The Dummy Talks (1943)

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Who slew the philandering ventriloquist?
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UK / 82 minutes / bw / British National, Anglo–American Dir: Oswald Mitchell Pr: Wallace Orton Scr: Michael Barringer Story: Con West, Jack Clifford Cine: James Wilson Cast: Jack Warner, Claude Hulbert, G.H. Mulcaster, Beryl Orde, Ivy Benson, John Carol, Evelyn Darvell, Max Earl, Gordon Edwards, Manning Whiley, Charles Carson, Derna Hazell (i.e., Hy Hazell), Eric Mudd, PLUS

  • Ivy Benson’s All-Ladies Orchestra
  • Frederick Sylvester & Nephew
  • Tommy Manley & Florence Austin
  • Cecil Ayres with the Skating Avalons
  • The Five Lai Founs

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A wartime morale-booster set inside a London variety house/music hall (about the same as a US burlesque theater, but without the, er, disrobing) and relying heavily on the BBC radio popularity of three of its major cast: Jack Warner, Claude Hulbert and Beryl Orde. The movie presents itself as a murder mystery with the added elements of some flippant humor and quite a lot of stage presentations. Despite some genuinely clever moments, it seems today—although fans of music hall might disagree—a tad leaden in places.

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Joe (uncredited) knows a thing or two.

Comedian Jack “Blue Pencil” Warner (Warner) and impressionist Beryl Orde (Orde) are the current headliners at the variety theater, drawing the crowds because they’re well known radio personalities, but plenty of other high-profile acts are on the bill: Marvello (Carson) and Maya (Hazell) with their mentalist act; ventriloquist Russell Warren (Whiley); and singer Peggy Royce (Darvell), who performs with the big band Ivy Benson’s All-Ladies Orchestra (one of several genuine variety acts to feature). Behind the scenes we have stage manager Marcus (Edwards); the theater’s managing director, Yates (Earl); Joe (bafflingly uncredited), the stage-door keeper; and a stutteringly unorthodox cop, Victor “Vic” Harbord (Hulbert), who hangs around the theater a lot because he and Peggy are—improbably—enamored.

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Vic (Claude Hulbert) and Beryl (Beryl Orde).

Beryl knows the ventriloquist, Warren, of old, and despises him as a heartless womanizer. She also recalls how one time, when they shared a bill up north, Warren beat to a pulp a husband who objected to Warren’s seduction of the luckless man’s wife. Beryl is thus dismayed to notice that Peggy is seeing rather more than is appropriate of the ventriloquist; Vic may be no Adonis, but he has a good heart and a genuine adoration for the singer. The truth is that Warren has learned that Peggy’s brother Jimmy (Carol) has become peripherally involved in a counterfeiting operation, and he’s planning to use this knowledge to bed her—otherwise, he threatens, he’ll go to the cops.

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Jimmy (John Carol) looks guilty in the audience during Marvello’s mentalist act.

Warren earns enemies easily. Jack and Beryl have fixed up with Marcus and Yates that Jack’s young niece, Phyllis (uncredited), can have her first big break on the stage tonight; but at the last moment Warren acts diva to deny her the opportunity. He grossly insults Marcus. And so on.

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Warren (Manning Whiley) hopes to extort sex from Peggy (Evelyn Darvell).

So in a way it’s not a huge surprise when Warren is found stabbed to death in his dressing room: the only real puzzle is whodunnit when there are so many obvious candidates. In charge of the case is Inspector Piers Harriman (Mulcaster) of the Yard, who came to the theater to investigate the counterfeiters and now has a bigger case on his hands. He’s assisted to an extent by the other cop on the scene, Vic, but Vic has his own agenda, because the evidence of his eyes tells him Peggy killed the man. On the other hand, Peggy thinks her brother Jimmy was the murderer, because of the information Warren had about Jimmy passing forged notes.

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Marvello’s assistant Maya, an early role for the great entertainer Hy Hazell.

Harriman does eventually solve the case, although there’s little by way of ratiocination involved. His way of startling a confession out of the guilty party is, however, quite ingenious. He enlists the aid of Tiny (Mudd), a midget in the Jimmy Clitheroe mode who plays the “nephew” part of the stage act Victor Sylvester and Nephew. Tiny allows himself to be made up as a duplicate of the dead ventriloquist’s dummy. Harriman then organizes a fake séance, at the crucial moment of which the “dummy” speaks.

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The real and the fake (Eric Mudd) dummies alongside each other.

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Inspector Harriman of the Yard (G.H. Mulcaster).

The big star here was Warner (no relation to the boss of Warner Bros.). Born Horace John Waters in 1895—he was a brother to the popular comediennes Elsie and Doris Waters—he made his name on stage and then, during World War II, on BBC Radio, being a star of the weekly variety show Garrison Theatre. Warner’s act was that he would read the letters he’d supposedly received from his fictitious brother Syd, who was posted hither and thither in the armed services. One of his catchphrases was “blue pencil,” used in place of any cuss words Syd might have put in his letters—the reference is to the blue pencil traditionally deployed by censors. It’s this persona of Warner that we see in The Dummy Talks—the saucy-chappie music-hall comedian and singer (he wrote the two songs he performs here, “Funny Occupations” and “That’s a Nice ATS’ ’At That Is”)—a persona that can be quite startling to those who know him solely as PC George Dixon (see below).

