Christmas Watch: Bachelor Mother (1939)

Join us Tuesdays and Thursdays in December for our Christmas Watch. Each time you comment and share a post, you are entered into a drawing to win a free paperback of your choice from Bear Manor Media. Today, Adam and Rodney look at an RKO comedy from '39.

A: Polly Parrish (Ginger Rogers) has a temporary job in the toy section of Merlin’s Department Store. On the day that she’s notified that her employment will be terminated, she comes across an infant being placed on the doorstep of a foundling home. Delivering the baby safely inside, the social workers assume Polly is the mother. This sets up a series of misunderstandings between Polly, the orphanage, and the owner of the department store (Charles Coburn) and his ne’er-do-well son, David Merlin (David Niven).


This movie is snappily written and directed with a script by 30-year-old Norman Krasna and direction by 27-year-old wunderkind Garson Kanin. Both New Yorkers had worked at Macy’s prior to show business which is evident in the empathy they display towards the downtrodden store clerks. They also show an equal amount of disdain towards the out-of-touch management.


R: I completely agree with your assessment that the movie is snappy. I absolutely loved this and can’t believe that I’ve somehow managed to never see it before. It’s a borderline screwball comedy, but it never really teeters off that edge. It’s sweet and full of heart. Apparently a lot of actors were considered for the Niven role, including Cary Grant, and while I cannot deny that I had some thoughts while watching the movie about how Grant would do, I don’t think he’d be quite as understated as Niven was. Apparently Ginger Rogers wasn’t interested in the role and didn’t soften regarding it in later years but knowing how things were in the studio system days, she didn’t really have much of a choice. She was positively delightful and got a few nice dance numbers in anyway.


A: This leads me to my favorite scene in the film, where the younger Merlin attempts the seemingly simple chore of exchanging a broken toy at his own store. The derisive laugh—akin to a rusty spring bouncing—that Ginger Rogers emits toward the cocky David Niven is so utterly perfect.


Bills, bills, bills.

R: By the way, did you notice a bit of product placement for a certain Donald Duck toy? Probably of no surprise to any of our readers, but Disney wasn’t always the entertainment juggernaut that it is today, so it was great promotion for both Disney and RKO who distributed Disney product as well for everyone’s favorite (or second favorite) cartoon duck to have such a pivotal role in the movie.


A: I’ve been on an Eleanor Powell kick lately, so I just recently saw Buddy Ebsen wear shirts emblazoned with Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck respectively in Broadway Melody of 1936 and Broadway Melody of 1938. I thought to myself that it was a unique bit of advertising. I guess it wasn’t that unique!


Thinking more on it, my absolute favorite scene in the movie is when David introduces the shy Polly as his Swedish girlfriend at the New Year’s Eve party. They speak the best faux-Swedish I’ve heard since the SCTV Ingmar Bergman parody, “Whispers of the Wolf.” Niven and Rogers play off each other so perfectly when he “teaches” her the English expression “Appy Neww Jear.”

That New Year’s Eve scene culminates in that beautiful moment when Rogers is dropped off at her apartment building, and Niven coaxes her into one last kiss in honor of Central Time Zone. OK, without a doubt, that was my favorite scene in the film.


R: One thing worth noting is that apparently, the Hays office nixed a final line in the film. Does anyone have any idea what it was? I’d love to know, since so much of this movie seemed to be just on the edge of getting the ol’ censorship treatment. Pretty risqué stuff for movies in 1939. I kept wondering just how much more they’d get away with.


Barbara Pepper's lonely hearts club band.

A: I would be curious to look at the shooting script. In an interview with Pat McGilligan, Krasna mentions the Code actually stimulated his creativity although he did run afoul the censors with The Flame of New Orleans a couple years after this film.


I can’t help it, I’m always interested in the bit players. The enthusiastic dancehall hostess who David Niven drags across the floor caught my eye. She is Barbara Pepper, probably best known for her later television work, especially a recurring role in Green Acres. However, it was her early Harlow-esque role in Our Daily Bread that was lodged in my memory. Sadly, her film career had more downs than ups. In 1942, Louella Parsons bluntly wrote that Pepper “…got so fat she literally ate her way out of pictures” before reducing back down and marrying actor and decorated Marine Craig Reynolds. The couple had two sons before he was killed in a motor scooter crash in 1949. Pepper credited her long-time friend and fellow Goldwyn Girl, Lucille Ball, with helping her cope with the loss. Although she never remarried, she did manage to reinvent herself as a character actress and had a steady stream of work until her death at the age of 54. But I digress…

Rogers and Niven in shock over our glowing review.

Krasna’s script and Kanin’s direction is marvelous. Each scene goes in unexpected directions and is spiked with brilliant comic bits. The scene where Niven and Coburn argue at the dinner table could have been cut and dry. Typically, a moment like this serves to simply escalate the conflict and advance the plot. But Krasna introduces a butler into the mix, and Kanin sets the pace of the actors by this butler’s frequent comings and goings. There’s silence when the butler is in the dining room; hysterics as soon as he leaves. Then Coburn starts bouncing spoons off the table to punctuate his tirade. The butler, upon his return, is flummoxed by the missing spoons. It’s these above-and-beyond moments that make this movie so enjoyable. I’m being stingy when I merely give this one the coveted sable coat. It’s that good!


R: Like you, Adam, I have seen a LOT of movies and sometimes it’s easy to get kind of jaded. It’s such a treat and pleasure when a movie comes out of nowhere and completely blows you away like this one did for me. I’d happily give this a sable coat, and in a certain kind of mood, I could even add two gold rings.

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