12 September 2014 | eschetic-2
Delightful period programmer for those who know the era.
I picked a slightly fuzzy DVD of this pre-war comedy because of a course I teach on the mystery format and a curiosity as to how Edgar Bergen and his character Charlie McCarthy would fit into the genre (loosely). Others have observed that Bergen wasn't much of a ventriloquist technically (in close ups in movies and television where he was extremely popular in later years it was never hard to see his lips move), but his short comings were never a problem in the large vaudeville theatres and radio programs where he established his fame, and by the time his audience got to see him close up, the ventriloquist's chief tool, the willing suspension of disbelief based on characters the viewer WANTS to watch and effective comedy material far outweighed any minor flaws in his technique.
CHARLIE McCARTHY DETECTIVE, at barely over an hour in length, is a delightful piece of genre fluff made on something of an assembly line by the studios when they still owned chains of movie theatres and had to stock them with fresh product every week; "programmers." Many of these were better than all right and developed real followings on their own - the wonderful and long running Charlie Chan and Mr. Moto series from 20th Century Fox were prime examples of the popularity mystery programmers mixing healthy touches of comedy with mystery could achieve - so why not a mystery with the popular specialty act? Basically no reason at all - except that creating an effective mystery with Poe's "five elements" (something to solve, clues, red herrings, atmosphere and a satisfying solution) is not as simple as some might suppose. In addition to diverting cues and red herrings just obvious enough for the audience to guess along, but obscure enough to keep them at least slightly mystified until the solution is revealed, you have to leave them happy with the final reveal.
CHARLEY McCARTHY, DETECTIVE starts promisingly enough with the easiest part, acknowledging the artificiality of the concept and the leads - Bergen and McCarthy are delightful "atmosphere" as entertainers in a night club performing a bit (and a title song for the film!) with McCarthy dressed as a puppet version of Sherlock Holmes and comic lyric references to other popular detectives of the day. For fans of period mystery movies, this opening scene is reason enough to see the film. It also introduces the film's main characters: a villainous magazine editor smoothly played by the always suave Louis Calhern, with ties to an equally oily mobster played by Harold Huber (moving up a step from the well remembered snitch, Nunheim, he had played three years before in THE THIN MAN), a girl singer played (and sung) charmingly enough by Constance Moore (possibly best remembered in her long career for her Wilma Deering in FLASH GORDON films) and her stalwart reporter beaus, Robert Cummings (later an inexplicable favorite Hitchcock hero in several feature films and a sitcom star in his own show) and John Sutton (much later "Col. Tarleton" in Disney's "Swamp Fox" series - here missing for the first part of the film trying to evade assassination by our evil editor while getting back from South America with evidence against said editor).
Naturally, one of the main characters - three guesses who and the first two don't count (it's not anyone billed above the title) is killed. It isn't Mortimer Snerd who is also above the title, although many in the audience wouldn't have minded; he's a self confessed clueless character dropped into the film as an extra comic relief mainly because he was then one of Bergen's most famous characters, after McCarthy, on radio. Almost everyone except Bergen and those he is literally attached to comes under suspicion and before the hour is quite up Bergen himself solves the fast paced problem forcing a confession from the killer.
Therein lies the film's main problem, if it has one (in fairness, as a real mystery it never develops strong enough cases against alternate suspects). The clue Bergen hangs his solution on and the killer's motivation on (he's "a sentimentalist"), while very well written and played in the actual scene, may not strike the viewer as satisfying. There was much the same problem with the pilot episode of Angela Lansbury's "Murder She Wrote" TV series, but that didn't preclude a seven year run for the Lansbury series on CBS-TV.
CHARLIE McCARTHIE, DETECTIVE didn't spark a series, or even a sequel, but if you're curious for what the 30's phenomenon of Edgar Bergen was all about, it's an enjoyable sampling with a fair pastiche of shoot-'em-up 30's murder mystery mixed in and a diverting afternoon's viewing. Recommended as such, if not much more.