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Jack Warner plays himself.

In the cinema Warner came to fame as patriarch Joe Huggett in a series of Ealing-style comedies: Holiday Camp (1947), Here Come the Huggetts (1948), Vote for Huggett (1949) and The Huggetts Abroad (1949). A long-running radio series, Meet the Huggetts (1953–62), followed.

But what really stamped Warner into the cultural history of the UK was his role as PC (later Sergeant) George Dixon of London’s fictional Dock Green police station. He first played the part in the movie The Blue Lamp (1950), at the end of which Dixon was murdered. This didn’t deter the folks at BBC TV, who revived the character for the prime-time series Dixon of Dock Green, which ran from 1955 until 1976 and made the character of Dixon iconic for more than one generation.

As a small boy I saw The Blue Lamp on TV after having been a fan of the series for some years, and was inconsolable when the character died. Those were tense times in our household until, the following Saturday, there was chummy PC Dixon on the screen again, just like he’d never been murdered at all.

That chumminess and the obvious integrity of Dixon did a tremendous amount for the image of the London coppers, which image, to be honest, from time to time during the show’s run was somewhat in need of a burnish. When Warner died in 1981, his pall bearers were officers from London’s Paddington Green police station.

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Vic (Claude Hulbert) in contemplative mood.

Hulbert and Orde were also, at the time, renowned stage and radio comedians. The other cast member to enjoy some fame was Ivy Benson, who, more than just leading her All-Ladies Orchestra in a couple of stage numbers, plays (very creditably) the part of herself as a performer who’s a friend of Peggy and Jimmy Royce. The remaining cast members are less known, perhaps because, when so many actors came home at the end of the war, the ones who’d remained in the UK tended to be ousted in favor of the returning heroes. One who seems at first sight to have fallen into this category was Derna Hazell, who plays Maya. In fact, “Derna Hazell” was an early performing name of Hy Hazell, who went on to achieve great distinction on stage and screen.

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Ivy Benson performs onstage with her All-Ladies Orchestra.

I know virtually nothing about Evelyn Darvell, who plays Peggy. She’s very reminiscent of Norwegian-born UK screen goddess Greta Gynt, to the extent that I did some research in case Gynt, like Hazell, might be here under another name. So far as I can find out, Darvell appeared in just two other movies, the Stewart Granger/Phyllis Calvert vehicle Madonna of the Seven Moons (1945) and the Ann Todd/Richard Greene vehicle Gaiety George (1946; vt Showtime); in both instances she was some distance down the cast list.

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Evelyn Darvell as Peggy.

The real mystery among the cast, at least for me, is the theater’s doorkeeper and general gofer Joe. The actor is uncredited. At a glance you’d assume he was the famed comedian and comic actor Ronnie Corbett—the mannerisms and enunciation seem to be Corbett’s too—but Corbett was aged just 13 at the time this movie was made. I know I’ve come across this Not Ronnie Corbett actor before, but I cannot for the life of me remember where, and thus cannot identify him — although I’m wondering if it might in fact be Robertson Hare. I’ve included a screengrab of him near the top here; all helpful suggestions welcome.

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Max Earl as theater boss Yates.

There are occasional references to the fact that the nation is, you know, at war—notably Warner’s act with the latest letter from Syd and the assumption that the only reason a weak-willed goof like Vic is a cop is that most of the competent cops are engaged in fighting—but the war isn’t in any sense a plot-molder. More important is that most of the cast members knew theater and the music hall well, and in places the screenplay gleefully reflects this. My favorite line came when Vic was reporting to Beryl that, while he’d managed to frisk through a suspect’s jacket, he hadn’t been able to gain access to the man’s trousers. Says Beryl:

“Oh, so you couldn’t think of a way of getting his trousers off in a theater. You must be losing your grip.”

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Each month Rich Westlake at his Past Offences blog selects a year for special treatment, and February’s year is 1943. This is a contribution toward that venture.

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3 thoughts on “The Dummy Talks (1943)

  1. Two things: firstly I had no idea that Dixon died in that movie where he first appeared — dammit, you learn something new every day!

    Secondly, is anyone else as creeped out by ventriloquism as I am? I know it’s supposed to be clowns that people find weird, but I just…can’t…watch ventriloquism acts, there’s something deeply odd about the whole thing that my brain doesn’t like. Maybe I was scarred by that Anthony Hopkins film, but I’ve never really felt comfortable with it as an art-form.

    And if you think that’s weird, I have a friend who is made physically sick by the sound of bagpipes. Oh, yes, I move in exalted circles…

    • I’m interested to hear about your ventriloquism phobia — not something I’ve ever experienced myself. My own phobia in the field of entertainment used to be Jimmy Savile, who gave me the complete creeps even when everyone else thought he was joost a loovely man. With the later revelations I felt . . . validated.

      Your friend needs immediate psychiatric help. Me, I’m a big fan of bagpipe music. 🙂

  2. Pingback: “Was she getting sunbonnets on the brain?” #1943book roundup | Past Offences: Classic crime, thrillers and mystery book reviews

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