Bill and Coo (1948)
Part of the Weird Cinema DVD Box Set.
Thanks to an extreme case of social awkwardness, my first filmmaking ventures consisted of posing action figures around existing sets. In my case, those ‘sets’ were my sister’s dollhouse and a Star Trek OS Enterprise deck. This way, I wouldn’t have to interact with…ugh, people. I did all the voices. I worked the camera. Complete creative control and “performers” who would do anything I wanted. If I’d known how lucrative kitty videos would become, I’d have skipped all that and just followed my cat Tom around the house. I was hit with a wave of nostalgia and recognition upon viewing the one-of-a-kind Bill and Coo (1948).
There’s a fine Walt Disney biography by Neal Gabler that address the cryogenic freezing rumors right up front and later tackles the anti-Semitism accusations as well. These are merely blips on an extraordinary career. Now imagine Disney was less a visionary and more of a carnival barker with very limited access to money. If that were the case, he’d probably have made something like Bill and Coo, a true oddity and as close as a live-action film can get to also being an animated film. I’ve written about oddities before, but this one takes the cake. What is Bill and Coo? It’s certainly an innocuous title. Is it a romance? Yeah, I suppose. Is it a slice of life drama? Sure, why not? A wacky comedy? All right. Is it a family film full of action and wonder? I fucking guess so, because the whole goddamn cast is BIRDS!
“If you could go back in time, what would you do?” It’s a great question and since I know how fragile the past is based off of my painstaking research watching all three Back to the Future movies and that Simpsons Halloween episode, my response would be that I’d simply want to witness things that are long gone. Vaudeville is a relic of the past but as an entertainment around the turn of the century, it must have been amazing. These performers either excelled at one particular thing or a bunch of things; performing multiple shows a day, honing their considerable craft and broadening their talents. Ken Murray had showmanship in his blood. He wasn’t the most famous vaudevillian and his subsequent work in films and television, with the exception of his role in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, have mostly been forgotten by time. It seems he was well-liked but I get the feeling that he was never taken particularly seriously as a performer. That didn’t stop him from pursuing a career in show business. Like the well-endowed Milton Berle, he was right there in the beginning, hosting his own show from 1950-1953 during the burgeoning early days of television. His wild variety show Blackouts was a major success and one of his performers was George Burton and his flock of performing birds. It was from this collaboration that Murray ‘hatched’ the idea for a feature film cast entirely with Burton’s birds.
People living in the first half of the last century must have been easily susceptible to heart attacks or wild fits because it seems that the one thing filmmakers could never do is surprise an audience. A group gathering to stare at a big screen had to be eased into whatever they were about to see or else the meat wagon would have to be called. The movie opens with Murray (I wish it was Bill) playing himself and talking directly to the camera. He informs ‘us’ that they’re “making a picture with birds…murder.”
Considering what follows, I’d say that’s an accurate statement. Burton brings our two “temperamental stars” out and it’s Bill and Coo. I’m not a bird expert, but it seems that they’re either parakeets, canaries, or lovebirds. Either way, they have their own monogrammed folding chairs and it’s cute as fuck. Burton makes a little demonstration of them walking a tight rope. Remember, I have no idea what this movie is about so obviously somebody in the late 40’s wandering into a theatre after finishing their fourth pack of cigarettes and their steak and donut sandwich might wonder what in the Sam Hill is going on here? It turns out this is the last we’ll see of any humans for the duration of the picture.
Academy-Award winner Lionel Newman (uncle of Randy, Thomas, and David)’s music swells and we’re treated to a credits sequence informing us that the film was shot in TruColor, the cheapie color process of choice for films with a small budget but big technicolor dreams. We’re also told that “This picture is dedicated to the pets of mankind.” I kept expecting it to next say “…except that asshole cat who threw up on my bed.”
