Tuesday, 7 August 2012

185. The Woods Are Full of Cuckoos (1937)

Warner cartoon no. 184.
Release date: December 4, 1937.
Series: Merrie Melodies.
Supervision: Frank Tashlin.
Producer: Leon Schlesinger.
Starring: Mel Blanc (Various voices), Ted Pierce (Tizzie Fish / Ben Birdie ? ).
Story: Melvin Millar.
Animation: Robert Bentley.
Musical Direction: Carl W. Stalling.
Sound: Treg Brown (uncredited).
Synopsis: Radio stars as animals entertain the Woodland Community Swing with many references.

[REVISED VERSION: 20/07/2017].

My choice to revisit The Woods Are Full of Cuckoos is primarily based on my recent fascination of this early Frank Tashlin short itself. My interest isn't attributed to Tashlin's directorial style - but by its historical context. This short holds my nomination as, arguably, the most dated Warner Bros. cartoon ever. Not only have the references and gags grown dated by today's modern culture - but so has the cartoon's premise.

The premise is largely a parody of the radio program Community Sing, broadcast on CBS from 1936-1937, and sponsored by the Gillette razor company. The show was built largely on comedy, but it also derived of a studio audience engaged in songfests. The program is notable as one of the earliest efforts of famed comedian Milton Berle. The cast included now-forgotten radio performers like Wendell Hall, young Eileen Barton and Billy Jones & Ernie Hare.

Tashlin's parody is in the same vein as Freleng's cartoon, The CooCoo Nut Grove, released a year earlier. Character designer Thorton "T." Hee caricatured iconic Hollywood stars as forest critters in a woodland scenario. While Freleng's cartoon parodied Hollywood nightlife at the infamous Cocoanut Grove; here, it's portrayed as a gathering amongst woodland critters.

It looks like Frank Tashlin did the caricatures himself for this cartoon, but some of T. Hee's character designs are recycled here, like Ben Bernie caricatured as a sparrow. T. Hee would've already left for Disney by the time the short entered production.

A recurring gag in this short appears to evolve around a feud between the woodland caricatures of Ben Bernie and Walter Winchell (caricatured as Walter Finchell). Finchell would engage in mischievous pranks and snide remarks at Birdie, who ignores his antics every time.

This was primarily based on a fake rivalry staged by Ben Bernie and Walter Winchell in their radio shows. Both were good friends in real life, but the rivalry itself was a publicity stunt. Their now dated "feud" has been immortalised for this cartoon, and Freleng's CooCoo Nut Grove. Today, Winchell is best remembered as a controversial gossip columnist, and apparently the inspiration of the ruthless J.J. Hunsecker in Sweet Smell of Success (1957).

The first half of the cartoon largely parody sketches, then popular of Community Sing. A notable sequence occurs with Milton Berle portrayed as a squirrel. A child parrot, Polly, caricatured of Little Jolly Gillette (played by Eileen Barton), approaches Milton Squirrel.

The scene mimics the repartee between Berle and Little Jolly, who was characterised as the daughter of the show's sponsor, Gillette. Here, Polly innocently remarks, "My daddy says you gotta let me sing 'cos he's the sponsor".

The following scene features cast member Wendell Hall in bird form, known as "The Red Headed Music Maker". Wendell is seen hosting the audience with a songbook, as he says: "Let's siiiiinnnnggggg!", as his neck whirls across the "KUKU" microphone. Was that a catchphrase on that program?

Wendell is portrayed as a muddled personality; by indecisively naming page numbers from the songbook, much to the frustration of his audience. And so, Wendell rebuffs, "Oh, never mind, we don't use the books". The audience respond in unison, "Oh yes we will!". They use their books to throw them at Wendell "Howl" on the tree stump stage.

As already indicated, much of the cartoon's humour is also built around unfunny puns for radio stars that concern their name, and converting to them around animals - like Ben Birdie or Jack Bunny, for instance. In one scene, during the titular song number - an entire scene is devoted to such puns.

The scene features reserved seats for more popular stars in Hollywood, like Al Jolson, Bing Crosby, Ruby Keeler, Eddie Cantor, etc. Instead, their names and appearances are thrown in with forced puns (i.e. Crosby = Crowsby, Keeler = Squealer). Each star sing a verse from the titular song.

Admittedly, a few of them are creative - like W.C. Fields' caricature as a field mouse. Then, there's others that are too contrived (i.e. Deanna Durbin = Deanna Terrapin, Fred MacMurray = Fred McFurry, or Lanny Ross = Lanny Hoss).

It's also a sequence that showcases trick camera work from Frank Tashlin's style. The pan across the reserved seats is very long; but by the time the camera stops at caricatures of operatic singers Grace Moore and Lily Pons, the background slightly changes.

