Last week, I traveled to Bournemouth to give a talk at the Arts University. I think I got lucky with the weather, and it was a pleasure to enjoy the mild temperatures, intermittent sunshine and bouts of dryness. The other pleasure was addressing Bournemouth’s staff and students. They managed to sit still for a full hour while I pontificated about ventriloquism and cinema. This was the first outing for some new research I’m working on, drawn from a bigger (and long-gestating, oft-delayed) project on Cinema and Puppetry. It’s coming along slowly, but it’s getting there and gathering some speed now that I have more time to devote to it. AUB’s Animation Research Pipeline talks (of which this was one) provides a space for people like me to share work in progress.
I made a complete screen recording of my talk, and while my voice is quite clearly recorded, some of the sound on the clips might need you to raise the volume once or twice. I hope you enjoy it, but I’d love to hear any comments you have, good or bad; it’s not a short lecture, and the first half is quite theoretical, but I promise you it contains good stuff on Charlie McCarthy, The Great Gabbo, Lon Chaney in drag, Mel Gibson having a fight with a glove-puppet beaver, and tastefully coloured Keynote slides.
Here’s the video. It’s available in HD, which should help you if you want to read the text on the slides:
If you’d like to hear more of the wonderful Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy radio shows, there are plenty of episodes freely available online, especially at the Internet Archive. I have previously posted on this site their 1936 short film Nut Guilty, which is well worth ten minutes of your time. I refer in the talk to a saucy exchange between Charlie and Mae West: you can hear part of it here.
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.
I have another movie treat for you today: a complete short film starring Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy, the courtroom comedy, Nut Guilty (Lloyd French, 1936). At this point, Bergen and McCarthy had appeared in a few shorts, including The Eyes Have itandAt the Races, but within the year they had landed a contract for their own radio show that would keep them on air, with huge audiences and a string of major guest movie stars, for almost two decades. Many people find it odd that ventriloquists performed on radio, but it’s not so strange. Ventriloquism is only partly about the visual illusion of two voices emerging from two separate bodies; also important is the creation of two distinct voices, and the aural illusion that you’re hearing a back-and-forth conversation rather than a monologue. Bergen admitted that years of performing on radio left him out-of-practice at hiding his lip movements (something McCarthy would often tease him about), but his banter with McCarthy is exemplary for its speed and timing. It’s also a bit saucy, and bordering on the inappropriate when you consider that McCarthy is meant to be a schoolboy delivering a stream of flirtatious innuendos.
For more on radio and TV ventriloquists, Kelly Asbury’s (the director of Gnomeo and Juliet, no less) book Dummy Days is a good start. You can hear more about it here. For now, though, enjoy ten minutes of ventriloquial fun with Bergen and McCarthy:
Don’t ask why I decided to compile a gallery and slideshow of advertisements gathered from early issues of the horror magazine Fangoria. I don’t have a good answer. Rummaging through back issues looking for articles about prosthetics, special effects make-up and puppetry, I became a little distracted by the advertisements for video-cassettes (look how expensive it was, in the 1980s, to buy your own VHS tapes!), masks, books, t-shirts and gloopy, gory make-up effects. Ostensibly a journal celebrating the inventive evisceration of the human body, Fangoria actually comes across as a cheery community centre for enthusiasts of rubbery prosthetics and homemade horrors. You’ll find some familiar monsters in this gallery, and some lovely offers to help you simulate demonic possession, or a bit of limb-lopping, gut chewing dismemberment in the comfort of your own home. Avoid if more than a little squeamish. Otherwise, enjoy a bit of 80s nostalgia. Some of these offers may no longer be available, though. Sorry.
[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.
I’m currently on a research trip in Germany. A couple of days ago I was watching films by the Diehl brothers in a Frankfurt archive (and waiting for more DVDs in the post), and the next day I was in another archive handling and photographing the actual puppets used in the films. I’m planning an article about the brothers, about whom very little has been written in English, but I’ve come away to Germany without the necessary cable to connect camera to computer and give you a little preview of some of the amazing objects I’ve been looking at. In place of the actual evidence, I present a little slideshow of shots from one of the brothers’ greatest achievements, Die Sieben Raben. Released in 1937, just a fortnight before Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs premiered in the US, it follows the traditional folk-tale (written down by the Brothers Grimm) of a young girl who discovers that she once had seven brothers, but with major revisions. Their father had sent them to fetch baptismal water from the well for the newborn girl, and when they accidentally broke the pail and were too scared to return home, their father cursed them and wished they were transformed into ravens. Nature obliged, and the boys changed into birds and flew away. Now, years later, the girl is wracked with guilt that her brothers were outcast on her behalf, and sets out on an arduous journey to find them.
In the sequence shown in these images, she wanders the countryside in search of her brothers, and meets a fairy, who promises her that if she can remain silent for seven years, and spin seven shirts from her golden hair, the curse will be lifted. It’s a stunningly beautiful sequence, slow and measured, with poignant focus on the woodland surroundings in which the girl will sit and mutely go about her selfless trials. The Diehls were experts at lighting their miniature sets, and because the puppets were quite large, there was plenty of space to move cameras through and around them and create a strong sense of depth and distance. The rest of the film is not quite this fine, but it’s a sadly neglected animated feature that never really got the recognition it deserved, even in its own time. When I get back, I’ll show you some pictures of puppets…
This week’s picture is a little preview of things to come, I hope. Tomorrow, I’m off to Frankfurt to visit archival holdings for the Diehl Brothers (Ferdinand (1901 – 1992) and Hermann (1906 – 1983), German animators who released a feature-length puppet film (Die Sieben Raben) days before the world premiere of Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (though neither film can truly claim to be the first animated feature, an honour which must go Christiani Quirino’s The Apostle from 1917, though no prints survive, leaving Lotte Reiniger’s The Adventures of Prince Achmed as the oldest surviving animated feature). They achieved lasting fame with their hedgehog character Mecki, but little has been written about them in English. I’d like to find out much more about them, hence the visit to Frankfurt. I look forward to sharing much more information here in the future, but for now here’s a taste, in the form of the patent filed by Ferdinand Diehl in 1935. His innovation is a system of animation that allows for improved mouth movements, removing the need for head replacements when changing the expressions on a puppet’s face during stop-motion animation. Here we find one small example of a puppet’s anatomy becoming the site of negotiation over realistic motion, as well as the practicalities of streamlining the industrial production of animated subjects.
There is no reason why an inflatable sex doll spontaneously comes to life at the beginning of Hirokazu Kore-Eda’s Air Doll. It just seems to happen, and thus begins a tale of a toy’s explorations of human life and interaction. Maybe it happens because her owner, a lonely, introverted Tokyo salaryman, has invested so much energy in believing her to be a real partner that she is given agency: when we first see them together, they are having dinner, him telling her the gossip from the office while she “listens” passively. She shows the same composure throughout their subsequent one-sided sexual encounter:
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.
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.