The word ‘adorable’ immediately springs to mind. Chirpendale, U.S.A., a bustling small town populated entirely with residents of the Avian variety and a better but less commercially viable title than Bill and Coo, is shown using a modified dolly shot standing in for a crane. I bring this up because the set is entirely miniaturized and the shot gives the town a sweeping sense of scale. It’s non-stop sight gags, with a bird pushing an ice cream cart, a bird pushing a stroller containing eggs (which hatch a minute later. God, newborn chicks are gross), birds on a trolley and a bevy of funny signs. I wouldn’t dream of comparing the genius of The Simpsons to freaking Bill and Coo, but I’ll admit that I got a Simpsons-vibe with all of the signage. There’s the ‘Swallow Travel Agency,’ ‘42nd St. and Birdway,’ and the cowbird film ‘Roy Robin.’ Each bird has a name like Beatrice Fairfinch, Professor Plato Spoonbill (who teaches that the world is shaped like an egg (and probably creationism)) and Bill Falcon (a little unsure about who his father was). My favorite is a kiosk selling worms for ‘ten cents a link.’ Obvious tricks aside, one scene is jaw-dropping. A bird is doing laundry the old-fashioned way, scrubbing it in a pot. It then turns a crank with its beak, picks up the pants and shirt, and puts them on a line to dry. It’s incredible! There’s even a town idiot named Johnny Loo, who rushes around town in a funny hat. It’s a poorly-dated but gentle ribbing of the mentally disabled, described here as having come from 'a cracked egg.’ This is all silly but it’s surprisingly amusing to watch. The sets by Fred Malatesta and Imagineering are actually impressive and bereft of bird poop, which is pretty amazing. Seriously though, I would’ve killed for these kinds of sets. It reminds of the commercials I saw for action figures like ‘He-Man’ and ‘RoboCop.’ Sure, the figures look cool, but I also want those buildings and mountains and stuff I can smash into. Why didn’t they sell those too?
Is there a story? You bet your feathery ass there is! Is it a doozy? A real humdinger? ...no. It’s an “I’m rich and you’re poor, but let’s dance together” type of movie. Low income but sweet taxi driver Bill courts his upper-class sweetheart Coo, who lives in the swank penthouse at the hotel. The film makes a concerted effort to let Ken Murray do his wisecracking, second-rate comedian shtick via narration, but the birds do occasionally talk, to disturbing effect. A mother calls for her daughter “SALLY!” in a shrill, scary voice. A student dared to question Professor Spoonbill and now he’s sitting in the corner, wearing a dunce cap and repeating, "I’m a bad bird” over and over again.
In film school we were shown a short film by the great Peter Greenaway. I can’t seem to track down which short this was so I’m dubious whether it was actually Greenaway after all. I regret to this day not standing right up and screaming at a ‘professor’ for spreading lies. They weren’t really professors, just filmmakers who needed a buck. He incorrectly attributed the direction for 1987’s Who’s That Girl to Peter Bogdanovich and not James Foley. I watched the hell out of that picture, so I KNOW who directed it. Anyways, Greenaway or not, the film has a brilliant concept. It’s a static shot of a busy street. A narrator isn’t commenting on the action, he’s commanding it. It works shockingly well. He says things like: “All right, a mother and her daughter enter...now! Good, two cars stop at that light. Right. Let’s bring those birds down to the sign post.” It’s just raw footage of everyday life that’s twisted to seem like the director is God and commands everyone to do his bidding. In the case of Bill and Coo, I think an outline was sketched out but they just set up amusing things and added comments later to shape a story. This is especially true in the film’s final scene.
Thankfully, a real screen veteran arrives to shake things up. A veritable superstar amongst birds. Of course, I’m referring to Jimmy the Crow, who is really a raven. His credits include classics like The Wizard of Oz, It’s a Wonderful Life, and Son of Dracula. Soaring in to play the heavy, Jimmy is known as The Black Menace. Is this a thinly-veiled defense of segregation and the need to keep creatures of a different color out of small, sleepy towns? Holy shit, I hope not.
Night falls and the local bar is hopping with bird jazz blaring and bug juice flowing. Somebody hits the jackpot on a slot machine and bird seed dumps out. Slippy McCall, whose name has got to be a fake since he’s probably wanted by the law, gets birdshit-faced. The festivities are cut short when The Black Menace swoops into town. Crows (again, Jimmy was a raven but he’s a very versatile performer) are omnivores, so even though they don’t spell it out, he's there to eat the residents of Chirpendale. Murray describes The Black Menace as “death in the sky.” Owls alert the townsfolk, sounding like a Swahili woman screaming. The birds hide in their homes, turning off the lights (they have electricity?!), and nestle (see what I did?) in the dark. They have an underground bunker with the name ‘Fraid Hole’ in big letters, so hopefully Jimmy can’t read. He may not be able to read, but he’s a real prince because he sets, as Murray puts it, a “fye-yah!” Why did people in the 30’s and 40’s say 'fire' that way?
It’s Bill and the fire chief to the rescue! The chief slides down a pole and rings a bell, then Bill grabs the fire engine and off they go. The “fye-yah” engulfs Coo’s hotel as Wagner blares on the soundtrack and the birds quickly evacuate, probably by being smoked out. A lot of these tricks don’t seem too dangerous, but I do wonder how many birds died during the making of this. You know very well there’s no disclaimer at the end about ‘no animals were harmed during the making of this film.’ Bill scales the ladder and rescues Coo, becoming the hero of the hour. A grand celebration is planned.
