Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Nobody’s Baby (Hal Roach/MGM, 1937)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Nobody’s Baby was a cutesy title for a feature-length film co-starring Patsy Kelly and Lyda Roberti, the last gasp of Hal Roach’s attempt to create a female version of Laurel and Hardy (first with Thelma Todd and ZaSu Pitts, then with Todd and Kelly, then with Pert Kelton and Kelly when Roach still owed his distributors three films after Todd’s murder in 1935, and finally with Roberti and Kelly). It was a short feature, at 67 minutes, but had an unexpectedly lavish nightclub set which allowed plenty of dazzling deco decor on which a husband-and-wife dance team (Don Alvarado and Rosina Lawrence) could cavort while Jimmie Grier and His Orchestra (playing themselves) supplied their music. (The rest of the sets were plain, reflecting the working-class standing of the Kelly and Roberti characters, so it’s obvious the set construction budget for this film was mostly blown on the nightclub.)

The film took a while settling into a groove, thanks to the inability of writers Harold Law, Hal Yates and Pat C. Flick to settle on a consistent storyline until the movie was well into its running time; at the beginning Roberti and Kelly audition for a radio amateur contest — Roberti as a singer and Kelly as a dancer (apparently nobody told her that auditioning to be a dancer on radio wasn’t exactly the world’s wisest career move) — and while they liked Roberti (but not Kelly), that plot line was abruptly dropped when the next scenes have Kelly accepted into nursing school, only to find herself stuck with Roberti as her roommate. The film got stronger as it went on and forsook slapstick (which the principals really weren’t very good at) for situation comedy, as Kelly and her boyfriend (Robert Armstrong, playing a reporter) and Roberti and her boyfriend (the underrated Lynne Overman, playing a dumb cop) get mixed up with the dance team, whose male member is fighting desperately to keep their marriage a secret for fear that they will lose adoring female fans if the women in the audience knows he’s “taken.”

Alas, he’s already impregnated his partner, and when she tries to inform him that he’s about to be a father (she’s three months pregnant when we first see her but we can believe that she isn’t showing yet), he won’t listen to her, they have an argument and she hides out for six months (this is one movie that does respect the laws of human biology instead of having people reproduce unnaturally quickly), then shows up at the hospital where Kelly and Roberti are training to have her baby. Nobody’s Baby is hardly a comedy classic, but it is entertaining. — 1/12/99


The film was Nobody’s Baby, an extension of the series of shorts Hal Roach had produced from 1931 to 1937 with Thelma Todd and ZaSu Pitts — an attempt to establish a female comedy duo to rival Laurel and Hardy — only when Pitts quit the series in 1933 she was replaced by the marvelous Patsy Kelly, and when Todd died in 1935 while Roach still owed his distributors, MGM, three more Todd-Kelly shorts he replaced her with Pert Kelton (later the first Mrs. Ralph Kramden on the earliest episodes of The Honeymooners on the DuMont network before the show switched to CBS and Audrey Meadows took over the part) for one film and then with Lyda Roberti for the last two, At Sea Ashore and Hill-Tillies.

Roberti had been born in Warsaw, Poland in 1906 and became a star on Broadway in the early 1930’s; like Carmen Miranda later, her gimmick was an outrageously unintelligible foreign accent and a shaky command of English. She did three Broadway shows — Harold Arlen’s You Said It, George Gershwin’s Pardon My English (a flop, though Roberti’s recording of her featured song, “My Cousin from Milwaukee,” was on the CD reissue From Gershwin’s Time and offered her a good showcase) and Jerome Kern’s Roberta (a smash hit in which her part was played by Ginger Rogers in the film — Rogers sang the character’s big song, “I’ll Be Hard to Handle,” in an almost exact mimickry of Roberti’s accent and the script was rewritten to establish the character as an American posing as an Eastern European, “Countess Tanka Scharwenka,” in Paris because “you have to have a title to croon over here”) — and had a marvelous part as the vamp “Mata Machree” in the 1932 film Million Dollar Legs with W. C. Fields and a topical plot centered around the fictitious country of Klopstockia and its super-team entered in the (real) 1932 Olympics in Los Angeles. (Alas, Roberti came to a sad end; less than a year after making Nobody’s Baby she died of a heart attack at just 29.)

