Bachelor Mother

With touches of screwball comedy, this 1939 film has long been one of our favorites.  Starring Ginger Rogers and David Niven, it was the first film that Rogers made after completing her series of RKO musicals with Fred Astaire.  In her sometimes petulant autobiography, My Story, Rogers writes that she resisted being cast in the film at first because she thought the story was shallow.  Fortunately, producer Pandro Berman, who was responsible for all of the Astaire-Rogers films at RKO, pushed her to take it.  As directed by Garson Kanin, the film layers nice touches of cynicism and satire onto a romantic story, showcasing the deft comic talents of Rogers, Niven and a host of wonderful character actors.


It’s the last day of holiday shopping at the department store where Ginger Rogers works, and she has just gotten her termination notice, since she was a seasonal worker.  Out looking for a job during her lunch break, she sees a woman leave a baby on the doorstep of an orphanage.  Picking the child up, she is mistaken by the staff as 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 playboy son (David Niven) insists that she admit the child is hers, offering her a job and higher salary to help the “unwed mother.” Rogers reluctantly agrees and soon grows attached to the baby. Niven begins falling for Rogers after a New Year’s Eve party, but when his father (Charles Coburn) mistakes the baby for his grandson, Niven denies being the father in an ironic parallel to Rogers’s earlier attitude.  When Coburn threatens to take his “grandson” from Rogers, she attempts to flee with the child, only to be stopped by Niven when he realizes that he loves both Rogers and the baby and proposes marriage.


From a New York department store, city parks, a high-class Manhattan nightclub and a working-class dance hall, and a mini-Times Square celebration on New Year’s Eve, this movie covers a lot of classic New York territory.


This first-rate romantic comedy begins on Christmas Eve and continues through New Year’s Eve, New Year’s Day and beyond.  The Christmas theme of transformation runs throughout the film, as the lives of Rogers, Niven and Coburn are changed by the baby.


Beyond the story and the deft performances of Ginger Rogers and David Niven, this film belongs to the many character actors who add wonderful comic touches to nearly every scene.

Start with Ernest Truex (the link to yesterday’s film, All Mine to Give), who plays the investigator from the orphanage who tracks Rogers back to the department store. Before coming to Hollywood in 1933, Truex had been a popular comic actor on Broadway and in London.  He continued to appear on Broadway through the early 1960s, while creating a long list of distinctive characters in films and TV.  My favorites are his role as the poetry-writing reporter Bensinger in Howard Hawks’s His Girl Friday (1940) and the advertising executive in Preston Sturges’s Christmas in July (1940).

Charles Coburn, who plays the owner of the department store, is one of our favorite character actors.  He has an important role in another film set in New York: In Name Only (1939).

Other character actors who make appearances in this film include Frank Albertson (the obnoxious stock clerk).  We will see him as Sam Wainwright in It’s a Wonderful Life.

Irving Bacon, the employee on the store’s exchange desk in this film, will be seen in three more Christmas movies on our holiday list: Meet John Doe (1940), Holiday Inn (1942) and Good Sam (1948).

Chester Clute, who plays the competitive parent in the park, will also appear three more times on our cinema watch list: Remember the Night (1940), Larceny Inc. (1942) and It Happened on 5th Avenue (1947).

E.E. Clive, who plays the butler for Coburn and Niven, made a career out of playing distinct English characters in films such as The Little Princess (1939) and Pride and Prejudice (1940).


There are bunches of connections in Bachelor Mother to Fred Astaire’s career beyond the obvious link to Ginger Rogers.  David Niven was a lifelong friend of Astaire’s, who hosted the American Film Institute tribute to Astaire in 1981 and narrated the 13-part radio biography The Fred Astaire Story broadcast on the BBC in 1975.  (Thanks to the gracious folks at the Paley Center in New York, I had the chance to listen to the whole 13 hours of audiotapes, which provided some invaluable details for my research project.)

