"The Cuckoos"RKO Radio Pictures, USA, 1930
Directed by Paul Sloane
Based on "The Ramblers" by Guy Bolton, Burt Kalmar and Harry Ruby
Adapted by Cyrus Wood
Time once again for a journey into the past, as we visit with one of the most popular comedy groups to enter film from vaudeville via Broadway. Huge crowd-pleasers in their day, this team rode a string of successful stage productions to become stars all over again in a string of film productions, only to fizzle out and fade into obscurity. Ladies and Gentlemen: Wheeler & Woolsey!!!
Yeah, I'd never heard of 'em either. Yet another dusty chapter of American film history unearthed by my bestest pals over at TCM. Bert Wheeler & Robert Woolsey had a prolific yet relatively brief career in film. Getting in on the ground floor, right at the start of the sound age, they rode high until the mid-30's, when their popularity waned. Their careers were firmly laid to rest when Wheeler died in 1938.
Last time out ("The Unholy Three") we had a prime example of melodrama: characters under the sway of plot and incident. This time, we have an example of 30's style musical comedy: broadly defined stereotypes let loose in a hollow shell of a plot nearly devoid of incident. Incident is mostly replaced by musical productions numbers and almost random comedy bits.
So here's what plot there is: Julius the Gypsy (Mitchell Lewis) is furious that (adopted or stolen) ward Anita (the adorable Dorothy Lee) has fallen in love with Sparrow (Bert Wheeler). Sparrow is the younger half of a pair of wandering con artists posing as psychic fortunetellers. His senior partner is Professor Bird (Robert Woolsey), a cigar-chomping wisecracker. Meanwhile, the Baron (Ivan Lebedeff) has hired Julius and his Gypsies to perform an unspecified future service for him, probably illegal.
The Baron meets a pair of ladies at the nearby opulent casino, Ruth Chester (June Clyde) and her widowed Aunt Fanny Furst (Jobyna Howland). The Baron seeks the beautiful Ruth's hand in marriage, not least because she'll inherit her Aunt's millions someday. But Ruth loves Billy Shannon (Hugh Trevor), a handsome but not exactly socially secure pilot, so the Baron intends to use a little skulduggery courtesy of the gypsies: a kidnapping and forced wedding.
Sparrow & Bird arrive at the casino, swipe some dinner, cadge a few drinks, flirt with some ladies, do a bit of business with some slot machines, perform a slapstick dance, and eventually meet the other characters. They use their psychic act to expose Julius as a thief for swiping Fanny's purse. This gets Bird in good with the old dame (who's got about 6 inches on him, easy.) He returns her interest as soon as he finds out how rich she is. This also gets them an invite to the big party at Fanny's mansion in San Diego.
At the party we get more musical numbers, another love song from Ruth and Billy, a comedy bit with Fanny and Sparrow about opera singing and musical instruments (“You know, I used to play the organ. But I had to give it up." "Why?" "My monkey died."), and the aforementioned kidnapping. Naturally, the boys are roped into going to the rescue (Fanny's promise of giving them "anything" doesn't hurt.) After one more musical number, off they go.
We next see our heroes on the back of a very large horse, checking in at the border crossing. You know, it's much bigger these days, and they don't make you wait to enter Mexico. (Coming back North is a different story.) But the boys are made to wait a minute in order to justify a lengthy bit of business where they try to sample a confiscated keg of beer. Sure beer's legal in Mexico, where they're headed, but this is free beer!
After that bit of tomfoolery, they make their way to “Casa O Del Rey”(?), which they're able to find since Anita wrote her address on the photo she gave Sparrow when he left Mexico. Sparrow and Anita are reunited, sing a song, and have a cute flirting scene where they trade bites of apples for kisses. Fade out, and fade in on a huge pile of apple cores, and two very frazzled looking young lovers.
Bird rousts Sparrow, and they infiltrate the villain's lair - by checking in and getting a room for the night! Cue traditional Murphy bed gags. There follows a literally restless night, as their attempts at sleep are interrupted by a variety of noisy visitors (one of whom uses their window for a gunfight). This culminates in the intrusion of a completely gratuitous Sinister Asian, who measures their necks, sharpens his knife, and leaves through a secret door, frightened off by a sudden noise.
