Animation Trails
December 18, 2019 posted by Charles Gardner

Countdown to 2020: Dance of the Cuckoos

We resume our timely survey of how animators “killed time” during the Golden era of the late 30’s and 40’s, producing delightful cartoons like clockwork about those nagging devices that ensure that the human race never gets quite the decent night’s rest that our baser instincts yearn for. Let’s see what made these fellows (and occasionally, gals) tick.

One of the most iconic titles to fall into this article’s category is Disney’s Clock Cleaners (Disney/RKO, Mickey Mouse, 10/15/37 – Ben Sharpsteen, dir.), the archetypical collaboration of Mickey, Donald and Goofy in their “odd jobs” formula introduced in their debut “trio” film, Mickey’s Service Station in 1935. Picking another occupation guaranteed to place them into a series of adventurous mishaps, the boys tackle the task of tidying up an imposing tower clock rivaling Big Ben in height and stature – complete with life-size animated copper figures of Father Time and the Statue of Liberty to chime in the hour. Mickey handles general mopping and sweeping chores on the clock face and interior floorings.

Goofy (with the aid of a giant toothbrush and toothpaste tube), brushes gear “teeth”, and also doubles on bell dusting. Donald perhaps chooses the trickiest job – mopping up the mainspring. Tricky because when the mop gets stuck between the coils of spring, one little tug pops the whole coil out of its framework into an endlessly-looped mess, which takes Donald the whole picture to attempt to wind back into position. In separate episodes of their own, Mickey battles with a roosting stork who has built a nest inside the tower, and only succeeds in being carried off by the stork like a baby and dumped out the tower window. (He of course is saved by a hanging rope, which dumps a pail of water on him).

Goofy meanwhile goes outside to dust the giant bell – not realizing the time is exactly 4:00. Out pop in succession Father Time and the Statue of Liberty – repeatedly clanging the bell while Goofy is inside it and not looking. Goofy eventually has had enough, and spots the tower door about to open for the fourth chime by Liberty. He sets himself to do battle, but apologizes in embarrassment when he realizes his combatant is “a lady!” As he bends over in a gracious bow, Liberty conks him soundly on the head instead of the bell. Completely dazed, and seeing an imaginary flight around him of mini-Goofy angels, Goofy engages in a stumbling “ballet” along the high ledges of the tower, finally extending a leg over the edge – and falls. The remaining two-and-one half minutes of the film presents a classic musical motif, set to the John T. Hall composition, “Wedding of the Winds”, as Goofy becomes the equivalent of Olive Oyl in Popeye’s “A Dream Walking” (1934) – tightrope walking on ropes not tied down, loose boards, ladders with missing rungs, etc., while Mickey engages in a seemingly endless series of nick-of-time rescues to save the hapless Goof from oblivion. A final plummet causes Goofy to springboard off the end of a flagpole upward, catching Mickey on the way up, and launching both of them back into the tower window. Donald has just succeeded in setting the mainspring in order – but the impact of his two partners bounces the entire coil into a hopeless mess again. Our heroes are briefly caught in the undulating teeth of one of the clock gears, then thrown free. As they land, their heads continue to sway violently back and forth like clock pendulums. Each tries to hold his head steady between both hands – which only leaves their bodies swaying to and fro as if they were a team of shimmy dancers, for the iris out.

A special version of this film is presented below (click here if the embed isn’t working), restoring the original magnificent artwork lost for years for the title card (recently rediscovered by David Gerstein, from a nitrate print held by Mark Kausler). All that’s missing now is the unknown MPAA number issued to this film (for which a blank has been left in the credits). Anyone know the number so we can finish the job? Thanks in advance if you can provide same.


The Clock Goes Round and Round (Charles Mintz/Columbia, 11/6/37 – Art Davis, writer and dir.), presents a very unusual setting for Scrappy. Reminiscent of Fleischer’s famous “Out of the Inkwell” series, Scrappy and Yippy are virtually the only animated inhabitants of a live-action world. Playing it as a real-life boy and dog, Scrappy and Yippy appear against photographic stills or old newsreel footage, with occasional cel animation of details of props, or manipulation of photographic objects to make them appear to interact with Scrappy’s or Yippy’s actions. The scene opens in Scrappy’s living room, where a children’s radio show is heard just ending its broadcast. A gentle announcer tells of next week’s episode – about a boy who stopped all the clocks in his house in the belief that it would let him not have to go to school. Scrappy is intrigued by the idea, but yawns lazily and falls asleep on the carpet. His dream spirit emerges from his sleeping form, inspects the clocks in the house, and begins stopping them one by one. Outside, various activities are being engaged in by the human race. A track meet is conducting a marathon race. Cars are speeding down roads. Trains run down tracks. As Scrappy stops each clock, some event outside freezes in place. The runners stop running. Two trains about to collide stop just short of impact. A car careening over a precipice halts in mid-air. Both a group of children – and a pig(?) – halt on slides in mid-descent. Suddenly, everything outside is motionless.

