“Boom Bang a Bang”: Mae West, Eurovision, and the Re-education of Charlie McCarthy

Well, it’s one of those drab and dispiriting whatever-happened-to-summer kind of days on which even morale-boosting Carmen Miranda might have thrown in the technicolored towel. Yesterday, the house was shrouded in mist; and now, as if to mock the recently announced drought warning and water restrictions, the slow-moving clouds across the Welsh hills have assumed a washed-out shade of gray that looks about as cheerful as the fur of a middle-aged rat trying to waddle off with your last piece of cheese. Not that there was any more merriment to be had last night when I lowered the blind to screen the less-than-classic Mae West vehicle The Heat’s On (1943).

Watching West’s caricature of back-alley “come hither” cut the rug with dithering Victor Moore, whose hairpiece had just fallen off while hers remained as conspicuous as a comb-over, had all the gayety of a fancy dress party at a retirement home in a northern suburb of Minsk.

To be sure, West was already past her prime in the mid-1930s, an obsolescence determined not so much by biology than by the enforcement of the Hollywood Production Code, the same code that made similarly cartoonish Betty Boop lower her skirts. Such strictures notwithstanding, West continued to keep censors busy by causing the greatest sex scandal on US radio, when, in 1937, she impersonated the original lady Eve in a Garden of Eden sketch presented on the Chase and Sanborn Hour (as previously mentioned here). West’s delivery was so suggestive that she was subsequently deemed too hot for radio.

Now, the star of the Chase and Sanborn Hour, ventriloquist dummy Charlie McCarthy, got away with considerably more verbal tease and naughtiness than anyone else on the air. Saved by his image—the picture of a wooden chap on Bergen’s knee, that is—Charlie didn’t have to worry much about his reputation. Without such widely circulated likenesses, Charlie would undoubtedly have come across as a rather more adult toy—a stunted youth Peter-Pandering to the randy fantasies of the frustrated heterosexual middle-aged male.

While The Heat’s On made a farce out of censorship in the theaters, Charlie was amusing himself with many a leading lady of the silver screen—and a few misleading ones. On this day, 16 May, in 1943, for instance, Charlie’s heart went a-racing at the sight of Claudette Colbert, who invited the lucky log to spend his summer on her island farm. (At this point, I usually refer readers to my collection of Colbert memorabilia; but one of the finest sets of Claudette images are now on display at the glamour sanctuary known as Trouble in Paradise, a treat not to be missed.)

Charlie was soon disillusioned, however, when it became clear that Ms. Colbert had something other than romance in mind. He was to get busy on the farm, rather than enjoying the fruits without labor. There was a war on, and the Pinocchio among Romeos had to learn to be a little less selfish and irresponsible. As a piece of carved wood, he was certainly expendable—unless his antics could both delight and teach. After all, even old Victor Moore was seen promoting Victory Gardens in The Heat’s On, while Hazel Scott—the only performer to get The Heat up to temperature—tickled the ivories in an attempt to appease disenfranchised African-Americans, racial harmony being essential to the war effort.

On the same evening Charlie learned that flirting with Colbert was futile, Jack Benny’s valet Rochester took center stage singing a number from Cabin in the Sky on his boss’s program; meanwhile, Benny’s rival Fred Allen tried to sell a pan-American ditty to singing sensation Frank Sinatra. Like pleasure-seeking Charlie McCarthy, America’s musical entertainers had all become recruits in the fight against the Axis.

A decidedly more frivolous war will be waged all over Europe this weekend, when the Eurovision Song Contest, responsible for tunes like “Volare,” “Waterloo” and the abovementioned “Boom Bang a Bang” (also the title of a Eurovision documentary to air on UK television tonight) gets underway for the fifty-first time. Assault weapons include rap from the UK, Country from Germany, and Death Metal from Finland. It’s the showdown of the year on European television; and the US, slow to catch on for once, is planning to copy the concept. And why not? As Shakespeare might have put it (had he not said otherwise): “If music be the [fuel of war], play on; / Give [us] excess of it, that, surfeiting, / The appetite may sicken, and so die.”

5 Replies to ““Boom Bang a Bang”: Mae West, Eurovision, and the Re-education of Charlie McCarthy”

  1. \”looks about as cheerful as the fur of a middle-aged rat trying to waddle off with your last piece of cheese.\”Great image!By the way, as an American, I find that when I refer to \”African-Americans\” as they appeared in films of the period such as The Heat\’s On, I prefer to refer to them by the identification they preferred at the time – Negro. \”African-American\” is a term that came into vogue in the sixties and I feel I am applying latter 20th century tags to pre-WWII situations if I use them.

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  2. Yes, this is problematic, especially since not all readers have the maturity to accept the label, however troubling or offensive, as being of its time. Nor am I sure which term is best when referring to a construct of a people who had little influence on their depiction (or supposed representation) by the mass media; but then, I am frequently using language that would not have been spoken or understood by those discussed.

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  3. I\’ve watched the Eurovision a few times, mostly for laughs, just to see how bad the songs were. It\’s promising that this year, two songs which break with the silly pop-tradition did so well, namely Lordi winning, and Lithuania, with their hilarious \”We are the Winners\” at 6th place. I think Germany\’s entry was a good song, but it violates the spirit of the Eurovision, in that (at least for my feeling) each country should present at least a breath of its own culture. Next year will be the year to watch, with less old-garde songs, and maybe entries which are varied and interesting.

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  4. Regarding the German entry: The Danes won with just such a song a few years back. Don\’t discount the anti-German politics when it comes to voting. I thought the German contribution, while generic, was quite respectable, for once.Regarding \”Mae West NYC\”: \”big boy\” did come over to visit your site and would have liked to leave a comment.

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