Movie buffs, let us take a moment to consider the cow: humble, placid barnyard resident; source of milk, steak and White Castle hamburgers; glue endorser and grammatically challenged fast food spokes-animal; beloved Gary Larson cartoon subject; and frequent cinematic prop. Hitchcock may have wanted to treat actors like cattle, but would he have known how to handle actors who really were cattle? Even though few, if any, of their kind got the opportunity to work with Hitch, cows–not to mention bulls, calves and oxen–have had a rich and varied Hollywood career, and I’d like to look back here on some of their most memorable big screen moo-ments.
According to The Internet Movie Database, the first motion picture to prominently feature a cow was also was one of the first film versions of a classic work of children’s literaure. In the 1910 silent short The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, a brave bovine named Imogene (and played by two unknown actors in a cow costume) accompanied Dorothy and Toto on their twisterborne journey to the Emerald City. The comedic possibilities of big-screen cattle were soon recognized by funnymen ranging from Harold Lloyd, who in 1922’s Dr. Jack was shooing cows out of his way as he made his rural medical rounds, to Harpo Marx, who got to share a tender moment with a calf in the barn-set climax of the 1931 Marx Brothers romp Monkey Business (in which Groucho got the chance to say, “How would you like to have somebody steal one of your heifers? I know heifer cow is better than none, but this is no time for puns.”).
No cow of this era, however, got more screen time or more soulful glances from her co-star than Brown Eyes, the misfit milk-giver who becomes hapless cattle ranch hand Buster Keaton’s constant companion after he removes a stone from her hoof in the 1925 feature Go West. As you can see from the still on the right, the two were made for each other. Go West also boasts a classic scene in which Buster must herd hundreds of cattle down the streets of downtown Los Angeles (with several of them wandering into a department store, a barbershop and a Turkish bath), at one point donning a red devil costume so he can get the bulls’ attention.
Yes, bulls were already being targeted as the bad guys of big-screen cud chewers. If you don’t believe me, just watch any of the several movie versions of the bullfighting drama Blood and Sand–where the roster of doomed matadors includes Rudolph Valentino in 1922, Tyrone Power in 1941, and most recently Christopher Rydell (who?) in 1989. Also, check out the 1957 adaptation of Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises. No wonder Ferdinand the Bull had such a tough time. But that’s enough bull for now.
By the early 1930s, cows were making their presence felt in the world of animation. Mickey Mouse performed some musical “udder abuse” in his groundbreaking 1928 sound short Steamboat Willie, and a few years later probably had some explaining to do when frequent co-star Clarabelle Cow appeared on the scene. Cows also made life difficult for the mouse’s precursor, Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, in 1927’s The Mechanical Cow, and for an early Warner Bros. Merrie Melodies Mickey rip-off named Foxy in the 1932 ‘toon Smile, Darn Ya, Smile! When it came to the live-action field, our bovine brethren were already being relegated to B western background status, save for two notable late ’30s films.
The 1938 musical/drama In Old Chicago featured a spectacular sequence depicting the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, which was started, as legend would have it, when a wayward hoof knocked over a lantern in Mrs. O’Leary’s barn. Not a single cow ever stepped forward to confess to the act, but director Henry King’s period piece presents it as fact, gives star Alice Faye a chance to act opposite the criminal cow, and earned Alice Brady a Best Supporting Actress Academy Award as Ma O’Leary. It’s not clear if she thanked any cattle in her acceptance speech. Two years later an unknown cow took to the skies–thanks to a pesky twister–to startle Judy Garland and Toto in The Wizard of Oz. It would be nearly 70 years before Hollywood would, with the help of computer animation, attempt the aerodynamic stunt again.