Uncredited in Bachelor Mother is Hermes Pan, who choreographed two big dance scenes for Rogers: the dance contest at the Pink Slipper early in the movie and the New Year’s Eve night club dancing.  Pan was the choreographer for all of the RKO Astaire-Rogers films.  He would work out all the routines with Astaire, taking Rogers’s part, and then he would teach Rogers the routines before full-scale rehearsals would start. Pan would continue to work with Astaire through the remainder of Fred’s dancing until the early 1960s. An informative biography, Hermes Pan: The Man Who Danced with Fred Astaire, was published in 2012.

Roy Webb, who did the musical score for Bachelor Mother, not only composed music for some of the late Astaire-Rogers musicals at RKO (such as Carefree and The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle), but he was also the music director for the Actors Equity Association benefit in 1920 where Fred appeared with his sister, Adele.

E.E. Clive, the butler, appeared as the customs inspector in the first big Astaire-Rogers film, The Gay Divorcee (1934). 

Another character actor in Bachelor Mother, Gerald Oliver Smith (who plays HR director Hennessy), appeared on Broadway with Astaire in Lady, Be Good! (1924).  He is probably best remembered by classic film devotees as the pickpocketed Englishman in Casablanca.


We are big fans of screwball comedies, so this film is one of our favorites, with its ironic reversals, bits of physical comedy, and clever dialogue. It’s one of several Christmas classics set in department stores: the others include Good Sam (1948) Holiday Affair (1949) and, of course, Miracle on 34th Street (1947).  You can probably add The Shop Around the Corner (1940) to that list as well, even though the setting is not a big American department store but a small leather goods shop in Budapest.

This year I particularly noticed the expressive comic acting and director Garson Kanin’s effective use of camera angles.  In the opening scene in the department store, we see the written termination notice for Ginger Rogers, before the camera pans up to show her face and her pained reaction.  Throughout the film as much is conveyed by the reactive expressions of Rogers, Niven, Coburn and the other character actors as by their words.  Watch the puzzled, double-takes of Rogers and Niven as they slowly realize that Coburn believes the baby is his grandson.  Then look for E.E. Clive’s befuddled face as a spoon keeps disappearing from the New Year’s Day luncheon table back at the Fifth Avenue mansion.  Such touches as these make this a film that holds up wonderfully on repeated viewings, so it will always remain on our Christmas list.

Note: Bundle of Joy (1956) is a musical remake, which we have always resisted watching because we love Bachelor Mother so much, but we finally watched it a few years ago. After watching Bundle of Joy, I was even more impressed by Bachelor Mother and the directorial and acting choices. To underscore the differences, I have posted comparative clips of the recognition scene in the park and the spoon scene.

It Happened on Fifth Avenue

We added this little film to our Christmas cinema catalog almost 10 years ago and fell in love with it right away.  It has several weak spots, and certainly doesn’t rank among the top-notch classics, but the characters and the situations are engaging, and the transformation of a mid-20th Century American Scrooge into a warm-hearted father and husband fits well with the season.


Aloysius T. McKeever and his dog sneak into a Fifth Avenue mansion, while its rich owner, Michael O’Connor, spends the winter in Bubbling Springs, VA. McKeever invites a down-on-his-luck veteran, Jim Bullock, who has been evicted by the O’Connor interests, to stay in the mansion, and as the days progress more sweet-hearted young needy folks move in as well, including O’Connor’s daughter, Trudy, who has run away from an unhappy boarding school where she has been living since her father and mother divorced four years earlier.  Hiding her identity from McKeever, Bullock and the others, Trudy is tracked down by her father, but she convinces him to move into the mansion, disguising himself as an old bum.  Trudy also convinces her mother, Mary, to come to the mansion in disguise as well.  We learn that Trudy’s parents still love each other but that Michael’s focus on controlling other people’s lives and making money has turned his attention away from love.  Learning lessons in humility from McKeever, O’Connor finally consents to his daughter’s marriage and assists Jim and his friends, so all ends happily, with McKeever walking down Fifth Avenue on his way to spend the spring at O’Connor’s mansion in Virginia.


The story begins in November and extends through Christmas and the New Year.  There is a tree decorating episode, and a warm-hearted Christmas Eve celebration.  The season’s spirit of transformation suffuses the story.


