Bachelor Mother (1939)

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  • directed by Garson Kanin
  • starring Ginger Rogers, David Niven, Charles Coburn, Frank Albertson, Ferike Boros, E. E. Clive
  • A fun-loving shop girl is mistaken for the mother of an abandoned baby.

Polly: Oh don’t leave me alone. I won’t know what to say to these people.

David Merlin: Just say no to the men and the women won’t talk to you anyway.

The very funny and enjoyable Bachelor Mother was comparable to Bringing Up Baby in terms of its sheer defiance in the face of realism or believability, which says something because that film centered on two live leopards and a dead dinosaur. But that’s the essence of an effective screwball comedy. In this case, the story of Polly and her new unexpected son, John, ticked forward only as a result of either a misunderstanding or because one character simply refused to listen to or believe what the other was saying. It’s the one thing that I find most irritating about screwball comedies—the fact that the entirety of the story hangs by a thread and all it takes is one semi-reasonable reaction from a character–to say “wait a minute what the hell are all you guys talking about”– and the whole yarn falls apart and ceases to exist.

There’s no denying though that a good screwball comedy full of confident and charismatic performances and better than average writing can overcome all of the nonsense. With Bachelor Mother, once you get over the hurdle of accepting that a woman can gain a baby just by walking down the street and then have personal circumstances align in such a way that she is now forced to keep it, then you’re free to enjoy what was a feel-good movie with strong comedic performances from the entire cast.

During the holiday season, Polly Parrish gets laid off of her job manning the Donald Duck toy counter in Merlin’s department store, one of a few creative details that added a lot of whimsy to the film. Donald Duck was just five years old at this point and had only appeared in a handful of animated shorts. I was curious, thinking that the heavy featuring of his toy line was just a promotional aspect of the RKO-Disney distribution deal that was in place, but one of his statuettes actually ends up playing a brilliantly conceived key role in the film’s conclusion. Anyway, as the story goes, she is within arms length of an abandoned baby as the orphanage’s doors swing open and the facility doesn’t believe it isn’t hers. One official takes it upon himself to get her job back for her so she can keep supporting “her child.” When this works and she grabs herself a raise in the process, obviously there’s no way out of mothering this strange baby forever.

Rogers was very funny and charming here and she gave Polly a kind of snarky and edgy attitude, which was put to good use while having to accept her lifestyle being revamped in such a ridiculous, extreme way. If that isn’t enough, then of course they couldn’t resist shoehorning in two dance sequences, showing off Rogers’ greatest skill. One of the best parts of Bachelor Mother for me was that Rogers was surrounded by a group of supporting characters that were given rounded personalities outside of the film’s main thread. There were a lot of brief comical side moments, wedged between dialogue or elsewhere, that gave the feeling that the characters—the butler, Polly’s coworker Mary, the landlady, her son, Freddie, and J.B. Merlin–were actual people dealing with their own issues on top of being dragged into this baby mess. Considering all these great and hilarious performances, I’m left most impressed by what Niven was able to do as David Merlin, a guy who had no business existing in the confines of this story at all and was forced into the forefront by silly excuse after excuse. As a former employer that wanted nothing to do with Polly baby drama, he sure did casually wander into the middle of it a lot.

I felt the same about Niven’s performance that I did for the movie on the whole, which is that I’m going to ignore all of these weak attempts at dot-connecting, because everything else is working so well. That’s the bottom line on Bachelor Mother, and my feelings about the screwball comedy philosophy in general. I can and did enjoy a film like Midnight, but after a certain point the B.S. element started to overshadow what was working. Bringing Up Baby, the most absurd film of them all, worked because silliness was only one of a few different levels in which it was operating—there were gender identity issues being explored and onscreen chemistry happening at its highest level. Bachelor Mother wasn’t even smart enough to touch on the dark side of its own premise—child abandonment—but the writing was sharp, the comedy worked, it was all in perfect balance, and then there was probably it’s most valuable aspect–it had Ginger Rogers and David Niven in it.

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About classixquest
all the things I should have seen

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