Perspectives of a Writer and Musician

Issues related to writing, publishing and playing jazz music: One man's muse.
by Al Stevens

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Location: Florida, United States

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Movies About Ventriloquists

There are a few movies about ventriloquists. As with other fictional accounts, they tend to treat ventriloquists as criminals and candidates for the funny farm.


The Unholy Three

Hollywood released two versions of this film, both starring Lon Chaney. The first version, from 1925, was silent, and the second, released in 1930 and Chaney's last film, was a talkie. The story is about a ventriloquist, a strongman and a midget who work in a carnival sideshow. They form a crime syndicate and bilk the wealthy. One crime has the ventriloquist disguised as an old lady and the midget disguised as a baby. They trick their way into people's houses to rob them.


The Great Gabbo

The Great Gabbo, starring Erich Von Stroheim, is a 1929 film based on a short story, The Rival Dummy, written by Ben Hecht and published in Liberty Magazine in 1928. Gabbo is an abusive ventriloquist who uses his dummy Otto first as Gabbo's only conduit for acceptable behavior and then later to heap abuse upon his girlfriend, who leaves him because of the way he and Otto treat her. In a delusional rage Gabbo destroys the dummy and spends the remainder of his life as a fugitive, believing he really killed someone. The film takes ventriloquism outside the realm of reality by having Gabbo eat, drink, and smoke across a table while Otto moves and talks.

The Three Mesquiteers and Range Busters Series

These two series of identically themed movies featured ventriloquist Max Terhune and his dummy Elmer Sneezeweed. Both series were about a trio of cowboy heroes who defended the underdogs against the bad guys.

First came The Three Mesquiteers series from Republic Pictures, which ran from 1936 - 1943. Terhune was not in the first of these movies. He joined the cast in the second movie after the series was established.

When Terhune and Crash Corrigan had contract disputes with Republic in about 1940, they bolted to Monogram pictures and launched the Range Busters series with the same format. Terhune appeared in all the Range Buster movies. The Mesquiteer series continued but without a ventriloquist in one of the starring roles.

Terhune played the character Lullaby Joslin in the first series and Alibi in the second. Elmer kept his name in both series. John Wayne was in several of the Mesquiteer movies.
Many youthful ventriloquists, this author included, got their first exposure to the art when these movies were shown on television in the 1940s and 50s.


Harmony Trail

In 1944, in between the Mesquiteer and Range Buster roles, Terhune and Elmer starred with Ken Maynard, Eddie Dean, Rocky Camron, and Ruth Roman in “Harmony Trail,” a movie from Meridian Pictures that resembles the Mesquiteers and Range Busters in format and plot, except there were four cowboy heroes instead of only three. Elmer gets a lot of exposure in Harmony Trail


All the Bergen and McCarthy Films

Edgar Bergen made many movies with Charlie and sometimes Mortimer. In most of these movies Bergen plays a ventriloquist. Charlie and Mortimer play active roles in the plots, not merely as the dummies of the ventriloquist. Bergen is sometimes the male lead in these movies, often in a romantic role.

Bergen's movies and those with Max Terhune are the only ones that portray ventriloquists as normal, law-abiding people. Perhaps this is because they are the only ones that cast real ventriloquists in the roles of fictional ventriloquists.

From 1930 to 1937 Edgar and Charlie appeared in thirteen Vitaphone one-reeler short subjects:

  • The Operation, 1930
  • Office Scandal, 1930
  • The Eyes Have It, 1931
  • Donkey Business, 1931
  • Free and Easy, 1932
  • Africa Speaks -- English, 1933
  • At the Races, 1934
  • Pure Feud, 1934
  • All-American Drawback, 1935
  • Two Boobs in a Balloon, 1935
  • Nut Guilty, 1936
  • A Neckin’ Party, 1936
  • Double Talk, 1937

Bergen's career in feature films began in 1938. Here is a list of movies he made with Charlie and his other dummies.

  • The Goldwyn Follies (1938) with Adolph Menjou.
  • Letter of Introduction (1938) with Adolph Menjou, Eve Arden, George Murphy
  • You Can't Cheat an Honest Man (1939) with W. C. Fields
  • Charlie McCarthy, Detective (1939)
  • Look Who's Laughing (1941) with radio personalities Fibber McGee and Molly and Throckmorton P. Gildersleeve.
  • Here We Go Again (1942) with radio personalities Fibber McGee and Molly and Throckmorton P. Gildersleeve.
  • Stage Door Canteen (1943) with an all-star cast. Bergen appears with Charlie and Mortimer in a brief cameo performance entertaining the troops at the canteen.
  • Song of the Open Road (1944) with Jane Powell and W. C. Fields.
  • Fun and Fancy Free (1947) a Disney animated feature
  • The Muppet Movie (1979) featuring, of course, Jim Henson's Muppets

The Dummy Talks

In this British thriller from 1943 starring Jack Warner, a blackmailing ventriloquist is murdered backstage at a vaudeville show. A midget disguises himself as a ventriloquist's dummy in order to solve the mystery.


