The Boss Baby | Horny on Main

Credit: Dreamworks/20th Century Studios

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From Baby Burlesks to Boss Baby

Ioanna Micha

What’s in a name? Shirley Temple: it’s a drink, it’s a doll, it’s the Hollywood actress who rose to child fame during the 1930s. A box-office hit from 1935-1938 with brown eyes and blonde hair, Temple was the quintessential all-American girl. Though most people recognize her for her tap-dancing roles in Bright Eyes (1934), Stand up and Cheer (1934), The Little Colonel (1935) etc., Temple’s origin story, in Charles Lamont’s Baby Burlesks films (1931-1933), forces viewers to see this cinematic period from a different angle.  

The Baby Burlesks were a series of Pre-Code Hollywood one-reeler short films that satirized popular motion pictures, from Runt Page (1931) parodying The Front Page (1931) to Tarzan riff Kid ‘in’ Africa (1933). Pre-Code films are often applauded for their daring content, but the Baby Burlesks series goes further, with unnecessarily hyper-sexualized plots always revolving around children. Think of Lamont’s Kid in Hollywood (1933), wherein Temple becomes Morelegs Sweetrick, an imitation of Marlene Dietrich’s cabaret singer from Josef von Sternberg’s Morocco (1930). The plot thickens as Morelegs’ on-stage feathery costume resembles that of Dietrich’s during her Hot Voodoo cabaret dance number in Sternberg’s Blonde Venus (1932).

But while the latter is a performance worth praising for its celebration of female sexuality, the same just cannot be said for the 3-year-old Temple dancing in the beginning of War Babies (1932). Spoofing Raoul Walsh’s What Price Glory? (1926), a silent comedy-drama about two war veterans who compete for the affections of the same woman, Lamont reproduces a bizarre love-triangle story with an all-child cast and assigns Temple the role of an exotic dancer. This narrative, and pretty much every other Baby Burlesks installment, raises questions about child exploitation. Why are children cast in adult roles? Perhaps the answer here is budgetary, as child actors had less demanding salaries. Even if this was to be overlooked (and that is a big if), then does that low budget extend to the lack of costume? Having the children barely clothed doesn’t move the plot forward, or define the characters. So why did the parents allow their offspring to participate in these projects? Whether for fame, fortune, or post-depression desperation, there are few sources that provide an answer. 

When one considers that Baby Burlesks were comedies shown right before the main film, it feels even more sinister. Where is the joke in having toddlers in diapers waltz around a set exchanging lollipops for kisses, among other disturbing scenarios? The premise is none other than children behaving as adults, an offbeat version of kids playing house. Though humor may be subjective, it is curious that, if Art reflects society, Lamont’s shorts reflect 1930s US reality. Baby Burlesks, and pre-code cinema in general during the Depression, offered glimpses at other lifestyles, so fictitious and fanciful that people could face the screen rather than the heavy burdens of everyday life. At least, that was primarily the case for men; women’s everyday struggles went beyond the financial challenges the Wall Street Crash of 1929 created. Though they entered the workforce during WWI, the severe economic ramifications of the Great Crash meant a reassignment to the domestic sphere for most women. Considering that Temple and the reactions she elicits in the Baby Burlesks are the main catalysts for comic effect, the echoes of a woman’s ornamental position as merely an object to be conquered, stared and laughed at are deafening. Women were not offered moments of numbness, but reminders that their existence was seen as a trivial entertainment.  

But besides the undeniable presence of sexism, the bar drops even lower when one looks behind the curtain. Terrible stories of children working for hours on end, and, according to Temple’s book Child Star: an Autobiography (1988), being forced to sit inside a small black box with a block of ice whenever they dared behave as any other kid would have are unveiled. And though Shirley, Georgie (Smith) and Eugene (Butler) didn’t suffer an untimely death like Dick, Joe, Ned and Jack in William Blake’s “The Chimney Sweeper”/Songs of Experience (1794) did for working inside another black box, they were still treated as means to monetary ends not only by the film production company Educational Pictures, but also by their own parents. All this speaks volumes about the careless manner in which children were and often still are treated in Hollywood: a mere pawn to be manipulated instead of protected.

