with me now, honey? I’ll let you play in my woodpile.
Charlie : Well, I’m not feeling very well tonight. I’ve been feeling very nervous lately. I think I’m gonna have a nervous breakdown. Whoop! There I go.
Mae : So, good-time Charlie’s gonna play hard to get? Well, you can’t kid me. You’re afraid of women. Your Casanova stuff is just a front, a false front.
Charlie : Not so loud, Mae, not so loud! All my girlfriends are listening.
Mae : Oh, yeah! You’re all wood and a yard long.
Charlie : Yeah.
Mae : You weren’t so nervous and backward when you came up to see me at my apartment. In fact, you didn’t need any encouragement to kiss me.
Charlie : Did I do that?
Mae : Why, you certainly did. I got marks to prove it. An’ splinters, too.

Jiří Barta’s In the Attic: The Other Toy Story


Pixar’s Toy Story, and all its sequels? Delightful, right? Witty, fast-moving, emotionally resonant when they need to be, poignant and clever. The characters will endure for their sharp dialogue and strong personalities, even when that CGI has dated and looks to us like Tron looks to young, misguided yoofs nowadays. But watching Jiří Barta‘s In the Attic – Who Has a Birthday Today?, I’m reminded (even though I’m biased on this issue) of how stop-motion retains its affective power even when popular rhetoric might dictate that it has only an occasional retro appeal for enthusiasts and aficionados.

Click here to read on…

Picture of the Week #20: Salzburg Marionette Theatre


I’m off to Salzburg to attend the Magic and the Supernatural conference, where I will be presenting a paper on fairy tales, enchantment and puppet animation. Not necessarily in that order. I’m honoured to be speaking about puppets in the home of the world famous Salzburg Marionette Theatre. Sadly, they will be on tour during my stay, so I won’t get chance to see them perform, but above is a picture I took in their museum the last time I visited. You can see more of my puppet photos here. I’ll be back next Wednesday, a very decadent excursion to take during term time but then, if they insist on moving the Easter Break around, then my conference season will be out of sync with other places.

Walt Disney’s Pinocchio: Motion, Pictures


[Michael Sporn's amazing animation blog has a post of design sketches from the production of Pinocchio, such as the one above. See many more here.]

Walt Disney's Pinocchio1940’s Pinocchio has long been my favourite Disney cartoon. Aside from the consistent beauty of its cartoon cast, Olde Europe sets (a lot of which seem to be warmly lit by log fires) and the immaculate handling of key set-pieces (that’s a hell of a whale!), it’s the most deeply self-reflexive of Disney films. It matches the Disney template of a loosely adapted classic tale (Pinocchio feels like a much older folk tale than its 1883 publication date) with a morally didactic structure, to a meditation on the magic of movement and characterisation. As well as being an animated feature film, Pinocchio is a story about animation. The course of Pinocchio’s journey from lump of inert wood to a “real boy” is a trip through various gradations of anthropomorphism. Pinocchio starts out as a lifeless marionette, animated only by Gepetto’s hands, and works his way up to the goal of becoming a real live boy.

Disney Pinocchio Background

Disney misses out the earliest bits of Carlo Collodi’s 1883 The Adventures of Pinocchio, where the tale begins with a simple bit of wood:

Centuries ago there lived–
“A king!” my little readers will say immediately.

No, children, you are mistaken. Once upon a time there was a piece of
wood. It was not an expensive piece of wood. Far from it. Just a common
block of firewood, one of those thick, solid logs that are put on the
fire in winter to make cold rooms cozy and warm.

I do not know how this really happened, yet the fact remains that
one fine day this piece of wood found itself in the shop of an old
carpenter. His real name was Mastro Antonio, but everyone called him
Mastro Cherry, for the tip of his nose was so round and red and shiny
that it looked like a ripe cherry.

As soon as he saw that piece of wood, Mastro Cherry was filled with joy.
Rubbing his hands together happily, he mumbled half to himself:

“This has come in the nick of time. I shall use it to make the leg of atable.”