Bill and Coo set off in an air balloon, which is cool but I’m assuming these birds’ wings are clipped so they can’t get away. It seems cruel to tease them with a balloon ride. The circus is in town and Bill and Coo are the guests-of-honor. We learn about this through an announcement by the mayor, who sounds like Lenny from Of Mice and Men. Or at least the Looney Tunes version. The use of voices is sparing. I could see them going all out with having the birds talk, but it’s much more cost-effective and a lot less irritating that they only speak when necessary.
Everyone loves the circus, right? I took my kid to a small-scale circus once, but this one is ten times better. They’re serving worm burgers! A straggler drops a coin for admission at the booth and the operator is reminded to put the money in the till. Those carnies have sticky fingers. This whole sequence might be the most tiresome. The tricks are nice but it’s the first real moment the movie feels like a showcase for bird tricks and not part of any story. Maybe the most fucked-up part about this universe is that they keep other animals in captivity, like cats, foxes, and possums. They’re in cages being paraded around for the flock’s amusement. They look pissed. Highlights include a bird that imitates a bugle, a Jimmy Durante toucan, a chinchilla who runs on a wheel to provide the power at the venue, Cannonball Twitchet, who spins around on a motorcycle and is clearly not happy, and a bird spinning on rings.
The Black Menace returns and everyone is at the circus! Everyone except the town moron, Johnny Loo. Murray bemoans the fact that he has a “pixelated mind(?)” and worries he won’t warn the rest. Johnny starts muttering about a crow when he runs into the circus tent which should’ve prompted them to put ol’ Johnny Loo out of his misery, but they scramble. Brave Bill decides to put Operation Scarecrow into effect. We don’t know what the hell that is, but I actually want to know.
The Black Menace is lured away and gets trapped in a cage. Everyone gathers to gawk and squawk and for a hot minute I thought they were going to ‘Wicker Man’ poor Jimmy the Crow. All good, though, and Murray tells us we’ve learned a valuable lesson about teamwork and fighting bullies. Of course, our two lovebirds can’t live in sin, so they must be wed.
I’ll get to my admiration for the film’s efforts in a moment, but the irony is that the roughest bit and obviously the best take they could get happens during the wedding scene. They should just kiss, but Bill keeps grabbing Coo’s veil. Maybe he’s into some kinky shit. Or it’s possible that he’s just pissed because they hooked up for real at the beginning of the shoot and then broke up before it ended so now they have to act like they like each other. Anyways, what is either a small, hairless fox or a chihuahua drags them off to their honeymoon. The End.
By the way, there’s a cheesy video in the very beginning of the DVD which features footage from other animal films and shows. Canned music accompanies awful cut-outs of famous animals like Lassie and Flipper. The footage is clearly from another era (2000) and looking at the producer’s credits, this was one of those dirt cheap direct-to-video deals you’d find in a thin case on a rack at a drug store. It would look like a decent documentary, often about an actor or musician, but it was really just trailers, stock footage, and a narrator stringing it all together. Bill and Coo was either public domain or just crazy cheap to re-brand and shove out there. It’s a shame because I must say I was impressed by this film.
The Academy Award-winning Bill and Coo? Well, sort of. It seems unbelievable, but this film was given an honorary Oscar. It came as a plaque, which read: “In which artistry and patience blended in a novel and entertaining use of the medium of motion pictures.” Note the word ‘patience.’ Yeah, this sucker must’ve taken a TON of work. I have so much respect for these filmmakers. I can’t imagine how many takes it took and how much they wanted to pull their hair out during production. Kudos to them.
The co-writer/director’s name seemed so familiar to me. Then I looked Dean Riesner up. He may have only directed once, but his career in motion pictures lasted nearly seven decades. Starting out as a child actor, he took a break to live a normal life and went on to become a hugely successful writer. He specialized in tough guy scripts but his most triumphant decade in film was definitely the 70’s. He was a favorite of Clint Eastwood and Don Siegel, working on Coogan’s Bluff, Dirty Harry, Charley Verrick (underrated gem), Play Misty For Me, The Enforcer, and a ton of uncredited work on films like Starman, Blue Thunder, and High Plains Drifter. Who’d have thought that someone with such a knack for writing hard, red-blooded badasses could make something so damn cute? I hope he had a good sense of humor whenever his buddies brought this movie up. If not, he might’ve had to go all Black Menace on their asses.