Nowadays, the Baby Burlesks series is defined as highly inappropriate, but the whole child/adult binary and its connection to humor didn’t vanish. In Amy Heckerling’s Look Who’s Talking (1989), for instance, Bruce Willis is the voice behind a newborn’s consciousness. Then, Bob Clark’s Baby Geniuses (1999), shows eight intelligent babies raised in a lab as part of an experiment to uncover the truth behind their high IQs. Though the genre adapted to something acceptable, it went mostly unremarked upon until it transformed into a fancier version. Rising from its ashes, the child/adult character resurfaces in Tom McGrath’s Academy Award nominated CGI-animation The Boss Baby (2017). It comes as no surprise that a baby imitating an adult in the consumerist-based US society of today comes with a suit, briefcase, and the voice of Alec Baldwin.

Lacking a name, the bare minimum for an identity, and obsessed by the corner office award his promotion will grant him, Boss Baby is the paragon of modern US society. Promoting the notion that value of the Self stems from monetary accumulation, the cute little business man takes seconds-long power-naps, stress-naps, and victory-naps and thinks his associates (a group of non-boss babies) are inadequate. The Baldwin-voiced baby even borrows and adjusts a quote from another character the actor has played in James Foley’s Glengarry Glen Ross (1992). Instead of “put that coffee down. Coffee’s for closers only,” Baby-Baldwin goes for the more concise “cookies are for closers,” when one of his team members disappoints him. After all, they’re babies; coffee isn’t appropriate. But hey, “I’d kill for a spicy tuna roll right about now” is the epitome not only of infancy but also a 6-year-old’s sense of humor, especially since it’s followed by throwing money to his older brother’s face. 

That this evolved project is an animation, i.e. an intangible product with the power to defy even Death and the very concept of Time, has two sides. On the one hand, thankfully no child had to go through this bizarre Benjamin-Buttonesque version of a toned-down Jordan Belfort performance (no corporeal child could pull this off). However, an on-screen baby that’s no longer a flesh and bone child but a drawing brought to existence by digital means has a make-believe status that isn’t just about escaping reality. It creates a distance between content and audience that allows certain things to go unnoticed because no serious consideration is usually given to a cartoonish idea; the parents in the film certainly don’t.

Isn’t it funny that the parents never acknowledge that the baby isn’t an actual baby? Ha-ha the joke’s on us really, as this animation isn’t exactly innocuous either. While it lacks the Baby Burlesks’ hyper-sexualized plotlines that held a mirror to the 1930s sex-crazed US society, The Boss Baby is also a vehicle of contemporary societal reflection, as it unabashedly promotes the craving of money. Even if its target audience doesn’t have the capacity yet to get the sushi joke, it surely won’t miss the underlying message that adulthood is about shaping up, for time is money. After all, much as in the end the Boss Baby chooses family love over his precious, private, golden potty, and is even named Theodore Lindsey Templeton, we see in the future that he never changes; he just gets taller.

 The sequel of The Boss Baby will emerge this September, Baldwin sharing his screen-time with a female Girl-Boss Baby (Amy Sedaris). Judging from the “now you work for me, Boomers” comment on the trailer, and other unfortunate 2021 projects, she’ll most likely say something along the lines of: “I’m a lioness; hear me roar”. Just like humankind never really left the jungle as it keeps evolving, the child/adult character keeps shape-shifting from Temple’s cabaret dancer to Baldwin’s mini wolf of wall street to whatever comes next century – we shall see. If things continue down the same chaotic path, perhaps a green-haired, clown baby that makes things go BOOM! from time to time and laughs uncontrollably will appear.