Wednesday, 15 August 2012

Don't Call Her Mrs. Camel

It’s feast or famine in the freelance world, and no one learned that better than actress Sara Berner. By 1940, she had been appearing on radio and in cartoons but the Census report for that year shows she made only $1000 from all her jobs in 1939 and hadn’t worked in ten weeks when the census-taker came around. (She did a short tour in a stage show, “Temptations of 1939” and had one shot in a summer replacement show called “Man About Hollywood” among her work that year).

But things picked up. We’ve talked about her career on the blog before, but I’ve saved a couple of newspaper clippings. First comes this column from the National Enterprise Association, March 16, 1944.

Erskine Johnson
NEA Staff Correspondent
The girl with the most photographed voice in America could bite through a nail every time she thinks of it. Why, it was awful. For years she wanted to meet a big studio executive. Then the casting office made a date for her to meet Buddy de Sylva, the big man at Paramount who could make you a star overnight. Her heart started thumping as a casting director took her to de Sylva's office,
“Mr. de Sylva,” said the casting director, “I’d like you to meet Mrs. Camel.”
“Oh-o-o-o-o-o, it was terrible,” Sara Berner said. “I talked to de Sylva for 20 minutes. But everybody called me Mrs. Camel. It was Mrs. Camel this and Mrs. Camel that. Nobody even mentioned my name. Nobody called me Sara Berner. Just Mrs. Camel. Even today when I see Mr. de Sylva on the lot he says, ‘Hello, Mrs. Camel.’ It’s heart-breaking.”
De Sylva, you see, had to approve Sara’s voice as Mrs. Camel for that gag sequence in “The Road to Morocco,” which is why the casting director took Sara to his office.
A Thousand Voices
Her name probably doesn't mean much to you, either. But you’re familiar with her voice in a thousand forms on screen and radio. In fact, she has the most famous voice in Hollywood. She’s the voice of Red Hot Riding Hood in those M-G-M cartoons, the voice of Little Jasper in George Pal’s Puppetoons. She’s Josephine of the Amos and Andy show, Gladys Zybisco of the Jack Benny show.
Being just a voice in a town where faces are so important is paving Sara big dividends.
“I can get even with a lot of people,” Sara chuckled. For instance, those “Speaking of Animals” shorts in which the animals speak. “If I don’t like a girl because she’s catty or something. I just copy her voice for a cat or skunk.”
On The Way Up
Like a lot of other young ladies who are attractive—Sara is very much so—and talented, she wanted to be a great actress when she left home in Tulsa, Okla., for New York. But she got only as far as Philadelphia, where she sold hats in a department store. Then she got an acting job on a radio station, later joined a stage unit and was playing the Orpheum Theater in Los Angeles when Hollywood discovered her.
Not long ago Sara received a call from a studio for a role in a picture. “I was thrilled,” she said. “At long last I was to appear in a picture. To have my face on the screen. You don’t know what that means to a voice. Well, the makeup man spent over an hour fixing my hair and putting on my makeup. But all they shot was the back of my head. I was a long distance telephone operator!”
When George Pal first started to make the Little Jasper films they hired a little Negro boy for the voice. By the time they got though, the boy had grown a head taller and his voice was different.
They sent for Sara Berner in a hurry.

And the United Press put this in papers starting December 26, 1944. The reference to Betty Boop is confusing; the Boop cartoons were done on the East Coast and the series had ceased several years before this story was written.

Versatile Sara: Camel One Day, Hippo the Next
Hollywood, Calif.—(U.P.)—Moviegoers have never seen her face, but just about every one of them has heard Sara Berner’s voice at one time or other. Maybe it was a turtle doing the talking, or a chipmunk, camel or hippo or other animals—but the voice was always Sara’s.
Sara provides vocal chords for most of Hollywood’s familiar cartoon characters. She’s spoken for Red Hot Riding Hood, Little Jasper, Betty Boop and Mother Goose.
And she has verbally caricatured almost every animal known, including the turtle in “The Tortoise and the Hare,” the hippo, elephant and camel in “Speaking of Animals, and the baby panda in the Andy Panda series.
Voice Behind Voice
Currently, Sara is the voice of Jerry Mouse, Gene Kelly’s dancing partner in the cartoon fantasy which high lights “Anchors Aweigh.”
“I’ve been putting words in animals’ mouths for eight years,” the pint sized brunet said.
One of her performances helped win an academy award—that was “Mother Goose Goes Hollywood,” a Disney picture in which she vocally imitated top feminine stars from Shirley Temple to the late Edna Mae Oliver. This winner also spotlighted another Berner talent, that of impersonations.
Has 22 Characterizations
Sara started doing voices for screen animals after a cartoon producer nabbed her from a vaudeville act where she was impersonating Katharine Hepburn. Her first job was being the voice of a baby panda.
From her first cartoon stint, Sara concentrated on animated animals’ voices. She now has 22 characterizations ranging from the thin chirp of a quail to the guttural groan of a crocodile.
Her attorney husband confesses he never knows whose voice will answer the telephone when he calls home.
“It might be Mae West or Bugs Bunny at first,” he said, “but in the end it always turns out to be Sara.”

Incidentally, the man who played Bugs Bunny, Mel Blanc, uniquely listed his occupation in the 1940 Census as “dialectician.” The word certainly fit Sara Berner, and she was one of the best.

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