Bachelor Mother (1939)

Film Review

BACHELOR MOTHER

Release Date: 4 August, 1939

Studio: RKO

Director: Garson Kanin

Stars: Ginger Rogers, David Niven, Charles Coburn, Frank Albertson

Writers: Norman Krasna (screenplay), Felix Jackson (story)

Cinematographer: Robert De Grasse

Special Notes: TCM Classic Film Festival, 2014

Bachelor Mother was shown as part of the Single Mothers theme at the 2014 TCM Classic Film Festival. The guest speaker was comedian Greg Proops.

Further Reading

Her Sister's Secret (1946) looks at unwed motherhood dramatically and poignantly. In the pre-code Bachelor Father (1931), the unwed father and his illegitimate children are indifferent to the situation.

Synopsis

Polly Parrish (Rogers) attempts to stop a woman from abandoning her baby on the steps of a foundling home. As Polly stoops over the child, the attendants of the home come out and mistake her for the mother. The well-meaning attendants insist that Polly keep the baby, but she leaves without him. The attendants find the department store where Polly works and come to demand that she take back the baby. David Merlin (Niven), son of the store's owner, insists that she keep the baby and, to help her out, raises her salary. Reluctantly, Polly takes the baby home. Polly's male co-workers have varying responses to the baby, but they all believe the child is Polly's. Freddie Miller (Albertson), a co–worker interested in Polly, initially is floored by the news and then frightened to be suspected as the father. David is sympathetic and brings the baby gifts. Mother instinct slowly overwhelms her, and Polly accepts the child as her own. David, attracted to her, realizes she is a fine young woman. J.B. Merlin (Coburn), David's father, finds out that his son has visited Polly and the baby and decides the child must be his grandson. J.B. wants a grandchild and refuses to believe that the child is not David's. He threatens legal action to take the baby. Polly and David acknowledge their love, let J.B. believe he is a grandfather, and plan to wed.

Discussion

The unwed mother theme would seem problematic for approval by the Hays office, enforcers of the production code. The film gets around code restrictions by deft plotting, amusing and polished dialogue, delicate direction, skillful acting, and a total lack of suggestiveness. After the baby is thrust upon her and she accepts him, Rogers has two main difficulties, the expense of his care and the social stigma of unwed motherhood. A good marriage is the best solution to these problems and the ideal husband soon appears in the person of David Niven, sympathetic, handsome, and rich. The plot thereafter focuses on getting the main characters together with the unusual twist that they accept, as their child, a baby who is not theirs. The addition of a prospective grandfather who insists that the baby is his grandson drives the outcome. All works out, and Rogers gets a worthy, rich man for herself and the baby.

In a nice touch, the stigma of unwed parenthood is applied to men as well as the woman. Albertson’s character is horrified by the prospect of illicit fatherhood and responsibility for the child.

Ginger Rogers is appealing and sympathetic as the woman with a baby thrust upon her. David Niven, handsome and charming, displays his cultured voice and relaxed demeanor. Charles Coburn provides able comic support and is very funny in the scene when he recognizes a family trait on the child. He is bound and determined that the baby is his grandson nothing will dissuade him.

On release, the film was very successful, and Rogers' transition from being Fred Astaire's dancing partner to star comedienne was completed.

The story originated in the film Kleine Mutti (Little Mother, 1935) an Austrian-Hungarian production starring Franciska Gaal, directed by Hermann Kosterlitz (aka Henry Koster) and written by Felix Joachimson (Felix Jackson). Kosterlitz and Joachimson began their film careers in their native Germany, left the country after the rise of the Nazi party, and continued their careers in France and other European countries before immigrating to America. After arriving in Hollywood, each man Americanized his name. Jackson was nominated in 1940 for an Academy Award for Best Writing, Original Story for Bachelor Mother. RKO executives rejected the original title, Little Mother (the working title of the film), as not commercial and likely to cause customers to stay away.

During his long career from 1933-1980, Garson Kanin achieved great success as a writer and director on Broadway and in Hollywood. Kanin's career as a film director began at RKO with the highly regarded sentimental dramas, A Man to Remember (1938), written by Dalton Trumbo, and The Great Man Votes (1939), starring John Barrymore. Bachelor Mother was his fourth film for the studio. He subsequently made the enjoyable comedies My Favorite Wife (1940) with Cary Grant and Irene Dunne, and Tom, Dick and Harry (1941) with Ginger Rogers. Except for two offbeat films made in 1969, Tom, Dick and Harry was the last film Kanin directed. During WWII he made documentaries; after the war, he turned to screenwriting, although he continued to direct for the stage.

Guest Introduction

Greg Proops described Bachelor Mother as an overlooked and delightful film about a working girl threatened with losing her job, who requires men to believe her story, and they do not, with a witty and clever script, deftly directed. Rogers was funny, a sensational comedian, able to handle herself in comedy situations, and her dynamic presence prevents the film from slipping into over-sentimentality. The phrase "never say die" covers the magnitude of Rogers. Charles Coburn performs his usual heavy lifting in character acting. Niven's character is nice, but dumb; he plays the nitwit well. Niven's persona was debonair, aided by an excellent cultured voice and delivery. He wears a top hat well.

Greg Proops

References

Garson Kanin, a Writer and Director of Classic Movies and Plays, Is Dead at 86. New York Times. March 14, 1999.