Even inside, Scrappy finds his dog, who had been chasing his tail with a lollipop stuck to it, frozen in his tracks. Realizing that he has caused Yippy to be unable to move, Scrappy begins to suffer from remorse at his actions. He ventures outside, wandering between and under motionless pedestrians in the city. His remorse causes him to hallucinate a transparent Yippy, who eludes him whenever he tries to catch up with him – plus gives Scrappy a swift kick in the pants. Sad and lonely with no one to play with or notice him, Scrappy realizes he must start the clocks again, and races back home. But in his haste to get the clocks going, Scrappy swings pendulums and spins clock hands in the wrong direction – and time goes backwards! The newsreel footage begins running – in reverse, with the locomotives separating in reverse direction, the car and sliding kids and pig defying gravity and rising to their original positions, and the track racers pacing backward. An avalanche reassembles itself as a mountain. And so on. Scrappy finally gets the idea from looking out the window, corrects the clocks (including a cuckoo bird who’s been “cuckoo”ing in reverse, who changes his tune to say, “Time marches on!”), and is finally reunited with a very active Yippy, as the announcer tells that all ended well, and bids us goodnight with the NBC chimes.


I’ve made a conscious effort to avoid any in-depth discussion of Popeye’s Let’s Celebrake (1/21/38), as this is one of the few designated New Years’ cartoons out of Hollywood’s Golden Age, and has been frequently written about before. It will suffice for our purposes to note the appearance of Father Time on a neon sign, walking into a clothes-wringer – which transforms him into a baby New Year – Wring out the old, ring in the new!

Have You Got Any Castles? (Warner, Merrie Melodies, 6/25/38 – Frank Tashlin, dir.), features a brief framing gag for a cuckoo clock, which opens the cartoon chiming in the usual midnight in a book shop,, as the title character from a book reading “The Town Crier” (a parody of radio host Charles Woolcott) rings in the “Bookland Frolic”. Amidst the endless array of literary characters depicted in this rapid-fire festival of Tashlin gags is Rip Van Winkle – constantly trying to find someplace for a little peaceful rest, but awakened repeatedly by the musical numbers and mayhem of his fellow residents of the store. By the end of the film, he’s reached his limit, and opens the cover of the book, “The Hurricane”. The title storm blows from within its covers, sweeping away all the other characters except the Town Crier, and leaving in their place a copy of the novel, “Gone With the Wind”. At the end of the short, the camera returns to the cuckoo clock, as the bird makes his appearance to chime 12:30. But someone’s tied a cloth around his bill, muzzling him – and behind him, sound asleep on the cuckoo’s platform, is Rip Van Winkle, finally getting some rest.


Donald’s Lucky Day (Disney/RKO, Donald Duck, 1/10/39 – Jack King, dir.), extensively reviewed and featured in my previous article, “Aw, Whadda You Afraid Of? (Part 1)” on this website, does a much more effective job of building up the suspense of a clock-driven time bomb than Avery’s “The Blow Out” discussed last week, in many respects. First, the time of explosion is clearly stated in the dialog of the bombers at the very outset – including in instructions to messenger boy Donald to deliver the package before midnight. An interesting bit of surprise suspense is built up when Donald drops the package, and it momentarily stops ticking – leading the audience to an unexpected sigh of relief, until stubborn Donald shakes the package so much in desperation that he starts it ticking again! A glance up at a city tower clock reveals the time as only a few minutes before midnight – with heightened impact by Donald commenting, “Gosh! I’m gonna be late.” Periodic cutaway views into the package reveal the clock’s impending time in additional subsequent shots. And even when the device is revealed, the ignited bomb wick takes a few seconds to burn to reach the explosives – giving Donald an opportunity to desperately say his prayers, and a black cat who’s tailed Donald through half the picture the chance to attack the hissing device and deep-six it off a pier. As usual, the Disney story department had the luxury of more thoroughly thinking-our a situation for presentation than its rival studios (master cartoonist Carl Barks, who was an instrumental story man in Jack King’s unit around this time, probably deserves anonymous credit for some of this development), and the final result does a much better job of drawing the audience in to the predicaments and mindset of the wise-quacking courier than any audience could have experienced in attempting to relate to the earlier escapades of newcomer Porky Pig.


The Cuckoo Bird (Terrytoons/Fox, 4/7/39 – Mannie Davis/Elmer Perkins, dir..) – A rare instance where a Terrytoon may have served as the template for another studio’s later elaboration upon the same theme (see “The Coo-Coo Bird Dog”, below). A cat chases a bird into a house. The bird hops up on a cuckoo clock – but the cuckoo bird pops out, startling the real bird away. Seeing an easier prey, the cat swallows the cuckoo bird – but lives to regret it, as the bird repeatedly perform his trademark sound from inside the cat, and periodically pops out on his platform from the cat’s mouth. An emergency call to the cat and dog hospital places the cat into a series of frenetic doctor’s examinations roughly reminiscent of Popeye’s “I Yam Love Sick” from the preceding year. The seemingly very-much alive cuckoo bird flits around inside the cat’s tummy, pecks and twangs on his rib cage, then starts to fly, lifting the cat onto the ceiling as if defying gravity, while the hospital staff try to lure him down. Finally, a “Dr. Quack” (human, but who makes duck-like sounds) is called as a specialist to restore order. Digging through his satchel of drills and saws, he comes up with another cat, who snatches the cuckoo bird with his paws the next time he pops out of the first cat’s mouth. The patient shouts for joy, kicks the doctor in the rear end just for fun, and exits the operating room, stoping outside the building to laugh himself silly. Dr. Quack shows off the removed cuckoo to the applause of the other physicians in attendance, then tosses the bird and platform out the window. They of course land squarely in the cat’s open mouth – and we iris out right back where we started from.


