Cast & Crew
Professor Bird, a fortune-teller, and his assistant, Sparrow, are stranded at a border resort. There Sparrow has fallen in love with Anita, an American girl who lives with a band of Gypsies, though he is threatened by Julius, leader of the band. Baron de Camp loves Ruth Chester, who has been in flight from her aunt, Fannie Furst, who wants to separate her from Billy Shannon, an aviator; but Billy soon arrives in Mexico. Fannie invites the professor and Sparrow to a party; Julius' men kidnap Ruth, and the fortune-tellers promise Fannie they will rescue her. Billy finds Ruth and with the assistance of the professor and Sparrow overcomes the baron and his gang. The happy group return to Fannie's home in San Diego.
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 , and the films Horse Feathers  and Duck Soup ) 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
You're Americans, aren't you?- Flapper
Yes, yes, but we can't lend you any money.- Professor Cunningham
Do you know why I love you?- Professor Cunningham
No...- Fannie Furst
It's because you smell so sweet.- Professor Cunningham
That's because I always have violets in my bath. You should, too.- Fannie Furst
I would, but I don't know Violet!- Professor Cunningham