That piece of wood, soon to be cut into boy-shape, was enchanted from the beginning. In the Disney film, his animation is the work of the Blue Fairy, who acts upon Gepetto’s heartfelt wish for a son. Come to think of it, the Disney version also misses out quite  a lot of Pinocchio’s antisocial behaviour, and the bit where he burns his own feet off, and the bit where he kills Jiminy Cricket (referred to as the “talking cricket” in the book) with a hammer… It’s also clear that when Collodi’s story talks about the aim of becoming a proper boy, it is referring directly to the process of becoming a functional, obedient, mature member of society. That interpretation is certainly available in the Disney rendition, but it seems more focused on the advantages that Pinocchio will enjoy by becoming a full, flesh-and-blood human, by inheriting a “correct” body that isn’t marked out as distinctly “other”: aside from his basic designation of otherness (he’s a puppet!), Pinocchio doesn’t seem to suffer many consequences associated with it – he is exploited for sure, but only like other little boys are seen to be exploited. He suffers none of the heartlessness of the Tin Man in the Wizard of Oz, for instance, and seems to function pretty well as a stringless marionette. Here, Pinocchio’s wish to become a real boy is the wish for animation, not socialisation. When the Blue Fairy brings him to life for the first time, Jiminy Cricket turns to the camera:

His exclamation is intended to invite the viewer to marvel in return at Pinocchio’s vitality, as if he’s some kind of modern marvel. Sure enough, the film wants you to notice all the different kinds of movement there are. It anthropomorphises plenty of things – look at how expressive Figaro the cat is, or how much like an eyelash-batting starlet the goldfish behaves, or how the whale has a gangster’s sneer and snarl – to give a kind of human essence to so many living things;

Gepetto’s workshop is filled with automata and clocks; Stromboli the puppet master puts Pinocchio in a show with actual marionettes, setting up for a comparison which shows how robotic and inert they really are;

the fairground at Pleasure Island is a deceptive paradise of motion-machines of entertainment (carousels, ferris wheels etc.). It’s all a part of the film’s underlying theme of movement as the external index, the visual guarantor of internal states of mind and personality. When Pinocchio behaves like a good boy, he’ll be allowed to move like one.

031009_NF_Feat_PinocchioModel_feat A full-sized marionette built by Bob Jones was used as a character model by the animators, to help them to add a bit of puppet-like movement to the character, capturing the swing of strung limbs, the clack of wooden joints. It is one of the oldest models in the Disney archives today. The Character Model Department had been created during the production of Snow White to make clay versions of the main characters to give the animators a three-dimensional point of reference, but the Pinocchio puppet is fully articulated. Jones worked in the camera department, but was asked to design and demonstrate how a marionette moves. They even made him dress up as Gepetto to do it. You can find out more about the Disney puppets here, and Cartoon Brew has scans of a Popular Mechanics article about the making of Pinocchio here. Mark Mayerson’s blog has a ton of stuff about the film, including mosaic frame grabs indicating which animators worked on which shots.

The house style of Disney character animation might be seen as the result of studious analysis of physical movement, whether it’s using a real marionette for reference, or taking live action film of actor Val Stanton going through Jiminy’s moves to use for rotoscoping material: several characters, most obviously the Blue Fairy, whose movements are the most reserved, were traced over, either copying motion exactly or using it as a rough guide. The rules of stretch and squash, which you can see formalised and played out in design sketches like the one below from John Kricfalusi, define consistencies in the ways in which bodies extend and reform their shape:

See also this definition. Adherence to rules such as stretch and squash can help to establish a “house style” – by making sure that all characters within a studio’s film(s) have similar characteristics of motion, you can ensure consistency, and prevent the distortions of bodies from becoming too surreal or elastic.  The crazy-limbed, eye-popping, tongue-lolling Tex Avery figures, for instance, exhibit a lot more bodily stretching and squashing than most Disney characters, for instance, but they still obey certain kinds of internally consistent logic.

Of course Pinocchio tells a more prominent story of a child’s adventure and development into a brave, selfless hero, but it is built from the elements of a system that turns even the most basic movements into points of spectacle, channelling attention towards the twirl and swish of cartoon bodies brought to life.

