Saturday, May 31, 2014

Stubs – Bachelor Mother

Bachelor Mother (1939) Starring: Ginger Rogers, David Niven, Charles Coburn. Directed by Garson Kanin. Screenplay by Norman Krasna. Based on the movie Little Mother written by Felix Jackson. Produced by Buddy G. DeSylva  Run Time: 82 minutes. U.S.  Black and White. Romantic Comedy, Screwball Comedy, Christmas

If I was alive and of movie-going age in the 1930’s, I would have had a major league crush on Ginger Rogers. What’s not to love? She was pretty, talented and could play comedy, not to mention dance. By the time Bachelor Mother was released, Rogers had just wrapped up her long-time RKO relationship with Fred Astaire in The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle (1939), a partnership that went back six years and eight films.

But Ginger was a star without Astaire as well, having starred in such RKO films as Rafter Romance (1933), Stage Door (1937) and Vivacious Lady (1938). Bachelor Mother partnered Rogers with David Niven, the good-looking British-born Actor. Unlike Rogers, who had been at least a prominent player since appearing in Young Man in Manhattan (1930), in which she spoke the then-oft quoted line “Cigarette me, big boy”; Niven only had his first speaking role in films three years earlier in Rose-Marie (1936).

The film Bachelor Mother is actually based on another film, Little Mother (Kliene Mutti), a 1935 Austrian-Hungarian comedy about a girl, Marie Bonnard (Franciska Gaal), who discovers a deserted baby. The baby is widely accepted to be hers, though she is not the mother. I’ve never seen Little Mother, and I don’t know how closely Bachelor Mother follows its plotline, but it is interesting to know the origins of the story. Little Mother was made by a local subsidiary of Universal Pictures and the rights were later acquired by RKO, which transformed it into a vehicle for one of the studio’s biggest stars, Rogers.

Rogers plays Polly Parrish, a new to town holiday-hire salesgirl at the John B. Merlin and Son department store in New York City. Since she’s been notified that she’s losing her job at the end of the day, she goes out looking for work on her lunch hour. After throwing away the listing she receives, she spots a woman leaving a baby at the door of an orphanage, the Atkins Founding Home. Polly tries to convince the woman not to abandon the baby, but the woman insists it’s not hers to begin with and runs off.

Fearing that the baby will roll down the stairs, Polly picks it up at the precise moment a nurse at the orphanage answers the door. Seeing Polly with the baby, the nurse assumes it’s hers and brings Polly in to meet the doctor. Despite her protests, no one believes that she is not the baby’s mother. Still, she manages to leave without the baby, but the orphanage is not through with her.

The baby, Johnnie, the cause of the problems for our heroine.

They insist she is the baby’s mother and try to help her, sending an investigator (Ernest Truex) to visit with Polly’s boss, David Merlin (David Niven), the playboy son of the owner and founder J.B. Merlin (Charles Coburn). Convinced that Polly gave up her baby because she was losing her job, the investigator convinces David into letting Polly keep the job for as long as she wants it, even throwing in a retroactive $5 a week bonus in pay.

Polly Parrish (Ginger Rogers) is mistaken for the orphan baby's mother.

Polly is confused but grateful for the change in her employment status. She accepts a date to go to a dance contest from Freddie Miller (Frank Albertson), who promises her that they’re sure to win second place and $50 since he’s good friends with one of the judges. Polly can use the money, but when she goes home to change, there is a knock on her door. Thinking it’s Freddie, she answers, only to be confronted by the investigator and the Matron (Edna Holland) from the orphanage. They are bringing her back her baby as a Christmas present from J.B. Merlin and Son.

Freddie Miller (Frank Albertson) invites Polly to a dance contest with the promise of the $50 second prize award.

Again, despite her protests, they leave the baby with her, even threatening her if she tries to abandon the baby elsewhere. While Polly has a rapport with the baby, she knows nothing about raising one. Not long after they leave, Freddie arrives for their date. Polly tries to beg off, but Freddie is insistent. Feeling that she’s been put in this mess by David Merlin, she takes the baby to the Merlin mansion and leaves him in the care of the Butler (E.E. Clive). She tells him that Merlin will have to use his influence to get her out of this mess. But of course, David doesn’t know what she’s talking about, so he and the Butler, with the baby in hand, follow Freddie and Polly to the dance contest at the Pink Slipper Dance Hall.

David Merlin (David Niven) takes the baby to the dance contest, trying to get Polly's attention.

David tries to break into the contest but his antics instead get him kicked out of the Dance Hall. Polly and Freddie return disappointed from the dance contest. Instead of the promised second place, they won the competition, getting instead of money, a loving cup. Freddie walks Polly to her door and tries any excuse to get inside, asking for a nightcap and when she insists she has no liquor, he wants to come in for a smoke. When she insists she has no cigarettes, he offers that he has a pocket full of them. Freddie sort of forces his way into the apartment, only to see David Merlin sitting there entertaining the baby. Freddy flees after leaving the loving cup.