The change is applied to make way for a vertical pan, of both Moore and Pons, portrayed as a moose and swan respectively, attempt to compete with each other by singing the highest note. Their necks stretch to great lengths, which works fine for a comedic effort. Once the singing duo reach their climax - their necks descend back to a delirious state.

Despite the cartoon's aged concept; the lush backgrounds and beautiful colour styling are hard to criticize. The styling centers on a night time look, with some lavish detail of moonbeam reflections and the use of contact shadows. Much of the colour work was likely done by Art Loomer, who painted backgrounds for Leon Schlesinger around this time.

For the most part, the short's animation is relatively conservative, likely attributed by the mundane scenarios onscreen. Sometimes, the short's animation boasts of energy and fun drawings.

The "Raven McQaundry" gag features some kooky drawings as the raven "takes" from a reference vanished into obscurity. The name parodies radio performer Haven McQuarrie of a radio show, So Do You Want to be an Actor? 

He asks that question to an audience in a striking pose, but the audience all yell "No!" in unison - hence the take. The gag itself remains unfunny, but the exaggerated poses of the raven's surprise are nutty little touches to an otherwise pointless scene.

Tashlin's animators appear to have fun in a small scene devoted to singer Martha Raye, caricatured as a mule. A distinctive feature of Raye was her large mouth - which was broadly caricatured several times in animated cartoons, and showcased here. Tashlin utilises her caricature with his perspective skills; by having her large mouth cover the entire screen.

A large part of the cartoon spoofs characters and acts from various radio programs. The Bernie/Winchell rivalry was one; Alexander Woollcott as The Town Crier - and various others. The latter part of the cartoon turns its attention to parodying radio personalities like Louella Parsons.

One sequence commits to parodying Tizzie Lish, a fictional character from The Al Pearce Show. The character, portrayed by Bill Comstock, was portrayed as a nutty cooker and health expert - and her signature catchphrase, "Hello, folksies!".

For this sequence, the character takes the form of a fish. Ted Pierce's impersonation is largely spot-on, based on today's few preserved broadcasts. Pierce also manages to capture her mannerisms and spontaneity, of particular puns like: "My friends say I'm a good mixer. Are you, or aren't you?". You can read more about Tizzie Lish's radio fame, here on the Tralfaz blog. Tizzie Lish soon descended into oblivion, but the scene's entertainment values would've had merit for a 1937 audience.

Before the cartoon is ready to wrap up; Louella Parsons is burlesqued as a possum. At the time of the cartoon's release, Parsons was hosting the radio program Hollywood Hotel, which showcased guest stars dramatising scenes from upcoming features.

The "guest stars" featured here better remembered than, say, Haven McQuarrie. Featured are caricatures of Jack Benny, his wife Mary Livingston, and comic actor Andy Devine - who was a regular cast member on The Jack Benny Program.

Benny's caricature is as generic as it gets ("Jack Bunny"); although Devine's portrayal as "Andy Bovine" fits with his distinctively loud, raspy voice. The guest stars appear to re-enact a gag from Jack Benny's program - as Devine's comic persona is lampooned.

The "Warmer Brothers" feature is presented as The Prodigal's Return. The scenario depicts the trio inside a cabin, with Andy Bovine playing a newborn baby. He yells, "Howdy, ma! Hi, pa!" - causing his voice to shake the house and blow Benny and Livingston away from the screen. The gag appears to poke fun of Devine's booming voice, but such references were well-known to the public in 1937.

And so, the cartoon concludes with a cessation from "Alexander Owlcott", as the Town Crier, who concludes "all is well".

For a casual cartoon viewer getting exposed to classic Golden Age cartoons - Tashlin's cartoon may prove to be an unusual experience. Warner Bros. cartoons typically featured dated cultural references for many of their cartoons - but the shorts still had a timeless quality around it. Since the premise parodies the short-lived Community Sing, the style of humour has aged poorly. It's almost comparable to the dated, pointless references riddled in more contemporary shows like Family Guy. The cartoon was a product for its time, in the context that it wasn't expected to be seen again after its initial run. However, The Woods Are Full of Cuckoos remains to be a fascinating exposure of popular trends and forms of entertainment in 1937. It's entertainment values might be long expired today, but it remains a valuable part of history by showcasing obscure 1930s radio.

Rating: 1.5/5.


  1. Andy Devine was a regular guest on the Jack Benny Radio Program at this time. He was Benny's cowboy sidekick in the "Buck Benny Rides Again" sketches and a incongrous voice in other skits i.e. "Grandma" in "Little Red Riding Hood" (Show 19/12/1937)https://sites.google.com/site/jackbennyinthe1940s/jack-benny-in-the-1930-s/1937-1938-season

  2. They're "using" the songbooks by throwing them at him. That's the joke in this situation.