It’s not just the title with its reference to New York’s most famous avenue that connects this film to New York. It has several interesting exterior shots, especially in Central Park. I noticed this year in the background of one scene, a statue of a man and a dog. A little searching on the web and I found some interesting information about this statue. The final scene of Victor Moore walking south on Fifth Avenue next to Central Park just south of the MMA is one of our favorite walks in NYC.


Edward Brophy, who plays one of the security guards who interrupts the Christmas Eve party, is the link to yesterday’s film, The Thin Man (1934), where he played the gangster Morelli.  He appears in three other classic Christmas films: A Christmas Carol (1938), Larceny Inc. (1942) and Bundle of Joy (1956).

Ann Harding, who plays Mary O’Connor, also appears in Christmas Eve (1947).

Charlie Ruggles, who plays Michael O’Connor, was one of the funniest character actors in Hollywood, specializing in slightly pompous but endearing characters.  He played the March Hare in Alice in Wonderland (1933) and Egbert Floud in Ruggles of Red Gap (1935). He had a short-lived, eponymous TV series, The Ruggles, in 1949-50.  His best role was as big-game hunter Major Applegate in Bringing Up Baby (1938).

Gale Storm, who plays Trudy O’Connor, had a variety of film roles in the late 1940s and early 1950s, but her greatest fame came in early TV comedies: My Little Margie (1952-55) and The Gale Storm Show (1956-60), the later co-starring Zasu Pitts.

Victor Moore, who plays Aloysius T. McKeever, had a long show business career as a headliner in vaudeville, a star on Broadway and a wonderful character actor in Hollywood. (Look for more on him in the “Astaire Connections” section below.)

Alan Hale Jr., who plays buddy Whitey Temple, is best known as the Skipper in TV’s Gilligan’s Island.

Grant Mitchell, who plays O’Connor’s assistant Farrow, will appear twice more in our holiday film list: Larceny Inc. (1944) and The Man Who Came to Dinner (1942). He had a long career as a character actor, appearing in such classics as Dinner at Eight (1933), The Ex-Mrs. Bradford (1936), Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) and Arsenic and Old Lace (1944).

Chester Clute, who appears briefly as one of O’Connor’s aides is in four other films on our Christmas cinema list: Bachelor Mother (1938), Larceny Inc. (1944), Lady on a Train (1942) and Remember the Night (1940).

Charles Lane, who has a brief role as the landlord refusing to rent to the veteran families, had a long list of credits in movies and on TV, including some of the best Hollywood classics: Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), You Can’t Take It With You (1938), Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), Arsenic and Old Lace (1944), Twentieth Century (1934) and Ball of Fire (1941).  We will see him again in It’s a Wonderful Life (1946).


This movie may have more substantial Astaire connections than any we have seen so far. Victor Moore had one of his first headlining roles in vaudeville in 1905 at Proctor’s 23rd Street theatre, just a few blocks from the boarding house where the Astaires were living and two blocks from the Grand Opera House at Eighth Avenue and 23rd Street, where they were taking their first dance lessons.  Twenty years later, Moore would be the featured comedian in one of the Astaires’ biggest Broadway hits, George Gershwin’s Funny Face. A fellow member of the Lambs Club, Moore would appear with Astaire in the 1930 Lambs Gambol at the Metropolitan Opera House on April 27 and two years later at the Actors Dinner Club Ball on December 31, 1932.  Moore also appeared as Fred’s buddy in what many consider the finest Astaire-Rogers film, Swing Time (1936).

Charlie Ruggles appeared with the Astaires in their second Broadway revue, The Passing Show of 1918, and on a Shubert Sunday Concert bill at the Winter Garden theatre on October 16, 1918.

Grant Mitchell, appeared on three benefit bills with the Astaires: the Actors Equity Association on May 9, 1920, and May 1, 1921, and a Junior League Benefit on January 19, 1928. Mitchell also had a small role in Fred’s first movie, Dancing Lady (1933).

Abe Reynolds, who does a turn in It Happened on Fifth Avenue as Finkelstein the second-hand clothing merchant, is actually reprising his bit as the Jewish tailor in Swing Time (1936) in an extended scene with Victor Moore.


The scenes in New York, especially as Moore walks down Fifth Avenue near Central Park at the end of the film, pull at our heartstrings. While the movie can be a bit sappy, it also creates a warm little world that you are sad to leave, which for me is the mark of any successful story.

