Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception... for a better now

Wednesday, October 05, 2011

Unironic Ventriloquist Radio: YOU CAN'T CHEAT AN HONEST MAN

"They say any idiot can write a book, if that's true I'm their boy."

Call me strange but I've always been a little bothered by concert 'films' -- the idea that the sight of a guy straining at his guitar is of some intrinsic aesthetic relevance to the experience of the music. Maybe I've been to too many Grateful Dead shows while hallucinating but I find the sight of people playing guitars to be fairly obscene. It's dirty, all those phallic necks and jerking strum movements. Sometimes seeing the musician is off-putting to your musical enjoyment, the way going to a reading by your favorite author can ruin his work for you (never meet your heroes). What is the correlation, for example, between watching a Jheri-curled ebony gremlin blowing into a shiny brass cornucopia and the the primordial jazz of Miles Davis in his late 60s-70s electric period? Better the music be seen as the earth's crust cooling and buckling at the dawn of time. What has a bunch of balding white guys in tuxedos with horsehair saws to the music of Mozart? Better an interwoven laser show. How does a fat dude with crazy gray hair wanking a long hunk of shiny purple wood correlate to the spacey noodling of Jerry Garcia, rather than... what... a zonked hippie chick sitting in a puddle behind the stage tracing patterns in the air like her fingertips are invisible sparklers? In the age of mp3s you can love a band and have no idea what they look like, and it's much better that way. I never want to go 'see' my favorite authors read, lest I be turned off by their voices or appearance and lose all love their work - imagine their real voice in my head as I read instead of the hazy matrix of inner voices I ascribe. I get around this by blotting out the author photos on books I own. You won't find a one. I even have doubts about showing my own on this blog and elsewhere, but I try to get around it by wearing dark glasses, beards, and deadpan expressions.

On another note: thanks to the anonymity of the web, mixed media collages that used to qualify for stuffy grants from arts foundations and take years to finish are now set up in seconds by freshmen college kids on their laptops who may have no idea how meta and post-modern they are by watching TRANSFORMERS on mute with a Mash-up remix of Pat Boone and Beyonce playing on their iTunes as a substitute soundtrack, all totally without any idea they can try to connect the interwoven symbolic meanings of it all and discover the joys of post-modernism for a media studies thesis. Meanwhile there are music documentaries or biopics out there that don't even have the rights to the music of their subject and so use muzak that sounds 'roughly' like the band. Authorship as a commodity thus shifts and feints and ducks back through an endless maze of duplication, collage, licensing, advertising 'rips' and adaptation. And you have pop stars now who make their songs on thin square pads and their concert performances consist of them sitting onstage with their little box, and pressing play, and then bravely extending their right hand across the bar for their cash while bewildered kids, too hip to complain, dance uncertainly. Maybe Andy Kaufman would love it... for awhile.  I'm Emperor's New Clothes about it.

Because it's all been done already.

No hay banda!
Artists have continually worked to negate each other, to make their own brand obsolete, and various forms of expression that take lifetimes to learn now become mastered, outdated and forgotten within months thanks to overexposure. We must remember that in 1929 a similar thing to our current 'collapse of the performative sphere' happened when the icons of the silent film era went stepping nervously into sound, unsure how the public would react to their ungainly, sadly human voices--their fans had seen and loved them or so long, god forbid their voice didn't match their expectations - they were ruined overnight if their accents were incoherent or their man's manliness undone by an effeminate whinny. We know about all that from SINGING IN THE RAIN, the fall of Gilbert Roland, "Garbo Speaks!' and Club Silencio in MULHOLLAND DR. (above) but what about the reverse? What about beloved radio comedians moving hesitantly into motion pictures. People seeing them for the first time after imagining faces to their voices the way they'd imagined voices in 1929? What about... ventriloquists on the radio?

