Friday, 16 December 2016

Film Friday: "Bachelor Mother" (1939)

Since Christmas is almost here, this week on «Film Friday» I thought I would bring you a Christmas movie. Well, it is set during the Christmas season, anyway.

Theatrical release poster
Directed by Garson Kanin, Bachelor Mother (1939) tells the story of Polly Parish (Ginger Rogers), an ingenious salesgirl who gets fired from her seasonal Christmas job at Merlin's department store. On her way home, she notices a woman secretly leaving an infant on a foundling's home doorstep. Fearing the baby will roll down the steps, Polly picks it up and is mistaken as its mother by an attendant who opens the door. After furiously protesting that she is not the mother, Polly leaves the orphanage, but officials from the home track her down at her work. Feeling sorry for the «unwed mother,» David Merlin (David Niven), the playboy heir to the store, arranges for her to get her job back. When Polly still refuses to keep the baby, David threatens to fire her and she reluctantly accepts motherhood.

Polly quickly develops a maternal affection for the boy, whom she names Johnnie (Elbert Coplen Jr.), while David's involvement with mother and child gradually turns into love. When he finds himself without a date for a New Year's Eve party, David sends a dress to Polly and asks her to go with him. Although he is falling in love with her, he does not relish the idea of a «ready-made family» and keeps the relationship a secret from his father, J. B. Merlin (Charles Coburn), fearing his reaction. Meanwhile, shipping clerk Freddie Miller (Frank Albertson) sends a note to J. B. claiming that Johnnie's father is none other than his own son David. Anxious for a grandson, J. B. threatens to take the baby from Polly, who then convinces her landlady's son, Jerome Weiss (Leonard Penn), to pretend to be Johnnie's father. At the same time that Polly visits J. B. to introduce Jerome as the father of the baby, David appears with Freddie, claiming that the clerk is Johnnie's real father. Confronted by two fathers, J. B. remains unconvinced of the baby's parentage. As Polly prepares to leave, David decides that he is in love with her and Johnnie. He tells J. B. that he is the baby's father and plans to marry Polly that night — all while believing that she is Johnnie's real mother.

J. B. Merlin: I don't care who the father is. I'm the grandfather!

Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers had been RKO's most profitable duo since Flying Down to Rio (1933), in which they impressed audiences by dancing to «Carioca» with their foreheads touching. Paired again in such acclaimed films as The Gay Divorcee (1934), Top Hat (1935) and Swing Time (1936), Astaire and Rogers revolutionized the Hollywood musical, performing dance routines of unprecedented elegance and virtuosity. However, by the late 1930s, with RKO facing bankruptcy, their pictures began to lose money at the box-office — not because of diminished popularity, but due to increased production costs. After finishing their ninth film together, The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle (1939), which became the least financially successful of their collaborations, Astaire and Rogers made the decision to go their separate ways professionally. Astaire left RKO and was teamed with a series of different dancing partners at other studios, while Rogers decided to return to straight acting.

For Rogers' comeback to non-musical films, RKO greenlighted an adaptation of Kleine Mutti (1935), a comedy produced by a subsidiary of Universal in Hungary. Helmed by Henry Koster, the future Oscar-nominated director of The Bishop's Wife (1947), the film was written by Felix Jackson and starred Fransiska Gaal, Friedrich Benfer and Otto Wallburg. Buddy G. DeSylva had first purchased the rights to Kleine Mutti from Universal, then sold the property — along with his services as producer — to RKO in August 1938. To pen the script, the studio engaged Norman Krasna, who had received two Academy Award nominations for Best Story for The Richest Girl in the World (1934) and Fury (1936). Krasna worked on the screenplay with Garson Kanin, whom the studio subsequently hired as director. A former stage actor, Kanin had recently made his motion picture directorial debut at RKO with the successful drama A Man to Remember (1938), starring Edward Ellis, Lee Bowman and Anne Shirley. After the script was completed in February 1939, the studio announced an early March start date for the production, which was then still known as Little Mother, the English translation of Kleine Mutti.

David Niven and Ginger Rogers
For the male lead in Little Mother, RKO initially considered Cary Grant, James Ellison, Louis Hayward and Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Rogers' co-star in Having Wonderful Time (1938). Eventually, however, the part was given to David Niven, who was borrowed from independent producer Samuel Goldwyn to appear in the film. Born to a military family, the restless and adventurous Niven resigned his commission as a Lieutenant in the British Army in 1933 and then moved to New York City, where he found employment as a whisky salesman. The following year, he travelled to Hollywood and soon began working as an extra in such films as Barbary Coast (1935) and Mutiny on the Bounty (1935), the latter of which earned him a contract with Goldwyn. Over the next three years, Niven gradually moved up the cast list, winning important supporting roles in several major pictures, including the Academy Award-nominated dramas Dodsworth (1936) and Wuthering Heights (1939).

Niven was thrilled to be cast in Little Mother, writing in his autobiography, «[Astaire and Rogers] were the king and queen of RKO, so it was immensely flattering for me when Goldwyn told me that he had loaned me out to co-star with Ginger in her first solo for a long time [...] The script [...] was a dream and Goldwyn decided that this picture was so important that he would not put me into anything else before it.» Rogers, on the other hand, had acute reservations about the project, based mainly on her distaste for Krasnas's screenplay. Two days before the film was to begin shooting, she wrote a letter to RKO's supervising producer Pandro S. Berman, expressing her concern that «the characters affect the story instead of the story affecting them. [...] There is no love between these two people and a story that has a boy and a girl as its leading characters is expected to be a love story. The thing that is wrong with Little Mother is that it leaves too much to the imagination as far as their love is concerned.» Continuing, Rogers expressed genuine fear about the damage the film might do to her career, feeling that the studio was «relying on her as a personality» to produce a «sketchy» story.

