Archive for Edgar Bergen

You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man

Posted in BUNKUM, Circus, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Movies, W.C. Fields with tags , , , , , , on February 18, 2014 by travsd

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Today marks the anniversary of the release date of what may be W.C. Fields’ best remembered (certainly most iconic) film You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man (1939).

Artistically, Fields’ career trajectory went the opposite of most of the other so-called classic comedians of the early sound period. Whereas the Marx Brothers, Mae West and Laurel and Hardy all LOST all creative freedom and artistic control over time, Fields actually had the opportunity to go a little crazy (in a good way) toward the END of his career, due to leverage he enjoyed through his popularity on radio. Where his Paramount pictures of the 20s and 30s are certainly enjoyable, the Universal period (1939-1944) is a surreal free-for-all. You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man was the first of these. It builds on Fields’ many previous performances on stage and screen as carny Eustace P. McGarrigle in Poppy and Sally of the Sawdust, here casting Fields as shady circus owner Larsen E. (i.e., larceny) Whipsnade. Despite his best efforts as a crooked showman, Whipsnade is forever on the verge of losing his circus, always dodging the sheriff. The plot, such as it is, concerns his daughter’s plan to marry a stuffy moneybags to bail her father out. Fortunately the plot gets short shrift here — that’s one of the many positive aspects of the Universal period. The focus is on the comedy, which just keeps on coming. To bolster the box office, Fields is teamed up here with his frequent radio rivals Edgar Bergen (with Charlie McCarthy and Mortimer Snerd). The trading of barbs and quips between them comes fast and furious. Also in the cast is Eddie “Rochester” Anderson, acting in a similar capacity to his role in Jack Benny’s ensemble as Fields’ Man Friday. There’s an elephant named Queenie who sprays water on command, a pair of bearded twins (one of whom is the world’s tallest midget, the other of whom the world’s smallest giant), and much more nonsense like this. One of my favorite parts is when Bergen is AWOL from the circus so that he can pursue Fields’ daughter (whom he loves), forcing Fields to do a ventriloquism routine himself. I’m biased, but I think this is a film every human being on earth should own.

 

For more on comedy film history don’t miss my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Mediaalso available from amazon.com etc etc etc chain%20of%20fools%20cvr%20front%20only-500x500

To learn more about show biz historyconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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An Edgar Bergen Christmas

Posted in Comedy, Radio (Old Time Radio), Ventriloquism & Puppetry with tags , , , , on December 12, 2013 by travsd

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Another in our series of Christmas themed posts:

Here are Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy on the Chase & Sanborn Hour from Christmas Eve, 1944. For more on Bergen, see my full article here.

To find out more about the variety arts past and present (including radio variety)consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famousavailable at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold. 

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And don’t miss my new book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc

chain%20of%20fools%20cvr%20front%20only-500x500

 

An Edgar Bergen & Charlie McCarthy Thanksgiving

Posted in Comedy, HOLIDAYS, FESTIVALS, MEMORIALS & PARADES, Radio (Old Time Radio), Ventriloquism & Puppetry with tags , , , , on November 28, 2013 by travsd

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Okay here’s the last of our Thanksgiving 2013 posts, we think. This Thanksgiving episode of Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy’s CBS radio program aired in 1955, quite late in the history of network radio. For more on Bergen and his wooden friend, go here.

For more on the history of show business consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famousavailable at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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And don’t miss my new book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc

chain%20of%20fools%20cvr%20front%20only-500x500

Edgar Bergen: The Vent Event

Posted in Television, TV variety, Vaudeville etc., Ventriloquism & Puppetry with tags , , , on February 16, 2013 by travsd

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Today is the birthday of Star of Vaudeville #119 Edgar Bergen (see here for his full bio). In honor of the day we share with you one of last appearances, The Vent Event for HBO in 1978 with Steve Allen:

To find out more about the variety arts past and presentconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famousavailable at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold. And don’t miss Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, to be released by Bear Manor Media in 2013.

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Edgar Bergen

Posted in Hollywood (History), Vaudeville etc., Ventriloquism & Puppetry with tags , on February 16, 2012 by travsd

Today is the birthday of the great ventriloquist Edgar Bergen (see here for his full bio). In honor of the day we share with you his 1936 Vitaphone short subject “Nut Guilty”. Note that Charlie McCarthy is in his earlier guise, that of a troublesome street urchin, in this picture:

To find out more about  the history of vaudevilleconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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I’m No Dummy

Posted in CRITICISM/ REVIEWS, Movies (Contemporary), Vaudeville etc., Ventriloquism & Puppetry with tags , , , , , on April 27, 2010 by travsd

Of all the odd phenomena anthropologists study – cargo cults, tattoos and body piercing, cannibalism – one of the strangest, thus most deserving of scrutiny, is the fact that some humans like to take inanimate objects and make them talk like people, and other humans like to watch them.

Ventriloquism isn’t just some “show biz” thing, invented (along with teeter boards, plate spinning and musical saws) to add color to variety shows. Or rather, it dates from the time when variety shows were very hairy, monosyllabic and done around campfires. And this art form (for that’s what it is) has persisted through the centuries, down to modern times, when certain American vents have actually made fortunes, or at least very good livings.