Charlie Cuckoo (Lantz/Universal, 4/20/39 – Elmer Perkins, dir.) – Two lesser studios with cuckoo bird cartoons within weeks of each other? Being on opposite coasts, spying between studios seems an unlikely explanation – just a freak situation of less-than-great minds thinking alike. In this one (which again appears to set a template for another studio’s later production, The Bored Cuckoo, discussed below), we explore the life of a wooden cuckoo inside a clock. He wiles away the time between hours oiling the machinery, waits for his hourly cue to come over a loudspeaker, clears his throat with voice spray, and sounds the hour in a voice that alternates between falsetto and bass. As he is about to go back inside, he spots a newspaper with headline reading that Congress has just passed a 44 hour work week. Realizing he’s being overworked, the cuckoo pep-talks himself into phoning in a resignation to Father Time, then exits to explore the outside world, leaving Father Time hanging on the phone, trying to talk Charlie out of quitting. Charlie encounters various unexpected drawbacks to the outside world – an inability to genuinely fly, so that he doesn’t impress a seductive female dove. A carnivorous encounter with a large fish and then a frog on a mill pond. And an effort to befriend the wrong species of bird – a woodpecker (pre-Woody), who’d rather “peck a few holes in his head” than be friends. Escaping back to the safety of his clock, he finds Father Time still sales-pitching for him to stay on the other end of the line, and tells Time that “You talked me into it.” The film is a bit long, but features some genuinely good personality animation – a cut above many Lantz episodes of the period.


One of the most dazzling arrays of artistic craft in clockwork has to be Pinocchio (Disney/ RKO, 2/9/40), featuring a masterful array of custom cuckoo-style clocks in Gepetto’s workshop. Featured clocks include ducks in a pond who seem to submerge with tail up, then right themselves again, with a marsh reed as the swinging pendulum; a buzzing bee who pops out of the center of a sunflower clock; an actual cuckoo-bird, but with three eggs in a nest that pop open to allow junior cuckoo chicks to chime in; a farmer who repeatedly attempts to chop the head off a gobbling turkey, who pulls its head in just in time to avoid every chop; another cuckoo popping out of a tree, with a pop-gun hunter in front taking pot-shots at it; a “drunkard” clock, with a top-hatted red-nosed character carrying a jug popping out between barroom swinging doors and “hiccuping” in the hour (this clock, with a Mel Blanc voice added, was virtually stolen by Bob Clampett for use in introducing the midnight-on-a-bookstore Daffy Duck vehicle, Book Revue (Warner, 1/5/46)); a scolding mother with her toddler across her knee (the toddler has his hand caught in a pot of jam, and his pants pulled down, and chimes in the hour with his wails as mother applies some “rear-end” discipline). And an elaborate clock with a rotating parade of Swiss bellringers, a milkmaid, and her cow to celebrate the hour (and get Jiminy Cricket into the act as well). After all this, and despite each clock clearly reading 9:00, befuddled Gepetto still has to ask himself, “I wonder what time it is?”, and look at his own pocket watch, which rings in the hour with two German beer-garden types clinking beer glasses together. My mother often commented when seeing this picture that if Disney had the sense to market some of these clock designs in special editions, it could make a fortune. Are you listening, Disney executives?


A trio of late thirties and early forties cartoons include brief transitional sequences accompanied by Father Time. In Boy Meets Dog (Walter Lantz, late 1930’s – unreleased promotional film for Ipana Toothpaste, first publicly seen through Castle Films home movies), an overly strict father is put on trial before a court of elves and gnomes from wallpaper in his son’s bedroom. The boy himself, masquerading as the judge, sentences Dad to the “youth machine” – a large contraptive device, powered by a treadmill on which marches Father Time. To activate the machine, an announcer’s voice (playing on the slogan of radio news magazine, “The March of Time”) commands him, “Time Marches Backwards!” Father Time reverses his gait – and the reversed machine shaves off the dad’s hair, replacing it with just a curl on top, pulverizes him to compress him to smaller size, strips him to wrap his bottom in a diaper, and shoves a milk bottle in his face, reducing him to a baby. Of course, it’s all a dream.

Goofy’s The Art of Self Defense (Disney/RKO, 12/26/41, Jack Kinney, dir.), a “How To” episode on boxing, depicts the passage of time through various eras from prehistoric days to the present by means of a Goofy-version of Father Time, using various modes of transportation in time’s “headlong rush” – including riding a wooly mammoth, a chariot, a medieval coach, a velocipide, and finally, a motor scooter.