Comfort & Joy

We often start our holiday film viewing with this quirky little comedy by director Bill Forsyth, whose best-known film is probably Local Hero (1983). Even though Comfort & Joy is one of the outlier films this year (i.e., with no connection to New York City) we always include it on our Christmas watchlist because it is so charming and because of the soundtrack by Mark Knopfler.


Scottish disc jockey Alan “Dickie” Bird is a local celebrity whose private life has come unraveled when his kleptomaniac girlfriend suddenly leaves him. Looking for some new direction, he stumbles into a Glasgow “ice cream war” between competing ice cream truck companies (Mr. McCool vs. Mr. Bunny), who vandalize each other’s trucks and even Dickie’s precious red BMW sports car. Caught up in the madness, Dickie mediates the feud and eventually suggests a cooperative business: ice cream fritters.


The film begins with a scene in a department store bustling with holiday shoppers, and it ends on Christmas day with Dickie Bird at the radio station spinning records and tales for his loyal audience.


The soundtrack by Mark Knopfler is jazzy and clever, with an allusion to The Godfather that fits the film’s satire. One track on the soundtrack album is called “A Fistful of Ice Cream,” echoing an old Clint Eastwood western. Comfort & Joy also includes repeated brief cuts from Knopfler’s Love Over Gold album by Dire Straits, and for aficionados a quick quote from one of the lyrics. (Barbara wants to ask Mark Knopfler, should we ever meet him in a bar, if he also wrote Mr. Bunny’s ice cream truck tune.) But mostly we just love this charming, funny and wistful story with its amusing characters. See if you can catch an allusion to The Godfather Part 2 in a piece of business in the confectioner’s shop. There is also an allusion to a classic Marx Brothers bit from A Night at the Opera when the station manager asks his secretary to find out if there is a “sanity clause” in Dickie Bird’s contract.


Sorry to say, but I can’t seem to find this movie on Netflix, Amazon Prime, etc.  You can purchase used VHS tapes via Amazon.  Be careful! The DVD available on Amazon is non-USA format, and there is a 2003 made-for-TV movie by the same name that is available in loads of places, but it has no connection (other than title) to Bill Forsyth’s film.  You can see a short clip on YouTube and also listen to a track from the album with some sample scenes from the film. There is also a lovely, lengthy review of the film here:

Holiday Inn


Holiday Inn is one of many must-see Christmas classics, primarily because it was the film that introduced the all-time best secular Christmas song, Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas.”  Directed by Mark Sandrich, who also directed half of the Astaire-Rogers musicals at RKO: The Gay Divorcee (1934), Top Hat (1935), Follow the Fleet (1936), Shall We Dance (1937) and Carefree (1938).  This was the first of two films that Astaire would do with Bing Crosby, the other being Blue Skies (1946). Sandrich was to direct that movie as well, but he died of a heart attack at age 44 just as production began.


Robert Homans, who plays Pop (the studio guard at the end of the film) appeared as the police sergeant in Beyond Tomorrow. He had tiny roles in hundreds of films, often as policemen or guards, including Angels with Dirty Faces (1938), Dead End (1937), Stella Dallas (1937) and one of my favorite screwball comedies, Easy Living (1937) with Jean Arthur and Edward Arnold.

Irving Bacon, who plays Gus the hapless driver, appeared in Meet John Doe (1941) and was also in Bachelor Mother.

Walter Abel, who plays the agent Danny Reed, appeared in an interesting film,Skylark (1941) with Claudette Colbert and Ray Milland, which was also directed by Mark Sandrich.

Louise Beavers was seldom allowed to get far beyond parts as housekeepers or maids, but she always brought dignity, wisdom and a grand sense of humor to her roles in such films as Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House (1948) and Shadow of the Thin Man (1941). Her best role was in Imitation of Life (1934), where she moved far beyond the stereotype to a part of three-dimensional substance. She appeared in Good Sam (1948).

Leon Belasco, who plays the flower shop owner, appeared as a musician in It Happened on Fifth Avenue (1947). He may be familiar as the dealer at Rick’s in Casablanca (1942) or the poolside waiter in My Favorite Wife (1940), but he appeared in hundreds of film and TV roles.

