George Bailey’s Uncle Billy has a pet raven, which appears several times in It’s a Wonderful Life (1946). Its presence usually serves to highlight Uncle Billy’s simple, childlike nature or his addled, confused mind, as in the scene in which it hops onto the panic-stricken old man’s arm as he searches the Building and Loan office for the $8,000 that he’s misplaced:
Elsewhere, it's used as a sort of portent of doom. When the Bailey Building and Loan almost goes bust in the depression, the scene opens with a shot of the raven sitting alone on the counter of the barricaded office:
And, in the scene in which George Bailey learns that he has no option but to stay in Bedford Falls and manage the business instead of going on his foreign trip, it quietly inspects a model of a family house, one of the Bailey homes that George is about to be trapped into working on for the rest of his life:
The bird is played by a 14-year-old raven called Jimmy, who had worked with Frank Capra and James Stewart before, in You Can’t Take it With You (1938), playing the pet of another childlike old man:
In this film, he demonstrates some of the special skills that set him apart from other bird performers, most notably in a scene in which he selects cardboard cones from a tray and flies across the room to deliver them to an actor who's assembling fireworks:
Jimmy was owned by Curly Twiford, “a friendly, booming man with tangled red hair, big ears, and no lower front teeth.”(1) Curly had been a cowboy in Montana before being sent to Europe to fight in the first world war, during which he was wounded and invalided out of the army on a meagre disability allowance. He opened a garage near the big studios in Hollywood, which went well for a decade or so but, just like the Bailey Building and Loan, struggled to stay open during the depression.
One day in 1934, when Curly was down to his last dollar, he came across a starving dog with a brood of half-dead puppies. He took them to his garage and gave them something to eat, keeping them there until they were well again. Eventually, he gave them all away except the runt of the litter, which he named Squeezit. He'd worked so hard to keep Squeezit alive that he couldn't bear to part with her.(2)
When Curly lost his garage, he passed the time teaching Squeezit tricks. He was a middle-aged ex-cowboy, ex-soldier and ex-mechanic in an era of mass unemployment. What else was he going to do?
A neighbour gave Curly a pair of love birds, which he taught to ride on Squeezit's back and balance on a stick that the dog held in its mouth. After they got good enough, he began to take the dog and the birds up to Hollywood boulevard, where they'd parade around for the amusement of passers-by. People would throw nickels, and one of the birds was trained to fly down and take the coins to Curly. "They did fine, too, but we were starving, literally starving," Curly said in an interview years later. Finally, in desperation, he hitch-hiked a ride to MGM in to see if he could get work as an extra. Curly had no luck, but Squeezit did better. Curly had taken her along on the off-chance that someone might want to use her in a picture, and the studio hired the dog for a low-budget comedy called Bunker Bean (1936). It was two days' work at $25 a day -- a fortune to Curly.
Squeezit performed well, and other studios began to call to offer her work. This publicity still was taken around that time:
Curly set himself up as a professional animal trainer and quickly expanded his roster, acquiring some canaries, a raccoon, a marmoset, nine parrots and assorted cockatoos, robins and meadowlarks. In the early years, Curly’s biggest earner was a 14-inch rat called Mr Josephine Beach, who made up to $4,000 a year (which was around $1,000 more than the average wage for an extra).(4) Throughout that period, however, Curly was training the bird who would go on to become the most successful performer of his stock company.
Curly had found a month-old raven chick in the Mojave desert in 1936, starving in an apparently abandoned nest.(5) As he had done with Squeezit, he nursed the bird, which he named Jimmy, back to health, keeping it indoors so it would get used to the company of humans. (The similarity of this story to the story of how Curly came to own Squeezit suggests either that Curly believed that the best way to gain an animal's trust was to find a young, sick one and heal it, or that he simply knew what kind of stories reporters liked to hear.)
For two years, Curly trained Jimmy, teaching the bird to type, operate a cash register, open letters and light cigarettes, along with various other skills that might be called for in the movies. “Ravens are smarter than any other bird,” he would explain. “You show them what to do and they’ll not only copy your actions perfectly but they’ll remember for all time.”(6)
Eventually, Jimmy could understand a couple of hundred English words, and could even ride a custom-built miniature motorcycle.
