Good Humor, Part 2: Oh, Those Bells!

First, watch the clip… the opening scene from The Good Humor Man (1950).

The unusual sound was created by Sonovox, a device invented in January 1939 by Gilbert Wright, an engineer and radio operator. Wright hadn’t shaved that particular day and was idly scratching the coarse stubble around his adam’s apple. He noticed that the sound of this action traveled through his neck and emerged from his mouth as a buzzing. Intrigued, he tried silently forming words with his mouth, lips, and tongue… and was surprised and amused to find that the words were intelligible using this odd alternate source of sound.

Ultimately, the Sonovox (essentially a set of small speakers which pumped a tone into the the neck) became a medical device. It served as an artificial larynx that restored speech to people who had undergone laryngectomies. Since the Sonovox created no variation in pitch, the resulting speech emerged in a somewhat robotic-sounding monotone. Today, there are artificial larynges small enough to be hidden in dental work which can vary pitch in response to user movements, creating much more natural-sounding speech.

All that came later, though. Initially, the Sonovox was used as a gimmick for the movies. Because you could send anything through those speakers, vocal shaping could now create words “inside” music, sound effects… you name it.

Disney, whose exclusive deal with Technicolor had served him well just six years earlier, made an offer for exclusive cartoon rights to Sonovox. The first feature to use the device was Dumbo, released in October of 1941, but a demonstration of Sonovox is part of Robert Benchley’s tour of the Disney Studio, released as The Reluctant Dragon in June of that same year (Sonovox creates Casey Junior’s “I think I can/I thought I could” dialog, in the finished film).

By 1950, Sonovox was pretty much “old hat,” but Frank Tashlin, who moved into live-action features after directing cartoons for Warner Brothers, found a very clever and appropriate use for it to open The Good Humor Man.

More about Tashlin, more about Good Humor, and more about a very funny picture titled The Good Humor Man… in Part 3.

Link to a “Kiddie Record” that uses Sonovox.
Link to a YouTube video of the Kay Kaiser Band showing the Sonovox in use.

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