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Pretty Baby
Warner Archive Collection

Pretty Baby
Warner Archive Collection
1950 / B&W / 1:37 flat full frame / 92 min. / Street Date October 6, 2009 / available through the Warner Archive Collection / 19.95
Starring Dennis Morgan, Betsy Drake, Zachary Scott, Edmund Gwenn, William Frawley, George Chandler.
Peverell Marley
Film Editor Folmar Blangsted
Original Music David Buttolph
Written by Everett Freeman, Harry Kurnitz, story by Jules Furthman, John Klorer
Produced by Harry Kurnitz
Directed by Bretaigne Windust

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Now an obscure title, 1950's Pretty Baby builds a clever comedy premise into something sweet and amusing. That it's not up to the level of a Billy Wilder film (or a Norman Krasna, or any of the great comedy writers) is due to a slight stumble in the last few minutes, when its premise gets stretched just a little too far. Even so, the performers are likeable and the leading lady Betsy Drake is an absolute doll. Let me put it in the form of a backhanded compliment: Dennis Morgan and Zachary Scott don't charm me in the least, and they're both quite appealing here.

This not-quite-the-1950s comedy of manners is too polite to humiliate women (calling Frank Tashlin!) and hasn't yet formed a button-down attitude about big business, even though the situation has a few parallels with Billy Wilder's later The Apartment. A maladroit office worker dreams of getting a big break at a creative job, and a whirl at romance with her handsome boss. The writers Everett Freeman, Harry Kurnitz, Jules Furthman and John Klorer instead land her in the kind of tangled farce that only happens in screwball comedy.

Mimeograph slave Patsy Douglas (Betsy Drake) gets to fill-in as secretary for Ad Agency owner Sam Morley (Dennis Morgan), but blows the opportunity. Tired of being pushed and shoved on the subway, Patsy takes a toy baby doll from the agency's reception room, wraps it in a blanket and uses it to secure a seat on every trip. She names it Cyrus Baxter, after the owner of the baby food tycoon Cyrus Baxter (Edmund Gwenn), the Morley Agency's big account. As it so happens, Patsy ends up on the subway unknowingly sitting next to the real Cyrus Baxter. A crazy chain of misunderstandings immediately follows. Charmed by Patsy and believing that he has a namesake, the foul-tempered Baxter transforms into a creampuff. Sam Morely and his creative assistant Barry Holmes (Zachary Scott) give Patsy a better copywriting job in hopes of keeping hold of the Baxter account. The men think that Patsy is an unmarried mother, or that one of them is the father. Keeping the horrible truth from Baxter is all-important, but Patsy is furious to discover that she's been promoted only because her bosses thought she had a special relationship with their key client.

Pretty Baby hooked me in an early scene. Patsy says that she's found day care that only costs a dime per visit -- and then tosses her rubber baby doll into a ten-cent subway locker! Possibly inspired by Garson Kanin & Norman Krasna's 1939 Batchelor Mother with a little bit of Krasna's The Devil and Miss Jones thrown in for good measure, this comedy falls just short of greatness. Star Betsy Drake is most famous now for her marriage to Cary Grant, and one wonders if that relationship is what kept her from pursuing a bigger career. As the completely honest Patsy (who is crooked enough to play the baby game on the subway), Drake is charming when expressing her wishes to get ahead, and when being sweet to the thoughtful "Mr. Smith" she meets on the train. Drake even carries off the script's occasional attempts at slapstick with honor. Dennis Morgan plays his part straight, and needs only to project a few confused looks to hold up his end. The only time the actor looks foolish is when he's called on to sing a few bars of the song "Pretty Baby" through an apartment transom.

Edmund Gwenn was on a roll around this time. Starting with his Kris Kringle in 1947's Miracle on 34th Street he held screen center with a number of cute characters -- the counterfeiter Mister 880; the quirky ant doctor in Them!   In Pretty Baby Gwenn gets to be simultaneously sentimental and tyrannical. The measure of Gwenn's success is that we become alarmed when it looks as if Patsy's deception about the baby doll is going to be discovered -- we don't want to see the old man's feelings hurt.

The biggest surprise is Zachary Scott, an actor who always seems too much for his roles. Frequently cast as a slimy cad, Scott is often given too many faux-sophisticated cynical lines of dialogue, and comes off as ludicrous. As I'm proud to repeat from my review of Lightning Strikes Twice, "Oily Zachary Scott is for the umpteenth time a slick-talking upper-class weasel one wouldn't trust to wash a car." But Mr. Scott shows himself to be really adept at comedy, firing off some great funny faces and reacting well to various farcical events. I suppose the kind of second-banana male lead role he plays in this film, would soon be cornered by personnel like Tony Randall and Gig Young.

Pretty Baby seems at the halfway point in the evolution between earlier office satires where companies are collections of delightful people (Christmas in July), and the later 50's movies like Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, that depict business life as a rat race that pits talented people against ruthless games-players. Morley and Holmes aren't above schemes and subterfuge to land and hold their Baby Food account. In the real world, "who you know" means everything, so people who have good contacts with important clients -- or sleep with them, for that matter -- could have an edge. Pretty Baby just touches on this go-getter attitude. In Patsy's 1950s office most women are secretaries or doing office drudge duty. As it is, Patsy Douglas "just happens" to show up in her boss's office at night, with a snack, ready and able to work all night with him. Of course they hit it off as a couple. In a couple of years, this kind of thoughtful gesture will be interpreted as a calculated maneuver.

Just as Pretty Baby is nearing a point of perfect balance -- it's funny, sweet and just a little serious about Patsy's dilemma, it goes a bit too far. Morley and Holmes try to pull off a fake courtship to keep Patsy around so the Baxter contract can be signed, and the movie keeps going long after the identity confusions are straightened out. The party's finished, but people are still climbing out apartment windows and crashing into restaurant waiters. But overall Pretty Baby is a delight, that ends up way on the plus side. Actor William Frawley provides a welcome eleventh-hour boost, as a private detective who gets into a hilarious shouting match with Edmund Gwenn. The final scene on the subway has a nice feeling of closure. We'll be watching out for more Betsy Drake movies, for sure.

The Warner Archive Collection DVD-R of Pretty Baby is superb transfer that couldn't look better. The freshly remastered show is so sharp that we feel the full impact of Warners B&W films from this era -- crisp titles and dissolves, a rich soundtrack. At one point Patsy Douglas is inventing trite advertising jingles for Baxter Baby Food, rhyming them to children's songs. When she invents lyrics for Au clair de la lune, we get an unexpected chill: it's the tune "signature" for the murderous Rhoda in Warners' The Bad Seed, made just a few years later!

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Pretty Baby rates:
Movie: Very Good
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: none
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: June 26, 2010

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2010 Glenn Erickson

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