Jimmy became the most in-demand raven actor in Hollywood, appearing alongside not only James Stewart in the Capra films, but stars like James Cagney and Bette Davis, who starred in The Bride Came C.O.D. (1941), in which Jimmy once again played the sidekick of a slightly simple old man:
During the second world war, when demand for animal performers dropped off, Jimmy remained as popular as ever, and his wage paid for the food and lodging of all the other animals in Curly’s company, not to mention Curly himself. By the end of the war, Jimmy was earning $300 a week.(7)
It's hard for any performer not to let that level of success go to their head, and Jimmy was no different. There are many stories of his big-shot behaviour from this period, such as his insistence on having a new female raven in his cage every day (Jimmy is a great egotist,” Curly explained; “He likes variety”)(8) and, on the set of a Rin Tin Tin movie, his refusal to eat the strips of meat that were offered to him unless they had been sprinkled with sugar (“I’m disenchanted as far as he’s concerned,” said Jim Brown, one of the human performers; “I think he’s got a star complex”).(9)
Like other stars, Jimmy travelled with an entourage. As well as the 15 members of the harem that supplied his daily companions, he had six stand-ins who took his place on set during the long stretches when the lighting was being arranged and the shots were being blocked.(10)
And then there was Koko.(11) More than a stand-in, less than a performer, Koko was a slightly older but less versatile bird who deputised for Jimmy in those scenes that called for the presence of a raven but not for any of the tricks of which Jimmy alone was capable -- those boring scenes where the human characters talk or fight and the raven is required only to remain in place no matter what happens around him; scenes such as the one in You Can’t Take it With You in which various members of the cast dance crazily, play the xylophone, paint a portrait in oils and play a game of darts, all at once, while their pet raven sits quite still in the centre of the frame, cocking its head from time to time. The scene is beneath Jimmy. The bird is almost certainly Koko:
Similarly, early in It’s a Wonderful Life, Uncle Billy opens his office door and we get a quick glimpse of his desk, on which there is a raven that has been obediently sitting there unobserved for the whole of the take. That, too, will be Koko:
The only drawback that arose from the lack of activity in Koko's job was a susceptibility to that old actors' complaint, Klieg eyes. Sitting still like a piece of neglected taxidermy for take after take, Koko would find himself fascinated by the huge, bright studio lights and would stare helplessly into them, hypnotised, until his eyes became inflamed, turning from their usual inky black to a dark green, whereupon he would become distressed and Curly would have to remove him from the set. He never learned, though; he loved those lights.(11)
The most active role Koko ever had was in The Rains Came (1939), when he was used in an earthquake scene that Curly judged to be too dangerous for Jimmy. Clarence Brown, the director, said it would be safe -- "Curly, you don't think we'd risk the lives of Myrna Loy and Tyrone Power, do you?" -- but Curly told him he didn't care about Myrna Loy and Tyrone Power; he'd spent years training Jimmy and he wasn't taking any chances. Koko would do the scene.(11)
This still comes from just before the tremor hits. Koko is sitting on the perch just behind Myrna Loy:
A second later, Loy takes a step backwards, obscuring Koko from our view, so we can't see how he reacts when the set suddenly starts to sway and his perch begins to rock back and forth beneath him. In the next shot, after a quick interior cutaway, the perch topples to the floor, along with various other props, but Koko is nowhere to be seen -- Curly obviously felt that some stunts were too risky even for the stand-in raven.
Koko earned $75 a week -- far more than most human extras averaged for doing similar work, but much less than Jimmy made. His life would never be as exciting as that of his more talented colleague; he would never go on the radio with Louella Parsons, like Jimmy did, or attend movie premieres at Grauman's Chinese Theater in the company of Cheeta, Trigger and Champion the Wonder Horse.(12) In that way, he was like thousands of other extras and stand-ins, for whom occasional proximity to the stars would have to serve as compensation for their failure to become stars themselves. But Koko was luckier than them. While they were no doubt keenly aware of their lowly status -- of which they were constantly reminded by the indignities, hardships and boredom that even the luckiest of them endured throughout their working lives -- Koko wouldn't have minded in the slightest, or even noticed. He was, after all, only a bird.
Sources -- (1)Lima News, Dec 27, 1946; (2)Nevada State Journal, Sep 28, 1937; (3)Salt Lake Tribune, May 10, 1936; (4)Salt Lake Tribune, March 19, 1939; (5)Freeport Jornal-Standard, May 11, 1939; (6)Lowell Sun, Sep 6, 1939; (7)San Antonio Light, Mar 10, 1946; (8)Salt Lake Tribune, Sep 6, 1946; (9)Odessa American, Apr 30, 1957; (10)Gallup Independent, May 19, 1939; (11)Information on Koko's career from the Coshocton Tribune (June 29, 1938), Appleton Post-Crescent (Sep 17, 1938) and the Vidette-Messenger (Oct 10, 1939); (12)Middletown Times Herald, Aug 5, 1947.