Thursday, April 22, 2004

Charlie McCarthy, noir-style

I finally finished the FGRA project earlier today, and I guess it goes without saying that I was a little burned out listening to OTR, so I shoved the Jack Benny project aside momentarily and treated myself to a movie from the stack of DVDs I recently purchased from Finders Keepers. It was kind of hard to choose, but I gave the 1939 feature film Charlie McCarthy, Detective the tap.

In this short-and-sweet feature, Bergen & McCarthy play themselves, a successful night club act who find themselves mixed up in a murder case involving an unscrupulous magazine editor, Arthur Aldrich (Louis Calhern), who’s had one of his reporters, Bill Banning (John Sutton), jailed before Banning can reveal the connection between his boss and gangster Tony Garcia (Harold Huber). Aldrich is murdered during a party at his estate, and both Banning (who’s escaped from jail) and Garcia are among the suspects. Robert Cummings is also in the film, playing another reporter who’s attempting to help Banning, and Constance Moore is Banning’s fiancĂ©e, Sheila Stuart. The film is actually a fairly straightforward little B-mystery pic, with only occasional comic relief from Edgar & Charlie; in fact, the film’s title is a bit of a misnomer—it’s Edgar who ends up solving the case, which I have to admit had an interesting twist at the film’s end. (Bergen could have gotten into the radio detective game if ever he and Charlie had a parting of the ways.)

Charlie McCarthy, Detective was a quickly produced B-picture made to cash in on the success of the duo’s appearance in the classic 1939 W.C. Fields’ comedy You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man (which may very well be their finest hour on screen). In Detective, Edgar and Charlie are reunited with actress Moore, who played Fields’ daughter in Honest Man. (Moore also had an uncredited bit as an autograph seeker in Bergen & McCarthy’s first feature film appearance, Letter of Introduction [1938].) It’s also interesting to note that prior to Edgar Bergen’s success on radio with The Chase & Sanborn Hour, the ventriloquist had quite the movie career, appearing in a series of 14 one-reelers for Vitaphone between 1930 and 1937, the year of his radio debut. (The shorts didn’t make many waves at the time, but proved popular in re-release once Bergen & McCarthy took radio audiences by storm.) 

I was a bit surprised by Charlie McCarthy, Detective in that I had envisioned it to be similar to one of those Bob Hope vehicles in which the comedy is played against a backdrop of menace (My Favorite Blonde, My Favorite Brunette, etc.). Charlie is around strictly for comic relief, and in fact performs a novelty number entitled “I’m Charlie McCarthy, Detective.” (My favorite part is when Charlie—clad in deerstalker cap and inverness cape—rips his pants and turns to Bergen saying, “Quick, Watson—the needle!”) Edgar’s other dummy, Mortimer Snerd, also appears in the film—but he doesn’t have a lot to do. But the comedy from Bergen and his dummies is sort of on the weak side; it’s not nearly as good as some of the dialogue and routines in, say, Look Who’s Laughing (1941).

In watching this film, I couldn’t help but be distracted by the fact that Bergen—I know this sounds like blasphemy, but it’s true—wasn’t a particularly great ventriloquist. So when people often posit the question “How could they put a ventriloquist on the radio?” I think in Bergen’s case, it was pretty much a godsend. Bergen would often modestly joke about his lips moving by having Charlie heckle him about it. (Bergen himself was characteristically honest about his limited talents; he even commented once that one of his rivals, Shirley Dinsdale, was “the best natural ventriloquist I ever saw.”)

Charlie McCarthy, Detective is certainly not the best film I’ve ever watched, but it’s a breezy and enjoyable little diversion, with a great cast of character actors including Edgar Kennedy, Samuel S. Hinds, Charles Lane, Anne Gwynne, and an incredibly young Milburn Stone, the future Doc Adams of TV’s Gunsmoke. Warren Hymer is also in this film, and he plays—I know this is gonna be a shocker—a dumb hoodlum. (Did Hymer ever make a movie in which he played a brainy guy?) The direction is by Frank Tuttle, who specialized in musical comedies like Roman Scandals (1933), College Holiday (1936) and Waikiki Wedding (1937), but also demonstrated a flair for crime and murder pics like the original The Glass Key (1935) and This Gun For Hire (1942), the film that made Alan Ladd a sensation. Ladd, of course, starred in the 1942 remake of Key, one of my favorite “stop-and-watch” movies (if I’m flipping channels and see it playing, I’ll stop and watch it). Now if I could just stop confusing Harold Huber with Joseph Calleia, I'll be okay...

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