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Thursday, 1 December 2016

A BIRD IN THE HEAD (1946)

For their fifth short film combining slapstick with horror spoofery, the Three Stooges mocked the sub-genre of brain-swapping mad scientists and Hollywood horror’s ongoing obsession with gorillas. Ever since Ingagi in 1930, The Monster Walks and Murders in the Rue Morgue (both in 1932), then most potently King Kong a year later, our hairy ancestors had fascinated Tinseltown’s terror merchants – possibly the public’s consciousness of them was renewed after America’s Scopes Monkey Trial concerning the teaching of evolution in 1925.

Less edifying, A Bird in the Head (1946) was the Stooges 89th short for Columbia, still at this stage retaining the classic line-up of Larry, Moe and Curly, though by now the latter was starting to show signs that his strokes were gradually impairing his performances. Curly’s manic pantomiming side had to be toned down and understandably Moe was careful to carry out less violent repercussions on him for his lovable stupidity. This was a first writer-director gig for Edward Bernds following his career as a Columbia sound recordist for famed studio director Frank Capra, who’d encouraged him to ask their President Harry Cohn for the chance. Unfortunately it became a baptism of fire for Bernds when he understood the difficulty of shooting around Curly’s condition, a situation no-one had prepared him for. The shoot took five days in mid-April 1945, which apparently was longer than usual, and was delayed by the death of U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt on the 12th.

This time, the boys are incompetent paper-hangers doing a day-job for a Mr Beedle (Robert Williams), whose hesitant inquiries into their experience are assuaged by Moe: “You won’t know the joint when you get back”.  Good thing he hasn’t seen Curly savouring the taste of the lumpy paste and adding seasoning to it.

Meanwhile across the hall is the laboratory of Vernon Dent’s Van Dyke-bearded Professor Panzer (a great name for a post-war Nazi but his accent sounds Eastern European to me). As one of their regular supporting cast, we’ve already seen Dent trying to exploit a Wolf Man in Idle Roomers (1943). Here, he at least has the appearance of medical qualifications to back up his search for a brain to be placed in his gorilla Igor: “If I can find one small enough”. The name is a misspelled reference to Lugosi’s crippled henchman Ygor in Universal’s Son of and Ghost of Frankenstein sequels but this monkey suit is straight out of the bargain basement. Panzer is so desperate for a compact cranium that he asks everyone he meets what hat size they are. Will he ever find a suitable candidate?

After Larry and Curly have finished papering Moe into the wall, they present their handiwork to the client who is less than pleased with the resulting nightmare patchwork festooning his apartment. They flee his anger straight into Panzer’s lab, where on hearing Moe calling Curly “Bird-brain”, the Professor beams with maniacal glee. He tests Curly’s head with a hammer, producing Glockenspiel notes from his noggin and enthusing: “Practically unoccupied. Wonderful!” The one inventive gag sees Panzer testing Curly with an X-Ray Fluoroscope, whose screen projects an image of his head containing a cartoon cuckoo-clock. A precise blow from the Professor’s hammer and the animated cuckoo flops as it extends from its haven.

The Stooges are initially terrified by Igor, yet Curly and he make fast friends to the point where the gorilla menaces Moe whenever he threatens Curly. “I was only kidding, Ingagi”, quips Moe defensively. This gag’s meaning is pretty much lost to modern horror fans as Ingagi was an obscure curio, a discredited 1930 faux-documentary, arguably the first in the found-footage genre - essentially a fake filmed record of a Congo expedition uncovering a remote tribe’s ritual bestiality with gorillas. It was later exposed as really being made in Los Angeles after a viewer reportedly recognized an actor playing one of the tribesmen and stunt-man Charles Gemora came clean with a signed affidavit confessing to having portrayed the lead gorilla. (The ensuing court-case didn’t stop it from spawning an unconnected cash-in, Son of Ingagi, in 1940).

Igor innocently downs a bottle of surgical pure grain alcohol, eliciting the rise and fall of a duck-whistle as his insides react with internal explosions. Curly copies him, resulting in steam jetting from his ears. The Professor has now had enough and mystifyingly produces a gangster’s Tommy Gun with which to attempt a last-ditch massacre spray of everyone – so much for preserving his single best chance of a brain donor. Igor wrests it from him and goes ape-shit with the gun, destroying equipment and pranging the boys’ butts in hiding before pursuing them all down the corridor.


In conclusion, A Bird in the Head is a scattershot monkeyshine of very little lustre.

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