Beginning in the offices of a comic book company, That's My Baby (1944) purportedly shows the inner workings of comics production. A couple of comedians are shown pitching a hero-tale to one of the comics artists, enacting the silly story while other illustrators try to work.
These guys are the comedy team of "Mitchell & Lytell" (first names Frank & Lyle). They'll return later in the story for a second routine about as bad as their first.
Amidst the foolishness, a love triangle is revealed between the publisher's daughter Betty Moody (Ellen Drew), comic book artist Tim Jones (Richard Arlen), & the odd-man-out, the company's wily manipulative manager Hilton Payne (Richard Bailey).
Betty's dad Phineas Moody (Minor Watson) suffers from melancholia & hasn't laughed or even smiled in twenty years. A psychiatric specialist (comedic character actor Leonid Kinskey) diagnoses the case as very serious & dangerous. He tells Betty that her father's condition will cause further health decline unless he can be cured by being caused to laugh.
There will follow a series of attempts to make the pokerfaced Moody burst into laughter for the first time in two decades.
Betty gets on the phone & starts calling the acts, who we see introducing themselves to her over the phone one by one: Freddie Fisher & His Schnikelfritz Band, George McKay, Phil & Dotty, Puffy & Peanuts, Dorothy & Darnell, Isabelita & the Guadalajara Boys, Chuy Reyes & His Trocodaro Band, Mike Riley & His Musical Maniacs, Alphonse Berge & Doris Duane, Al Mardo & His Dog.
And there'll be more than introduced themselves in what (by Republic Pictures cheapo standards) is a big budget in the "let's put on a show!" tradition of thin plot to justify a music & comedy review.
The impromptu troupe gathers at the Moody mansion. Replacing the valet so as to sneak the first act to Mr. Moody as soon as he wakes up in the morning is comic Al Mardo, who loves his talentless dog to distraction.
No sooner does Mr. Moody demand the dog be removed from his presence than Mardo begins with his routine with the panting bulldog, built up as the world's cleverest trick dog, who in actuality can't do a thing. It's cute, but not all that funny, & it sure doesn't work on glum-faced Phineas.
At breakfast the maid Hilda is also missing & supplanted by vaudevillian George MacKay who does one lame trick (the breakfast eggs hatch into baby chicks) before Moody flees from his breakfast table yelling for Betty.
About then we discover that the actual butler is Dewy "Pigmeat" Markham, a great chitlin circuit comic. When he finds out there are strangers in the house just to entertain Betty's father, he's game, & wants to do some entertaining himself, starting with a Bo Jangles sort of softshoe.
A decade later Pigmeat was quite a hefty guy, but in 1944 he was still a slim handsome comic, & he does a highly physical softshoe that turns into what looks like a modern breakdance. It's too bad we won't get to see more of this guy, as he's great.
To convince dad to sit down & watch the acts they tell him he has to help select the acts for the employees' ball, & he agrees. First up is a Bing Crosbyesque crooner Bob Roberts singing: "Crying. Every night I'm alone I keep crying/ For I seem to be lost in a crazy dream/ And I'm hopelessly drifting along."
It's quite a good number but he's the "straight man" singer for the absurdly dressed Mike Riley & His Musical Maniacs, so one can't help but wait for it to get strange. And sure enough, Mike begins his not-as-good-as-Spike-Jones antics, a routine that might qualify him as a party clown for second graders if he'd try to be less scary, but he's really not terribly funny.
There follows a very interesting & even funny comedy dance team of Peppy & Peanuts. They are baggy-pants clown Peppy & a gorgeous blonde Peanuts. The blonde has no trouble keeping up with Peppy in the physical humor department.
They perform the goofiest jitterbug imaginable. Cute as they are, they never went far movie-wise. They've become so obscure that they're sometimes misidentified as "Peggy" the blonde & "Peanuts" the clown, but neither of them is named Peggy & Peanuts is the guy.
They appear together in two minor comedies & a couple of three-minute soundies for panoram visual jukeboxes, but they're bound to have had a bigger career on the burlesque circuit which valued comedy as wholeheartedly as striptease.
As if to confirm that these performers came through burlesque, next up is Doris Duane who comes out in her underpants & bra & high heels. Or perhaps a bathing suit.
Out comes Alphonse Berge who, as though speaking to a mental deficient, explains that he still has to put more clothes on her.
Alphonse stands her on a pedistal & begins a routine of dressing her very properly using cloth bits found around the living room, affixing these without need of buttons or pins.
She's then stripped to her undies again & he starts from scratch with a long bolt of cloth, again transformed into a beautiful dress with no pins.
A third transformation is done with a large silk sheet, turning her into a bride. It's a very cleverly done bit of reverse striptease, & aesthetically pleasing.
Time now for acrobatic couple who I think might have been billed as "Phil & Hattie: (the only other possibility was "Dorothy & Darnell"), who get about ten seconds so do very little.
Then out comes Isabelita to sing a rhumba then a second number, backed up by harmonies from her Guadalajara Boys, all in Spanish. The Guadalajara Boys were usually known as the Guadalajara Trio, but for some reason, in this film, there are only two of them, hence the ammended builling.
Isabelita is an exciting performer who really belts out a song. For more on Isabelita, see my review of her soundie I Wanna Make Him Whistle (1943).
In the background we see Isabelita is accompanied by Chuy Reyes & His Trocodaro Band, who deserved a spot of their own but this is all we get of them.
