15 August 2005 | F Gwynplaine MacIntyre
"I don't wanna be a goil!"
If you want to see a boy get turned into Shirley Temple, this movie is right up your street.
The central premise of 'Million Dollar Baby' might seem far-fetched -- namely, that vaudeville parents would force their young son to pass as a girl performer -- but I found this part of the movie absolutely believable. When George M Cohan was a boy, performing in vaudeville with his sister Josie and their parents as the Four Cohans, they played a one-week engagement at a theatre where the manager wanted two girl dancers instead of a girl and a boy. Jerry Cohan solved the problem by ordering his son into skirts, although George retaliated by taking up the backstage habit of chewing tobacco to prove that he was 'all boy', as he put it later. Other boys who reluctantly performed as 'girl' acrobats in vaudeville were Fred Stone and Jack Durant. What I found most unbelievable about 'Million Dollar Baby' is heavy-set actor Paul Porcasi as a vaude acrobat.
Terry and Gracie Sweeney are vaudevillains who have difficulty getting bookings until they're joined by their young son Patrick, a tap-dancer. Their agent Donovan can only get them jobs if Patrick is part of the act.
Movie mogul J.D. Pemberton is holding a talent search for a new child star: a *girl* star. After Patrick gets caught playing with his pea-shooter, his parents take away his pea-shooter and change him into a girl, even though Patrick declares he 'ain't gonna be a dame'. (Doesn't he mean 'goil'?) Little Patricia, as they name their new daughter, wins the contest and is hailed as the new 'Million Dollar Baby' ... an embarrassing title, as it calls attention to the basement budget of this poverty-row production from Monogram Pictures Corporation.
Although this movie runs barely an hour, they manage to cram in a subplot concerning Terry's former girlfriend Rita, who probably dumped him when he developed a penchant for making his son wear girls' clothes.
In Kansas, en route to Hollywood as Little Patricia, poor Patrick is forced to star in a fashion show of frilly frocks for little girls, so he retaliates with some boyish antics. Soon after this, he runs away ... still disguised as a girl. This is the part I found most implausible; since Patrick is running away from *being* a girl, it makes no sense for him to run away *as* a girl. Couldn't he twock some trousers?
I usually cringe at movies featuring runaway children, since running away is nearly always depicted as a wonderful adventure ... unlike real life, where runaway children are prey for criminals and perverts. Little Patricia (who's a boy, remember) crosses paths with a hobo named Jim. This movie takes place in that imaginary world where all hobos have hearts of gold and will risk their lives to protect petticoated boys. When some passing gangsters snatch the 'Million Dollar Baby', Jim naturally goes along to protect Patricia.
SPOILERS COMING. After some deeply contrived adventures, Little Patricia decides to reveal her true sex while starring (get this, now) on a radio show! Radio must be the worst possible entertainment medium for a female impersonator, because Patrick has to speak in a female register on the airwaves, and can't hide behind the camouflage of petticoats and ringlets. I found most of this movie painful to watch, and the low production values didn't help.
As young Patrick, spending most of this movie in frocks and a wig, the unfortunately named Jimmy Fay isn't very believable ... but boy actors don't get much practice at girls' roles. The best performance in this weak film is by veteran character actor George E Stone as wiseguy publicity flack Joe Lewis. (With that middle initial, he could have been Joe E Lewis.) I suppose that this movie might be a comfort to any little boys who feel an urge to wear girls' clothes, but I'm being charitable when I rate 'Million Dollar Baby' 5 out of 10.