In the golden age of radio the 1930s-40s (before TV took over) everyone in America knew the voices of comedians like Fred Allen, Jack Benny, Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy. The best material resulted from pretend feuds between them, which provided lots of insult gag opportunities. There was the original east-west rivalry in NYC-based Fred Allen vs. LA-based Jack Benny and one between Charlie McCarthy and W.C. Fields. The latter was more complicated as Fields didn't have his own show, was an established film star, and Charlie was, well, a hunk of wood with a shy not especially charismatic Swede attached. If aliens one day pick up our radio signals in space, some of the first things they hear won't be SETI, but these old radio shows still flying out into space bouncing around in the void, and they'll probably scratch their heads, especially over Edgar and Charlie. A ventriloquist on the radio? What were those Hu-Mans thinking?

I got into old radio shows as a kid in the 70s after hearing THE SHADOW Sunday nights on PBS's radio station, which I received on my little clock radio. This was the closest thing, aside from an actual film projector, one could get in the 70s to a VCR. Being able to listen to creepy shows like Inner Sanctum and The Shadow in my bedroom, all the lights off, put the hook in me, and the comedy was reassuring, especially if you were an avid watcher of Bugs Bunny cartoons, then in constant afternoon rotation, as guest voices from those shows constantly showed up, betraying their origins (i.e Foghorn Leghorn based on Senator Claghorn in Allen's Alley; the dopey buzzard based on Mortimer Snerd; Mel Blanc a regular on the Jack Benny show, etc). Still seeing Allen, Gildersleeve and Edgar Bergen and Fibber McGee all for the first time in this one old movie gave me the creeps. It took a long time to forget about that unpleasant frisson and just enjoy as I had enjoyed in my innocence...

The Siamese twin Hilton Sisters in Freaks (1933)
Edgar Bergen and two animate objects
Bergen and McCarthy especially were quite jarring on film, which is strange since the whole reason a ventriloquist act should work is our tendency towards anthropomorphism, the way our minds see a human shape, moving its mouth, and hear a voice, so we link them together. It's unconscious, beyond our control, hence the uncanny frisson; but on radio it's much easier to imagine Charlie McCarthy as a separate entity, existing in a fantasmatic rather than uncanny dimension. In their elder statesman days on the Muppet Show Bergen and his wood fit right in, but muppets are different than human actors or ventriloquist dummies, more colorful and with some level of expression gained through the full range of fingers along the wide felt mouth--and with no handler visible--but Charlie's mouth is kind of robotic, his dead eyes stare right through you and that jaw moves up and down but that's it-- and Edgar is always literally an arms length away. For some reason I still find Charlie terrifying in 'person' and Edgar kind of anemic and 'half' there. The whole issue of the ebony demon with his silver cornucopia comes roaring back when you have close-ups of old wooden Charlie McCarthy, his mouth moving up and down like a macabre robot, his dead eyes refusing all attempts to project emotion. When handler Edgar tries to get it on with a girl and, while explaining to her how ventriloquism works, his dummy keeps talking, sabotaging any attempt at cool, it makes him seem quite dysfunctional, like he's got a kind of projected Tourette syndrome. It's FREAKS-ish, i.e. the scene with the Siamese twins and the frisson-laden idea of loving one 'half' of a whole while the other half hangs around, vibing or cockblocking depending on whether the subject is split or not. Edgar is incomplete on his own, he is not a 'puppet proper.' His persona is diluted and partially externalized into a soft-voiced half-man. If you have  to have a talking piece of wood, saying "why don't you kiss her and get it over with?" before your first meeting is halfway through, you are officially a creep.

My first viewings of Bergen's big starring feature debut with WC Fields, YOU CAN'T CHEAT AN HONEST MAN (1938) were from an old afternoon UHF TV show, sped up and edited for time (and racism) as they used to do in those days. It was great on a fuzzy small TV screen, the uncanny valley was less uncanny, and I saw it dozens of times and became quite familiar with its comedic rhythms. Years later now, on DVD, the film is stretched back to normal running time, so it seems to move super slow, with dead air moments. Now the picture is super clear and scenes I've never seen have been restored, and now McCarthy's uncanny automaton qualities are much too pronounced to ignore. His close-ups seem like some home movie some devout pagan idol worshiper would make for Andy Warhol... if Warhol was into puppetry.

