Monday, January 09, 2006

The CooCoo Nut Grove (1936)

The CooCoo Nut Grove (Warner Bros., 1936)
Dir.: Friz Freleng
TC4P Rating: 7/9

I am not a huge fan of celebrity caricature pictures. Spreading out too many obvious jokes between two many characters, and most of the jokes rely on the audience's presumed knowledge of the celebrity that the cartoon is mocking at the moment, I am usually left non-plussed by the end of them. I am also usually disappointed by the fact that the stars aren't actually doing the voices. There are joys to be had, though, in even the mildest of them. The films can be taken as snapshots of the Hollywood that existed at the time that the cartoon was made, and it can be fun playing Spot the Cameo and Who the Hell Was That?

Friz Freleng's The CooCoo Nut Grove is a wonderfully designed picture (and at the time, a considerable breakthrough for Freleng, style-wise), with the entire film floating by on its deco-lite charm brought about by charming caricatures by T. Hee, and Benny Birdie's band playing non-stop from the bandstand of the club, with its sign lit by the fluorescent glow of fireflies. It is only a minor bother to bring up, but I find the casting somewhat confused, as some of the celebrities are portrayed as bird or mammalian caricatures of themselves, while others in the cartoon, such as Johnny Weissmuller and Maureen O'Sullivan, are clearly human. Benny Goodman becomes Benny Birdie, Katherine Hepburn becomes a horse with the surname of Heartburn, and W.C. Fields (Squeals) sits next to her in full porcine display. Harpo is clearly some sort of ostrich-like bird, but Groucho, in a gag used more than once in these cartoons, is disguised as the beautiful blonde that Harpo is chasing. And human, at that, unlike his brother. So much for consistency, but that's hardly the point; I suppose that someone would term me a species-ist for even bringing it up.

There are a handful of fun gags, my favorite being that of the entrance of John Barrymore, the Great Profile himself, who, no matter how he walks about the club, never turns his head so as to remain with his profile showing. Laurel and Hardy have a good moment, though they are done up as a chimpanzee and an enormous pig, when the coconut that they are sharing with two straws causes them to reverse sizes when they sip their tropical beverage. The Harpo and Groucho bit is well turned; and when the matronly Edna Mae Oliver does a sexy rhumba, there is an amusing use of the Clark Gable's huge flapping ears as castanets as he stares at her, just a little too much into her performance. There is also the closing Helen Morgan torch number, where her too, too sad singing causes the entire club to erupt into tears, most notably tough mugs Edward G. Robinson and George Raft (always flipping that coin), and the entire club floats off past the moonlight on an ocean of tears, with Benny Birdie bidding the viewer goodnight, in the same gentle tone as he had introduced the show.

As I said, with many more cameos within the film, it is fun guessing who everyone is, and as a kid, it was an early way for me to learn a bit about Hollywood's past. I would then see the celebrities in their actual films and be clued in a little to their personalities as I saw their true talents on display. (They sure loved to use Ned Sparks in these films! It sure pays to corner the market on an attitude.) The CooCoo Nut Grove is a nice place to visit, and is one of the most marvelously designed of the early Freleng shorts. [A comic geek aside: much of the art from the Neil the Horse series by Arn Saba reminds me very much of the look and mood of this film.] While not my favorite of the Hollywood caricature line, it remains an interesting and most enjoyable film.

[Editor's note: The text and photos for this article were updated on 10/30/2015.]


Gregorian Chanter said...

Rik Tod said:
Benny Goodman becomes Benny Birdie...

That is not Benny Goodman. That is Ben Bernie (yowsah, yowsah). He is not well known today, but you certainly know one of the songs he composed, Sweet Georgia Brown

Rik Tod said...

It just goes to show that there is always something new to learn. I try to research these things, but some things just always seem to get past.

Thanks, Gregorian Chanter for the information. I certainly do know that little tune he composed... as a matter of fact, I was whistling it the other day while in a festive Globetrotter mood. Hats off to Ben Bernie for that, and now that I think of it, it would have been very lazy for Warner Bros. to name that character simply Benny Birdie if he were Benny Goodman. It would have become Birdman or something along that lines, so I should have questioned it when I watched it the last time.

Hoo-rah for knowledge!! Yowsah!

Rik Tod