Thursday, 12 April 2012

149. The Coo-Coo Nut Grove (1936)

Warner cartoon no. 148.
Release date: November 28, 1936.
Series: Merrie Melodies.
Supervision: Friz Freleng.
Producer: Leon Schlesinger.
Starring: Bernice Hansell (Dionne quintuplets), Ted Pierce (Ben Birdie ?), The Rhymettes, Verna Deane, Danny Webb (Walter Winchell Mouse) and Peter Lind Haye.
Animation: Bob McKimson and Sandy Walker.
Musical Direction: Carl Stalling.
Sound: Treg Brown (uncredited).
Character Designs: T. Hee (uncredited).
Synopsis: A Hollywood nightclub for celebrities caricatured as mostly birds, other animals; and humans, too hosted by Ben Birdie (Ben Bernie).

This is another celebrity caricatured cartoon that was very popular in the Golden Age; and Warner Bros. would make The Woods Are Full of Cuckoos, Have You Got Any Castles? and Hollywood Steps Out are the cartoons I can think of at the top of my head. T. Hee does the character designs here which are very appealing for this cartoon as well as the incredible use of backgrounds (I think) were by Zack Schwartz who briefly worked for Freleng in '36.

The cartoon begins with a beautiful moonlight reflection on the lake of a type of jungle. Look at those blue colours shown in in the background - it sure is beautiful backgrounds. We PAN along to the background and the backgrounds were used as an overlay as the cameraman moved them differently in the backgrounds. I like how it gave the illusion of objects moving slowly. As we continue to pan we see a Hollywood nightclub which it called; The Coo-Coonut Grove in flashing lights with the caption at the bottom reading Dine and Dance with the Stars. The fireflies are the flashing lights for the letters of the club which is pretty cool. The nightclub is a parody of a famous Hollywood nightclub called the 'The Cocoanut Grove' at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles which is where they used to host the Oscars on occasion (in 1930 and 1939); and for the Robert Kennedy assassination in 1968.

We then continue to PAN as we see some guests sitting down at their tables; the celebrities sitting down include Joe E. Brown, Lionel Barrymore, Fred Astaire and other celebrities that you can catch in your glimpse.

The host of the Hollywood nightclub event is a caricature of entertainer Ben Bernie but is called Ben Birdie as he's caricatured with a pointy nose and a thick lower lip. The drum is his band called "Ben Birdie and All the Lads"; which is supposedly called "Ben Bernie and All the Lads". After the iris in on Birdie he then goes into speech: "Greetings in salutations, youse guys and gals. This is the old  maestro and all the lads bringing you a program of dance music from the Coo-Coonut Grove. Yowsa, so help me". A Walter Winchell caricatured-house pops out of a tuba holding a piece of celery shouting "Flash! An orchid for you, old mousetrap, from your old pal Walter Windpipe". Winchell and Bernie were good friends but played as enemies on Ben Bernie's radio show. Ben Birdie then shows the Walter Winchell mouse out of the tuba as he shows flying. Winchell then shouts "Flash! We'll be back in a flash with a flash!" Ben Birdie then goes on about Winchell, "Dear, dear. It's an ill wind, an ill wind. Yowsa. My, my just look at all the celebrities". Is that Ted Pierce doing the caricature voice of Ben Bernie?

As Ben Birdie is looking at the celebrities seated on the table; the first celebrity we see is Hugh Hebert who is a well-known comedian of his time famous for the "woo woo" sounds that would be the inspiration of Daffy Duck's sounds in early cartoons (before Chuck Jones would change it). Herbert then claps happily.

The next scene at the table as we PAN along is W.C. Fields who is portrayed as 'Squeals' from At Your Service Madame as he comments on Mrs. Heartburn who is caricatured as Katherine Hepburn as a horse - which is why there is a pun on her surname. He fakes the compliment on the Miss Heartburn's (Hepburn) hoof, "What a beautiful hand you have, Miss Heartburn". She then starts to neigh snickering before looking at him disgusted; which was what Hepburn did. The next guy on the table is Ned Sparks who is playing a grouchy man saying "I go everywhere, I do everything and I never have any fun". I'm not sure where the line originated but Sparks was known to play grumpy, deadpan characters. Meanwhile up the palm tree is Johnny Weissmuller and his date Lupe Velez. The joke is that Weissmuller is wearing his Tarzan suit pouring wine in his glass; and Weissmuller and Velez were actually married back in that period. Weissmuller then starts to bang his chest doing his Tarzan impression but instead in that very annoying, obnoxious Buddy sound that makes me want to grind my teeth of annoyance. Weissmuller was a star for playing the Tarzan movies at the time and used to win gold medals for swimming in the Olympics back in the 1920s.

Back to Ben Birdie who is looking out for more celebrities until he spots out for his "profile" man:

Ben Birdie: Well, well and well. The profile of profiles.