It’s a story as old as mankind itself, though most people tend not to look at it that way. In I’m No Dummy: Sometimes You Just Need to Vent, film-maker Bryan W. Simon proves himself part of that mainstream by sticking to the modern leg of the story. And he does it well. His main tack is to shuttle back and forth between the present (the current crop of the country’s most successful ventriloquists) and the recent past (giants of radio and the golden age of TV), enlisting the former bunch to help interpret the significance of the latter. For show biz fans like me who are just a little too young for the salad days of tv variety, there are many savory nuggets here. For instance, while I certainly knew a little about Senor Wences and Paul Winchell from occasional tv appearances in their declining years (or, in the case of the latter, his cartoon voiceover work), it’s a different order of instruction to see their full evolution within the medium. (To be my age is to have thought for some years that Orson Welles was just the fat guy on The Merv Griffin Show—the one who wasn’t Victor Buono). More important was to learn tons about an important figure I knew nothing about (or knew without knowing): Jimmy Nelson, the guy who did the Nestle Quick ads with “Farfel” the dog in the 50s and 60s, a guy whom nearly every contemporary ventriloquist speaks about with reverence for having released an influential “how-to” ventriloquism record. If I can quibble a little, I found the order of introduction problematic. Edgar Bergen, like the vaudeville headliner that he was, comes last. The problem is, as the founder, the godfather, of modern ventriloquism and its most successful exponent, he should come first, to give us a true sense of his important place.

Of folks on the contemporary scene, several are presented but the film focuses on three. Jay Johnson, of course, who proved with his Broadway show The Two and Only that he was very much more than just “Chuck and Bob” from Soap. In addition to being a very funny comedian and a capable actor, he is an extremely skilled technical ventriloquist, shifting back and forth between personalities on a dime, and interestingly (as a lot of these guys are) he is an eloquent educator, as he speaks about the history and demands of his art form. (I had the pleasure and honor of interviewing him several years ago for Time Out New York. ) Even bigger than Johnson these days is Jeff Dunham, who fills huge auditoriums  and is a familiar sight on Comedy Central. As Dunham himself admits, his act puts more stress on the comedy than on the ventriloquism itself. The third person in the trilogy, previously unknown to me, Lynn Trefzger, has an act that’s too cutesy-pie for my taste, although she does have one killer bit where she makes a baby doll cry and fuss while an audience member is holding it. Her most valuable contribution is amazing however – film clips of her performing her act for family from age nine and up, an illuminating window onto a process we’ve often heard about anecdotally but never seen. (By the way she was already good at ventriloquism as a kid).

So what are the holes in the film? The end of the last paragraph points the way to one: the dark side of ventriloquism. Vents are among the hardest working and most talented people in show business –roughly worth as much as two other comedians plus a magician. Put another way, every vent is both Abbott and Costello, and also a master of misdirection such that you tend not to notice that Abbott is making his crazy partner talk. How do they develop this superhuman ability? By spending a lot of time ALONE.

As a once and future nerd myself I have little trouble declaring that all ventriloquists, magicians and jugglers are drawn from the ranks of the alienated. No youngster with a social life spends all their lives shut up in their bedrooms practicing – let alone some weird thing no one else is practicing. (Budding musicians and stand-up comedians get a pass; they get more opportunities to show off their skills so their obsessions don’t seem as pointless.) There are some hints in this direction. Nearly all the vents mention they were shy as kids. Their acts occasionally joke about the fact that ventriloquism is an odd thing to do. But it’s not just odd. Think of Anthony Hopkins in Magic, Cliff Robertson in that Twilight Zone episode. It’s not just odd, it’s dark. Every vent has a Jeckyl and Hyde thing going on; what they do uncomfortably skirts mental illness.  (And, still more intriguingly, primitive religion). Maybe I’m a sadist. I want to learn more about the pain driving these people.

Also, wholly missing from the film, is a discussion of the social significance of certain vents. While the African-American act Willy Tyler and Lester (a familiar sight on tv in the 1970s) appear in the film, there is no mention of the fact that the act was in any way ground-breaking. Likewise, the late Wayland Flowers and Madam, a hilarious, openly gay vent act from the same time period, is not mentioned at all. Tellingly, the one chunk of the film that talks about the need for the art form to stay “relevant” is anything but socially progressive. Jeff Dunham trots out a “dead terrorist” character, a skeletal Arab suicide bomber named Achmed. I’m a vaudevillian. For me, comedy and political incorrectness are as inseparable as, well, a vent and his dummy. But there IS a line. I draw it at boorish mobs howling at a foreign name and relishing the symbolic murder of an effigy. I would have liked at least a couple of the many historians and scholars who populate the film, or some of the vents themselves, to have asked the question: Is this okay? Is this therapy? Is this bloodlust? Is this racism? Just letting off steam? Dunham’s the one who’s dragged the conversation from show biz to politics, so I’m not just being a wet blanket for asking.