Julia Faye, who plays the guest at the inn on New Year’s Eve who insists on dancing with Bing Crosby, was born in my hometown, Richmond, Va. in 1892. She appeared briefly in Remember the Night (1940) as a member of the jury. During her long career, she was best known as a silent star and mistress of Cecil B. DeMille, and she continued to appear in films that he directed through The Ten Commandments (1956).


Karin Booth, who plays the hat check girl on New Year’s Eve, appeared in Ziegfeld Follies (1945), which included several Astaire dance numbers.

Brooks Benedict appeared in three Astaire films: Follow the Fleet (1936), The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle (1939) and The Sky’s the Limit (1943). He also appeared in Remember the Night (1940), It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) and The Lemon Drop Kid (1951).


First and most of all: FRED ASTAIRE.  We specifically love the “Say It with Firecrackers” number for the Fourth of July and his comic dance routines on New Year’s Eve (“You’re Easy to Dance With”) and Washington’s Birthday (“I Can’t Tell a Lie”).  We all know how well he could dance sober, but could anyone dance better drunk?  In his autobiography, Steps in Time, Astaire recounts how he took two stiff shots of bourbon before the first take, and another before each of the six succeeding takes.

Meet John Doe

Though a mostly dark and troubling movie, this film by Frank Capra has long been one of my favorites. I adore Barbara Stanwyck, who appears three times in our Christmas cinema catalog in indispensable films: Remember the Night (1939) and Christmas in Connecticut (1945) are the other two. Gary Cooper does a magnificent job as the shy, tongue-tied tramp who becomes a national hero and is exposed as a fake but then gains a confident voice. He stars in Good Sam (1948) also on the holiday watch list. There are many echoes of Capra’s other Christmas classic, It’s a Wonderful Life (1946,) in this masterful film, which layers a large group of fine character actors onto its meaningful story.


Fired from her newspaper job, Barbara Stanwyck writes one last column, a fake letter from an unemployed man named John Doe, who threatens to commit suicide by jumping from the top of city hall on Christmas Eve.  The fake letter causes a sensation, and Stanwyck convinces the corporate baron with political ambitions who now owns the paper to find someone to pretend to be the John Doe who wrote the letter.  Gary Cooper, an unemployed baseball player, agrees to the charade and soon becomes a national sensation reading speeches written by Stanwyck about the nation’s problems.  The John Doe Movement becomes a juggernaut, funded by the corporate baron (Edward Arnold), who plans to use it to be elected president.  Cooper threatens to reveal the manipulation, but before he can Arnold exposes him as the fraud.  Months later, the depressed and defeated Cooper aims to commit suicide, as the fake letter had promised, to resurrect the John Doe Movement.


Though much of the action takes place in a large city, it is clearly not New York, as at one point D.B. Norton says that holding the John Doe Convention in the city will “put it on the map.”


The closing portion of the movie takes place on Christmas Eve, as John Doe’s friends and enemies all try to stop him from committing suicide by jumping from the top of city hall at midnight. There is a large but lonely Christmas tree in D.B. Norton’s mansion, and a group of carolers outside, and a few Christmas decorations in the vacant lobby of city hall on Christmas Eve.


Irving Bacon, who plays Beany, was seen as Gus the cab driver in Holiday Inn. He appears in Bachelor Mother (1939) and in Good Sam (1948), also with Gary Cooper. Pat Flaherty, the Chronicle agent who tries to bribe Gary Cooper appeared in The Lemon Drop Kid (1951) and The Thin Man.

Rod La Rocque, who played the Broadway producer in Beyond Tomorrow (1940), appears here as Ted Sheldon, the nephew of D.B. Norton.

Edward Arnold, who plays baron D.B. Norton, was a favorite player of malevolent roles for Frank Capra, appearing in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) and You Can’t Take It With You (1938).

Regis Toomey, who plays Bert, one of the John Doe Movement followers, had roles in numerous classic films, including The Big Sleep (1946) and His Girl Friday (1940). He also appeared in Come to the Stable (1949) and The Bishop’s Wife (1948).