We see the "profile" man is John Barrymore walking down the hallway of the nightclub in perspective. I like how Barrymore's head stays in the exact same position while walking down, turning and sitting down at his table. I guess that this was meant to be a joke about his head which probably meant he never really moved it much at all.

There is a woman in the nightclub that is screaming as he's being chased by a Harpo Marx bird which a funny caricature that shows his funny hairdo. The Harpo Marx bird is chasing after the unidentified woman running away and the Harpo Marx bird is running around with a horn honking it. An extender then pops up out his top hat which shows traffic lights that tells him to "STOP". The Harpo Marx bird then brakes; and stops until the switch changes to "GO" as he continues acting looney.

Ben Birdie then goes on to another part of the nightclub where the celebrities would eat: "And now let us indulge to a bit of the light fantastic, etc. etc." All of the bird members in the nightclub then start to get up as they go dancing since they've already found themselves a partner. The animation of the birds getting up (I think) is from I'm a Big Shot Now. There is a celebrity dancing couple which is a tortoise George Arliss and Mae West as a chickadee. Now that is a pretty funny pair since George Arliss was an elderly person at the time who wasn't particularly handsome at all while Mae West was a sex symbol that people thought was a attractive; and they're definitely different from one another. They do a little dance routine speaking to each other, "Atta Baby; keep up the good work, handsome".

A very funny caricature pops up that shows Laurel & Hardy. Stan Laurel is caricatured as a monkey while Oliver Hardy is playing a round pig; which I guess is common when it comes to caricatures of him - even Porky Pig disguised himself as one in "You Ought to Be in Pictures".

The Hardy pig then grabs out a coconut from one of the palm trees as they decide to share a drink from the coconuts. The Hardy pig grabs out a straw for both of them each and then they slurp the drink. A funny gag pops up as they're drinking; the Stan Laurel money turns into a really fat, pompous figure like Hardy while the Hardy pig turns as thin as Stan Laurel - which the same weight is there but different person.
A group of people in the audience then look at a stage-light for the next bit of entertainment. In the audience seated are Greta Garbo, John Barrymore, Clark Gable, etc. The performer on stage is elderly dancer Edna May Oliver who was well-known for her vaudeville performances. She has a rose that she is holding onto with her lip. She then starts to do a dance to The Lady in Red which I guess is meant to be funny since it would look unappealing on an older woman that played tart-tongued spinsters.

Celebrities in the audience are enjoying the dance; particularly Clark Gable who is caricatured with big ears. His big ears then flap with excitement. While Edna May Oliver is still dancing, Gary Cooper is walking down the hallway which is similar to his films in the characteristic walk he would often do. There are a group of monkeys that comment on Cooper; "He's pixallated!" is a reference to the two bad sisters from 'Mr. Deeds Goes to Town'.

After Edna May Oliver finishes her dancing sequence; the next act to entertain the Hollywood stars are the Dionne quintuplets. Although they were only about two years ago at that time and were no Hollywood stars; they were the first quintuplets that survived at birth back in 1934 which made them very famous.

The Dionne quintuplets are going into song singing "My Old Man" a song with music written by Bernard Hangihen and lyrics by Johnny Mercer. The quintuplets then turn around as they go into a type of dance with their feet and their panties showing. The animation on that sequence was pretty good although I imagine it was a challenge to animate the Dionne quintuplets to make them very identical; do you suppose that they only animated one of them and then copied four more from the original drawings to get the exact movement?

In the next scene shows Johnny Weissmuller and Lupe Velez again on top of the palm tree seated on their table. A mouse is then spot under the table in which Weissmuller shrieks at the mouse scattering around and cowardly to himself. He then faints from seeing the mouse. Velez then gets up, banging her chest doing her Tarzan impression (at least we didn't have to hear the annoying Buddy one). She then grabs out a vine as she carries Weissmuller who has fainted which is the joke since she's meant to be Jane, I guess.

The Harpo Marx bird is still acting like a screwball chasing after the unidentified lady who is screaming. The Harpo Marx bird then pops out as he grabs the lady but the "lady" turns out to have the face of Groucho Marx - the brother of Harpo. The Harpo Marx bird then dashes out of the scene because of Groucho's rude awakening. The gag would be repeated again at the end of Hollywood Steps Out.

In the next sequence we see tears drop. It becomes the finale of this cartoon as it shows torch singer Helen Morgan singing 'The Little Things You Used to Do". Helen Morgan is singing the song in tears as the gag is that she's singing a rather sad song. The animation of Morgan singing is top notch - I have to say. Her singing catches the heart of celebrity Wallace Beery who is sniffling and wiping his nose. He then grabs a banana in which he squirts it on his knife by taking the lid off and placing it on the knife like squirting out a bit of toothpaste. She continues to sing the torch song in tears.

