Bundle of Joy (1956)

This is probably the worst film that we have seen so far.  A musical re-make of Bachelor Mother, it is not as thoroughly unwatchable as All Mine to Give, but it is painful to see how everyone involved in this mess mangled such as marvelous little film as Bachelor Mother.

I feared that this would be the case, which is why we haven’t watched Bundle of Joy until this year, when we had more spaces to fill on our holiday film schedule because of how early Thanksgiving fell.  It won’t be back on any list, even if Turkey Day were to be moved to November 1.

There is only one reason to watch this film — to learn what NOT to do.  In fact, a side-by-side comparison of some scenes from Bachelor Mother and Bundle of Joy would be very instructive.  And to keep you from having to watch the whole of this musical mess, I have posted the two scene comparisons on YouTube : Scene 1 in the park and Scene 2 with the spoons.

So how did such a wonderful story turn into such a painful travesty?  First, the producers decided to turn the story into a musical to showcase the talents of Eddie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds, who had been married the year before the film was made.  During the production, Reynolds apparently was in the early stages of her pregnancy that yielded Carrie Fisher.  Speaking of early stages, Debbie Reynolds claimed in her autobiography that director Norman Taurog began showing symptoms of Alzheimer’s during the production, which may explain a lot.

Since it was a musical, with five different songs, and the producers were still trying to keep the film close to the standard 90-minute length, much of the original script had to be cut, and what was cut proves devastating to the comedy and to the characterizations.

Fisher and Reynolds just can’t compare to David Niven and Ginger Rogers, though it must be remembered that Reynolds was just 24 when she made this film and had been in the movies for just six years. Rogers, in contrast, was 28 and had been a major star in dozens of pictures  by 1939.

While it may seem trivial, one of the most important omissions is the duck, a mechanical toy duck that not only appears at the beginning of Bachelor Mother but becomes a running gag and eventually a significant plot element at two stages in the film.  But in Bundle of Joy the duck is cut, probably for the musical numbers.  I would rather have the duck.

Though there are some fine character actors in Bundle, they also do not compare with the many fine folks in Bachelor Mother, and the mangled plot and the inattentive direction prevent the minor characters from shining.

PLOT SUMMARY

Department store worker Debbie Reynolds has been fired and while looking for a job sees a baby left on the doorstep of an orphanage, whose staff believe mistakenly that she is the mother. Protesting vehemently that she is not the mother, she rushes back to work but is traced to the department store, where the owner’s son (Eddie Fisher) insists that she admit the child is hers, offering her a job and higher salary to help the “unwed mother.” Reynolds reluctantly agrees and soon grows attached to the baby. Fisher begins falling for Rogers after a New Year’s Eve party, but when his father (Adolphe Menjou) mistakes the baby for his grandson, Fisher denies being the father.  When Menjou threatens to take his “grandson” from Reynolds, she attempts to flee with the child, only to be stopped by Fisher when he realizes that he loves both Reynolds and the baby and proposes marriage.

CHRISTMAS CONNECTION

It all takes place between the run-up to Christmas and New Year’s Day.

COMPARISON BETWEEN THE TWO VERSIONS

Here are two instructive examples of how to mangle good humor and character.

One of the loveliest scenes in Bachelor Mother is a New Year’s Day lunch between father and son, where the father accuses the son of not revealing that he has fathered the child he has just seen in the park.  There is an extended piece of business through the luncheon where Charles Coburn angrily throws a spoon across the room during his argument with David Niven, and the butler (E.E. Clive), who is out of the room for each spoon toss, is befuddled at the repeated disappearances of the spoon.

In Bundle of Joy, the scene is run with a far faster speed, and as a result the humor is drained from the business.  You will also notice that the butler gets less attention in the re-make.  Pace, patience and focus create the superior humor.

See the spoon scenes side by side on YouTube.