You can see more of my Pinocchio frame grabs in the slideshow below, or visit my Flickr set and download them for your own ends:

__________________________________

P.S. Now, maybe this is nothing, but I couldn’t help noticing the prominence of buttocks in the opening scenes of the film. Yes, you read that right. Don’t believe me? See below:

It’s just an observation – I have no theory on why there are so many bottom-based jokes, but I’d be happy to hear some if you can figure it out. It might just be an insinuation of the threat of discipline: badly behaved children get a spanking (as evidenced by the little automaton that’s stuck in an eternal vignette of punishment for a transgression long-forgotten). I don’t want to get psychoanalytic about this, but if you have any thoughts, feel free to add them in the comments section below.

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Lotte Reiniger’s Cinderella (1922)


Cinderella (Lotte Reiniger, 1922)

One of the first films by the silhouette animator Lotte Reiniger was Cinderella (1922). Fairy stories comprise much of Reiniger’s output, most notably in the 15 shorts she made in the UK between 1953 and 1955. Her Cinderella (she made another version in 1954) is quite a faithful, if fleeting adaptation of the story, but its form and style are extraordinary.


It all begins with a pair of scissors cutting out Cinderella from a piece of black card before placing her into the world of the story. In many shots, the action is vignetted by jagged edges, reminding us of the sharp edges that have crafted the materials of this tale. Animation is already well suited to fairy tales, which have provided story material for Reiniger, Jiří Trnka, Ladislas Starevich, Ray Harryhausen, Jan Švankmajer and that Disney bloke (Disney also released a cartoon of Cinderella in 1922, and a feature film of the same story in 1950, four years before Reiniger’s own remake). Animation allows the construction of a completely fabricated fantasy space that is bracketed off from the real world, evoking the enclosures of memory and imagination (though I might argue that Disney’s approach was less to do with evoking the imaginative and ephemeral experience of fairytales, and more about reshaping those tales in order to fit into the house style of his company). Animated figures provide archetypal rather than definitive renderings of fairytale characters, and particularly in Reiniger’s monochromatic stories, the images allow space for the viewer’s imagination to fill in the gaps. Her silhouettes make the gestures of the characters and carry out the actions that comprise each tale, but they are a partial conjuration, a world into which we peer rather than disappear. This is not meant to sound like an insult to Reiniger; her films are evocative and engrossing without pretending to present a definitive reading of the fairy tales. The shadows seem more like the ghostly accretion of many different versions pushing to the surface of memory.

Lotte Reiniger's Cinderella (1922)

On the other hand, Reiniger inscribes the film with her distinctive signature. Nobody else has defined a form of animation as authoritatively as she did, and the opening section, where scissors make the first cuts into the main character, conjuring her out of simple raw materials, displays the means by which the story is fabricated and marks it out as a product of her labour. Just as any storyteller provides an introduction that bridges the gap between the real and story worlds, so Reiniger draws us in by showing how she brings her figures to life. The power of enchantment exerted by the tale is also the power of an animator. That perfect fit between subject matter and form might go some way to explaining why so many animators have made fairy tale films.

In illustration of this final point, but mainly because I’m proud that I managed to time the frame grab just right, here’s a shot from her subsequent short, The Death-feigning Chinaman (1928), in which Reiniger’s hand is accidentally caught on camera, a blink-of-an-eye imprint of the animator that reminds us of her presence as the vivifying force operating in the interstices between the frames of the film itself:

Lotte Reiniger The Death-feigning Chinaman

Love Suicides at Sonezaki: An Appeal


sonezaki_shinju_01Sorry to burden you with this. I don’t want to use my blog for personal appeals, but I’m hoping someone out there can help. I’ve been trying to view a film called Sonezaki Shinju / Love Suicides at Sonezaki (Midori Kurisaki, 1980), and it’s proving to be a bit of a slippery customer. I can’t even find any pictures from it online, though I’ve seen some stills in a 1989 issue of Cinefantastique.

