Saturday, 11 December 2010

Jimmy the Raven: Frank Capra's Avian Star

When most people think of stars with whom Frank Capra worked frequently, Gary Cooper might come to mind. But there was another actor with whom the director worked more frequently.  In fact, he was the star with whom Frank Capra worked more than many other, appearing in every Frank Capra film after You Can't Take It With You (1938) for many years. Despite this, most audiences probably didn't know his name, and they probably couldn't tell the difference between him and other members of his species. He was Jimmy the Raven.

Not only did Jimmy the Raven star in many Frank Capra movies, including rather central roles in You Can't Take It With You, Arsenic and Old  Lace (1944), and It's a Wonderful Life (1946), but he may have appeared more than any other avian star, and certainly more than any other corvid. It is estimated that he appeared in over 600 other films.

Contrary to popular belief, Jimmy the Raven was not Frank Capra's pet. Instead he was the bird of animal trainer Curly Twiford. He trained a wide variety of animals for films, including a raccoon, a marmoset, and a rat, as well as such birds as canaries, meadowlarks, parrots, and robins. Of all this animal stars, by far the most popular would be Jimmy. Mr. Twiford claimed he found Jimmy as a raven chick in a nest in the Mojave Desert which had apparently been deserted. He adopted the young bird and named him Jimmy. Curly Twiford kept Jimmy in his house and trained him to do a variety of tasks, from typing, putting coins in piggy banks, lighting cigarettes, and so on.

Indeed, Jimmy's skills were put to good use in You Can't Take It With You, his first film with Frank Capra. In the movie Jimmy plays, for lack of a better term, the household crow of Martin Vanderhof's eccentric family. Not only is the crow one of the family, but he even helps out in the family's firecracker factory. Arguably, it would be the most pivotal role Jimmy would play in a Frank Capra movie until It's a Wonderful Life, in which he played Uncle Billy's pet raven. It was a part which Mr. Capra created for Jimmy--the original script to It's a Wonderful Life did not call for a raven in any scene. Here it is worth noting that while Mr. Capra perhaps wished to give Uncle Billy a pet raven to show his eccentricity, he may have had other reasons as well. I do not know how much Frank Capra knew about Norse mythology, but according to Norse myth the god Óðinn had two ravens, Hugiinn (often interpreted as "Thought") and Muninn ("Memory"), which he sent across the world to gather information each day. Given Norse myth and the fact that Uncle Billy was absent minded, a raven would then make a fitting pet for him. Jimmy also had a fairly visible role in Arsenic and Old Lace, where he was the raven who frequented the graveyard.

Having appeared in over 200 movies, Jimmy obviously appeared in more than just Frank Capra films.Indeed, he would also have a rather obvious part in The Bride Came C.O.D. (1941), in which he played the crow of Pop Tolliver (Harry Davenport). Besides It's a Wonderful Life, the most famous movie in which Jimmy ever appeared was The Wizard of Oz (1939). He was the crow who landed on the Scarecrow's shoulder in the cornfield. Jimmy also appeared in Moon Over Miami (1941--as Mr. Sylvester), Son of Dracula (1943--as Madame Zimba's crow), The Enchanted Forest (1945--as Blackie), and many other films. His last on screen appearance may have been Ring Circus in 1954. Curly Twifold died in the Fifties and it is not known what happened to Jimmy afterwards. At any rate, by 1954 he would have been around 20 years old--not particularly old for a domesticated corvid, but not young either.As an animal actor, Jimmy was extremely successful. He made enough money on his own to pay for the food and housing of all of Curly Twifold's animals.

Here I must address a question which has perplexed me for some time. In most articles on Jimmy, he is referred to as a "raven." Indeed, Curly Twifold referred to him as such. That having been said, his IMDB profile is under "Jimmy the Crow," and in the few films in which he was given credit, he is referred to as "Jimmy the Crow" or  "Jim the Crow." In the book For the Birds: An Uncommon Guide, author Laura Erickson insists he is actually a crow. That having been said, I believe that Jimmy is indeed a raven. In the films in which he is most visible (You Can't Take It With You, It's a Wonderful Life), he looks to me more like a Common Raven (native to virtually the whole Northern Hemisphere) than the smaller American Crow. Regardless of his species, Jimmy played both crows and ravens throughout his career.

While Jimmy the Raven would go uncredited in the majority of the films in which he appeared, he earned a place in film history that no other bird would. He starred in several classic films and in some of them he was played primary roles. If he had appeared in It's a Wonderful Life alone, Jimmy would be memorable, but he appeared in so much more.

10 comments:

Raquelle said...

O.o!!!!!

This is fascinating! Can I ask if Jimmy the Raven was in The Secret Garden (1949)?

Mercurie said...

Yes, Jimmy was! It's surprising just how many films he was in!

Diarmid Mogg said...

I'm glad to find someone else who's interested in the remarkable career of Jimmy the raven. Did you know about his long-term stand-in, Koko? The Unsung Joe has the story: http://morethanyouneededtoknow.typepad.com/the_unsung_joe/2009/12/koko-the-raven.html

Mercurie said...

Thanks, Diarmid! Koko was referenced in one of the newspaper articles I used in researching this article, but I couldn't find much beyond a reference! Glad to see your article gives Koko his due, even if he wasn't the actor Jimmy was!

Toby O'B said...

I never even heard of Jimmy the Raven. A really fascinating bit of movie trivia! Do you know if he lived long enough to make any appearances on TV?

Mercurie said...

I rather suspect he lived long enough to appear on television, but as far as I know Jimmy never did!

Nicolas said...

Lovely post! I'm always interested to learn about animal performers in classical Hollywood - my favourite is Asta in the Thin Man films!

I'm going to a screening of 'It's a Wonderful Life' in London at the National Film Theatre on Saturday. Thanks to your post, I'm now looking forward to Jimmy the Raven's performance!

Mercurie said...

Nicholas, I love Asta too. He was as much a part of the movies as Mr. Powell and Miss Loy! And I wish I could see It's a Wonderful Life in the National Film Theatre. I am sure it will be impressive!

Bat Head Joe said...

Was Jimmy in over 600 or over 200 films? You said both. Thnx.

Mercurie said...

600. 200 was a typo!