David Niven, Garson Kanin and Ginger Rogers on the set
Berman replied to Rogers, assuring her that «this picture was purchased because we honestly believed it had a sincere and fine underlying story which would serve as a good vehicle for you, and our efforts in writing this script have been of fine entertainment quality [...] I think it is better than 90 percent of the scripts that are made in Hollywood every day.» He also pointed out that Rogers' career had always been skillfully managed by the studio, «and that you are wrong in assuming that RKO or myself is willing to bandy you about in inconsequential material.» Berman's persuasive arguments did not work, however, and he was forced to suspend Rogers without pay when she refused to make Little Mother. After a short time, the actress grudgingly reported for duty and completed the film without further protest. Despite her initial reluctance, Rogers later remembered the picture with some affection, saying, «I loved working with David Niven and the precocious baby, and Garson Kanin was a lively director.»

Little Mother was filmed between early March and late April 1939, at the RKO studios in Hollywood. The backgrounds were shot on location in Times Square and Central Park in New York City, where the picture is set. Although Little Mother was not a musical, it still featured Rogers in two dance sequences, coreographed by Astaire's frequent collaborator, Hermes Pan. Early in the film, Rogers performs a swing routine with co-star Frank Albertson, as their characters enter a dance contest at a nightclub called the Pink Slipper. Later on, when Niven takes her to a New Year's Eve party at a swank café, Rogers proceeds to dance in a variety of styles with four different partners. Casting the four men proved a particularly difficult task for Pan, even though 50 hopefuls appeared at the auditions. After a lengthy callback, during which the finalists were allowed the chance to dance with Rogers, Pan selected Stephen Carruthers to perform the rumba, George Ford to do the waltz, Joseph Bixby to the foxtrot and, finally, Reed Hadley to the slow waltz. Pan received a total of $500 for his work on the film, but no screen credit.

David Niven, Ginger Rogers and Elbert
Coplen Jr. in Bachelor Mother
Retitled Bachelor Mother, the film premiered at Radio City Music Hall in New York on June 30, 1939, receiving a general release on August 4. Critical reviews were overwhelmingly positive. Frank S. Nugent of The New York Times described as «too logical, too human, too humorous for outright farce. It is comedy, simple if not always pure, and we must call it one of the season's gayest shows.» In turn, Variety wrote, «Story [...] itself is a rather ordinary Cinderella yarn, gaining substance and strength through adroit direction, excellently tempoed lines and situations, and topnotch cast performances.»
Much praise was given to Rogers and Niven for their comedic talents. Nugent called Rogers «one of the screen's most knowing comediennes,» while Variety commented, «She blossoms forth as a competent comedienne, trouping through in grand style, displaying sincerity in the lightness with which she plays the role.» As for Niven, the London Observer said, «He is growing, film by film, into one of the best romantic comedians of the cinema.» In turn, the London News Chronicle considered that «Niven is unbeatable at this sort of romantic comedy.» For his part, Archer Winston of the New York Post said, «David Niven, expanding the promise of his less important roles, gives the best performance of his screen career.» Rogers and Niven later co-starred in Magnificent Doll (1946) and Oh, Men! Oh, Women! (1957).

Upon release, Bachelor Mother became one of RKO's biggest moneymakers of the year, earning a profit of $827,000. At the 12th Academy Awards ceremony held at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles in February 1940, Felix Jackson received a nomination for Best Story, but lost to Lewis R. Foster for Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), starring James Stewart and Jean Arthur. Rogers reprised her role as Polly Parish in two radio adaptations of the film: first in January 1940 for Lux Radio Theater, with Fredric March as her co-star; and the second in May 1946 for The Screen Guild Theater, which reunited her with Niven. Years later, RKO produced a Technicolor musical remake of Bachelor Mother entitled Bundle of Joy (1956). Directed by Norman Taurog, the film starred young newlyweds Eddie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds, suppported by veterans Adolphe Menjou, Una Merkel and Melville Cooper. Unlike its predecessor, Bundle of Joy was not a success, although Reynolds earned a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actress, Musical or Comedy for her role in the film.

After Great Britain declared war on Germany in September 1939, Niven went back home to re-enlist in the British Army. At the time, Bachelor Mother was playing in London and, as Niven recalled, «the publicity department were excelling themselves. Everywhere, I was grinning out of newspapers or leering down from billboards. It was impossible to go unnoticed and the press quickly caught up with me.» But all the publicity made little impact within the venerable men's club Boodles, where Niven was approached by an elderly member one day. The man told Niven that he looked vaguely familiar and asked if they had met before. Unlikely, the actor replied, as he had been abroad for six years doing pictures. «Really?» the clubman said. «Watercolors or oils?»

David Niven: A Bio-Bibliography by Karin J. Fowler (Greenwood Press, 1995)
Ginger Rogers: A Bio-Bibliography by Jocelyn Faris (Greenwood Press, 1994)
Hermes Pan: The Man Who Danced with Fred Astaire by John Franceschina (Oxford University Press, 2012)
RKO Radio Pictures: A Titan Is Born by Richard B. Jewel (University of California Press, 2012)
The Moon's a Balloon by David Niven (Penguin Books, 2005) 

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