J. Farrell MacDonald, who plays Sourpuss, is on our holiday watch list in Christmas Eve (1947), The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (1943), and It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) as the owner of the tree hit by Jimmy Stewart.

Cyril Thornton, who plays D.B. Norton’s butler, shows up in The Thin Man (1934) as Tanner the accountant.

Gene Lockhart, who plays the mayor, plays Bob Cratchit in the 1938 version of A Christmas Carol and also appears as the judge in Miracle on 34th Street (1947).

James Gleason, who plays Henry, the new editor of the Bulletin, appears in The Bishop’s Wife (1948) as the cab driver, Sylvester. He also appeared in Capra’s Arsenic and Old Lace (1944). One of his best roles was as boxing manager Max Corkle in Here Comes Mr. Jordan (1941). Gleason had worked on Broadway after World War I as an actor, director, and playwright. With the coming of sound films, he moved to Hollywood, where he co-wrote the screenplay for the first film musical, The Broadway Melody (1929).

Walter Brennan, who plays the Colonel, won three Best Supporting Actor Oscars. Meet John Doe is one of four movies he did with Gary Cooper: Sergeant York (1941), The Pride of the Yankees, (1942) and The Westerner (1940).

Sterling Holloway, who plays Dan the cook in the diner who recognizes John Doe, appears in Remember the Night (1940), also with Barbara Stanwyck. His distinctive voice made him a favorite cartoon voice artist, including roles as the Cheshire Cat in Alice and Wonderland (1951) and Winnie the Pooh.

Warren Hymer, who plays Angelface, appeared with Gary Cooper as Kid Mulligan in the Lubitsch comedy Blackbeard’s Eighth Wife (1938) and as a bodyguard in Capra’s Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936).

Charles Wilson, who has a small part as Dawson, appeared as the newspaper editor in Capra’s It Happened One Night (1934), Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936) and It’s a Wonderful Life (1946).

Edward McWade, who plays Joe the newspaper layout technician early in the film, appears in Capra’s Arsenic and Old Lace (1944) and as a stage doorman in Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942).

Harry Holman, who plays the mayor of Millville, is the high school principal in It’s a Wonderful Life (1946). For Capra, he also played the auto camp manager in It Happened One Night (1934).

Ann Doran, who plays Regis Toomey’s wife, appeared in several Capra films: Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), You Can’t Take It with You (1938) and Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936).  She had a small role in His Girl Friday (1940), but her most notable role was as James Dean’s mother in Rebel Without a Cause (1955).


Walter Brennan appeared with Astaire in The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle (1939). Gene Lockhart appeared with Astaire at the Actors Dinner Club Ball at the Waldorf-Astoria on December 31, 1932.

Edward McWade appeared with Astaire as the army induction doctor in You’ll Never Get Rich (1941)

James Gleason was a fellow member of The Lambs Club and appeared with Astaire in the club’s 1925 Spring Gambol at the Metropolitan Opera House.


Each time I watch this film there are three scenes that absolutely blow me away. First is James Gleason’s drunken scene with Gary Cooper that starts the film’s final sequence. Gleason mixes the comic business of repeatedly trying to light a broken cigarette while he explains to Cooper the John Doe conspiracy and his love for American democracy. It is one of three long, serious monologues at the end of the film, but Capra’s layering it with small comic touches is one of his techniques that make me admire his filmmaking so much. The crowd scene at the rainy stadium where we see how Cooper is betrayed by those who were trying to use him and shunned by his former supporters and friends is both painful to watch but an admirable piece of filmmaking. Capra, who is a master of intimate scenes, shows himself capable of creating powerful crowd segments as well. The rain-soaked mass of humanity reminds me of the downpour in the run-on-the-bank scene in It’s a Wonderful Life. There’s another weather echo with It’s a Wonderful Life in Meet John Doe’s closing scene atop the snowy city hall, connecting with the snowy bridge suicide attempt in It’s a Wonderful Life. The quiet, resigned but confident voice of Gary Cooper, the anguished cries of Barbara Stanwyck, and the pleading apologies of Ann Doran and Regis Toomey make this one of the most powerful closings of any film on our Christmas cinema watch list. And I always love the cocky confidence of James Gleason’s prophetic last line: “There you are Norton … the people. Try and lick that!”