The Ducktators (Warner, Looney Tunes, 8/1/42 – Norman McCabe, dir.), a dated and now politically incorrect look at Hitler, Mussolini, and Hirohito in the guise of stereotyped ducks and geese, features a brief appearance by Father Time, as a narrator states, “And so time passed…” In the heavens, a blur speeds past the screen. “Hey, bud! Not so fast!”, mutters the narrator. Time peeks his head back into the frame, and returns for a pass in slow-motion, remarking “Oh, all right. But time does fly, don’t it, Johnny?”


Early to Bed (Disney/RKO, Donald Duck, 6/11/41, Jack King, dir.) – Donald lives by the motto, “Early to bed and early to rise, make a man healthy, wealthy and wise.” Not easy words to live by in Donald’s apartment, as everything inside seems to conspire against him. Particularly, an alarm clock which ticks overly loud. Half-asleep Donald picks it up off a nightstand with one foot and shoves it in a drawer – but its ticks echo even louder in the wooden “sound box”. Donald shows the clock “who’s boss” around here, flinging it across the room into a large vase – where its sounds magnify even louder. He ousts himself from bed and throws the clock out the window. It catches in a sock on a clothesline between buildings, spins over a pulley, and heads back in Donald’s direction, landing in Donald’s yawning mouth, where he swallows it. “What the heck just happened?”, Donald mutters, only to hear the ticking inside his abdomen. He raises his nightshirt – and sees the luminous dial of the clock lighting up the inside of his tummy, then falling into his tail. The alarm rings and shakes him silly. Donald pounds his tail on a wall, bending and misshaping the luminous clock face as seen through his tail, but not stopping it. Donald grabs a pair of elastic arm exercise handles mounted on a wall, and pulls them to full extension, then lets himself smash backwards into the wall. A few gears fall out of his mouth, but the ticking resumes. He tries another violent pull on the extenders, and yanks the mounting completely off the wall, launching himself into the nest room and through a wall, where his head protrudes through a painting of Whistler’s Mother. But the impact did the trick, as he spits out the remaining springs, gears, and alarm bell. After several more minutes of disastrous encounters with a folding bed, Donald finally rigs a setup where the bed is bolted to the floor, and he is practically locked into the bed by a framework resembling colonial-day stocks. “Maybe I’m just a duck, but I’m human!”, Donald mumbles. Just as he finally dozes off, the random gears and springs from the alarm clock on the floor somehow roll together into a working cohesive mechanism, and activate the alarm bell. Donald springs out of all his bolt-down framework, destroying the bed, which pops all but one of its inner springs, leaving a bed of nails. One of Donald’s socks lands on the one remaining spring, resembling a snake. And the bedsheet and blanket fall onto Donald and wrap themselves just so, so that Donald resembles a turbaned Indian fakir snake charmer, for the iris out.


The Wabbit Who Came To Supper (Warner, Bugs Bunny, 3/28/42 – I. (Friz) Freleng, dir.), includes a throwaway gag in the middle of a wild chase through Elmer’s house, as a grandfather’s clock strikes midnight. Bugs stops everything, to shout “Happy New Year1 Happy New Year!” and throw confetti into the air, then lead Elmer in a chorus of “Auld Lang Syne”. It looks like a happy ending – until Elmer spots the wall calendar reading “July”!


Bats In the Belfry (MGM, 7/4/42 – Rudolf Ising/Jerry Brewer, dir.), is an odd, generally plotless little musicale, focusing on three bats in a clock tower, and centering on the heavy voice work of Pinto Colvig, who appears to provide all voices (except for a female voice on the phone). The opening is interesting, as the camera ventures into the bell tower and inverts itself to get a right-side-up view of the bats hanging upside-down. The lead bat (a tall one with voice similar to Goofy) awakens, looks out at the audience, and is shocked. “You’re upside down!”, he declares. Then he looks at himself, and in an embarrassed voice realizes, “I’m upside down.” He gives a whistle to the projectionist, and commands him, “TURN THE THEATER OVER!” With groaning creaks of timbers as if our theater is really moving, the camera flips over to put the floor where it belongs. The bats (including a middle-sized bat with voice similar to Practical Pig, and a small bat with a red face known as “Brick Bat”, who just hiccups) take us on a guided tour of their world, claiming that all bats are nuts, because of living in a belfry – those bells drive you “dingy in the dome”. The Goofy bat leads an elaborate production number, describing in rapid patter all the types of bells they have to listen to – including receiving a long distance call from a Birmingham bat – a Southern belle! After a bit of one-upsmanship between the trio to decide who is entitled to the leader position as “the biggest bat” – including sending Goofy bat crashing down the length of the clock tower through the various scaffolding – the bats realize it’s almost midnight, as the inner workings of the tower clock set in place to chime the hour. Another production number has the bats describe how chimes at one and two o’clock only cause minor aggravation – but get progressively worse as the number of chimes increases each hour – until they’re guaranteed to go crazy when the clock rings twelve. The clock does so, and (in shots that are actually too brief to provide a suitable finale), the screwy bats ride the giant clock bells, swinging right into the camera for the final iris out.


