BOOTLEG FILES 239: Bill and Coo” (1948 novelty film with an all-bird cast).
LAST SEEN: Available for online viewing at several web sites.
AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: Only through public domain labels.
REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: A lapse copyright.
CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: Nope, it is doomed to eternal public domain hell.
They don’t make films like “Bill and Coo” anymore, and for that alone I can confirm the existence of God. This 1948 oddity is one of the most bizarre and inane movies ever conceived: a one-hour comedy with a cast consisting primarily of parakeets.
Why would someone want to make a movie with a cast of parakeets? Well, back in the day there was a guy named George Burton who had a vaudeville act consisting of trained birds. Just how popular the act was is difficult to ascertain – one can hardly imagine theater patrons straining from the far rows of a venue to make sense of the various parakeets hopping around on a stage. Nonetheless, the bird act caught the fancy of Ken Murray, a popular entertainer of the 1940s. Murray was enchanted with the bird shenanigans and backed the notion of a film with an avian cast. Surprisingly, Murray was able to secure the approval of Republic Pictures, a mini-studio that specialized in Roy Rogers Westerns. Republic gave the green light to the project and even put up extra funds for the film to be shot in Trucolor, a poor man’s Technicolor that Republic only used for very special projects.
Creating a film with an all-bird cast gave rise to a trio of interesting problems. The first involved the set: parakeets are fairly small critters, so a significantly tiny set needed to be constructed to accommodate the wee feathered folks. For “Bill and Coo,” a miniature village was built on a 15-inch by 30-inch tabletop. But then the next problem arose: parakeets aren’t particularly adept with dialogue. To solve the absence of speech dilemma, the bulk of the film was narrated by Ken Murray. Unfortunately, Murray specialized in a smart-aleck brand of comedy that became fairly tedious and annoying in a short period. And that’s where the third problem arose: rather than create a novelty two-reeler, it was decided to stretch this film into a one-hour production that could fit on the bottom half of double bills. But how does one make a one-hour film with birds?
In filmmaking, as in life, there is a right way and a wrong way of doing things. “Bill and Coo” was the wrong way. The film began with Murray (feigning indifference, as was his shtick) as bird trainers George Burton and Elizabeth Walters introduced a few of the parakeets. The birds perform mild tricks such as walking a tightrope. After a couple of minutes, the movie abruptly switches away from the humans and goes strictly for the feathered flock.
“Bill and Coo” takes places in Chirpendale, a town with an all-bird population. Bill is a taxi driver (his vehicle is actually a modified rickshaw) and he lives with his mother, who takes in laundry to make ends meet. Bill is what socio-economic experts would refer to as “working class.” Coo is the daughter of the owner of a ritzy hotel. She has a penthouse suite in that luxurious establishment. Coo is what is commonly known as a rich kid.
Chripendale is a bird mirror of a typical American small town, except that everything has some sort of bird reference or pun (i.e., the local cinema is showing the mystery “Who Killed C**k Robin?”). The various birds wear some sort of human-style clothing to designate their place in society: Bill’s mother has an apron, various matrons wear fancy hats, and the local mental case runs about wearing a Napoleon-style military headdress.
On the outskirts of Chirpendale is the Black Menace, a giant crow who hates the little parakeets. In the course of the film, he attempts to destroy Chripendale and its inhabitants. Fortunately, little Bill is plucky enough to fight back – in his work as a volunteer fireman (he saves Coo from a hotel fire begun by the crow) and as the designer of a special trap designed to imprison the Black Menace (yes, it works – sorry for the spoiler).
In the course of the film, the big to-do is the arrival of the Starling Bros. Circus. This is the only time when non-birds show up: a caged black kitten is presented as a panther, a striped kitten in a cage is identified as a tiger, a chihuahua is used as a horse to pull a wagon, and a collection of baby alligators are presented as…well, as alligators (well, what else can you do with an alligator?).
For the bulk of the film, the birds run back and forth across the miniature set in funny costumes while Murray provides sardonic narration. None of the birds fly – their wings were obviously clipped (otherwise they’d probably abandon the movie immediately). For a couple of minutes, it is amusing to see cute parakeets scampering about in silly costumes. But as the film drags on, and on, and on, it starts to become unbearable. The birds have no personalities of their own, so Murray’s obnoxious narration fills in the voids in the story telling. To pad the proceedings further, three grueling pop tunes fill the soundtrack to detail the growing love between Bill and Coo. Ultimately, you have to wonder whether this film is being used by the Department of Homeland Security as a means of securing confessions from Guantanamo Bay inmates.
But in 1948, “Bill and Coo” was considered quite a treat. The New York Times led the cheers in its review by stating: “There’s no reason why one and all shouldn’t find this movie a very pleasant and unusual divertisement. So to Ken Murray, the producer; to George Burton who owns these amazing feathered thespians and to all those who worked behind the scenes at the Republic studio in making ‘Bill and Coo,’ a full round of applause for an extraordinary entertainment.”
That opinion was shared in Hollywood. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences honored “Bill and Coo” with an Honorary Oscar, with the citation: “In which artistry and patience blended in a novel and entertaining use of the medium of motion pictures.” Considering that Republic Pictures’ films rarely snagged Oscar nominations, this was a major coup for the minor studio.
“Bill and Coo” is difficult to appreciate today, not only for its weak content but for the weak state of available prints. The film has lapsed into the public domain and the majority of available copies are miserable dupes, with the Trucolor hues blurred and faded to the point of creating eye strain. No effort has been made to restore the movie, and its lack of copyright protection seems to have doomed it to orphan status.
It is easy to find cheap video copies of “Bill and Coo,” and the film is also available for online viewing. But unless you have a serious bird fetish, you may want to leave this old molting mess alone. Because, quite frankly – and, yes, I will say it! – “Bill and Coo” is strictly for the birds.
IMPORTANT NOTICE: The unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either for crass commercial purposes or profit-free s***s and giggles, is not something that the entertainment industry appreciates. On occasion, law enforcement personnel boost their arrest quotas by collaring cheery cinephiles engaged in such activities. So if you are going to copy and distribute bootleg videos and DVDs, a word to the wise: don’t get caught. Oddly, the purchase and ownership of bootleg videos is perfectly legal. Go figure