Bachelor Mother is a Christmas movie in which unmarried Polly Parrish (Ginger Rogers) gets a baby and loses a job on the same day. As a seasonal employee at a department store owned by Mr. Merlin (Charles Coburn) and his playboy son David (David Niven), she’s let go on Christmas Eve. Through a strange circumstance, various people get it into their heads that she’s the mother of an infant left on the doorstep of a foundling home, and she gets her job back on the strength of this mistake. This gives her a financial reason to keep up the masquerade, but an even more insidious reason is that the more she tries to convince everyone that the baby isn’t hers, the more everyone is sure it must be.
Eventually, people get the idea that the father must be David Merlin, and that leads to David being on the receiving end of the same kind of angry misunderstanding that he’d piled on Polly. Not that it clears up his misunderstanding.
At 82-minutes, this is a fast, funny movie. Every scene is carefully arranged to build and twist the false ideas, and much humor derives from the fact that only the viewer and Polly know the truth. And we don’t know that much, because the mystery of the baby is never solved. Not only that, but this isn’t a movie where the misunderstandings are eventually cleared up. Not to give anything away (it’s a romantic comedy — can you guess the ending?), but this is a most unusual movie where the characters finally have to go along with the false realities as it all becomes too much for them. It’s like telling a lie until it comes true. Everyone’s will to believe makes things so. Everyone is deluded, and they seem likely to remain so for the near future.
This is an interesting comment on how we create and live in the world by insisting on our own realities in spite of all opposition, and an especially interesting comment when you consider it’s a movie set at Christmastime. Is the name Merlin supposed to make us think of the magic of conjuring new truths out of thin air? The arrival of a baby on Christmas isn’t exactly a subtle point — Polly jokingly says she “got it for Christmas” — but the script never forces any meaning onto it. When watching this movie, connosseurs of film comedy may think of Preston Sturges’ even more audacious and brilliant The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek, a pregnancy comedy whose climax occurs at Christmas.
This movie can be enjoyed without thinking about its relation to the Motion Picture Production Code, but a part of the canny viewer’s enjoyment derives from watching this movie play with what’s allowed and what isn’t. Movies weren’t allowed to make light of having children out of wedlock. Movies on this subject were always about how the mother suffered and sacrificed to redeem herself. Since this movie never explains the origin of the baby, we have no special reason to think it’s a bastard instead of simply an orphan; the old woman who leaves the baby only says it hasn’t got any parents.
If the child had really been the illegitimate baby of Polly and David — as most of the characters believe it is — then this comedy couldn’t have been made. Everything about it would have been unacceptable to the Code, the thing would have been condemned by the Legion of Decency, and many states and cities would have refused to show it. Since it isn’t their baby, however, it’s strangely acceptable as a comic ruse that everyone should think so. We follow the wicked thoughts going through all the characters’ minds, and we’re allowed to laugh because it isn’t true, and so the movie isn’t endorsing such behavior.
Still, when you think about it, everyone in the picture is quite broad-minded about their delusions, more so than in a movie where the delusions were true. When you really think about it, it’s astonishing that a happy ending should come about by having the romantic hero embrace a lie, and a lie that would be scandalous in another movie.
Ginger Rogers carries the picture delightfully. She’s amazed, she’s angry, she’s playful, and she laughs. She gets a lively dance scene where she jitterbugs; it’s at a club called The Pink Slipper, which seems to combine a pun on unemployment with a nod to Cinderella. She handles the romantic bits lightly, so lightly that it’s convincing for things to turn the way they do. If you can’t get enough Ginger, who of course is famous for her films with Fred Astaire, please know that she starred in one of the all-time snappiest film comedies, Stage Door, as well as the hilarious Roxie Hart, in which she gets to do more dancing. If you want to see how she handles a working-girl romance in standard “women’s film” mode, there’s The Primrose Path and her Oscar-winning turn in Kitty Foyle.
Donald Duck (voiced by Clarence Nash) also plays a crucial supporting role throughout the picture.
Writer Norman Krasna specialized in films of mistaken identity and masquerade, and director Garson Kanin during this time was helming clever comedies. Aside from winking at the Code, many scenes skate lightly over serious feelings and situations, such as unwed pregnancy, losing one’s job, and other workplace anxieties. This movie is much more about employment problems than baby or love problems, and maybe that’s one reason it’s still fresh, and more sassy and biting than cute and cloying. There’s also the element of how Mr. Merlin is both angry and touched at what he thinks is his grandson. The fact that his misapprehension is funny doesn’t quite conceal the sting of his disappointments, his annoyance at his son, and the poignance of his desires.
This film was remade twice with diminishing returns. It was rewritten as the ’50s musical Bundle of Joy with Debbie Reynolds and Eddie Fisher. That movie, like Bachelor Mother, is now available on demand from the Warner Archive website. In the late ’80s it became Baby Boom with Diane Keaton. Accept no substitutes, even if everyone in the film does.