Who Killed Who? (MGM, 6/19/43 – Tex Avery, dir.) features a brief cuckoo clock gag. In the midst of a sinister murder mystery, a cuckoo clock, bearing the maker’s name (Booo-lova (play on real-life manufacturer Bulova) Watch Time) chimes the hour with the notes of the Funeral March, then a skeleton cuckoo (lifting a similar bird who had made a brief appearance in Ub Iwerks’ Flip the Frog cartoon, “Spooks” (12/21/31)), announces in a nasal female voice resembling a telephone operator, “At the sound of the gun, it will be exactly 12:00″. Across the room, a mysterious hand holding a revolver confirms the bird’s predictions, firing three shots, the reverberations of which sound like the familiar three chimes at the station break of NBC network broadcasts.


The Clock Watcher (Disney/RKO, Donald Duck, 1/26/45 – Jack King, dir.), is really more of a clock cartoon in name only, featuring only a brief scene of Donald punching in late at Royal Bros. Dept, Store – in which he uses a small magnet to pull the time clock’s hand backwards before the hour before punching his time card. The rest of the cartoon deals with Donald’s harried efforts to act as the one-man gift wrapping department during the holiday season, with the constant verbal harassment of his supervisor’s voice heard though a metal tubing from upstairs. A funny film for the holidays- but largely off topic.


Smoked Hams (Lantz/Universal, Woody Woodpecker, 4/26/47, Dick Lundy, dir.), features a brief clock gag with an unusual original design. Above Woody’s bed, a cuckoo-style clock has a mechanical Tyrolean figure emerge, carrying a small bucket of water – which it tips and spills into Woody’s snoring mouth, nearly drowning him to get him awake. (Does this model come with indoor plumbing to automatically refill the bucket each morning?) The scene of Woody spluttering in the water also includes one of the most obvious animation errors to ever escape the quality checkers of a major studio – as the large pillow on Woody’s bed disappears entirely from the background for nearly two full seconds, then reappears again! Who sabotaged this film – or fell asleep at the wheel?


The Coo Coo Bird (Lantz/Universal, Woody Woodpecker, 6/9/47 – Dick Lundy, dir.), is sort of Lundy’s version of Clampett’s Porky’s Badtime Story and Donald Duck’s Early to Bed , built on an odd premise. Woody reads in the papers that quail hunting season begins at 5:00 a.m., and determined to get in on the early action, decides to hit the hay. (Quail hunting? By a woodpecker? Oh well, as we discussed in my previous article, “Unhealthy Appetites”, Woody was the first major character to show cannibalistic tendencies – repeatedly.) The first sequence is a virtual lift from Badtime Story, with Woody battling a windowshade that won’t stay down to block the lights of a flashing neon sign for the next-door “Hotel Slats”. Woody moves his bed to the other end of the apartment, where a small cuckoo clock is mounted on the wall above. Woody no sooner beds down than he gets mesmerized by the pendulum ticking away, his head, torso, and tail swaying back and forth to the rhythm, much like Mickey, Donald and Goofy’s shimmy in Clock Cleaners. He grabs hold of the pendulum and tries to stop it – but the mechanism is so strong, it picks up Woody bodily and flings him across the room.

Woody drives a nail into the pendulum to hold it to the wall – which just causes the clock itself to dislodge from the wall and tick-tock sway above the pendulum. A new nail fastens the clock to the wall again – but out pops the cuckoo bird to provide further aggravation. To stop the noise, Woody snaps at the cuckoo’s platform extension with pruning shears, but just misses every time. He turns the clock hands to the quarter hour to get the bird to come out again – but the bird grabs his shears and chops off Woody’s topknot! Woody jumps atop the roof of the clock and stomps on it, knocking the clock off the wall – and destroying his bed in the process. The cuckoo, now detached from the clock and mounted on a large spring, pops out from under a pillow with another loud “cuckoo”. Woody chases after it with a pipe from the footboard of the metal bed, finally chasing the bird out the window. A final “cuckoo” is heard outside. “Aw, cuckoo to you!” taunts Woody – as the window slips and falls on his neck. The remainder of the film deals with Woody’s unsuccessful efforts to use a folding able as a makeshift bed – only to have the mechanical contraption carry him out of the apartment into the woods – and right into the path of a pack of hunting dogs.