Fields' scenes were often shot by Eddie Cline, separately from Charlie's, helping the timeless-strange aspect along as Cline had a much better knack for ramshackle comedy than the film's official director George Marshall. Also helping is Field's obvious alcoholism: he staggers through the film in a zig-zag, avoiding the major 'marks' the way his character avoids the process server, preferring to run through his litany of old circus impresario gags from THE OLD FASHIONED WAY, SALLY OF THE SAWDUST, and so on, rather than engaging directly with the material before him.

It's a smart movie because, as a narrative, YOU CAN'T CHEAT AN HONEST MAN is pure hokum, old hat even in the silent age. And as a romance, it lives and dies in the soft dulcet 'real' voice of Charlie McCarthy's handler, Edgar Bergen, and some anonymous wartime heroine, playing Fields' daughter, bravely trying to seem not creeped out by the fact her love interest can't let go of his wooden 'buddy' even to hold her hand, yet he wants to marry her although he only met her a few hours earlier. Ick. Luckily the scenes with Larson E. Whipsnade doing his timeless but 'off' carny acts (subbing for the bearded lady sharpshooter, etc) are hilarious, like a jazz solo springing off the crusty familiarity of the tune (like Coltrane riffing on "My Favorite Things") and the weirdness of the overall film pays off in a skewed three-prong textual dissolve:

'Textual' Prong #1 - Meta - CHEAT is a relic of a bygone age and I love it largely for my own memories of what was going on in my life (the first warm glow of drink, that golden nectar) when I first taped it, a day I stayed home sick to edit out the commercials and then felt guilty all day as my mom stink-eyed me from the kitchen. I've seen it dozens of times. Dozens. That guilty depressed feeling staying home was almost totally wiped out by years of drinking to it late in the AM, but now that I'm sober that stain remains, and now that it's on DVD and I'm on meds, I get all the various stages of 'me' viewing its earlier 'home-edited' edition as well as this new one. The film's hokey datedness encourages such long term relationships - each new viewing holds surprises.

Prong 2 - Sub - The Brechtian-reflexive schtick with the creepy dual come-on of Bergen and McCarthy to Vicky. Charlie's telling Edgar to tell Vicky he loves her and wants to marry her before he has even kissed her (he can't kiss her because Charlie would be stricken mute, or else Vicky would hear Charlie in her molars). And Fields lamenting when a native steals the cork out of his lunch or daring you to guess whether his lines are intentionally or unintentionally fumbled or written that way.

Prong 3 - Inter - The nostalgia of the early Americana circus film was once a huge part of any sawdust-covered five cent cinema's rotation, especially in the silent era: there was always a sad clown played by Lon Chaney or Wallace Ford, who loves the acrobat but she's under the thumb of the abusive strong man; there was also the rich kid scheduled to marry a stuffy heiress but loves the waif; a poor kid romance 'meller' of the "I'll pay the rent!" variety that careened around the country in Fields' heyday: it's this corny schtick that Fields grew up watching and acting in (he was a long time circus juggler) which he is here lampooning.

In other words Fields is parodying genres of film that most of us have never seen nor would we want to. Most of them are deservedly long gone. HONEST MAN is a 'parody' of the sawdust-soaked cliches of Fields' youth, the innocent abroad with his hankerin' for the city (as Fields lambasts in FATAL GLASS OF BEER), the rich but loveless family of snobs Fields' daughter is willing to marry into if it means getting the circus out of debt: it is not just a parody of turn-of-the-century wealthy snobbery, but of Hollywood's past depictions of same, including Fields starring silent vehicles like SALLY OF THE SAWDUST.

Small wonder then, that Edgar's competition for Field's daughter's hand is the aptly named Roger Belgoode III. The scenes of class clashes and chaste romance were mockable cliches even in the 1930s, and this third prong represents that intertextual nostalgia the film carries for the lost era of full-length bathing suits, opium pipes, theater organs, and flagpole sitters. Back in 1938, this cornball stuff was their That 70s Show. 

