If you want to see a man turn into little Mary Pickford, here's the movie for you.
Cross-dressing comedy can be quite funny, but it can also be tasteless ... and when it's done properly, it can be funny AND tasteless. The idea tends to work best when there's an involuntary element to it ... as in 'Some Like It Hot', where the two male leads must choose between becoming live women or dead men.
In 'Oh, Baby!' the female impersonation is entirely voluntary (despite the usual dialogue about how the cross-dresser can't wait to get back into trousers), and I found this movie very unfunny indeed. The most interesting variation on the drag theme here (and this adds to the tastelessness) is that, rather than a man impersonating a woman, here we have an adult male disguising himself as a little girl. The man in question is a midget ... although nowadays I think we're supposed to cry him a 'little person'.
The movie has two separate plots which really don't mesh very well. Jim Stone (David Butler) is a handsome boxer, talented but totally reliant on his manager Billy Fitzgerald (played by midget actor Billy Rhodes). At ringside, Fitzgerald calls out the punches and tactics which Stone uses to knock out his opponent.
Meanwhile, Arthur Graham (played by wimpish effeminate Creighton Hale) stands to inherit a fortune from his maiden aunt Phoebe (the delightful Flora Finch) providing he's married and has started a family. He enlists Dorothy Brennan (Madge Kennedy) to pose as his wife ... and midget Billy ends up dressed in sausage curls and petticoats as their little 'daughter', his blonde wig held in place with a hatpin. Hoo boy! Or, rather, hoo girl!
This movie just might have worked if child-sized Billy Rhodes actually looked like a child, instead of what he is here: a man in his thirties. Another midget actor, Harry Earles, who famously impersonated a baby in 'The Unholy Three' (and played a genuine baby in 'That's My Baby') was amazingly convincing in a layette. Jowly stocky Billy Rhodes simply looks what he is: a male midget in drag. In several shots we can see his teeth, which are clearly an adult's teeth. It doesn't help that nobody seems to have thought out what age this little 'girl' ought to be: Rhodes is about the height of an eight-year-old child, but he's dressed up in a silly frilly frock that's more appropriate for a four-year-old.
Billy Rhodes, a.k.a. 'Little Billy', is now remembered only for playing the title role in 'The Terror of Tiny Town'. Here in 'Oh, Baby!' he's only slightly lighter and slightly less jowly than he was in that all-midget western, so you can imagine how unconvincing he is as a little girl. (He looks like Eugene Palllette dressed as Little Lord Fauntleroy.) It also doesn't help that the script never comes up with a convincing reason for why an adult male midget must be conscripted to play Graham's daughter. Couldn't Graham find a child actress ... or some girl whose parents would gladly co-operate in exchange for a share of the inheritance?
The scriptwriter clearly knows nothing about midgets. There's a running piece of business in which little Billy -- in his adult male identity, not his girl impersonation -- repeatedly spreads his arms to indicate that he wants to be picked up and raised to the same height as his adult companions. This is precisely the sort of infantilisation which real-life midgets and dwarfs do NOT want. I've worked with quite a few 'little people', male and female, and all of them would violently protest this sort of treatment.
There's an incredibly tasteless scene in which little Billy smokes a cigar while in his little-girl disguise. An extremely unpleasant-looking fat boy sees the 'girl' smoking a cigar, and he wants to try it too. Billy gives him the cigar, knowing full well that the boy will get sick (and indeed does). Matters get even more sickening when Billy takes out his hatpin and applies it to the fat boy's rear end. Even though he's dressed as a little girl, this is simply an adult bullying a child, and I found it painful to watch. We're apparently meant to dislike this boy simply because he's fat and unattractive with it.
At the climax of the film, Jim Stone is fighting his championship bout at Madison Square Garden, but he's losing because Billy isn't there to call out the punches. With no time to shed his girly cozzy, 'little girl' Billy has to sneak into the arena concealed in a man's floor-length raccoon coat. The climactic fight is well-staged, and I was pleased to spot several major sports figures of the time at ringside: real-life sport announcer Graham McNamee at the microphone, plus Damon Runyon, Sid Mercer, Grantland Rice, Ring Lardner (just in from Chicago) and teenage Jimmy Cannon in the press section at ringside. (Jimmy Cannon was writing a sport column for the NY Daily News when only seventeen!)
The most interesting thing about 'Oh, Baby!' is that male lead David Butler (whose voice proved unfit for talkies) had a much more successful career as a film director, lasting well into the 1960s. (He directed one of the hour-long 'Twilight Zone' episodes.) Quite a few well-known and well-made films are directed by Butler, yet he himself remains unjustly obscure. 'Oh, Baby!' does nothing to enhance his reputation. I'll rate 'Oh, Baby!' 3 out of 10, mostly for Flora Finch's brief performance and the climactic fight scene.
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