Sunday, July 19, 2015

Rewarding Careers In Ventriloquism!

Pondering vintage movies, television and pop culture (instead of music) yet again, this blogger found that last weekend's The Joy Of Dubbing Part 2 post sparked more musings. . . this time on the topic of ventriloquism and malevolent inanimate objects in general.

Sometime in the year 43,000 B.C., some wiseguy caveman came up the idea of carving a piece of rock, stone or wood into something resembling a Cro-Magnon man's head as a joke. "Hey let's play one on Grok! Watch this, Thak - this will be hysterical!"

Leave it not to Beaver, but to the remarkably and thoroughly twisted Tod Browning and "the man of way more than a thousand faces", Lon Chaney, Sr. to make a whole movie about a criminal ventriloquist.

Tod n' Lon made two versions of this excellent thriller, The Unholy Three - one silent, one with sound. They are both amazing and underscore the extent to which Chaney's death of bronchial cancer at 47 was a devastating loss to motion pictures, 20th century art and culture. Here's a clip from the 1930 version.

Director Erich von Stroheim ended up going back to acting as his tumultuous career as a director was coming to an end. One of these films, The Great Gabbo, stars the acclaimed silent film director as a ventriloquist. It's a musical and his dummy yodels and sings.

Also starring Betty Compson, former silent movie headliner and star of Josef von Sternberg's classic The Docks Of New York), who sings quite well in the musical segments of the 1929 film, this is one of those exceptionally bizarre and weirdly entertaining early talkies that must be seen to be believed.

After his experiences battling MGM brass tooth-and-nail producing Greed and The Wedding March, one imagines that von Stroheim's heart's desire very likely would have been to make The Great Gabbo with the ventriloquist dummy played by Louis B. Mayer - and one would wager that silver screen icons John Gilbert, Buster Keaton and latter-day film buffs also would have enjoyed such a spectacle.

As if the two versions of The Unholy Three weren't enough, Tod Browning, as one of his parting shots to the world of filmmaking, made The Devil Doll. Note that the title is NOT "the not-very-nice doll." One urban legend claims that Erich von Stroheim worked on the screenplay. Lionel Barrymore is on hand to chew up scenery in multiple roles.

The same year, ventriloquist Edgar Bergen was appearing in comedy short subjects for Vitaphone. The fact that a ventriloquist became wildly popular on radio and got into a feud with W.C. Fields never cease to amaze.

Not surprisingly at all, Your Correspondent began writing this post only to find that not one but two writers, Patrick Cooper and the prolific Katharine Trendacosta covered the topic of out-of-control ventriloquist dummies in detail. Their accounts, worth reading and including the "ventriloquism gone wrong - VERY wrong" segment from the classic anthology feature Dead Of Night:

The 10 Creepiest Ventriloquist Tales Of All Time

The 10 Creepiest Ventriloquist Dummies Of All Time

Also not surprisingly at all, the two episodes of The Twilight Zone involving warped ventriloquist dummies, The Dummy and Cesar And Me, are mentioned among Ms. Trendacosta's Creepiest Ventriloquist Tales list. Yes, indeedy - "The Dummy" is quite a bastard and would have reduced Charlie McCarthy, Mortimer Snerd AND Edgar Bergen to kindling in short order.

Another scary tale straight from the bowels of The Twilight Zone featured one seriously demented 1950's style doll, the murderous Talking Tina and a pre-Kojak, not exactly "cool" version of Telly Savalas. Indeed, no "who loves ya, baby" lines ensued when Telly's desperate, sweaty character was terrorized relentlessly by a psycho-killer doll.

Last up: the inimitable Tex Avery, King Of Cartoons. Tex' specialty was "gags and variations" and he made an entire cartoon entirely on the topic of throwing one's voice. A brain that could think up a cartoon about ventriloquism involving DOGS AND CATS (heretofore only seen talking in cheesy Jerry Fairbanks Speaking Of Animals 1-reelers - one of which Avery wrote), in all honesty, needed to be donated to the Smithsonian Institute! Just when you think Tex can't POSSIBLY dream up one more joke, there's another five. And the ending is a beaut. Now WHEN will we see these great Tex Avery MGM cartoons on Blu-ray, anyway?

Unless one counts the relationship between sleazy lobbyists, "dark money" organizations, gazillionaires and members of the United States Congress, there aren't many ventriloquists and dummies around these days, other than Jeff Dunham, whose Comedy Central special was on a veritable loop on that channel for quite awhile.


rnigma said...

One other ventriloquist who made it on radio was Peter Brough, Britain's answer to Edgar Bergen, and his dummy Archie Andrews(not to be confused with the redhead from Riverdale), in "Educating Archie," which ran on BBC radio in the '50s, and launched the career of Julie Andrews.

Paul F. Etcheverry said...

Thank you for your comment, Migma! You remind me that I must write about the BBC radio shows of Tony Hancock sometime. As far as the redhead from Riverdale goes, he would have been better as a puppet - although I do like the nasty spoof from Harvey Kurtzman and Bill Elder in Mad Magazine, "Starchie".