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.”