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By Phil Hall | September 22, 2005

In explaining the presence of the 1937 British B-Movie “The Green Cockatoo” in the line-up of the 2005 New York Film Festival, the Film Society of Lincoln Center diplomatically referred to this as “an attempt by the British film industry to make an American-style gangster film,” adding the end result is “an interesting curiosity.” That’s an understatement of devastating proportions. “The Green Cockatoo” is nothing short of the unintentional comedy discovery of the year – a film which is so wildly off-target and unaware of its very ridiculousness that it becomes irresistibly endearing. How this obscurity stayed off the radar for so long is a mystery, but its belated arrival should be cause for champagne cork popping.

“The Green Cockatoo” follows a young rural girl named Eileen (Rene Ray) on her first train trip to London. She’s searching for a job, although it is not clear what kind of work she can do. She has the screwed-up luck of sharing her train compartment with a fat, excitable, wild-eyed kook (William Dewhurst, who is curiously not billed in the credits). He fills her with warnings of wreckage and ruin if she should decide to stay in London. When Eileen innocently asks the nut where she should stay while in London, he harrumphs: “I cannot give you advice – I am a philosopher!” Huh???

As luck would have it, Eileen’s train arrives in London just as petty thug Dave Connor (Robert Newton, one of British cinema’s prime hams) is trying to escape from the mobster Terrel and his gang. Connor double-crossed Terrel by failing to fix a greyhound race and by successfully betting on the winning pooch. Terrel and his gang (all two of them) corner Connor in the station and stab him. But the wound is not fatal and Connor crosses paths with Eileen, gallantly offering to carry her suitcase to the nearest hotel while he is visibly wobbling his final steps.

In her hotel room, Eileen finally notices that Connor is dying and he tells her to find his brother Jim at the Green Cockatoo nightclub to let him know Terrel killed him. Eileen nobly takes Connor’s switchblade from his jacket to cut open his clothing in order to help him breathe when he abruptly drops dead. The chambermaid arrives with a pot of tea and sees the dead Connor and Eileen holding a knife. The chambermaid calls for the hotel manager, who calls for the police. Eileen flees into the night and, through good fortune, finds a drunk cab driver who takes her on a wild zigzag ride through London to the nightclub run by Connor’s brother.

Not only is Jim the owner of the Green Cockatoo, but he is also the floor show: he sings mawkish ballads, jokes with the inebriated guests, and performs a tap dance number on a stage the size of a napkin. Jim is played by John Mills, and he gives what is perhaps the most energetically miscast performance in movie history. Mills stands about five-foot-four and is blessed with one of the most distinguished voices in cinema, yet the film insists he is a two-fisted tough guy in the James Cagney/George Raft mold. When the going gets tough, he gets going – whether it is swinging a switchblade in a brawl with the sweep of Toscanini conducting a symphony, standing on his tiptoes to slug a taller opponent on the chin, or (in the ultimate act of hard-boiled he-manship) picking up the telephone to make threatening calls.

Mills is completely ludicrous to watch, but the tonic is hearing him try to talk the talk. When he claims his club “is knee deep in coppers” or he advises a lethargic butler to “cut yourself a slice of sleep” or he boasts he only wants brunettes and insists on “none of those dizzy blondes for me,” the only possible reaction is laughter. He sounds like a member of the House of Lords who saw too many Cagney movies while downing too many pints of ale. It is no wonder Rene Ray looks at him and the whole film with perpetual bafflement – the poor lady probably could not understand how she wound up in this stew.

Anyway, Eileen and Jim wind up getting chased by the three-person Terrel gang and the London police force (which seems to consist of two fat men). The rest of the film consists of a brawl in an abandoned warehouse with a Terrel gang member, a pause for a coffee break from a sidewalk coffee vendor (whose customer base consists of two idiot Cockneys), a stop at a friend’s country mansion, a trip to the mortuary to identify Jim’s brother (remember him?) and a final showdown in Terrel’s flat (Jim just walks in and punches everyone into submission). Then the film abruptly ends at 65 minutes – back in the same train compartment where the whole silly thing began.

For such a puny but pugnacious film, “The Green Cockatoo” actually has a lot of talent behind it. The story is inspired by a Graham Greene tale (I doubt Greene wrote that quasi-Warner Brothers gangster patter used here) and the flick was directed by, of all people, William Cameron Menzies (the celebrated American art director had just completed helming the British sci-fi epic “Things to Come” and, for no clear reason, took this little assignment). Menzies left England after directing this and returned to Hollywood to create the art direction for “Gone with the Wind” (talk about playing both ends of the spectrum!). The sweeping and fairly overcooked music score is by Miklos Rozsa, although its bombastic fury makes it seem more appropriate for a major adventure instead of this rinky-dink exercise.

“The Green Cockatoo” was made by the British subsidiary of 20th Century Fox, but the studio did not release it. In fact, it sat on a British shelf for three years until it was screened; it turned up again over the years in England under different titles and finally showed up in America in 1947 via a fly-by-night distributor.

What is truly special about “The Green Cockatoo” is the fact the movie is clearly oblivious to its shortcomings. It feels like a parody of gangster movies rather than the genuine article, but the film is played so completely straight that it’s clear the artists involved had no clue to the irony of their creation. If the film has a modern day counterpart, it would be the so-called “Backstroke of the West” version of the latest “Star Wars” movie, which was translated from English into Chinese and then disastrously back into English. Something clearly got lost in that translation, and the same problem was evident in “The Green Cockatoo.” As the British equivalent of a Cagney or Raft gangster film, something got terribly lost in the trans-Atlantic translation. But the result of that goof is a joyously entertaining guilty pleasure.

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