The Bored Cuckoo (Paramount/Famous, Noveltoon, 4/9/48 – Bill Tytla, dir.). Title card for this picture is animated, the name appearing inside the opening doors of a cuckoo clock. (Fortunately, UM&M TV never took the scissors to this opening.) An unusual credit also appears with the film’s name: “By arrangement with Funny Book Magazine”, presumably indicating that the story had an origin in the comics. Anyone know of the issue in which this appeared, or its artist? Anyway, a wooden cuckoo bird (voiced by Jack Mercer) bemoans his fate from his clock home – doomed to do nothing but “cuckoo” for his lifetime. His little alarm clock dictates his life to “cuckoo” in the hour – but he finally gets fed up and smashes it . Appearing on his platform as the hour strikes, the cuckoo disregards the time and continuously cuckoos in a tantrum – until the platform disappears out from under him and the doors close behind him, leaving him outside the clock – free. Even though, being wooden, his flying is a little rusty, he ventures outside into a community of real birds (featuring a birdbath where a shapely female removes her feathers to reveal a bathing suit before diving in, businesses such as the “Crow Bar and Grill”, and a bird movie theatre playing the film, “Cops and Robins”), Reception to the newcomer is none too friendly. “Who let you out, jailbird?” one bird quips. Another tells him not to let the termites get him. Yet another nails his wooden tail to a tree limb. Only the shapely female reacts differently, seductively purring that she thinks he’s cute. Our hero literally “walks on a cloud” for a few moments, until the female disappears into the stage door of a bird night club – and the cuckoo receives a rude awakening by being ejected by the bouncer. Inside, the female performs a production number inside a gilded bird cage, “If I Were Free”. Hearing the lyrics tell of how she’d want someone to hold her, the cuckoo, thinking she’s really imprisoned, darts into the club and bends the bars of the cage to save her. “Look, a timberwolf!”, jeers the audience. “You’ve ruined the act”, shouts the bouncer, and delivers the cuckoo another throttling, tossing him into the street. But the female is impressed at his heroism, and romance blooms. When an early winter hits, all the real birds appear to fly south, leaving the poorly flying cuckoo stranded in the cold. He returns to his old haunt in the clock, but is greeted by a surprise – the female has moved in and is keeping house for him. “How am I cooin’, big boy?” she coyly says, inviting him home. Time passes, and the couple relax in their living room, fully domesticated. The alarm clock rings – but the cuckoo does not leave his easy chair. Instead, the platform emerges from the clock door with a nest on top, with three new chick arrivals who “Cuckoo” in the hour, then the doors close with “The End” written on them for the iris out.


The Coo-Coo Bird Dog (Columbia/Screen Gems, Color Rhapsody, 2/3/49 – Sid Marcus, dir.) – A dumb hunting dog practices his poses as a pointer in his mater’s living room, while a pet parrot laughs at his falling out of his textbook poses onto his face. The dog continues to boast he can catch any bird, so the parrot challenges him to a tracking demonstration. The dog counts (out of numeric sequence) to ten in a corner, then comes out sniffing – entirely overlooking that the parrot has chosen to hide directly below him in the same corner. Giving the dog one more chance, the parrot hides inside a cuckoo clock, first triggering the cuckoo at intervals to pester the dog, then popping out himself on the cuckoo’s perch to slam the dog with a mallet. The dog chomps into the clock hosing, tearing it from the wall, and chews the clock into bits. He marches away triumphantly – but develops a hiccup. In his haste to destroy the clock, he has swallowed the cuckoo bird on its triggering spring. The parrot sees the bird repeatedly pop out of the dog’s mouth, and charitably tries to help the dog extricate it. First, he positions himself on the dog’s snout with a pair of pruning shears, and tries to catch the bird as he pops out the dog’s mouth. Instead, he nearly succeeds in cutting off the dog’s tongue! Laying a trail of birdseed in front of the dog, the parrot waits as the cuckoo pops out and takes the bait. The parrot swings with a mallet, but misses again, instead flattening the dog’s muzzle like a pancake, with his nose rolling around loose on top. The parrot lines up his mallet with the dog’s rear, and attepts to bat the bird out the dog’s mouth. He succeeds, but the bird bounces off a wall with his spring, and right back in the dog’s mouth again.

Now the cuckoo appears armed with his own mallet, and socks the parrot. The parrot swings and hits the dog in the face, causing all of his facial features to fall loose to the bottom of his head and have to be manually replaced by the dog. As the cuckoo makes another appearance from the dog’s mouth, the dog clamps his teeth shut on the bird’s spring, trapping him outside. The bird pounds on the dog’s teeth in desperation to be let back in, then merely pulls open one of the teeth like a hinged door and re-enters. The parrot knocks too, challenging, “Come out and fight like a cuckoo.” The bird obliges – but with the dog’s dentures in its bill, nearly biting the parrot’s tail feathers off. The parrot tries a female cuckoo lure, but in a surprise, the cuckoo, somehow out of the dog’s mouth, quietly slips into the camera frame on his spring from the left of frame, gestures to the audience to be quiet, and smashes the parrot with a mallet again, then flies back into the dog. The parrot has had enough, opens the dog’s jaws wide, and marches into the cuckoo’s turf. Inside the dog, we hear the sounds of shotguns, and machine guns. Two explosions inside give the dog a pair of internal black-eyes. Finally the sounds of battle subside, and a silhouette marches inside the dog’s frame from tail to snout. The parrot emerges with a bandage around his head and playing a little fife like a Son of Liberty. He and the dog share congratulatory handshakes – but the dog pauses, and appears about to hiccup again. In a surprise ending, instead of the cuckoo popping out of the dog – he pops out of the parrot’s mouth! The dog chuckles at the parrot’s plight, as the iris out takes us to The End.