In the morning, the boys discover that Ruth is being held in a room down the hall. They concoct a plan to take out Julius and his gypsies, which naturally involves Sparrow putting on a dress and seducing them one by one. He leads each one into a room where Bird knocks them out with a club. This works perfectly, until Bird gets distracted by going through his victims' pockets, just as Sparrow brings Julius into the room.
After more confusion, Billy finally shows up and rescues Ruth, but not until he has a brief but vigorous matinée-serial-style fistfight with the Baron. The boys manage to trick Julius long enough to grab Anita and make a run for Billy's plane. They all escape, and happily crash-land back at Aunt Fanny's estate in time for a final musical reprise.
So there you go, one flimsy plot, well and truly spoiled. Of course, it's only meant to string together the musical numbers and re-purposed Vaudeville routines. If this play was developed in the same way the Marxes developed theirs, the playwright would’ve left large blank spots for the comedy stars to insert their own routines, which would change over subsequent performances, as they incorporated more polished jokes or fresh topical humor. If that’s your priority, you’d better keep it simple.
“The Cuckoos” prominently features another film invention that was still new: two-strip Technicolor. If you’ve never seen this technological marvel, simulate it by looking around you and mentally subtracting all the blues, yellows and purples you see, until you’re left with combinations of green and red. Then try to imagine things a bit murkier than they are. The resulting effect is kind of like a subterranean Christmas party. I’m not certain how much of the murkiness is due to aging of the film stock, but this print in particular looks pretty sharp (in much better shape than, say, “The Cocoanuts”.)
The first bit of color arrives unexpectedly, almost an hour into the movie! It’s introduced via a cuckoo clock with two cuckoos (both bright red.) It came as kind of a shock. I’d previously seen two other two-strip films, both RKO horror/mystery pictures (“Mystery of the Wax Museum” and “Dr. X”.) In both those cases, the limited color helps the mood of mystery and the air of the uncanny, especially the eerie greens. To see the same technique used for what it was intended, bright, cheerful spectacle, is a bit odd to me. It’s used here for 3 sequences, all of them musical: The two scenes at Fanny’s mansion, and a jaw-droppingly bizarre musical number set in Hell(!), to the tune of “Dance the Devil Away.” It’s a shame the reduced video quality of my DVD-R made it so hard to capture images from this motion-filled sequence, but I’ll try to give you a taste at least. Check out the dancers with the devil-head-puppets on either hand!
So why did the Wheeler & Woolsey movies fade away, unlike their contemporaries the Marx Brothers? My half-assed theorizing leads me down a few paths, all of which probably contributed. Wheeler’s untimely death in ’38 undoubtedly proved a major factor. There’s also the basic element of risque content. Aside from the double entendres in the dialog (one of the characters is named "Fanny Furst," fer cryin' out loud!) and suggestive bits like the apple eating scene, there's an occasional matter of costuming. The opening musical number features men in fancy Mexican suits with sombreros dancing with gals in, well, lingerie and fur stoles. (They're later joined by more gals in dresses shaped like sombreros. Wheee!) Then there's the gal playing the slot machine at the casino, who reaches up under her slit skirt to get at her money, conveniently stuffed in her garter. (Sparrow “accidentally” drops his hat at her feet at just this moment, giving him an excuse to bend down and try to get a view.) The enforcement of the Hollywood Production Code starting in the mid-30s would have kept this film, and their other similar films from screening again. Likewise, in the 50s, when TV was rediscovering other, tamer comedy acts (Laurel and Hardy, the Three Stooges, etc), FCC standards would have kept these playfully decadent antics away from the youth of the Eisenhower Age.
One final note: I was initially concerned about rampant negative Mexican stereotypes, given my experiences with “Golden Dawn” (as well as, to a lesser extent, the other two films I've reviewed so far.) Well, they wait an hour to drop any really sleazy Mexicans into the mix, and then only briefly. But they don't wait more than a few minutes to give us a bunch of Evil Gypsies. (*sigh*)
Won't have that problem next time, though! Next time, it's class all the way! An Oscar winner! Best Picture winner from the 1931 Academy Awards! An honest-to-dog classic! “All Quiet On the Western Front”! Here's hoping I can come up with something that halfway does it justice.