CHEAT also grows less stilted once Fields sends Bergen and Charlie adrift in a hot air balloon and they discover Mortimer Snerd has been sleeping in the basket. For some reason, Snerd eases the creepy affect from all the McCarthy close-ups. Watching a puppet open and close its mouth while Edgar talks to himself, phrasing the set ups to his jokes in such archaic language they could only hold punchlines on the other end ("Is you mother living yet?" - "No, not yet") is less creepy for some reason once there are two puppets interacting with Edgar. It helps too that there are no other people around, especially not a girl. It helps too that Snerd is supposed to be dead-eyed and moronic. It's because he's an idiot that this hood-eyed hunk of wood is more relatable than the shark-eyed Charlie.

This was Edgar's feature film debut and he seems nervous and shy. Talking in an effeminate little whisper he's too dependent on his dummy to become a 'leading man' who can believably engage in romantic relations. He would make more films and get a better sense of a separate identity, but here he seems naught but a shadow. Expecting a girl to give up a cozy rich scenario to save her dad's circus in order to fall in love with this split subject wreck is so unreasonable it's kind of insulting.

And yet, the interesting thing about Bergen here is the example of just how fucked a ventriloquist who gets successful is: Bergen/Charlie must now and forever stay split. Bergen's real daughter Candice may know the separate Edgar, her father, without the dummies, but do we? Does Vicky? Bergen's 'own' voice has grown soft and delicate in relation to Charlie's far wider range, the way a couple overcompensates for each other's perceived faults; his eyes stay half-focused on his wooden 'other' as if in a trance. This is his Faustian bargain for success - "he" has become his "other's" puppet. The literal half-man --when he speaks as himself his voice is lowered and soft and girly, as if he has nowhere to throw it because no one will have it. He says his lines nervously, ashamed of his lips moving. This is all done no doubt so Charlie and Mortimer seem louder, but instead their combined split subject performing carries a cold dead air -- not helped by the fact that no one in the circus audiences ever laughs at or enjoys their show. I mean how hard would it have been to add some laughter from the crowd rather than letting the poor chump twist in the wind?

No wonder then that Bergen is such a perfect foil for Fields... on the radio. Similarly mired in a defective ego ideal --the liquored-up charlatan, Fields can duel Charlie with pithy one-liners and simultaneously neither actor need even be 'present' -- Fields stays in his cups and Bergen in his dolls - what their duels have, then, is something beyond acting, a multiplication of interlocked archetype slitters right up there with eerie totem pole sacrifices we see in films like THE WICKER MAN or England's Guy Fawkes effigies.

Fields in one of his many ingenious disguises
 The ultimate difference between Fields and Bergen (now that I'm sober this seems especially glaring) is that while they both effectively hide in plain sight through deceptive means, one is multiplied and the other divided: Bergen's deception is 'thrown' (external); Fields' is 'drunk' (internal), Fields slowly vanishes down a beer tap drain while Edgar multiplies like a hydra until he's neither here nor there, but solely in the interaction between here and there. The romance between Edgar and Vicky is therefore as creepy as incest, since it automatically infers a menage a trois with an inanimate object and ensures you can only marry half a person - and kissing them for any length of time essentially strangles their Siamese other. 

The main love relationship Fields has in his films by contrast is always a chaste paternal one, with a daughter or niece since he is in effect already happily married to gin which doesn't talk but rather is consumed utterly, so Fields in a sense is always in the process of sneaking away in plain sight, drinking his 'other' back into the void, and then being drunk in turn; he mutters to himself under his breath like the very air around him is his dummy, and everything he does or said he had done or said before ("Dragging my canoe behind me!") in his other films is done and said again. As all drunks repeat their stories and sentiments endlessly, so too does Fields repeat his stories and bits from film to film to his straight men, be they A-list stars, poker tables, cigar store Indians, hick extras, or oblivious family members absorbed in their own petty breakfast gossip. So in a sense Fields has an open dialogue not with an external totem of himself as Edgar does, but with a ghost, a half Fields referencing a 1/4 Fields, and so on... until he's so infinitesimally small he becomes bigger than all creation... 


  1. Fascinating stuff, Erich! What a wonderfully unique and incisive piece!

  2. Wow. You really did a great job with those words and pictures. That Ms. Piggy shot was cool. Well, they all were. Ventriloquism could be the ancient form of Modern Day Beat Boxing:) Thanks for the post.


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