Program Notes: Bachelor Mother (1939)

During the heyday of the Motion Picture Production Code (1930-1968), there were certain things that just couldn’t happen in an American movie.

You couldn’t get away with murder, since the code demanded that criminals be punished before the lights came up.

Bathrooms in Hollywood movies didn’t have toilets...at least you never saw one on screen.

A man and wife couldn’t share a single bed. Twin beds were the order of the day, and should members of the opposite sex find themselves occupying the same horizontal space, at least one of the gentleman’s feet must be planted firmly on the floor.

For that matter, you couldn’t discuss sex, much less show it. Even “excessive or lustful kissing” was prohibited.

Film Screening:
Bachelor Mother (1939)
Saturday, Jan. 11 at 1:30 p.m.
Central Library

Today it all sounds ludicrous, but back then the Production Code exercised immense power in Hollywood, guaranteeing that any movie released by a major studio would be suitable for everyone from Junior to Grandma.

Hollywood, being Hollywood, found ways to get around it.

Bachelor Mother (1939) is a prime example of a production that cannily employed comedy to dance through forbidden territory.

Ginger Rogers (a native of Independence, Missouri, and by 1939 a veteran of five hit musicals with Fred Astaire) plays Polly Parrish, a single gal working a short-term Christmas job at a big Manhattan department store. On the same day that she gets her notice, Polly stumbles across a baby left on the doorstep of a home for foundlings.

Picking up the baby (the astoundingly photogenic Elbert Coplen Jr. in his only big-screen appearance), Polly takes the infant inside, where the charity workers immediately assume she is the mother.

When word gets back to department store heir David Merlin (David Niven) that one of the firm’s recently-dismissed employees is a single mother so desperate that she’s ready to give up her baby, he intervenes to make sure Polly gets her job back.

The problem now, of course, is that she had to keep the kid if she’s to keep her job.

Bachelor Mother doesn’t rest there. It keeps throwing new curveballs.

David’s father (the great Charles Coburn) becomes convinced that the baby is actually his much-yearned-for grandson – a not entirely implausible assumption, given his son’s notoriety as a nightclub-hopping playboy.

And then there are Polly’s efforts to end the whole charade by introducing a “husband” (an oily fellow worker played by Frank Albertson).

What makes Bachelor Mother so sneakily subversive is the way it introduces forbidden material through the back door. For in the tortured logic practiced by the men who oversaw the Production Code, a movie about an unwed mother would be inappropriate – but a comedy about a woman who is mistaken for an unwed mother is acceptable.

For modern audiences who know Ginger Rogers only as Fred Astaire’s dance partner, Bachelor Mother is a major revelation. In the musicals she generally played a straight man.

But here she shows comic chops, an impeccable sense of timing, and a mime’s ability to sell an idea without dialogue (not that she doesn’t make the best of the great dialogue she’s given).

In truth, even before she made her first Astaire musical Rogers had honed her comedy in more than a dozen films. Many of her fans maintain that as good a dancer as she was (matching Astaire move for move, only backwards and in high heels), Rogers’ great talent was as a comedienne.

Bachelor Mother got great reviews when it debuted in August, 1939. The New York Times declared it:

“a merry jape...one of the season’s gayest shows. ... In this day and age, one would hardly expect to be lured into chuckles over the story of the shopgirl who finds a baby on a doorstep and is unable to convince a soul that she’s not the little mother. But it isn’t so much the story as the way it’s told that counts. And here, through smart writing, direction, and performance, the theme is developed hilariously, with sudden and unexpected twists which never are permitted to affect the insane logic of the yarn’s progression.”

Other films in the series “Hollywood’s Greatest Year, 1939: The Comedies (Part I)”

Saturdays at 1:30 p.m.:

Admission to these films is free.

About the Author

Robert W. Butler is a lifelong Kansas City area resident, a graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School and the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. For several decades he was the movie editor of the Kansas City Star; he now writes a movie-themed blog at butlerscinemascene.com. He joined the Library's Public Affairs team in 2012.

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