Spectacular Attractions Video Podcast #004: Speaking for Ventriloquism

Charlie McCarthy, Edgar Bergen, Candice Bergen

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:

Picture of the Week #78: Charlie McCarthy & Edgar Bergen in ‘Nut Guilty’

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 it and At 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:

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.