The film is a rare recording of a bunraku production of the play by Chikamatsu Monzaemon, who wrote it specifically for the Japanese puppet theatre. It’s probably the most famous of all his bunraku tragedies. The lead puppeteer was Tamao Yoshida, who was designated a “living national treasure” for his decades of service to Japanese cultural life. It is also, to my knowledge, the only time that the official bunraku troupe were persuaded to take their puppets outdoors for shooting in natural locations. The film was shot by Kazuo Miyagawa, who has an extraordinary track record of cinematography credits working for Ozu, Mizoguchi and Kurosawa. If you’ll excuse a little bit of hyperbole, there is nothing of its kind anywhere in world cinema. And I’d quite like to see it.

sonezaki_shinju_02It was released on laser disc in 1998, but has long since gone out of print. I’ll be happy with VHS or DVD, with or without English subtitles, and I’ll travel a reasonable distance to watch it in an archive. If you think you can help, please don’t hesitate to contact me. I’m probably needy enough to pay good money. We tend to think that the internet makes all films accessible to us, and I’ve certainly seen a lot of movies that I would otherwise probably never have been able to see, but just as often it teases us with enticing works that are just out of reach…

The Last Trick (Jan Švankmajer, 1964)


Jan Svankmajer's The Last Trick

Two magicians take the stage, seated side by side against an all-black backdrop. Each insists with a raised hat and a hand gesture that the other should perform first. Each wags a finger in refusal. The exchange has all the signs and mimes of polite cordiality, but the stiff movements suggest that these are insincere formalities. Finally, one of them, Mr Edgar, agrees to perform his first trick. Removing his hat, he reaches into it and pulls out a large fish.

vlcsnap-15927 Jan Svankmajer's The Last Trick

Raising a lid on his own skull, Mr Edgar tosses the fish inside and turns a crank in his ear, until the bare skeleton of the fish can be plucked out again, having been digested by the gears and cogs inside the magician’s cranium. He rubs his tummy to indicate a good meal has been had, though his face betrays no signals of enjoyment. In Svankmajer’s films, eating is a symbolic ritual whereby bodies process other symbols and exhaust them. Mr Edgar’s rival, Mr Schwarzwald, applauds the trick and steps up to perform his own. He strings up a tightrope between two chairs and takes a violin from out of his hollow head. Mr Edgar fills his ears with cotton wool to guard against the music. To the violin’s tune, an assemblage of objects leaps from Mr Schwarzwald’s hat and forms into a dancing horse.

Jan Svankmajer's The Last Trick

For his next trick, Mr Edgar pulls two violins out of his head and, sprouting extra arms, transforms himself into a one-man-band of drums, brass and woodwind.

Jan Svankmajer's The Last Trick

Mr Schwarzwald is keen to congratulate his fellow performer, but the handshake he delivers is ferocious in its finger-crushing force. He continues the theme of self-replication by juggling with multiples of his own head, and then it is Mr Edgar’s turn to administer an exhausting handshake to show his admiration for this magical feat.

Jan Svankmajer's The Last Trick

His third trick sees him training the chairs to dance, tumble and jump through a hoop. Once this is concluded, Mr Edgar evades Mr Schwarzwald’s handshake for as long as possible, but finally he is caught, and the gesture of congratulation is powerful enough to tear his arm from its torso. Mr Edgar responds by punching his rival’s head off. The fight continues with a flurry of dismembering violence until only the two arms remain, locked together in a grim handshake. Communication has broken down until the hands are revealed as the drivers of this interplay – the heads have been shown to be empty of brains and agency – they are mere recepticles for the apparatus of spectacle, while the hands are the indexes of meaning and attitude with their gestural language.

Jan Svankmajer's The Last Trick

As I embark upon a period of research into the work of Czech surrealist Jan Švankmajer (as part of a larger project on puppetry and cinema), this short film is my starting point, and it reveals to me the challenges that lie ahead. Often we have to look carefully at films to come to terms with their idiosyncrasies, but Švankmajer’s work is particularly daunting in its concentration of allegory and allusion. I’m hoping that my research will be able to supplement my initial response to the film with a broader frame of critical, historical and political reference, but these are my first thoughts on The Last Trick, his first film as director. For eleven minutes, two magicians do battle, and their tricks require a montage of colliding images and a range of animation techniques: the two actors wear giant masks on their heads, probably papier-mâché, making them look like living, stringless marionettes, and Švankmajer manipulates them accordingly. He persistently blurs states of being by using these half-puppets that unsettle us by refusing to act as either one thing or another. The black backdrop allows a bunraku performance of sorts, with objects appearing to fly and float unaided through space; frame-by-frame animation moves the eyes of the masks; a shot of pixilation makes their bodies flit around the stage in a lightning fast chase. These are endlessly mutable bodies, but there is none of the joyous spectacle of Melies’ filmed tricks here – the artifice is always signposted, never seamlessly suggestive, and the stolid expressions on the masked faces convey no fun, only procedure and routine.