David tells Polly off for having abandoned her baby to go off dancing and fires her on the spot. Further, he tells her that there is no way she’ll ever work in retail again after he’s through with her. He tells her that her treatment of her baby is contemptible, but before he leaves, he offers her one last chance to ask for her job back and raise the baby herself.

Feeling trapped, Polly accepts responsibility for the baby but tells David that there is no use in trying to deal with the father. She makes up a story that he once hit her with the coffee pot and shows him a scar to prove it. After David leaves, Polly thanks the baby for the job.

Mrs. Weiss (Ferike Boros), her landlady, arrives to help Polly with the baby, whom she knows is a boy, even though Polly initially calls the baby Joan. Joan becomes Johnnie. Mrs. Weiss offers to help her with the baby and even tells Polly the baby looks like her.

Freddie, thinking that Polly has an in with Mr. Merlin, asks for her help in getting the open position of Assistant floorwalker. Through coincidence, Freddie was first in line for the position, but he thinks Polly was still responsible.

That night, Polly is playful with the baby, showing him a windup Donald Duck toy that she’s bought from the store to amuse him. While she’s feeding Johnnie, David comes over to help. He thinks Polly should raise the boy scientifically and begins reading the proper way of feeding a baby, which with the pages stuck together reads that food should be rubbed into the child’s belly when that is, in fact, a treatment for an ailment. While he’s there, David breaks the windup toy. David tells her to return the toy to the store, but she informs her that Merlin and Son do not have a return policy. He promises her that it won’t be a big deal and promises to exchange it in the morning for her when she says being the son of the owner means that he could return it for a grand piano.

David tries to help Polly feed the baby the modern way.

The next morning, he shows up in disguise, a hat, and sunglasses. When his attempts to exchange the toy are thwarted, David decides to make the exchange himself, going to the toy department and pocketing a replacement Donald Duck. Freddie sees what he thinks is a shoplifter and tackles David. When David demotes Freddie for doing that, Freddie promises revenge, since he knows where the bodies are buried.

David, incognito, tries to return a broken toy to his own store.

Having become obsessed with Polly and Johnnie, David has neglected to call his girlfriend, Louise (June Wilkins), to confirm their New Year’s Eve date. She tells him she’s going without him. Not wanting to go stag, David sees the Donald Duck toy and thinks of Polly. He shows up at her apartment and invites her to go with him. He has her go ask the landlady to watch the baby while he calls the store to put together an outfit for Polly to wear.

David's girlfriend, Louise (June Wilkins), disses him for a New Year's Eve Party.

When they arrive at the party, David tells everyone that Polly is Swedish and cannot speak any English. All the men are gaga over her and she dances all night with other men, missing all the food and frustrating David. Hunger wins out over the fun she’s having and the two start to leave. But Louise tries to get in one last dig at Polly, telling David in front of her that Polly’s “not bad for a fill in. Personally, I’d just as soon go stag.” To which Polly quips, “You could too with those shoulders.” David laughs hysterically.

Polly pretends to be Swedish so she won't have to speak to his friends.

David and Polly are out on the street and get pulled into a crowd ready to celebrate the new year. But they get separated when the clock strikes midnight and they have to fight through the crowd to kiss. When David takes her home he declares it’s midnight in Chicago and kisses her again. But she pulls back when he asks if she wants to stay up until it’s midnight in Los Angeles.

Polly and David are about to kiss at midnight when the crowd pulls them apart.

David asks her to go for a drive the next day, Sunday, but Polly’s worried about the cold air on the baby. When she says they’ll be in the park all day, David is non-committal. Back in her apartment, Polly talks to Johnnie, telling him that she thinks David likes her but doesn’t like the baby much. She is really taken with the child and promises no one will come between them.

As David and his father are on their way to church, a boy delivers a note from Freddie hinting that David is the father of a baby. After church, David goes for a walk to the park to see Polly and Johnnie. J.B. has his chauffeur follow them. J.B. moves with some trepidation, asking Polly if he can hold the baby if he’s really careful. She lets him. J.B. is overjoyed when he hears the baby is called Johnnie, which he assumes is after him.

Both Polly and David are puzzled by J.B.’s reaction to the baby. J.B. informs David that they will talk about it when he gets home. Slowly, both Polly and David realize that J.B. thinks the baby is David’s.

J.B. Merlin (Charles Coburn) follows David to the park, thinking Johnnie is his son.

At breakfast the next morning, J.B. tells David that he’ll take the baby away from Polly unless David marries her. Even though David goes to tell Polly of his father’s intention, he tells her that he doesn’t want a family, Polly telling David to leave and to tell her father to leave her alone.

J.B. delivers an ultimatum to David.