The Cuckoo Clock (MGM, 6/10/50 – Tex Avery, dir.) – Reservicing some backgrounds from “Who Killed Who?”, the scene opens in another spooky mansion, where our narrator (who turns out to be a cat) woefully tells of conditions that seem to be driving him to madness. He was “seeing things” (depicted as transparent amoeba like globs in mid air, with a descriptive pointer-arrow appearing from nowhere to identify them as “things”). He was “going to pieces” (with limbs and body parts literally falling off), and had to “pull himself together”. He didn’t know if he was “coming or going” (demonstrated by a walk that seems to have his body heading in two directions att once while remaining in the same place). He finally realizes the cause as the incessant cuckoos from a clock mounted above on a high wall, and tells us that it meant “murder”. He reaches into a drawer in a small table, pulling out a baseball bat larger than the table itself, and an endlessly long ladder that seems to extend the length of the room. Climbing up to the clock, the cat rotates the hands to the hour and waits with the bat. The cuckoo of course confidently smashes the bat over the cat’s head. Returning armed with a golf club, the cat takes another swipe at the bird, who perches on the club. Shaking the club violently only miraculously duplicates the bird into two birds, then, with more shakes, four, eight, and thirteen! (Whose mathematics arrived at this number from multiplication?) (This same gag was lifted almost identically by Walter Lantz a few years later for Woody Woodpecker’s Sleep Happy (3/26/51).) The cuckoo gets to clobber the cat again, using his own small golf club. Returning to the clock with a gun, the cat listens at the cuckoo’s door – and the cuckoo springs out on his platform right through the cat’s ears.

A violent gun gag leaves the cat with a hole in the head. The not-yet deceased cat swings on a trapeze and attempts to chomp the bird – but on the third swing chomps into the bird’s 1,000 pound barbell. An approach on stilts is thwarted by the bird lighting a fire under him, reducing the stilts to matchsticks. The bird pulls a “loose thread” on the cat’s tail, and unravels his fur as if knitting, denuding him up to the waist. Blushing, the cat disappears behind a chair, on which rest two balls of yarn and some knitting needles. The cat’s hand grabs the knitting supplies, and he emerges into view wearing two-tone striped underwear in place of his fur. (This gag was also lifted by Friz Freleng for Tweety’s A Street Cat Named Sylvester (9/5/53), with the added touch of Granny, seeing the multicolored Sylvester, removing her spectacles to clean them, muttering, “Stigmatism”.) Finally, the cat leaves a note for the bird: “You win. I’m leaving. Goodbye!”, but instead climbs the ladder again to place his head inside the body of the clock, with jaws open inside the cuckoo’s door. Wise to his trick, the cuckoo fills a windup toy bird with TNT, lights a fuse, and lets the toy fly up to the clock, to be swallowed by the cat. “And that was the end of the cuckoo”, narrates the cat, emerging from the clock with small wisps of smoke escaping from his mouth. “However, in respect to his memory, I felt I owed him one last minute of silence,” The cat solemnly hangs his head, as, unnoticed by him, the bird plays taps on a small trumpet above him. An offscreen explosion rocks the scene, and the bird’s tune changes to jazzy riffs (a gag repeated from Avery’s first MGM cartoon, The Early Bird Dood It (8/29/42)), for the iris out.

Next Time: our “countdown” becomes literal: examining a recurring storytelling style “by the numbers” which became a favorite of director Friz Freleng. And we progress through the 1950’s and a little into the 60’s – with a side-venture into some audio recordings of “toon-worthy” stature.

13 Comments

  • “There’s a sad sort of clanging from the clock in the hall
    And the bells in the steeple, too,
    And up in the nursery an absurd little bird
    Is popping out to say ‘cuckoo!'” — Oscar Hammerstein II

    May I chime in with my approval of this week’s post. As much as I love Tex Avery, I’d have to say “The Bored Cuckoo”, one of the best of the Noveltoons, is my favourite — though I’m quite cuckoo about them all.

    There’s a cuckoo clock gag in “Prest-O Chang-O” (Warner Bros., 25/3/39, Charles [Chuck] Jones, dir.). After the two dogs have taken refuge in the house of Sham-Fu the magician, a sinister-looking cuckoo emerges from a clock and says: “It’s twelve o’clock!” before cackling evilly — the only line of dialogue in a cartoon otherwise given over entirely to pantomime.

    I’ve read that actual mechanical clocks were built as models for that scene in Pinocchio, but I have no idea whether any of them still exist. The scene is also noteworthy as an example of Cliff Edwards’s trademark “effin” singing style — that is, a vocal impersonation of an instrumental solo.

    Despite the implications of one of the clocks in that scene (and the ending of “The Bored Cuckoo” as well), the European cuckoo, whose call is the basis for the cuckoo clock, does not build a nest but is a brood parasite, laying its eggs in the nests of other birds. My mother always hated cuckoos (and cowbirds) for being such irresponsible parents. This behaviour might have made for an interesting plot twist, had any cartoonists of this era taken an interest in ornithology. (Incidentally, the roadrunner is a member of the cuckoo family.)