There are just too many cowboy movies over the next few decades to even mention in passing, so here are some non-oater highlights from the era. The Three Stooges tried their hand at slapstick cow-medy when Curly played bullfighter in the 1942 Columbia short What’s the Matador and, under the name ‘K.O. Bossy,” entered a milking contest in 1944’s Busy Buddies; Frank Capra’s 1961 comedy Pocketful of Miracles finds Mickey Shaughnessy, driver for mobster Glenn Ford, telling fellow henchman Peter Falk, “We passed by a zoo, and waddaya think I saw? A COW!”; a cow costume figures prominently in the stage act that Mama Rose Hovick (Rosalind Russell) puts together for her daughters June (Ann Jillian) and Louise (Natalie Wood), the latter of whom later gained fame as stripper Gypsy Rose Lee, in the 1962 musical Gypsy; and businessman-turned-farmer Robert Mitchum meets an untimely end when the cow he tries to milk turns out to be a bull in What a Way to Go!, a 1964 Shirley MacLaine comedy.
The 1970s were lean on the cinematic beef, but Alex Karras’ riding down the streets of Rockridge on a Brahma bull–not to mention the cows that apparently got to attend a town hall meeting–made Mel Brooks’ 1974 western spoof Blazing Saddles noteworthy, followed the next year by the invention of the cow-tapult by some taunting French knights in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. And well before she was tending to Charlie Sheen on Two and a Half Men, Conchatta Ferrell played a 1910s Wyoming homesteader who had to tend to a cow about to give birth in the 1979 indie gem Heartland.
Top Secret!, a 1984 comedy from the creators of Airplane!, featured two spies using a cow suit (complete with army boots) to try to sneak into an East German facility, but a hungry calf and an amorous bull complicated their mission. Philadelphia cop Harrison Ford got a lesson in the fine art of milking from Amish farmer Jan Rubes (“You never had your hands on a teat before?” “Not one this big.”) in 1985’s Witness, while that same year some dairy cows from the 1950s welcomed Michael J. Fox’s Marty McFly to their era in Back to the Future. And a bovine-festooned billboard causes Danny DeVito to call out “Cows!” in the middle of talking to Billy Crystal about killing Crystal’s ex-wife in the 1987 dark comedy Throw Momma from the Train.
Crystal would, of course, go on to score one for the cattle in 1991. That’s when he played a dude rancher and would-be cowboy who helps grizzled trail boss Jack Palance deliver a calf–whom Billy would dub Norman and tend to after its mother has to be put down–in the hit comedy City Slickers. The film also boasts an opening scene of Crystal and pals Bruno Kirby and Daniel Stern running with the bulls in Pamplona. As it turned out, Norman had a better life than others of his kind did in the late ’80s and ’90s, from the poor cow-tipping victims of Heathers and Tommy Boy, to the “barbecue on the hoof” sequence that opened Tim Burton’s sci-fi/comedy Mars Attacks!, to the airborne bovines (shades of 1939’s The Wizard of Oz!) that fly by tornado chasers Bill Paxton and Helen Hunt in Twister.
This kind of on-screen treatment may have been what drove one hacked-off heifer to take on “Chosen One” Steve Oedekirk in a Matrix-inspired martial arts showdown in the 2002 comedy Kung Pow: Enter the Fist. The last decade or so has also seen a revival of animated cattle antics, with such titles as Home on the Range, Chicken Little and Barnyard each having their share. Meanwhile, while the Israelites may have only worshipped a symbolic golden calf in Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments, fellow director Kevin Smith came up with a literal one–fictitious burger joint mascot Mooby–to feature in his comedies Dogma, Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back and Clerks II. Speaking of hamburgers, I would be remiss in not mentioning the less-than-appetizing slaughterhouse scenes in Richard Linklater’s fact-based food industry diatribe Fast Food Nation. Lastly, and on a related note, the acclaimed 2010 HBO drama Temple Grandin found title character Clare Danes’ autism helping her identify with the cattle she encounters in stockyards while designing more humane ways to treat the animals on their way to their “final fate,” with some interesting “cow’s-eye-view” photography.