The Dead of Night

The Dead of Night from 1946 has five short stories bundled into one movie with a common thread. One of the stories is about a ventriloquist named Frere, played by Michael Redgrave, and his dummy Hugo. It seems that Hugo wants to find another ventriloquist. When Hugo shows up in a hotel room with another ventriloquist, Frere accuses the other fellow of stealing Hugo, and a fight starts. As a consequence, Frere is arrested.


Knock On Wood

The fact that Danny Kaye is a ventriloquist in this 1954 movie is incidental to the plot, which is a comedy about international intrigue and espionage. Kaye plays a slightly unbalanced American ventriloquist performing abroad. In the stereotypical image of a neurotic ventriloquist, Kaye cannot control what his dummy says. Unbeknownst to Kaye, stolen blueprints for a top-secret weapon are hidden in his dummy's head. Kaye is eventually accused of a murder he did not commit and runs around in several disguises eluding cops and dodging spies who want the blueprints.


Devil Doll

Devil Doll, produced in 1964, is about yet another stereotypical demented ventriloquist. The Great Vorelli is a ventriloquist and hypnotist whose dummy Hugo can walk. When not on stage, Hugo is kept in a cage from which he escapes one night. He threatens Vorelli with a knife. He turns out to be possessed by the soul of a once-alive Hugo. Vorelli has somehow transferred the soul into the dummy. It gets worse after that.


Magic

Magic is the 1978 movie version of the William Goldman book. Anthony Hopkins plays Corky, Ann-Margret is his high school love interest, and Burgess Meridith is the agent who gets murdered. Hopkins was coached on how to look like a ventriloquist. It is often said that he did the ventriloquism himself, but he did not. His coach manipulated the Fats dummy and provided the voice. Besides showcasing the profound acting talents of a young Anthony Hopkins, this movie has little to redeem it except for a brief scene with Ann-Margret in the nude in a steamy bedroom scene.


Cradle Will Rock

Comedian Bill Murray plays washed-up vaudeville ventriloquist Tommy Crickshaw in this 1999 story about people, politics and events during the Great Depression. The plot, based on actual events, involves the Federal Theater Project, which was funded by the Works Progress Administration. Several subplots are interwoven dealing with a troupe of actors, some wealthy capitalists, government bureaucrats, and the belief that Communists have infiltrated the project.
Murray's dummy is an evil-looking Marshall figure. Murray did not do his own ventriloquism while the film was being shot, but he did dub the dummy's voice afterwards including labial substitutions. During filming Murray moved his Adam's apple in sync with the dummy's speech.
Figure maker Alan Semok made six copies of the Marshall figure for the production. Todd Stockman provided the Marshall figure from his collection and handled the manipulation for many of the close up scenes.

Everything is almost believable until, typical of Hollywood’s portrayals of ventriloquism, the dummy turns on the ventriloquist during a performance.

Dummy

This movie, produced as an independent in 2000, was not released because the empty suits that control such things thought no one would go to a movie about a nerdy ventriloquist, and no distributor would touch it. But when its star, Adrien Brody, won an Oscar in 2003 for his role in The Pianist, they tried to give this film another chance. It is about the typical wannabe ventriloquist loser who quits his job to take up ventriloquism full time and then finds love. After a couple of preliminary releases in test market areas, the project went back into the can. Eventually Dummy found a small audience in the home video market.

The dummy itself is an Alan Semok creation from his Marshall tribute line of vent figures. Semok also coached Brodie, who did his own ventriloquism during filming.


    3 Comments:

    Blogger Mr. Pitts said...

    Al, interesting reading. I've seen a lot of these (both movies and television)I'm going to try to find some of those that I haven't. I'm especially interested in finding some of the Three Mesquiteers/Range Busters movies. I know some are available on video, I've rented a couple of them.
    I differ with your opinion on Bill Murray's Tommy Crickshaw character. I don't think the dummy 'turned' on him. I think the character loved vaudeville and ventriloquism, it was his art. I think he saw that his cooperation with the anti-communist witch hunt had actually hastened the end of his being able to do what he loved, and that he was in despair over this. I think he had changed his position but couldn't admit it to himself. I don't think the dummy chnging the act or 'taking over' at the end was beyond Crickshaw's control, but was his way of expressing what he felt. That's my take on it anyway. In any case, I'm enjoying reading your blog, keep posting.
    David Pitts

    5:53 PM  
    Blogger Carol said...

    Al, I always enjoy reading articles you write, whether they be on Worldvents or your blog.

    Carol

    6:01 PM  
    Blogger Dannster said...

    I actually had the opportunity to talk to Dennis Alwood/Fats on the phone a few years back. It made the hair on my arms stand on end to hear that voice coming through the phone. Dennis was really kind to talk to me and enjoyed our conversation immensely.

    6:05 AM  

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