The Musical Maniacs return & there's a trumpet routine with a hand puppet helping to play the horn. A lot funnier than the earlier routine, but still only for the kiddies. Yet Mike Riley in real life owned a bar in Hollywood which was a hang-out for comics, & apparently if you got drunk enough, you would find Mike funny.
I have to intrude here how my own dad loved Mike Riley's bar, called the Madhouse. Before my dad went honest, he was a sort of a gopher for gangsters in Seattle, Chicago & Hollywood, & was involved with burlesque houses in some vague way I never knew much about.
He would tell stories about extremely obscure entertainers he got to know, though he never really spoke of what exactly he did for the gangsters, though his nostalgia & admiration for those days was a mite too obvious.
I didn't know my dad well until I was older, as he was nowhere around, but when he showed up now & then he'd have clown kitsch to give me & my sister, because he was pals with Larry Harmon, the Bozo franchiser who for a long time was the owner of the character use of Laurel & Hardy. My dad was a strange likeable fellow, but nowhere near as strange as my mom, so I come from great stock insuring eccentricity.
Dad would wax on about good times in Mike Riley's Madhouse Tavern. They served beer in miniature hospital ducks.
In the men's can there was a nude painting with a figleaf attached. If you lifted the figleaf while you're were taking a piss, a light came on over the door so that everyone in the bar knew you'd taken a gander. And the regulars would all be staring at the poor sap when he came out of the can.
So I was delighted by the opportunity to see what the Musical Maniacs were like. I must say I was rather disappointed.
The routine with the big glasses that spew streams of water after Robert sings "Crying" was one of his best known routines on the burlesque circuit, & later at the Madhouse. It's nice it's recorded in this film for posterity, but it's more for the history of it than for the effectiveness as humor.
In his favor, though, comics on the burlesque circuit were notoriously cliche & by comparison Mike reportedly brought on gales of laughter from his audiences.
It's time to get back to the "plot," & so that night our leading man & lady break into Phineas Moody's offices to snoop into private files, searching for the reason he hasn't laughed in twenty years.
They find a picture of him laughing when a young man with Mrs. Moody, about whom we the viewers have been told nothing except a small hint earlier in the film when Mr. Moody speaks of having chosen poorly for his marriage.
So presumedly he's not widowed, & it's easy to guess (in a story this simplistic) that his unhappiness stems from a long-term misunderstanding which, if repaired, could result in the return of the absent Mrs. Moody.
Before long, in Phineas' office, Freddie Fisher & His Schnikelfritz Band show up for no reason at all & do a number for Mr. Moody. It really seems like the film was already in the can when someone wished they'd included Freddie's fau hillbillies in the variety show put on at the Moody mansion, & then just stuck them in somewhat randomly.
Freddie plays coronet & sings "Gimme that Razza-ma-tazz/ I'm getting tired of jazz." They're quite an amusing band & really should've been given part of the time that was earlier wasted on the Musical Maniacs.
We're soon introduced to the environment of the Midtown Artists Club, where Tim goes to stay after Mr. Moody fires him for rummaging through private papers.
Comic book cartoonists are arrayed around the club doing their drawings. Tim's sitting at the bar, a bit glum over being fired.
Apparently to cheer him up, musical entertainer Adia Kuznetzoff sings to him, & is startlingly good, a deep voiced music hall performer, singing in Russian & sounding like a heroic Cossack.
So apparently comic book illustrators had truly fabulous clubs in those days, with first-rate entertainment in the lounge.
Betty shows up at the club, then she & Tim track down Betty's mother, who she's never met & knows nothing about the reason for estrangement. She's a wealthy author who lives across town, a bit ditzy, an amusing gal happy to meet her daughter for the first time.
The complete oddness of her living across town part of each year, & never making any attempt to get to know her daughter, is never explained. It's treated as completely ordinary.
The story of how she & Phineas had a falling out is fairly absurd, as her husband wanted to be a great comics artist, & she thought his artwork was mediocre.
He'd drawn his "brainchild" in a flash of inspiration on a cafe wall one day. He was so proud of himself, but when she said it wasn't any good, he threw an incredible tantrum, they broke up, & hadn't seen each other for two decades since.
Tim, Betty, & Mom set out for that cafe as Tim thinks the secret of Phineas's recovery rests in resurrecting his brainchild. At the cafe, we get to see Gene Rodgers performing at a white piano.
Gene's a good lookin' black guy with the most amazingly serious profile as he plays first a classical piece, transforming it into boogie-woogie, at which point his serious demeanor becomes joyful as his performance gets wilder & wilder. What a musician! What an entertainer! He gets Betty's old mom ready to jump & jive.
They terrorize Gus the waiter (Jack Chefe, who specialized in playing waiters in many low budget comedies) & rip the wallpaper from the wall until they discover the brainchild, a caricature of a lively baby.
Within hours they're ready to make an actual cell-animation cartoon of Baby, in reality provided by Dave Fleischer of the Fleischer Brothers studio responsible for Betty Boop.
The idea that you can make a cartoon in a few hours, or that comic book publishers are set up to make cell animation, we'll just pretend is totally likely.
When his estranged wife Hettie shows up to sit with him as he watches the cartoon called "That's My Baby," he bursts into laughter, & everyone lives happily ever after.
copyright © by Paghat the Ratgirl