Obscurity of the Day: Mortimer and Charlie

Edgar Bergen took the American entertainment world by storm as no other ventriloquist has before or since. And yet, bizarrely enough, Bergen wasn’t a particularly accomplished ventriloquist (he learned by reading a pamphlet) and his greatest success came on radio, a rather nonsensical venue for a ventriloquist.

What Bergen did have were a pair of memorable characters, Charlie McCarthy and Mortimer Snerd, superb comic timing, and the good sense to never try to upstage his dummies — Bergen’s on stage character was a retiring straight man, never the joker.

Edgar Bergen’s creations were heavily merchandised to a welcoming public. That merchandising extended to a McNaught Syndicate comic strip that debuted with much hoopla on July 10 1939 (daily) and July 16 (Sunday). The strip was initially drawn by Ben Batsford who did a superb job of translating the Bergen clan to the funnies. The strips were funny and in character. I’m betting that many of the gags were translated from the hit radio show.

For reasons unknown Batsford left the strip after just a few months — his last daily was September 30, last Sunday October 22. Was he having deadline trouble? Personal problems? Whatever the problem was, this would be Batsford’s last syndicated strip after a twenty year career on the funnies page. I hear he went into comic books in the 40s.

Taking over for Batsford was Carl Buettner. He only signed the Sunday pages, not the dailies, but the art styles look to be the same to me. One website claims that he collaborated with Chase Craig on the strip, though, so maybe Craig did the unsigned dailies. After his short stint on this comic strip Buettner would go on to a career at Disney.

Buettner did almost as good a job on the strip as Batsford yet for some reason the client list was dwindling by the week. I can’t imagine why. The feature is already so scarce by 1940 that I can’t furnish a definite end date; the latest Sunday I can find is May 12, the last daily May 25. The daily is in the middle of a storyline. Can anyone supply an end date?

The dailies above are the first three days of the strip plus three from a wonderful sequence at the New York World’s Fair.

7 comments on “Obscurity of the Day: Mortimer and Charlie

  1. Hello, Allan—Edgar Bergen’s ventriliquial talents were not what made him famous (his lips never stop moving). Bergen’s real appeal was the Charlie McCarthy concept–here was this mild, nerdy, dull guy, who somehow had his own surpressed libido tangibly manifested for all to see–permanently better dressed than everyone, implying aristocracy with a monocle, shamelessly drooling over pretty girls, and insulting whoever he felt like, and always getting away with it! Who wouldn’t want our own Charlie to cause mischief, and impolitely say what needed to be expressed, and yourself never being held to blame?—-Cole Snerd Johnson.

  2. I’d love to see some of Craigs dailies and Buettners sundays too.
    As you mention Buettner went on to draw Disney Comics but I guess Chase Craig is pretty well known too. He went on to be Carl Barks editor at Western publ. 🙂

  3. Hello Allan—-Howabout the only other strip about throwing your voice (that I can think of, anyway), Frank Crane’s VENTRILOQUIL VAG, done for the Haskell syndicate in 1906. Crane’s crude cartoons were so stiff as to remind one of Assyrian friezes.—Cole Johnson.

  4. My university library (CSU Northridge) houses an archive called the Chase Craig Collection, donated by the Craig family, which does indeed include material relevant to the Buettner/Craig collaboration on “Mortimer and Charlie.” During a recent exhibit on comics, I recall seeing an example or two of the strip as well as a typed contract or letter of agreement re: the strip.

    It’s a wonderful collection, incidentally, shedding much light on Craig’s freelance cartooning career as well as his many years working as an editor at Western/Gold Key. Lots of file copies of old comics included. Perhaps more importantly, some correspondence from Barks.

  5. Ben Batsford did indeed do a comic book story published in 1942. I found that story decades back, dunno if there are any others or not.

    his daughter was is the painter Ramona Batsford Bendin, who has a gallery in Callabash NC (anyone in the southeast expects me to mention Callabash style seafood, so consider it mentioned). she has a website which mentions her father – you might want to follow up to see what she knows…

  6. My grandfather, Ben Batsford, left this strip because of artistic conflicts with Bergen. Ben was chosen from many artists mainly because of his drawing style which suited the characters faces very well. My grandfather was the 19th syndicated cartoonist in the world, at a time when a comic strip artist was a 'personality' in society. Although he didn't enjoy copying the idea of Orphan Annie, he put his 'family style' into the Annie Rooney strip and was a household name at the time. I met a woman once who was called Rooney because of her love for this strip. In other words, Ben was just as well known as Edgar. Edgar wanted to control the strip and Ben was quickly tired of him looking over his shoulder ("by Edgar Bergen"). C'est la vie! Ben's real love was for political cartoons and some of his best works were drawn at Grumman during WWII, where he was the editor for their company paper. Also, I have a couple of hand puppets of Charlie and Mortimer that Edgar gave to him for models. If anyone is interested. Barbara Bryant 9-22-09

  7. "Lip movement" is only a small portion of what is required to be a ventriloquist and Bergen mastered everything else. He had the lip movement down as well, but as 'vents' know, there is a certain degree of vocal slurring and consonant consternation with the bs, ps, ms, ws, etc. Consequently, Bergen chose to ignore it when he first went to radio. The audience couldn't see, right? If you watch a ventriloquist "live" the vocal illusion can be excellent, with our without lip problems. But on the radio, this could have been a disaster. A little later, not much, he was in film and decided to continue what he had started. By the time, Bergen, McCarthy, et al, were heavy into night club dates, the audiences didn't care, so neither did he. The comic strip section was terrific and I'm with the other readers in really wanting to see more, if they are available. Thanks for the post.

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