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.
NEW YORK CONNECTION
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.
WHY WE LOVE THIS MOVIE
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.