Her weeping and singing then starts to make the Harpo Marx bird weep as his hat pulls out some windscreen wipers to wipe his eyes which is pretty funny since he needs to "try his tears".

Edward G. Robinson and George Raft are portrayed here as tough guys who are manly enough not to cry. Robinson is smoking his cigar while  Raft is busy flipping a coin. Eventually break down into tears because of the song in which they hug each other. Helen Morgan is still sitting on the piano in which it is floating on water. The "water" is coming from the tears of the crying celebrities. They are sitting on their dining tables as it floats away.

The dining tables then float out of the scene of the nightclub as the moonlight then reflects the water. Very interesting twist at the end since it showed the moonlight scene and it's used again for the nightclub scene. The George Arliss turtle then rows away on his shell turned to his back. The Ben Bernie bird then concludes the short ending the nightclub show at the CooCoonut Grove; "Cheerio, pip pip, au revior, and a goody-good night.

Overall comments: This is the last 'Merrie Melodies' cartoon of 1936. I have to say that the designs in this cartoon are just beautiful; I'd consider it on par with the art deco designs on 'Page Miss Glory'. The caricatures by T. Hee are incredible as well as the animation itself. The gags are pretty dated but it's still worth laughs and entertainment. I feel that the colours in this cartoon were the important factor of this cartoon as it creates such a "blues" environment that looks very stunning in both visual looks and atmosphere. The art direction was in fact very good; at least Leon Schlesinger didn't say "Put in purple; purple is a funny colour". It has lots of great animation by what appears to be Bob McKimson since he got screen credit and I'd imagine other great animators like Ken Harris worked on that one as he would already be animating by that point. The Ben Birdie caricature is my favourite.

1936 has been an improvement for the 'Merrie Melodies' series; and I'd say especially improvement for Friz Freleng. He started out rather slow at the start of the year with his tedious shorts which he made the knack of in 1934-1935 but around this time he showed signs of improvement even though (I still have to say) he still made weak cartoons (but Jack King probably turned in the weakest output). Freleng definitely shows bigger improvements in 1937 and you'll see for yourself. Also, Tex Avery got to direct a couple of 'Merrie Melodies' which were the best of the series in that year. I think 'CooCoo Nut Grove' was Freleng's best cartoon in that year. Some of the animation in this short would be reused a year later in The Woods Are Full of Cuckoos.


  1. You called Bernice Hansell "Bernice Hansen" like in the beginning.

  2. Thanks - corrected that. I'm not quite used to the name that is confirmed as "Hansell" not Hanson so give me a bit of time for me to write her down correctly as Ineed to be used to it.

    1. I think we'll all have to get used to it.

      "Do you suppose that they only animated one of them and then copied four more from the original drawings to get the exact movement?"

      That's exactly what they did, actually.

    2. Actually, the first name on her death certificate is "Berneice." That's how the UP newspaper clipping spelled it and she's listed in L.A City Directories that way, too (her phone number was HO7 4373).

      I like how the rooster crow from "Boulevardier From the Bronx" is put in Kate Hepburn here. It still sounds more like a pig than a horse or a rooster.

      I didn't realise Schwartz was at Warners; I thought he was strictly at Disney in the 30s. But the backgrounds here are different than the Jay/Loomer ones we're used to seeing.

      Barrymore was known as "The Great Profile." So that's why the gag is he's shown only in profile.

  3. Actually by the time this short was released the Dionne Quintuplets had made the first of three Hollywood movies they would eventually make, "The Country Doctor". It was released in mid-1936, and basically dramatized the story of their birth and babyhood. The parts with the quintuplets was shot at the special facility built for them in Callendar Ontario. The Dionnes were wards of the Province of Ontario and didn't travel much outside of their facility - known as "Quintland" - with an enclosed gallery around their outdoor playground where tourists could come and watch them play. They were the biggest tourist attraction in Ontario from 1935 to 1939 when the war restricted tourism. Their images were also used for advertising, with all of the money from movies, tourism and advertising going into a fund for the sisters, although what they eventually received was a fraction of what they actually earned. Their parents didn't regain custody of the sisters until 1943

  4. Steven H., Besides "Our Old Man", the Dionne Quntipulets are also mixing that song in with "What's the Matter with Father", by Egbert Van Alstyne, as "What's the Matter with Robert", so it's a medley. Yes, Tashlin used this as a basis for "The Woods Are Full Of Cuckoos", in 1937, a year later, and the Bernie persona is also used in Fris's "Toytown Hall". Yowsah.Berniece Hansell does an escellent job as all of the Quints, by the way.

    Yowp, as you clarly know, John Barrymore would infleunce some of the iconic stage chaarcter, of cours,e of both Hans Conried and John Carradine. Gazooks!

    Steve C.