Friday, February 17, 2017

A Question of Reality

This is a rarely seen picture of Charlie McCarthy in  Black Face. It is from a scene in a 1939 movie called "You Can't Cheat An Honest Man"  staring WC Fields. Fields also wrote the story of the film under the name Charles Bogle.
Although part of the original film the scene was edited out when it played on television, for obvious racial reasons. 
But the story behind this photo and that scene is not a story about changing political correctness, but a story about the definition of an actor. 

The story goes like this.  The movie is about a traveling carnival. Fields character Larson E. Whipsnade is the owner and main barker of the troupe.  It was a Universal Production filmed on the Universal Lot in Hollywood. In 1939 Universal like all movie studios were big factories turning out several films daily.   
 The time came to film Bergen and Charlie in a minstrel show scene. This meant Charlie McCarthy needed to be "made up" in Black face. A controversy broke out between unions as to which one was responsible for actually applying the black face to Charlie.  The make up union said that since Charlie was an actor, they would apply the proper make up.  The prop union argued that Charlie was in reality a prop and they would apply the proper paint. They began to argue about it. Neither union would bow to the other and both claimed jurisdiction. Make up held firm and said that either they would be the one to do it or they would walk out on strike.  The property Union made the same argument, threatening the same action.  The director could not determine the actual status of Charlie and deferred to the Producers.  The producers were not in solidarity and they also began to fight.  
The issue became so contentious that it went to the head of the studio to make a final decision.  His decision was to shut the production down for the day to have more time to resolve the matter to everyone's satisfaction.   But by the end of the day neither side had budged and threatened a work stoppage "studio wide" if it was not determined who was the responsible union.  
Edgar Bergen was called to the office of the head of Universal. They said to Edgar, "What would you do if this were just a bit in your act.  Who would you use to get it done."
Bergen replied that he would simply take some burnt cork and apply it himself. Since that avoided any union disputes, head of Universal said, "Do it.. Have that black on Charlie's face by tomorrow morning so we can continue the scene". That was indeed the solution to the problem.  
To this day if you look in the archives of Universal Studio you will find a 1939 production report stating that Production on Fields picture number #693072 was shut down for the day to determine if Charlie McCarthy was actually an actor or prop. The question was never resolved, not even to this day.
Editors note:  60 + years later it was still an issue.  On Broadway we had to have a discussion and clarification for "Jay Johnson: The Two and Only"  to set some parameters regarding my vent figures and Broadway union stage rules.  My characters were actors while on stage during the show, but they became props the minute the show was over.  I was allowed to pack them up and set them on the edge of the stage, but the prop master carried them to and from their own "dressing room" located next to mine.  For a one person show this was our compromise.  
As you were,


P. Grecian said...

Fascinating. I'd never heard this story before. I love it! Thank you, Jay.

Pete Biro said...

Agreat story. I went to Victor Borga's ONE MAN SHOE at the San Francisco Opera House. The union required he hire 30-or-so musicians even though he was the only performer. So he wrote a great gag into his show. He stopped and told the audience it was his birthday and the union sent a group of musicians to play Happy Birthday. The rear curtain raised and the musicians played it.