The second instructive scene, actually preceding the spoon episode, occurs in the park, where Niven and Rogers are with the baby on New Year’s Day.  The truncated script of Bundle omits a significant portion of the original where Niven and Rogers boast about their child’s accomplishments to another couple, even though earlier Rogers had denied the child and Niven soon would.  The 1950s had no room for irony, I guess.  Immediately following this, Charles Coburn arrives, having been told in an anonymouse letter that he had a grandson.  His interaction with the child has a quiet poignancy that is completely lacking from the bungled Bundle version. That omission not only eliminates some substance from the grandfather’s character, but it also diminishes the effectiveness of the unspoken reactions from the supposed mother and father.

See the park scenes side by side on YouTube.

CHARACTER ACTORS

Mary Treen (foundling home matron) appeared as Tilly in the Bailey Building & Loan Staff in It’s a Wonderful Life.

Adolphe Menjou (J.B. Merlin) had wonderful roles in The Front Page (1931), Morning Glory (1933), Stage Door (1937)and A Bill of Divorcement (1940).

Tommy Noonan (Freddie Miller) is perhaps best known as Marilyn Monroe’s fiancé in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953).  He had a nice small role as the jazz musician friend of Judy Garland in A Star Is Born (1954)

Nita Talbot ( Mary) was far better known for her TV roles.  She played Delfina on General Hospital (1981-82), made repeated appearances as Marya in Hogan’s Heroes (1966-71) and appeared on the short-lived Debby Reynolds Show (1969).

Howard McNear (Mr. Appleby with the orphanage) is best known as Floyd the barber in The Andy Griffith Show (1961-67).

Edward Brophy (dance contest judge) was previously seen in The Thin Man and It Happened on Fifth Avenue.  He will be seen next in Larceny, Inc. (1942).

Melville Cooper (Adams, the butler) had many wonderful roles in the 1930s and early 1940s, including The Last of Mrs. Cheyney (1937), The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), Rebecca (1940), Pride and Prejudice (1940) and The Lady Eve (1941).

Una Merkel ( Mrs. Dugan, the landlady) had roles in such classics as 42nd Street (1933), Broadway Melody of 1936 and Saratoga (1937).

Gil Stratton (Mike Clancy) appeared as Cooky in Stalag 17 (1953) and in the Ginger Rogers-Cary Grant comedy Monkey Business (1952).

ASTAIRE CONNECTION

Adolphe Menjou (J.B. Merlin) appeared with Fred Astaire in the film You Were Never Lovelier (1942).  Astaire mentions in his autobiography, Steps in Time, that he first met Menjou in 1925 when Fred and Adele were appearing at the Trocadero night club at 52nd St. and Seventh Avenue, just east of Broadway:

My first meeting with Adolphe Menjou came about at the club one night. He said, “Where did you get that suit? I like it.” He was referring to my tails, and I was pleased because Adolphe was noted as a dresser. I had not worn full dress much at that stage. My rash of tails started in the movies — years later.  (Steps in Time, p. 132)

This one of the few times that Fred and Adele did pure ballroom dancing.  They performed late nights after the curtain came down on their smash hit Lady, Be Good, their first show with the Gershwins, which was staged at the Liberty Theatre on 42nd Street.  They made $5,000 per week for the club appearance.

Here’s an advertisement that ran in the New Yorker magazine on May 2, 1925, for their Trocadero appearance:

The building had been several different night clubs during Prohibition.  Today the building is home to Rosie O’Grady’s.  The Trocadero would have been in the basement.

Melville Cooper  appeared with Fred Astaire in the film  Let’s Dance (1950).

Norman Taurog directed Astaire in Broadway Melody of 1940.

Debbie Reynolds worked with Astaire in Three Little Words (1950) and in his second non-musical film, The Pleasure of His Company (1961).  [The first was On the Beach (1959).]

WHY WE LOVE  HATE THIS MOVIE

A wonderful story is ruined by poor direction, script cuts, and weak acting.

WHERE CAN YOU SEE THE FILM

Turner Classic Movies shows this film nearly every December.  Skip it, unless you want to see how NOT to make a good movie.

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