The McCarthy Era

Frank Tuttle directed 1939’s CHARLIE MCCARTHY, DETECTIVE. I don’t know what they had on him to make him do it, but it must have been damning.

Charlie McCarthy plays himself in the title role. I’m not sure how he ever became a star. Plenty of movie stars are short, of course, and plenty are not classically handsome. Plenty more, these days, have rigid, immobile features, thanks to Botox. But McCarthy is tiny, knee-high to his co-star Edgar Bergen, and apart from his flapping jaw his face doesn’t seem to move at all. Added to these disabilities, either of which might be expected to disqualify him from motion picture prominence, he seems to be totally disabled from the neck down. His co-star literally carries him through every scene. I suppose it’s commendable that Universal were willing to overlook the actor’s physical problems, but he also has a really obnoxious personality, so I’m not sure why they thought it was worth it.

McCarthy, left, with his supporting actor.

Bergen isn’t so great either. When McCarthy speaks, Bergen seems to move his lips slightly in rhythm with his lines, as if he’s learned the whole script and is waiting for his own lines to commence. (You can see Emma Watson do this in the last scene of HARRY POTTER AND THE PHILOSOPHER’S STONE, but at least she has the excuse of being a little kid.)

Bergen and McCarthy never made any films on their own. They were truly an inseparable team. I don’t know anything about their offscreen relationship, but there’s something I noticed in this movie… I hardly like to point it out. I feel like it’s bound to upset someone. But, in several of the wide shots of the two actors, it’s painfully obvious that as Bergen carries his diminutive partner about, his hand is vanishing up the seat of McCarthy’s trousers. It’s really impossible to miss. I can’t imagine how they got this past the censor, or why they did it in the first place. I mean, in private, sure, we’ve all done it. But on a movie set? When it’s NOT essential to the plot? I mean, none of the other characters in the scene respond to this startling behaviour in any way, just as they politely overlook McCarthy’s inhuman tininess and terrifying, corpse-like, unmoving features.

Charlie auditions for the role of Mr. Scratch, which he failed to play two years later.

I think perhaps Tuttle intended the film as a Bunuelian satire on the mores of the wealthy. The upper-class characters among whom McCarthy operates, in their swank night clubs and country manor, are shown as so absurdly polite and civilised that they react not in the slightest to the grotesque sight of this shrunken paralysed homunculus, face fixed in a hideous rictus, being carried aloft with another man’s fist crammed into his tiny anal compartment. They smile and nod and show their impeccable manners and their utter separation from reality. Viewed this way, CHARLIE MCCARTHY, DETECTIVE is a powerful condemnation indeed.

Also starring the Butcher of Strasbourg and the Walking Fontanelle.

11 Responses to “The McCarthy Era”

  1. Hilarious! However, Bergen DID once work without the dummy or the rug…

  2. Charlie McCarthy, wooden though he is, is still better than that punk Asta, always walking around on those four legs, even when uncalled for by the script. No range whatsoever I tell you! But even he is better than those stiff extras Mario Bava cast in Lisa and the Devil…

    (Btw, the movie your’ve describing appears to be a really good karen Carpenter Superstar – esque yarn!)

  3. I’ve been meaning to watch I Dismember, I mean I REmember Mama. It somehow makes sense that Stevens would cast Ed in a straight role: he put Ed Wynn in The Greatest Story Ever Told. And The Diary of Anne Frank, along with Orangey the Cat.

  4. Matthew Clark Says:

    Charlie McCarthy could be considered the Adam Sandler of his day. Becoming famous on broadcast media and then moving over to the movies. I believe he now sits in The Smithsonian. Did Murphy Brown ever visit him?

  5. One of the most bizarre aspects of moving to the United States in the 1970s was discovering Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy, who were still prevalent on the chat and variety show circuit. How could such an awful ventriloquist (believe me, he got worse with age) be worthy of a guest spot? I suppose it was akin to the discovery by ’70s Americans new to the UK that the Black and White Minstrels were still on TV…

  6. Apparently when they were thinking of putting Bergen in a movie, someone said, “A ventriloquist in a movie? Surely the audience will just assume it’s been dubbed.” “Waitaminute, he’s already a star ON THE RADIO.”

    And The Black and White Minstrel Show continued on the BBC until 1980, I think. And it was The Goodies’ parody of it, which conflated it with Roots, which finally killed it.

  7. Charles W. Callahan Says:

    A big Bronx cheer for this post.
    The efforts of humor are smug, lazy, sloppy and made me weep.
    I hope you’re happy.

  8. Matthew Clark Says:

    Part of Edgar Bergen’s popularity was that everyone saw that he wasn’t a good ventriloquist. His main claim to fame, in those far gone days, was that he was funny. One of the top comedians of the day up with Burns and Allen, Jack Benny, and all the rest of the radio greats. The fame of Charlie McCarthy was itself a sort of postmodern joke on the concept of fame that everyone was in on. Also. by speaking through the McCarthy dummy, Bergen was able to get away with a lot of jokes others couldn’t. Like many radio stars, Bergen’s appearance in this film was probably something he just did while on break from his regular radio show.

  9. Jim Henson and the Muppet crew worshipped Bergen. Not for his ventriloquistic skills, but for making Charlie a persuasive (if obnoxious) character. Read somewhere that W.C. Fields sometimes had to be restrained from striking the dummy if Bergen landed a too-sharp ad lib.

  10. I worked a glove puppet on a movie set once. It was a goose, designed like Rod Hull’s Emu of BBC fame. I wasn’t able to do much with the character, but I found that if I made it look around while I wasn’t looking at it, it came to life and people would come up and STROKE MY HAND. Obviously there’s more to the art than not looking at your puppet, unless I’m a natural genius who stumbled on the Great Secret at once, but it was amazing how well that worked.

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