Cuckoo Croak

THE CUCKOO MURDER CASE: an Ub Iwerks short starring Flip the Frog. Great spooky house atmos and I love the picture of the dopey cat on the wall. Lots of cute anthropomorphic gags. EVERYTHING is alive here: the murder victim is the cuckoo from a cuckoo clock, who gets perforated by a gunshot. The entry and exit wounds are circular holes running right through the bird, making him seem wooden, which he is. But still alive, and then dead.

He has a washing line and a plant pot on the side of his clock.

The clock has a literal face which reacts to events. The hands prod the cuckoo to make him perform (before he’s shot) and then call the cops using a phone which is also alive and sentient.

The clock “dials” 2479 by peeling the numbers off his face and dropping them into the receiver. I wonder when the emergency number in the US changed to 911? 2479 is a terrible choice.

Interestingly, the clock can’t speak, but makes various clock noises while moving his lips.

Flip is another vaguely minstrel-like character with black head and white mouth area — but these features, common to Mickey Mouse, Oswald the Rabbit, Bimbo the Dog, are arguably just a way to make a figure read well in simple b&w drawn form. Only Bosko was openly intended as a racial caricature.

Flip is a detective in this one. His cop car lives in a kennel and its bark is a car horn honk. It’s not exactly logical, but once it’s established, Iwerks can carry on just as if it were. When he stretches the car/dog’s tongue out and twists it, using it as a crank to start the motor, that’s kind of strange. But we are riffing on connections between canine and auto anatomy, so it holds up, just about. Though I don’t think it’s an accepted way of starting your dog.

By some similar reasoning, the squad car’s siren is a cat, activated by turning its tail like a handle to make it caterwaul. When the car passes through a puddle, the cat becomes clogged, so the tail now becomes a pump which can blast the water out of its mouth. It would be handy if we could do that to Momo when he wants to throw up, so we could make it happen in the right place. He always goes looking for the most expensive and soilable item in the floordrobe to spill his catguts into.

Iwerks is having so much fun with the notion of characters motoring through a storm that he pretty much forgets about his plot. The journey is a good place for repeating action on loops, a favourite technique of the 30s (see also Fleischer toons) because it allows for recycling of cels. Plus a lot of the comedy comes from creating a musical tempo, plus you can build laughter by doing the same gag a few times. If it’s funny once, maybe it’ll be funny again.

When the rain gets too heavy, Flip detaches the mouse figurine hood ornament, which didn’t exist in any previous shot, and attaches it to his windscreen. Since the mouse is an actual live mouse, it now works as a windshield wiper. Actually, I’m kind of embarrassed about the amount of work the word “since” is doing in that sentence. In an Iwerks cartoon, there isn’t really any since.

Even the house is alive, flashing its windows at Flip like the Palmer house at the end of Twin Peaks season 3. The illuminated eyes and mouth scare Flip away — the hero’s quest refused — but the wind keeps blowing him back.

Like Gary Oldman’s shadow in BRAM STOKER’S DRACULA, or Peter Pan’s, Flip’s shadow starts getting ahead of him — and there’s that dopey cat again. Or maybe an ancestor of the previous dopey cat. When the cuckoo clock’s pendulum strikes him (why? the clock invited him here) like the hazardous wall clock in Chaplin’s ONE A.M., Flip trashes a suit of armour in retaliation and reveals a third, identical portrait. This is like Corman’s HOUSE OF USHER.

Not unlike other spooky house thrillers of the time, e.g. Benjamin Christensen’s amazing, hallucinatory SEVEN FOOTPRINTS TO SATAN, the exploration of the haunted house is just one damn thing after another: rather than building up a coherent mystery with puzzles to solve, suspects advancing and retreating, it’s just a whole morass of crazy occurrences. In the BC film — and in Gance’s amazing AU SECOURS! with Max Linder, and probably in Benjamin Christensen’s other spooky house films, now lost save for their Vitaphone soundtracks — we just accumulate madness until a single global explanation accounts for all of it in one swell foop.

The title suggests the Philo Vance films William Powell was doing at the time, but the sensation-film angle is much closer to Leni-Christensen.

With the eerie hooded figure, seen from behind, this may have been inspired by another of those old shockers, Roy Del Ruth’s THE TERROR, now missing presumed lost. In which case, this is the closest thing to seeing it, apart from the few stills in circulation and the contemporary reviews, which suggest it was really something.

Even by cartoon standards, the ending of this one is unsatisfactory. But interesting. Flip flees the hooded killer, who is apparently Death Himself — shades of Argento’s INFERNO — running down a corridor with the camera rushing after him, and dives into a dark void — and that’s it. As if we ran out of background and foreground at the same time.

9 Responses to “Cuckoo Croak”

  1. Fiona Watson Says:

    The title probably refers to The Canary Murder Case, the film that Louise Brooks refused to dub her voice on because she had better things to do, like going to Germany and working for GW Pabst. The other interesting thing about it is that the use of sound is so much more creative and sophisticated than anything that was happening in live action at the time. Studios really should have taken note of this.

  2. David Ehrenstein Says:

  3. Thunderbean is about to release a collection of all the Flip the Frog cartoons on a Blu Ray in the next couple of months. It should be quite a collection; they’ve spent something like 6 years acquiring the best prints for each short, which are scattered among various sources.

  4. Yes, and The Canary Murder Case was a Philo Vance, there was a whole series of them, all with “Murder Case” at the end of their titles. They’re all fairly unwatchable early talkies, until the series came back in 1933 with Curtiz’s The Kennel Murder Case, which is suddenly excellent.

    The cartoons “got” cinematic sound far quicker, because they used it for music and effects, rather than dialogue. There are some early live action soundies that do the same, including the Christiansen films mentioned above, but alas they’re all missing either sound or picture or both.

  5. Fantastic! I liked this one a lot more than most Mickeys of the period.

  6. Finally reading Michael Barrier’s “The Animated Man” from the beginning instead of flipping to whatever film I was thinking of at the moment. Probably the definitive Disney bio with a deep focus on how modern animation developed. He explores how Iwerks’s initial breakup with Disney was at least partly artistic differences: Disney was developing the top-down, precisely planned animation that remains the standard, while Iwerks was a “straight-ahead” artist.

    Iwerks’s best independent toons are Fleischer-style crazy (see “The Office Boy” for more precode than surreal), but that approach was going out of style with audiences. Disney offered increasing polish and persuasive characters, then Looney Tunes brought the snap and attitude of 30s-40s comedy. Also, contemporaries and historians say Iwerks lacked the gag and pacing instincts Disney had.

    Iwerks eventually returned to Disney, not as an animator but all-purpose wizard. He won two Oscars for technical achievements, provided effects for “The Birds”, and had a hand in theme park attractions as well.

  7. Alex Kirstukas Says:

    All the Philo Vance books/films are “The [six-letter word] Murder Case”, and that Canary one had been prominent, so Iwerks really struck gold with his title: the strict pattern’s maintained; the canary case is spoofed specifically, with a literal bird getting murdered; AND you can read the title either as “the victim was a cuckoo” OR “the case itself is cuckoo.”

    Maybe I’m reading too much into it. But it works.

  8. Alex Kirstukas Says:

    (The six-letter pattern is also respected in Mike Schlesinger’s much later pastiche The Biffle Murder Case, starring vintage comedians Biffle and Shooster.)

  9. Good job it wasn’t Shooster who got offed!

    Must watch The Office Boy. Must get that Barrier book. Recently acquired The Great Cartoon Directors by Jeffrey Lenburg. No mention of Tashlin. Grr.

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