Sunday, November 28, 2010

Boy! What a Girl (Herald Productions, 1947)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was Boy! What a Girl, a 1947 “race movie” from a studio called Herald Productions, which turned out to be unexpectedly interesting as an unusually sophisticated depiction (for the time) of a Transgender character as well as the appearances of some major jazz names, notably bassist Slam Stewart and drummer Sid Catlett (alas separately, not together!). Directed by Arthur H. Leonard, who also co-produced (with Jack Goldberg), and written by Vincent Valentini, Boy! What a Girl is unusually well staged for an indie with an almost all African-American cast (white drummer Gene Krupa, on the downgrade from his sensational popularity earlier in the 1940’s, makes a brief appearance taking over from Catlett at the drums with Catlett’s band; the sequence seems to be a knock-off of the scene in the short Jammin’ the Blues from three years earlier in which Catlett took over the drums from Jo Jones in mid-song literally without missing a beat, and director Leonard ignores the fact that Krupa was much shorter than Catlett and therefore couldn’t have played his drum set without adjusting it first, but still it’s highly unusual to see a white performer, and a major “name” at that, appearing in a race movie!).

Most of the race films were made with stock-still cameras and hissy sound equipment; the sound here is better than the race-movie norm (though still hissy and well below the standard for even a “B” movie from the major studios) and the camerawork by Leonard and cinematographer George Webber is relatively creative, with moving-camera shots discovering the action on the fly instead of waiting for the actors to bring it to us. At first the film seems to be a relatively clichéd story of an impecunious would-be producer, Jim Walton (Elwood Smith), attempting to hold his cast together long enough to get the backing he’s been promised, half from an African-American beauty named “Madame Deborah” (Sybil Lewis) recently returned from Paris, and the other half from Mr. Cummings (Alan Jackson), a well-to-do man he previously met in Chicago, when he also romanced Cummings’ daughter Cristola (Betty Mays). Cummings père liked Jim but didn’t think of him as appropriate son-in-law material, and he also has a fear of wanna-bes after his money for one wild scheme or another — and he’s worried that Jim is both when he sees him and his cast members living in a grungy building and throwing rent parties to raise the money to pay their landlord, Donaldson (Warren Patterson), who noses around the building like Benoît in La Bohème and predictably sticks his nose in at the worst possible moments.

The film seems like a ripoff of all those Depression-era musicals like 42nd Street and Gold Diggers of 1933, which Warner Bros. made with Dick Powell and Ruby Keeler starring and Busby Berkeley doing the spectacular production numbers that made his reputation, with an admixture of the Marx Brothers’ Room Service as well, but it gets considerably more interesting when, just as Cummings is arriving in town (we first see him in an overhead P.O.V. shot from Jim’s apartment, driving up in a horse-drawn carriage with his two daughters, Cristola and Francine [Sheila Guyse], in tow), Jim receives a telegram from Madame Deborah that her train has been delayed and she won’t be able to make it for a week. Fearing that unless he produces a “Madame Deborah” he’ll lose Cummings as a backer, Jim hits on an idea: he gets Bumpsie (Tim Moore, top-billed), a female impersonator in his production, to pose as Madame Deborah and reassure Cummings that the half of the show he isn’t financing is being taken care of. Only Cummings ends up falling in love with Madame Deborah — as does Donaldson, making up a love triangle no major-studio producer would have dared in 1947.

Bumpsie is a comedy part, but the joke isn’t on the Transgender performer but on the two straight (in both senses) men who take her for a real woman and fall for her — Cummings even gets a moving scene about how he hasn’t dated since his daughter’s mother died but now he feels like he’s finally met a companion he can be comfortable with and who can give them away at their weddings, which are likely to happen sooner than he likes because not only are Jim and Cristola in love, but Francine has fallen for Jim’s assistant Harry Diggs (Duke Williams). It’s especially fascinating in that Tim Moore’s drag is barely credible — we can easily read him as a man and I suspect the original audiences in 1947 could too — but nonetheless Cummings and Donaldson both fall for him in the sincere belief that he’s really a she. The sheer audacity of Boy! What a Girl (which seems to be anticipating the famous final scene of Some Like It Hot by a dozen years) makes it worth watching and puts it far above the race-movie norm, and the musical acts it features are just frosting on the cake: Slam Stewart doing two numbers, Sid Catlett and his band playing some jumpin’ music on the cusp between jazz and R&B, and a few lesser known talents that are almost as appealing: singer Ann Cornell, whose style seems midway between Billie Holiday and Lena Horne with a hint of Dinah Washington (hey, if you’re going to copy, copy the best!), does a nice job on a song called “I Just Refuse to Sing the Blues” and Deek Watson and the Black Dots, a vocal quartet with one guitar — their name was clearly inspired, shall we say, by the Ink Spots but musically they sound much more like the Mills Brothers (and it’s indicative of the great and enduring popularity and quality of the Mills Brothers that they had so many imitators) — do a version of Mary Lou Williams’ “Satchel Mouth Baby” (later revived in the 1950’s by Johnnie Ray as “Pretty-Eyed Baby”) and another song called “Just in Case You Change Your Mind.”

Unlike a lot of other race musicals, which (even more than the white musicals of the time!) are a bunch of great songs with a lot of boring stuff between them, Boy! What a Girl is a highly entertaining movie all the way through; the cast is generally at least professionally competent (and Moore is considerably more than that!) and the Transgender premise of the plot (obliquely signaled by the title) ought to earn this movie some attention among the students of Queer cinema, especially since there’ve been even fewer movies about the “T” in “LGBT” than there’ve been about the “L,” “G” and “B”! Incidentally, according to an contributor, Tim Moore went on to TV stardom (of sorts) as the Kingfish in the 1950’s TV version of Amos ’n’ Andy (the one for which NBC, realizing that they could get away with a white cast on radio but on TV the show’s creators, Freeman Gosden and Charles Correll, would look like just what they were — two white performers in not-very-convincing blackface — cast genuine African-Americans in the roles), and this inspired a reissue of Boy! What a Girl under the new title “Kingfish” of Comedy: Queen of the Show!