Rather than give up the baby, Polly tells Mrs. Weiss that she wants to move away. Mrs. Weiss convinces her son, Jerome (Leonard Penn), to pretend to be her husband. Meanwhile, David goes to Freddie asking him to pretend to be the boy’s father in exchange for a promotion.

Polly and Jerome arrive first and have J.B. convinced of the baby’s parentage when David shows up with Freddie. But J.B. doesn’t care who the father is, he is the grandfather. Polly flees. When David shows up at her apartment, Mrs. Weiss claims not to know where she is, even though she’s hiding her. J.B. arrives and joins in the hunt. They are almost convinced Polly has fled until the windup Donald Duck gives her away.

David declares that he is in love with Polly and baby John. He tells his father that he is the father of the child and plans to marry Polly that night, all the while still believing Polly is the child's mother.

David proposes to Polly still believing she's Johnnie's mom.

As much fun as she appeared to have on screen, according to then RKO Production Chief Pandro Berman, Rogers did not want to do the picture and was suspended for her refusal. And making the film only made it worse, as Rogers supposedly hated the finished film as well.

I can only imagine why Rogers might not have wanted to do the film, but for me, it would have been the premise which seems odd and almost cruel. Forcing a woman, through intimidation, to raise a baby that is not hers seems like the grounds for a lawsuit rather than the premise for a Romantic Comedy. But once you get past that, the movie does sort of pull it off in the end. There does seem to be genuine chemistry between Niven and Rogers and the movie has several laugh-out-loud moments. One of my favorites was the scene in the park where it takes both Polly and David a beat to realize his father thinks David is the father of the baby.

And I might be alone having problems with the premise as the movie was actually nominated for an Academy Award for Best Story. And the story would later be remade as a musical, Bundle of Joy (1956), starring Debbie Reynolds, Eddie Fisher, and Adolphe Menjou. Upon its release, Bachelor Mother was a success, RKO’s top grosser of the year, earning the studio a profit of $827,000, so perhaps the premise wasn’t as unbelievable to audiences at the time as it might seem today.

It is interesting to note that the appearance of Donald Duck, in toy form, isn’t as out of line as it might seem, but rather product placement of sorts. Before Disney became the behemoth we know today, they didn’t distribute their own movies. From 1936 to 1954, RKO handled the distribution of all Disney features and shorts, including Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), which, until Gone With The Wind (1939), was the highest grossing film of all time, not to mention the first animated feature from Disney studios.

Ginger Rogers would make about 73 films in her career, including the eight films she made with Fred Astaire at RKO. They would be reunited for a ninth film, The Barkleys of Broadway (1949), but at MGM. While we associate her with RKO, she made films at Paramount, Warner Bros., Monogram, Fox, Universal, and MGM. She would win an Academy Award for Best Actress for her portrayal of Kitty Foyle in the film of the same name, released in 1940. She also appeared in Billy Wilder’s first film, The Major and the Minor (1942), as well as Storm Warning (1951) and Monkey Business (1952) to name a few.

Niven would go on from here to have a great career. Soon after this film was released, Niven would leave acting to fight for his home country in WWII. Resuming his career in 1946, Niven would star in such films as The Bishop’s Wife (1947), Around the World in 80 Days (1956), Separate Tables (1958), The Pink Panther (1963) and Casino Royale (1967) to name a few. He would win an Academy Award for Best Actor for his portrayal of Major David Angus Pollock in Separate Tables.

Charles Coburn is one of those actors that appears often in movies in the 30's, 40's and 50's. Some of his memorable roles include such films as Vivacious Lady (1938), also opposite Ginger Rogers; Edison, the Man (1940); The Lady Eve (1941); Kings Row (1942); Rhapsody in Blue (1945); Monkey Business, again with Rogers; and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953). Usually playing someone's father, his character usually came around before the movie was over. He began his career acting with his wife, Ivah Wills and moved to Los Angeles after her death in 1937. He would win the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his role as Benjamin Dingle in The More the Merrier, based on an original story by Garson Kanin.

Kanin, the director of Bachelor Mother, seems to flourish with unbelievable storylines, see My Favorite Wife (1940). Kanin, who began his career as an actor, is perhaps best remembered as a writer and co-writer of screenplays, including the story for The More the Merrier, two of the Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy films: Adam's Rib (1949) and Pat and Mike (1952) and the screenplay for Born Yesterday (1950), which itself is based on his own stage play. One of his writing partners was his wife Ruth Gordon, who would make a splash later in life as an actress in such films as Rosemary's Baby (1969); Harold and Maude (1971) and My Bodyguard (1980).

If you can get past the premise, then Bachelor Mother is really a pretty funny and enjoyable movie. Of course, I might be biased. Ginger Rogers usually makes any movie she’s in worth watching.

To read reviews of other Christmas films, please see our Christmas Review Hub.

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