Written By: Bill Syken
If it’s not the strangest movie ever to come out of Hollywood, it’s close enough. And of all the strange movies to come out of Hollywood, it is likely the sweetest.
The stars of the 1948 film Bill and Coo were birds. That’s not to say these these birds stole the show by upstaging their human costars—the birds were the show. The movie’s running time is just over an hour, and except for a two-minute introduction featuring humans, the story is acted out entirely by trained birds on a set of miniatures.
Here’s how LIFE described the production in its July 28, 1947 issue:
The pictures on these pages from Republic’s new movie Bill and Coo are tokens of the gloomy contention of the producer, that movie stars belonging to the species homo sapiens are washed up and the birds are ready to take over….No newcomer to strange breeds of actors, Vaudevillian Ken Murray for the last five years has been packing Hollywood’s El Capital Theater with a raucous oldtime variety show called Blackouts…When a bird trainer named brought his lovebird act around, Murray was so impressed that he dreamed up a starring vehicle for it, had miniature sets built and a lovebird story written.
The entire movie can be viewed online, and the photos taken by Peter Stackpole capture both the charm and peculiarity of the enterprise. The film is set in “Chirpendale U.S.A.,” and the location is one of the movie’s many bird-themed puns. The story is narrated by an off-screen human, but you see birds doing things like walking in and out of buildings, pushing little baby carriages and dropping letters in mailboxes. The plot revolves Bill and Coo, who love each other despite their class differences (Bill has a taxi service, Coo comes from a wealthy family), and they must fight off a malicious crow who threatens life in Chirpendale.
(Perhaps the most surprising detail about the production is that it was the only movie directed by former child actor Dean Riesner, who decades later would leave his mark on Hollywood history as one of the writers of the decidedly un-precious movie Dirty Harry. Yes, the man who directed Bill and Coo also gave us the line “Do you feel lucky? Well, do you punk?“)
On the one hand, no one is going to mistake Bill and Coo for Citizen Kane. On the other hand, it did win an honorary Academy Award, for creating a film “In which artistry and patience blended in a novel and entertaining use of the medium of motion pictures.”
It was novel indeed. In fact, when you look at the movie’s IMDB page and scroll to the heading “More Like This,” what you get are not more live-action movies but rather animated films such as Bambi. Which is another way of saying, there really are no movies like this.