In Nobody’s Baby, the gags around Roberti’s inability not only to speak English but to comprehend it very well either get a bit tiresome, but otherwise the film is a comic delight, a start-to-finish romp in which the flightiness of Roberti’s character and the solidity of Kelly’s make for a good framework on which to hang gags. The film starts in an audition for an amateur contest on radio, in which Kitty Reilly (Kelly) has entered as a dancer (a dancer, on radio?) and Lena Marchetti (Roberti) as a singer — Lena crashes Kitty’s audition and they try to perform together (Lena sings the song “Sweet and Hot,” Roberti’s trademark number from You Said It), only Kitty’s taps drown out Lena’s vocals and Kitty is unceremoniously escorted out of the studio. From that point writers Harold Law (who I joked laid down the Law to his collaborators), Hal Yates and Pat C. Flick forget about the gag about the two women trying to get on the amateur show and crack show business, and instead have Lena continually turning up in Kitty’s life — first being assigned as Kitty’s unwilling roommate when her landlady, Mrs. Hamilton (Laura Treadwell), suggests that will minimize the rent debt Kitty is accruing; then as her roommate for three years in nursing school when Kitty finally gets accepted there (it’s the other job, besides radio stardom, she’s been going after); and finally on a bus on which Kitty ends up having to pay Lena’s fare and the two women overshoot their stop and end up dumped off the bus at the end of the line.

They start walking back and ultimately try to get some rest by sitting on the running boards of a parked car — only the car’s occupants, police detective Emory Littleworth (Lynne Overman, who hung out with James Cagney and Spencer Tracy during the 1920’s in New York and then had to suffer while they became movie stars while he stayed mired in character roles — he’s a fine character comedian but it’s not hard to understand why he didn’t become a star) and reporter “Scoops” Hanford (a relatively restrained but still appealing Robert Armstrong), get back into it and drive off with Our Heroines clinging to the side of the car for their dear lives — until the guys finally notice them, pull over and let them sit inside the car, where romantic interests of sorts develop between “Scoops” and Kitty, and between Littleworth and Lena. “Scoops” gets assigned to cover the opening of a big new nightclub, the Tropicano, and the four go to the opening with a card that says they’re supposed to be comped — only that night the club’s star performers, dance team Tony Cortez (Don Alvarado) and Yolanda (Rosina Lawrence), get into an argument.

They’re actually married to each other, but Tony wants to keep that a secret because he figures women won’t fantasize about him if they know he and his dance partner are a couple 24/7, while Yolanda has long wanted the world to know their actual status — and now that she’s become pregnant by him, she’s suddenly got a lot more at stake in letting the world know they’re married. So she runs off on opening night, “Scoops” and Littleworth leave the club and try to trace her (she gives them the slip but “Scoops” keeps trying to find her, and over the next few months there’s a series of newspaper headlines keeping track of her whereabouts — which led me to joke, “It must have been a slow news year”) and stick the two women with the bill — and just when they’ve been drafted into indentured servitude as dishwashers and have washed the whole night’s dish consumption does Lena finally show Kitty the card that was supposed to comp them. Yolanda finally turns up months later at the hospital where Kitty and Lena are training, and from then the film turns into a farce in which Yolanda desperately pleads with them to keep her identity a secret — she wants her husband to find out they’ve had a baby, but she wants to tell him herself rather than have him learn it in the media — and Kitty first hits on the idea of having Lena pose as the baby’s mother but then gets caught by the head nurse with the child and has to pose as the mother herself.

“Scoops” and Littleworth come to the hospital to visit the girls, sneak into the maternity ward, see Kitty with the baby and leap to the (wrong) conclusion that dancer Tony seduced Kitty and got her pregnant. The finale occurs at the Tropicano (a stunning set that looks absurd as a nightclub — complete with a huge orb behind Jimmie Grier’s orchestra whose function, decorative or otherwise, remains a mystery — one expects it to open and a chorus line to emerge from it — but indicates Hal Roach’s growing willingness to shell out the production budgets to compete in the Hollywood big leagues), in which Tony dumps his latest replacement dance partner (a brief role for Joan Woodbury, a particular favorite of mine, who we’re told is a lousy dancer but who looked quite competent to me), Yvonne tries to reconcile him and pleads with him to announce their marriage, he refuses but then breaks down when she shows him the baby — only in the meantime “Scoops” and Littleworth have told the club owner that Tony has seduced Kitty and knocked her up, and therefore he needs to do the right thing and marry her — and when it’s explained that Tony and Yvonne are the baby’s real parents and are already married, the club owner demands that since they’ve announced they’re going to have a public wedding at the club, they have to go through with it, so “Scoops” marries Kitty (who looks through the whole thing like she’s going to be ill) and Littleworth marries Lena.

I was a bit surprised that the plot didn’t involve Lena taking a turn on the Tropicano floor as an entertainer after one of Yvonne’s walkouts, but for the most part Nobody’s Baby was a screamingly funny film even though the best gag scene occurs early on — Kitty and Lena trying to cook simultaneously in that postage-stamp sized kitchen (Lena bumps into Kitty and makes her drop a quart bottle of milk, then says, “And the cow worked so hard for it”) — still, the script sets up a lot of funny situations and the performers and director (Laurel and Hardy veteran Gus Meins) make the most of them. — 2/2/11