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The Cuckoos

The Cuckoos(1930)

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teaser The Cuckoos (1930)

The biggest hit of RKO Radio Pictures' initial year of production, 1929, was the elaborate Western musical comedy, Rio Rita. That property had been a Broadway hit (written by Guy Bolton), and was brought to the screen with all the elements intact - lavish sets and costumes, song and dance routines, romantic leads, and the loopy comedy of the newly-formed team of Bert Wheeler and Robert Woolsey. The film also featured a finale shot in the 2-strip Technicolor process. Rio Rita proved to be a huge success for RKO, earning $2.9 million at the box office, so the studio naturally sought to duplicate its popularity the following year. Perhaps not knowing which element brought the film such success, RKO and producer William LeBaron simply repeated all of them.

RKO had the movie rights to another Guy Bolton-written Broadway musical comedy, The Ramblers, which opened in 1926 with a song score by Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby. Like Rio Rita, The Ramblers featured comedy relief by a performing duo - in this case Bobby Clark and Paul McCullough. The Clark & McCullough team already had their own film career, however, having launched a series of shorts at Fox Film Corporation in 1928. RKO logically retailored the play to Wheeler & Woolsey and the result was The Cuckoos (1930). Cyrus Wood adapted the material for the screen, and director Paul Sloane shot everything in a straightforward manner, making few attempts to deviate from a stage-bound look.

The Cuckoos has a plot complex enough to hang several song-and-dances sequences on, not to mention several complicated subplots. Professor Bird (Woolsey) is a phony fortune teller who, with his assistant Sparrow (Wheeler), is stuck in a gambling resort in Mexico. Also at the resort are the wealthy Fannie Hurst and her niece Ruth. Ruth is secretly engaged to aviator Billy, but lusted after by the insidious Baron. The latter conspires with local gypsies to have Ruth kidnapped, so Fannie has Bird and Sparrow in hot pursuit. Meanwhile, knife-throwing gypsy Julius is in love with Anita, an American who has been with the gypsies since she was four. Anita, though, is smitten with Sparrow. The mere fact that European-style gypsies are traipsing around Mexico is proof enough that things are not meant to be taken too seriously.

The Harry Ruby-Bert Kalmar team also wrote song scores for the Marx Brothers (the Broadway show and film Animal Crackers [1930], and the films Horse Feathers [1932] and Duck Soup [1933]) as well as for Joe E. Brown and Eddie Cantor. The Cuckoos features their most expansive score - no less than eleven songs. The best comedy number arrives early, as Wheeler and Woolsey prance and hoof to the cheery "Oh! How We Love our Alma Mater." The romantic number "I Love You So Much (It's a Wonder You Don't Feel It)" makes an ideal showcase for Wheeler and the cute-as-a-bug Dorothy Lee, and also serves as the finale, sung by the entire cast in 2-Strip Technicolor.

The film features two other sequences shot in the color process. One is the lackluster "Goodbye," performed as our heroes set off to recover the kidnapped Ruth. The other is a snappy number set in Hell called "Dancing the Devil Away" featuring Lee and a group of chorus girls wearing some of the skimpiest outfits on view in pre-Production Code films. None of the Technicolor sequences advance the plot, so it is not surprising that they were excised from prints for many years they hardly would have been missed. Restored to their proper context, however, they add a great deal of charm and visual punch to the proceedings.

In addition to Dorothy Lee, who would go on to co-star with Wheeler & Woolsey in 16 of their features, The Cuckoos benefits greatly from the Margaret Dumont-like turn by Jobyna Howland as Fannie. Her major scene with Woolsey certainly has an undeniable Dumont-meets-Groucho feel, as evidenced by lines like "Will you marry me or must I go on working?" (Worth noting is the influence of Harry Ruby on the original play's look as well as the songs. Ruby would be a life-long friend and collaborator of Groucho Marx).

Wheeler and Woolsey continued to be money-makers for RKO for years, and although their subsequent films were not of the epic scale of their first two Broadway-inspired features, many of them better showcased the team's quirky appeal. They reached a peak in 1934 with no less than three well-received films: Hips, Hips, Hooray!, Kentucky Kernels, and Cockeyed Cavaliers. Interestingly, the team Wheeler & Woolsey replaced as the comedy leads in the film version of The Ramblers, Clark & McCullough, were themselves signed to RKO in 1931, where they made a series of shorts concurrent with the Wheeler & Woolsey RKO features. McCullough's suicide in 1936 ended their career as a team a year before Woolsey's illness with kidney disease forced the premature end of the Wheeler & Woolsey partnership.

Director: Paul Sloane
Producer: William LeBaron
Screenplay: Cyrus Wood
Based on the play "The Ramblers" by Guy Bolton, Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby
Cinematography: Nicholas Musuraca
Editing: Arthur Roberts
Original Music: Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby
Choreography: Pearl Eaton
Principal Cast: Bert Wheeler (Sparrow), Robert Woolsey (Professor Bird), June Clyde (Ruth), Hugh Trevor (Billy), Dorothy Lee (Anita), Ivan Lebedeff (The Baron), Jobyna Howland (Fannie Hurst).
BW & C-98m.

by John M. Miller

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