One of the most extraordinary retro discoveries to come along on DVD in ages is the 1946 obscurity “Boy! What a Girl!” Made in Harlem with an all-black cast (albeit with one startling exception), the film is a wonderfully weird comedy which provides a rare opportunity for a great yet elusive comic actor to enjoy a starring role in a motion picture.
That actor was Tim Moore, who is primarily known today for his role as George “Kingfish” Stevens in the controversial TV version of “Amos â€˜n’ Andy.” Moore was a star of the black vaudeville circuit, yet racial restrictions kept him from achieving any notice beyond the segregated black audiences (he was actually retired from show biz when the casting call came for the Kingfish role). In “Boy! What a Girl!”, Moore literally goes to town in one of the most astonishing comic creations imaginable: as Bumpsie, the female impersonator in a cash-starved musical revue. Seeing the portly, stoop shouldered, baggy-eyed, cigar chomping Moore in a ballet tutu and ratty blonde wig is, in itself, hilarious. But when he begins to feel the pressures of womanhood (he refers to his girdle as a straight jacket) and vamps in a bogus falsetto while flirting wildly with men (he calls one sugar daddy “Lollipops!”), one gets the feeling of being on the far side of the looking glass.
“Boy! What a Girl!” is fairly typical of the so-called “race films” made with black casts for presentation in the black theaters of Jim Crow America. The no-budget film is a rather flimsy comedy about two aspiring but broke producers who try to finance a show by convincing a wealthy investor to put his money in their revue. The producers and their cast are holed up in a boarding house where they hold a rent money to raise funds. The party allows for an excess of musical numbers (six songs in a 69 minute movie) performed by the likes of The Slam Stewart Trio, Deek Watson and the Brown Dots and the International Jitterbugs.
The wealthy investor falls in love with Bumpsie, who pretends to be the wealthy Parisian matron Madame Deborah. Clearly love is not only blind but also dumb, since the investor is not perturbed by this mad madame’s fondness for cigars (he/she claims that all the women in Paris are smoking them). The boarding house landlord also falls in love with the faux-madame, creating a very unlikely all-male triangle. The real Madame Deborah shows up, who in turn is followed by a Parisian boulevardier and his two henchmen (a pair of black men who chant “Oui! Oui!” in unison). It all ends with a brawl and a couple of tossed pies, and even a tossed pair of pants that Bumpsie happily retrieves as he slips out of his drag after being chased down a Harlem street by a clearly agitated cop.
But the least likely presence here is legendary drummer Gene Krupa, who may very well have been the only star ever to make a guest appearance in a “race film” Krupa peeks in while Big Sid Catlett is drumming, then asks for a chance to play the drums. At the end of his set, Catlett thanks Krupa for stopping by and Krupa, in turn, asks that Catlett make a guest appearance in his next movie!
The print of this old film is not pristine (not unlike many “race films,” the original materials are long lost and all that remains are scratchy prints. But if the print is not pristine, the joy of Moore’s uninhibited performance is more than watchable. Yet for all the joy Moore brings, it is impossible not to rue that his talent would have gone further had racial attitudes of yesteryear not been so cruel and restrictive. “Boy! What a Girl!” gives a taste of what this brilliant clown could’ve done â€“ and it literally leaves a hunger for more of Moore.