Ginger Rogers! But instead of her longtime co-star Fred Astaire, a bouncing baby boy.
Ginger Rogers wasn’t sure that the script for Bachelor Mother was going to make a very good movie.
See, she had just wrapped filming her ninth picture alongside her beloved co-star Fred Astaire (a real snoozer called The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle) and was looking for a break from the worn out routine they’d developed over many films. So she was interested in working on something completely different – and Astaire-free.
But the script by Norman Krasna had some concerning elements, particularly in the light of the social mores of the day. It seemed all too obvious that audiences would frown on several sticky plot points in the story – a single, working shop girl discovers an abandoned baby and when she helps the child everyone around her thinks that she’s the mother. Add to that a very real concern that the character she was to play seemed too one dimensional and it appeared that Bachelor Mother wasn’t going to make it out of pre-production.
Bachelor Mother was a Box Office hit in 1939 though it was stacked up against some of the biggest Box Office hits in movie history.
But Ms. Rogers listened to the advice of many around her who assured her that this was the perfect vehicle to showcase her comedic talents outside of her usual song and dance routines. And showcase her talents it did as she and co-stars David Niven, Charles Coburn and Frank Albertson delivered a snappy comedy that was a Box Office hit in 1939.
Now 1939 was the magnificent year that films like Mr. Smith Goes To Washington, The Wizard of Oz, Goodbye Mr. Chips, Stagecoach, Dark Victory, Ninotchka and of course Gone With The Wind dominated the Box Office, so a small romantic comedy like Bachelor Mother competing with these Box Office behemoths from 1939 was no small feat. In fact, not getting lost in the shuffle alongside these beloved film classics speaks volumes about the movie and the star power of Ginger Rogers.
David Niven had been holding down supporting roles for years and was thrilled at the chance to star alongside Ginger Rogers.
But sadly, over many years, Bachelor Mother has become somewhat lost to time. If you were to bring up most any of the above films in conversation there would generally be some recognition, though they’re all over 80 years old. However, now only film buffs and classic movie channel watchers will recall this delightful little comedy, and that’s a shame.
So what is it about? Why is it worth a rediscovery? Well let me give you Five Reasons –
1. Though you wouldn’t know it from the title, it’s a Christmas Movie
Well, okay, so that’s not totally accurate. The fact is the movie is set around the holidays but otherwise doesn’t really have much to do with Christmas. Though to be fair that’s true for many films that pass as “Christmas Movies” these days. Create a harmless little love triangle, set it somewhere near a small town, add snow and poof! A Christmas movie. So in that sense Bachelor Mother sort of fits the bill. But really the time of year just provides the backdrop for the humor that is really more to do with mistaken understanding and identity.
Bachelor Mother also features famed character actor Charles Coburn. At the time critics wrote that Coburn was “one of the few actors alive who could steal a scene from a baby”.
2. The great Charles Coburn is up to his hilarious antics
One of classic Hollywood’s best loved character actors, Charles Coburn is a delight in the role of J.B. Merlin in Bachelor Mother. It was the kind of role that Coburn repeated again and again in his long career to great effect. Here he’s the wealthy business executive and father to a son (played by David Niven) who doesn’t seem ready to make him a Grandfather – something he longs for. As the mistaken identities begin to unravel, Coburn delivers one of the movie’s many standout one-liners:
“I don’t care who the father is, I’m the grandfather!”
Coburn went on the win an Oscar for best actor in a supporting role for 1943’s The More The Merrier further solidifying his credentials as one of Hollywood’s go-to character actors.
Bundle of Joy was a remake of Bachelor Mother starring then husband and wife Debbie Reynolds and Eddie Fisher.
3. The movie was so well received that it was remade as a musical
If Hollywood has taught us anything it’s that if something succeeds once, you must try to make it succeed again. Hence so many sequels and reboots and cinematic universes, etc. Bachelor Mother was actually a remake of a German picture called Little Mother in 1935 which had been a moderate success. But since Bachelor Mother was so well regarded, Hollywood determined to repackage it and sell it again. In 1956 the story would be reborn as Bundle of Joy and would star real life husband and wife Debbie Reynolds and Eddie Fisher. But where Bachelor Mother had been clever and understated, Bundle of Joy was kitschy and contrived – though one or two of the musical numbers are worth remembering.
Ginger Rogers and… Frank Albertson? Yes! And what a delightful scene from Bachelor Mother.
4. Though she doesn’t dance with Fred Astaire, Frank Albertson proves a worthy stand in
Of course audiences had come to expect Ginger Rogers to dance. After all, she’d starred alongside Fred Astaire in nine movies with the tenth and final pairing, The Barkleys of Broadway, coming in 1949. In fact their films together were so iconic that one would rarely hear their names uttered without the other – Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire! Or, if you prefer – Fred and Ginger!
So the producers at RKO wanted to include at least something of Ms. Rogers dancing in Bachelor Mother as a nod to her fans. What followed was a memorable dance contest sequence featuring she and her co-star in the film, Frank Albertson. It’s no Rogers/Astaire pairing but the scene proved enjoyable and fans of her dancing skills seemed satisfied.
Ginger Rogers was no one-trick pony. Yes she was a magnificent dancer, but a terrific actress and comedienne as well.
5. Though let’s be honest, the film works because of Ms. Rogers sublime abilities – both as actress and comedienne
Yes, the script by Norman Krasna is clever and funny with some outrageous situations created from mistaken identity and false assumptions. Also yes, the co-stars in the picture hold their own with some great bits and memorable wordplay. And even yes again, since the movie was made in 1939 Bachelor Mother was taking some risks depicting a single mother in the workforce trying to make ends meet. But the truth is, the film is worth a rediscovery mostly because of Ginger Rogers and her fun portrayal of Polly Parrish.
The very next year Ms. Rogers would begin to receive further acclaim for her acting prowess winning the best actress Oscar for her performance in Kitty Foyle which is a lovely film with much to recommend it. But for a rediscovery today I chose Bachelor Mother precisely because this is the film where Ginger Rogers truly began to step out on her own. Sadly now many don’t think of her as an actress in her own right usually pigeonholing her into simply being Fred Astaire’s sidekick – but she was honestly so much more as Bachelor Mother wonderfully demonstrates.
It’s a New Year’s Eve party and Ginger Rogers and David Niven just can’t seem to celebrate. But as with all good comedies of the era, it turns out well in the end.
So today for your Movie Treasures Rediscovered consideration, I present to you Bachelor Mother from 1939. I think this is a perfect film to demonstrate that there are movies out there which are rarely discussed that bear a rediscovery. It’s easy to find for streaming and a perfect little holiday treat. And if you are unfamiliar with Ginger Rogers work outside of her partnership with Fred Astaire, then this will give you an ideal introduction. Enjoy!