Jan Svankmajer's The Last Trick

Combative communication and variegated violence will recur in Dimensions of Dialogue and Virile Games amongst others (I’ll blog about these at a later date, I hope), piling up a snowballing rush of physical destruction. A number of the short films construct these repetitive, mechanical situations that continue until the mechanism breaks down, as if the film itself is wearing out its own structural circuit. While the puppethood of the characters in The Last Trick blocks the verisimilitude of the violence, it urges allegorical readings: puppets are what we use to stand in for or embody a particular theme, ideology or emotion when a human performer might pollute it with specifity and invidiuality. The “story” element of duelling magicians jealously escalating their competitive spectacles might be a premonitory tale of art spoiled by human partiality or commercial pressures (the winner will be he who compromises himself the most, sacrificing his body and soul for the audience’s delectation), or it might be a snapshot of how the most ferociously fought battles are internecine struggles rather than those between competing ideologies, a drama about the impossibility of compromise, of selfless dialogue. In any case, Švankmajer invests his objects with a powerful thingness: extreme close-ups serve not to reveal emotion or intent, as they might do with human actors, but the physical textures of the objects on display. I want to know why this is the case. What are the specific ways in which objects and specificially puppets, which are both performers and objects, function in Švankmajer’s films? I have a feeling that a detailed answer to this question might help me to model an analytical framework for puppetry more generally across many and varied film texts. Hopefully, I’ll be able to pool some of my notes and findings here as I go along.

Additional Observations:

  • svankmajerI should note that, for all my Švankmajeric needs, I’m working from the British Film Institute‘s fabulous DVD collection, Jan Švankmajer: The Complete Short Films. Hats off to the BFI: they’ve really raised their game in the past few years and fully embraced the potential of DVD. This 3-disc set compiles all of the director’s short films (the clue is in the title) and wraps them up with three hours of extra stuff, including “a bonus short, Johanes Doktor Faust (1958); the original 54-minute version of The Cabinet of Jan Svankmajer (1984) with a brand new introduction by the Quay Brothers; the French documentary Les Chimres des Svankmajer (2001); interviews with Jan and Eva Svankmajer and examples of their work in other media. There’s also a chance to see some Svankmajer special effects, created for commercial Czech features when he was banned from making his own films. The 54-page booklet includes an introduction to Svankmajer by Michael O’Pray; detailed film notes by Michael Brooke, Simon Field, Michael O’Pray, Julian Petley, A.L. Rees and Philip Strick; notes on the extras and much more.”
  • Although he’s not primarily concerned with a continuity style in this or most of his other films, note that Švankmajer uses the chandelier to lodge the film in a coherent space. It is there in many shots,  and although its exact position changes, it is either in the left or the right of the frame to indicate which magician is performing, formalising the adversarial divide between them, and finally in the middle in that shot of the final handshake: at this point it stresses the symmetrical detente of the reluctant, stalemated truce.
  • What are we to make of the beetle that crawls through the film, oblivious to the increasingly pugilistic contest until it is shown dead in the final shot? It can be seen on the magicians’ faces and inside their skulls like a nagging idea, but is apparently a casualty of the limb-tearing showdown. Insects are nature’s automata, machinic little things with rigid bodies and seemingly clockwork gait. But next to the hard-headed puppet conjurors on show in this film, the beetle is the most vivid, enlivened thing on display. Paul Wells calls it “the catalyst by which the interface between man and machine fails”, adding that it serves as “a narrational provocateur by which Svankmajer could reveal the rebellion in the construction of the contemporary body”. I don’t think I can say it any better than that.
  • More from Paul Wells, whose article “Body Consciousness in the Films of Jan Svankmajer” (which you can find in Jayne Pilling’s A Reader in Animation Studies) is a typically lucid summary of how the director uses animation to articulate his sociopolitical theses about the place of the body in constituting the human subject in society: “Svankmajer uses the ritual of performance to suggest a model of difference only to imply that humankind will always fall prey to its own inability to properly reconcile the repeated failings and flaws of its evolutionary sensibility. The two magicians in The Last Trick are metaphors for Svankmajer’s social vision as it is played out through the contradiction inherent in the body as it is simultaneously liberated though art but mechanised by socio-cultural practice. Svankmajer’s quasi-surrealist approach represents the magician as a mechanism which possesses the inherent possibility of failing.”