    Not to pick nits, but the progression of multiplying cuckoos in “The Cuckoo Clock” is actually 1, 2, 4, then SEVEN, 13, 8, 4, 2, and back to 1. I don’t think it proves anything mathematically, other than that shaking a golf club is an inefficient method of cloning birds.

    Am counting down the hours until next week’s post. So long, farewell, auf Wiedersehen, good-bye until then!

    • Interesting observation regarding the lack of parenting skills of the European cuckoo. You mention that this behavior might make an interesting plot twist. May I direct your attention to David Hand’s excellent and elaborate “Animalland” short, “The Cuckoo”, produced in England. Its entire plot revolves around just this “brood parasite” behavior, with a mother cuckoo destroying one egg and putting her own in its place. The sparrows who end up hatching it get saddled with a behemoth lummox with a :”bottomless-pit” appetite, who not only drives the parents wild trying to scout up food for him, but virtually starves his baby sparrow brother by hogging all the food. It even features a terrific musical dream sequence that looks like a direct successor to Dumbo’s “Pink Elephants On Parade”, with the cuckoo multiplying into a singing, eating trio, and a great song, “The Cuckoo’s Not So Cuckoo After All”. At almost nine minutes in running length, the film probably broke the budget – but it sure showed the old country what an American animator could do. I’m glad you gave me the opportunity to bring it up, since the cartoon features no clocks at all and thus couldn’t otherwise qualify for inclusion in this article. I strongly recommend that you and any other lover of Disney-fluid animation check out this masterpiece at your earliest opportunity.

    • Thanks for the tip. I have the Animaland cartoons but haven’t watched them in years. I’ll do it right now!

    • Just a coda. If you’re watching “The Cuckoo” from the Image DVD, the 35mm print was broken at the ending and fades out suddenly. Thad Komorowski has the proper ending (although with sprocket chatter on soundtrack) from a home movie print on YouTube under the banner “Cuckoo Original Ending” – after the Cuckoo swallows the weasel’s whole stewpot, he tries to leave the cave and gets stuck in the cave opening, and the words “The End” appear on his round bottom.

    • Ah, no wonder the ending seemed so abrupt. In general I find the Animaland cartoons rather slow-paced and twee despite the lavish artwork and brilliant animation, but “The Cuckoo” is definitely one of the better ones.

      Australia is home to the Channel-billed cuckoo, the world’s largest, with a bulky curved beak like a toucan or hornbill. They lay their eggs in the nests of magpies and currawongs, big, aggressive crow-sized birds that will viciously attack the considerably larger cuckoo whenever they see one. It’s quite entertaining to watch!

  • Great piece. The “Town Crier” in Tashlin’s HAVE YOU GOT ANY CASTLES is a parody of ’30s pundit Alexander Woollcott, not Charles Woolcott.

  • Great to see an uncensored print of “Clock Cleaners”; most versions nowadays redub Donald saying “Says you!” because it sounds a little like “F*** you!” (I for one never heard it that way).
    Since you bring up Pinocchio, I feel I should mention that there’s a couple of clock gags on “Snow White”. One in the Dwarfs’ mine has two dwarfs with pickaxes chiming the time, and another in their cottage has a frog instead of a cuckoo. Naturally, Disney felt he had to outdo himself in his next feature.
    You also failed to mention “Der Fuehrer’s Face”, which features Hitler as the cuckoo in Donald’s cuckoo clock.

  • Anyone know of the issue in which [“The Bored Cuckoo”] appeared, or its artist?

    http://www.comics.org/issue/263113/cover/4

  • Almost on topic: Curly’s X-ray
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZRpwsm-Sl4o

    • Neat find I didn’t remember at all! (I think the last time I screened that episode was back in the 1980’s.) I wonder if Screen Gems did the animation in-house?

  • Like the series, though I admit I never read past the introductions. A blow-by-blow of each cartoon seems redundant. But I’m seeing a lot of cartoons I’d never encountered, so worth it for that.

  • The Bored Cuckoo emerged in the form of comics in issue # 7 of the Funny Book Book Magazine, January – February 1946, published by Parents’ Magazine Press.

  • This might’ve been better suited to the last post which covered the early ’30s, but I’d also like to mention the 1933 Fleischer Screen Song “I Like Mountain Music” (not to be confused with the Harman-Ising Merrie Melodie of the same name and year). Based around the story Rip Van Winkle, the cartoon shows the passage of time as Van Winkle’s alarm clock “ages” into a grandfather clock and finally a street clock. Van Winkle awakes into “the age of speed”, where where the accelerated pace of modern life proves too daunting for him. An unfortunately underrated work by the great Willard Bowsky. There’s also an (appropriately rapid) appearance of heaven and hell which I missed in my attempt at an exhaustive list back in July.
    https://www.dailymotion.com/video/x5k6ig5

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