Friday, December 2, 2011

Punch and Gabby

Werth: Hey, Wise, what's with the pearls and pig ears?  

Wise: I'm celebrating the return of Miss Piggy, Kermit, Gonzo, Scooter and the rest of the Muppet gang to the multiplex.  They've been languishing since the death of their creator Jim Henson in 1990, and it's great to see their zany, furry faces back on the big screen.

Werth: While the Muppets have produced some great cinematic moments, they're not the first puppets to make their mark on Hollywood. I'm referring of course to the dapper Edgar Bergen and his wooden sidekick, Charlie McCarthy.

Wise: Bergen and McCarthy had cameos in The Muppet Movie (1979) because Jim Henson was such a longtime fan.

Werth: And if you watch the closing credits, you'll see the movie's dedicated to him. It's no surprise, because for about 20 years starting in the late 30's Bergen and monocled Charlie brought puppets and ventriloquism to a mass American audience. Starting off in radio

Wise:  A ventriloquist on a radio show?

Werth: It sounds counter-intuitive, but the listeners loved the sharp-tongued character of Charlie McCarthy more than they cared to see whether Bergen's lips movedwhich consequently they did. Bergen was a terrible ventriloquist which Charlie was quick to point out. 

Wise: Nothing like your own dummy pointing out your faults.

Werth: But in 1938 Bergen took his act to the silver screen in The Goldwyn Follies and watching the pair worked as well as listening to them, so a year later Bergen and Charlie were paired with W.C. Fields in the silly, slight comedy You Can't Cheat an Honest Man.

Wise: Which is also the film Fields cited repeatedly during failed negotiations with MGM to cast him as the title role in The Wizard of Oz

Werth: You Can't Cheat is a bit of a rehash of what worked in Bergen and Fields' live acts. Fields is Larson E. (get it?) Whipsnade, the owner of the Whipsnade Circus Giganticus. Stumbling around drunk, flim-flamming audience members and despising children was a stock act for Fields, one he did with such skill that it never got old. With his flowery and witty dialogue Fields created a sort of sympathetic, rude clown who was born with a gin ladle in his mouth when it might have been a silver spoon.

Wise: Sometimes it seems that the only boozy comedian we have left is Lindsay Lohan. 

Werth: Bergen and Charlie give Fields a run for his money in the ham department, though. Fields had been a frequent visitor to the radio show, so the "Quiet or I'll throw a woodpecker at you!" animosity towards Charlie was a comfortable shoe for the whole cast to put on. Bergen and Charlie throw verbal barbs at Fields as fast as he can dodge themthat is of course when Charlie isn't busy trying to get a dame's phone number or ruin The Great Bergen's magic act. 
The movie is a strange mix of pratfalls, puns, double entendres, cross-dressing, lion-taming, and even a scene where Charlie does black-face, so the whole ridiculous affair feels a little dated. But there's just something about watching a bunch of grown actors having to deal with a precocious puppet.

Wise: Return to Oz (1985) doesn't use tuxedo-clad dummies as madcap sidekicks, but it does employ a host of animatronic creatures, marionettes, and puppets to fill out the majority of its cast.  Director Walter Murch (who began his career as a sound designer for Francis Ford Coppola and George Lucas) wanted to create a vision of Oz closer to L. Frank Baum's books rather than copy MGM's strategy of actors costumed rather obviously in funny suits.  

Werth: I liked the funny suits on the flying monkeys.

Wise: A strange hybrid of a sequel to the emotional afterglow of MGM's classic The Wizard of Oz and a concerted attempt to recreate Baum's Oz onscreen, Return to Oz follows confused, frustrated Dorothy (Fairuza Balk) as she is swept from a quack doctor's mental clinic in Kansas to an unfamiliar Oz.  
In order to save her friends and restore the Emerald City, she must battle howling Wheelers, a princess with thirty beautiful heads, and the nefarious Nome King who has turned everyone to stone.  

Werth: Sounds like the Saturday night crowd at Marie's Crisis.  

Wise: Working with production designer Norman Reynolds, who had created the look for The Empire Strikes Back (1980) and Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), Murch made Dorothy's companions—magically animated dummy Jack Pumpkinhead; Billina, the yellow hen; and loyal robot soldier Tik-Tok—look like John R. Neill's original illustrations: comical and impossible characters drawn in a style influenced by both newspaper comics and Art Nouveau.  
For long stretches of the film, Dorothy is the only human character onscreen, but even though Balk was a ten-year-old novice actor, her performance imbues her mechanical friends with life.  Of course, this has a lot to do with the skill of puppeteers (including many veterans of Jim Henson projects), but this combination of acting, puppet design and some of Baum's most indelible characters makes this motley crew come alive.  

Werth: All this talk of puppets will probably give me nightmares along the lines of 1978's Magic.  

Wise: Tune in to next week's Film Gab to see who's pulling the strings.

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