Three words: what the hell-?

Lastly, though it’s a cliché, I still would have liked to have seen the film capped off by looking at some genuine up and comers, just starting out. The film attempts to demonstrate ventriloquism’s relevance and vitality by showing Dunham perform for a crowd of 10,000. A more apt demonstration might have been to show some innovative young people in small comedy clubs, the actual future (as opposed to the present) of ventriloquism. If so, they might have caught some genuinely exciting work, like, oh, this.

And to find out even more about the variety artspast and presentconsultNo Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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Stars of Vaudeville #119: Edgar Bergen

Posted in Comedy, Hollywood (History), Radio (Old Time Radio), Vaudeville etc., Ventriloquism & Puppetry with tags , , , , , , on February 16, 2010 by travsd

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Today is the birthday of the most successful ventriloquist in history (I think it’s safe to say) Edgar Bergen (1903-1978)

What makes a great artist great is not only great chops, but a great spirit. Bergen may not have been the best technical ventriloquist in the world but is deservedly the most famous because he created great characters and wrote great material. If he’d not been a ventriloquist he would have been remembered simply as a very funny comedian or joke writer. In reality, like all ventriloquists, he did a job more than twice as hard as the average comedian. He was both straight man and the character comedian in his act. These qualities also explain his tremendous success on radio, where excellence as a ventriloquist would have been superfluous and he was more of a voice-over comedian like Mel Blanc.

Born in Chicago in 1903, Bergen got his show business start feeding a furnace and sweeping up in a theatre. He then moved up to piano player and projectionist for silent films. By 8th grade he’d gotten so good at mimicking animals and people that someone told him “you must be a ventriloquist.” He had to look the word up in the dictionary.

The concept was interesting to him. He went to see the Great Lester (vaudeville’s premier ventriloquist) perform, and also bought a book: Hermann’s Wizard’s Manual, which divulged some of the trade secrets. A high school talent show precipitated the creation of Charlie McCarthy. With a performance coming up, Bergen drew a little picture of a newsboy and gave it to a woodcarver to work from. This first Charlie very different from the one we know. He was an Irish newsboy, more of street urchin. Bergen, who’d been about to flunk out of school, was nevertheless a hit in the school show. based on his promise as a performer, a sympathetic teacher helped him graduate.

Bergen started to work little theatres around Chicago, the Chautauqua circuit, churches, schools etc. He worked small time Orpheum (called Junior Orpheum) in winter. During summer, when theatres were closed he attended classes at northwestern university. One of their early bits had Edgar as a doctor finding Charlie sick on a park bench:

BERGEN: Charlie, you have a temperature of 102.

CHARLIE: If it makes 104, I’ll sell.

BERGEN: I’m going to paint your throat.

CHARLIE: Oh, so you’re a painter. I knew you weren’t a doctor.

BERGEN: I’m going to paint your throat with a silver nitrate solution. Open your mouth. (takes out a blue bottle and swab)

CHARLIE: Do I have to swallow the whole thing?

And so. Nearly everything that came out of Charlie’s mouth was a joke. By 1926 Bergen was doing a 15 minute turn at the Palace. The act was a big hit there, and a tour of the Keith circuit followed. In 1930, he did his first films, a series of Vitaphone shorts which essentially preserved some of the vaudeville bits.

Lucrative nightclub dates came next. When Bergen was booked at the Helen Morgan Club, he felt he needed something to revamp his act, to give it the sort of class that would reflect the nightclub environment. It was then that he changed Charlie’s outfit from a newsboy’s  to a top hat, tuxedo and  monacle. The nightclub dates were hugely popular. Bergen’s material could be quite racy but because he put it in the mouth of a dummy, he got away with it. Alfred Lunt and Lyne Fontanne were big fans, as was Cary Grant, who offered to manage him.

In 1936 Bergen debuted on Rudy Vallee’s radio show. the act was so successful that in 1937 he got his own show, the Chase and Sanborne Show, which ran for 20 years. Without a doubt their most popular guest was W.C. Fields, who made numerous “appearances” between 1938 and 1944.  The antagonistic relationship between Fields and Charlie was immortalized in the 1939 film You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man.

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Another notorious guest was Mae West, who in caused a scandal in 1937 with her characterization of Eve in the Garden of Eden.

Other Bergen/McCarthy films included The Goldwyn Follies (1938), Song of the Open Road (1944), and I Remember Mama (1947 )which featured Bergen sans dummy.

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Other characters devised by Bergen over the years included Mortimer Snerd, Lars Lindquist, and two hens, Maisie and Matilda. He continued to appear in night clubs and on television in the 60s and 70s. The film which contains his last screen appearance The Muppet Movie (1979) is also, appropriately dedicated to him.

Could there have been a more appropriate screen farewell than this?

Could there have been a more appropriate screen farewell than this?

DISTINGUISHED PROGENY: Television and movie actress Candace Bergen of “Murphy Brown”, Carnal Knowledge, etc, is Edgar’s daughter.

To learn about the roots of variety entertainmentconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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And don’t miss my new book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc

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