“There used to be a me”: Peter Sellers on the Muppet Show


[Sorry if things are looking a little Muppet-centric around here. Normal service will be resumed sometime...]

Let’s face it. The Muppet Show is not as funny as I remembered it being. It is less anarchic, frenetic and witty than I remember it, and the limp gags that may or may not be a deliberate parody of stale variety acts are just a little flat. Actually, I don’t remember laughing at it a lot when I was a kid, but I was fascinated by the solid colours, the endless stream of distinctive characters, and the sheer joy of not knowing what was coming next. I was scared of Uncle Deadly, and felt a wrenching sadness for the fate of the perpetually abused lab rat Beaker. I still have some of the songs etched on my brain. It was the best thing on TV when Batman wasn’t on. Watching it again in one of those “well, I guess I could call it research” moments, I don’t feel nostalgic – it’s too distant for that – but it is interesting to note what I missed first time round. With the possible exception of the Star Wars cast I had no idea who the star guests were. But now it’s great to see Liberace, Victor Bergin, George Burns and, in particular, Steve Martin, who more or less carries the show on his wild and crazy shoulders. But let’s raise a toast to Peter Sellers, whose episode has a rather sinister edge to it.

Stories of Sellers’ obsessive role-playing are well-documented, and his appearance with the Muppets doesn’t buck that trend. Refusing to slip out of character (though he switches between characters, each with a comedy accent thicker than the last, with alarming regularity), he plays only a preening, Shakespearean thesp version of himself. Caught out by Kermit in the dressing room as he rehearses his new chicken-squeezing act in a Viking suit while reciting Richard III’s opening monologue, he confides to the frog compere that “there used to be a me, but I had it surgically removed”. Brian Henson (son of Jim) cheerily informs us:

A very funny story about this episode is Peter basically said he wants to do anything on the show except for one piece. It was a piece called The Wall where Kermit would interview the guest star for 30 seconds just about themselves. Peter said, ‘I can’t do that, I can’t be myself. Ask me to do anything but don’t ask me to be myself. I’ll be Queen Victoria but I don’t know how to be me.’

That’s a funny story? Sounds a little tragic to me, and reminiscent of his role in Being There, as a gardener whose personality has been wiped clean by decades of TV and unquestioning, dutiful service. It’s also a sollipsistic line peddled by the HBO/BBC biopic The Life and Death of Peter Sellers, notable only for Geoffrey Rush’s amazing impersonation. But let’s not invoke the cliché of the tearful clown as an excuse. Is anybody asked to “be themselves” on The Muppet Show? Certainly it must be difficult to act natural when you’re being interviewed by a frog. Steve Martin seemed to fit in quite nicely with the farmyard singalongs, but his comic persona was always a full-blown characterisation rather than a projection of his true self. It’s probably even the case that most of the fun with the star turns on the show came from watching how they would react when faced with a carnival of fuzzy animals. So, there was really no need for Sellers to remark that he didn’t want to be himself: it was barely expected, and it’s usually the case that guests retreat into the comfort of ostentation as soon as they’re surrounded by a puppet-fest. The high-wire comedy of identity crisis was all part of the schtick that gave Sellers’ work a compelling edge.

Sellers ups the ante with a rather unnerving sequence in which he plays a Hitlerian physiotherapist who turns a simple sports massage into a systematic, limb-twisting bit of sadistic pig torture. Yes, really:

It looks improvised, and although Link the pig later reports that “Peter O’Toole” gives the best massage ever, it’s a little grotesque. But perhaps that’s just an adult perspective. Maybe a kid would enjoy the surreal slapstick of it without thinking of concentration camp experiments. The comic Nazi motif that Sellers enjoyed so much (see Dr. Strangelove and his admittedly hilarious cover version of The Beatles ‘She Loves You’, always worth reviving) recurs at the curtain call. Nasty. Nice.