In Hollywood nowadays, remakes are more common than superhero movies and that’s saying something. But, of course, they made remakes even in the good ol’ days and the films I want to discuss are a prime example. Those films are the 1939 screwball comedy, Bachelor Mother, and its 1956 musical remake, Bundle of Joy.
During December, TCM showed all the great holiday movies and these two were included. I had already seen Bachelor Mother a few years ago when I went through my whole Ginger Rogers obsession. Bundle of Joy, on the other hand, was a new discovery. When I started watching it, I didn’t realize it was a straight-up remake with singing.
If you’re unfamiliar, both Bachelor Mother and Bundle of Joy follow Polly Parrish, (Ginger Rogers and Debbie Reynolds, respectively), a department store clerk. On Christmas, she gets fired. While looking for a job, she sees a baby on the doorstep and after picking it up for a moment, is mistaken as its mother. No matter what she does, she can’t seem to convince anyone that it’s not her baby. Then David Merlin (David Niven and Eddie Fisher, respectively), the heir to the department store, gets involved and their screwball romance begins.
So, in honor of Debbie Reynolds and because I can’t get enough of Ginger Rogers, I thought it’d be fun to compare and contrast the two films, both their flaws and their charms:
Casting, Casting, Casting
In the original film, Ginger Rogers played the Polly Parrish role. Rogers was apparently unsure when signing on to the film, afraid that the film lacked a “dramatic honesty.” After being assured that was not the case, she took the leap and the film grew on her.
Debbie Reynolds was just 24 years old when she took on the part and she was both married and months pregnant. Still, that didn’t stop her from giving the part her all. Her appeal is what makes the remake worthwhile.
The Young Mr. Merlin
David Niven played the young David Merlin in the 1939 film while Debbie’s beau and famous crooner, Eddie Fisher, took on the part in the remake. For Niven, the film marked his first romantic leading role and he is fantastic in it! His sophisticated British sensibility makes for fun when he’s a bumbling, foolish man in love.
On the other hand, Eddie Fisher is quite unremarkable in the remake. Beyond being a handsome guy and having a great voice, his acting leaves a little something to be desired.
Additionally, Charles Coburn, who I discussed in my article about The More the Merrier, plays the senior Mr. Merlin and as usual, steals the show!
So, Bachelor Mother was penned by Robert Krasna, but was actually adapted from a story by Felix Jackson. Although the concept is quite ludicrous, the quippy dialogue is what brings the film to life! You’re willing to go along with it because the characters feel true and you’re too busy laughing to think about how nonsensical it is, not to mention, a bit misogynistic (I mean, c’mon, it’s okay that she keeps the baby because she’s now got a man! Hmph!).
On the other hand, even though Bundle of Joy did have a script penned by Robert Carson and Arthur Sheekman, I wonder that they even went through the effort. Robert Krasna is also given a writing credit, which makes sense, considering it’s the EXACT SAME SCRIPT. I’m not kidding. Beyond adding new musical numbers, this remake did nothing to change the way the story unfolds. The dialogue is verbatim.
But, some of the songs are not bad and this one may be its best.
Garson Kanin, who had a hand in great screwball comedies like The More the Merrier and Adam’s Rib, directed Bachelor Mother. Perhaps because of those films, he understood the sensibility better. The film flows and is first and most importantly, an entertaining ride.
Norman Taurug, who directed Bundle of Joy, also had an impressive resume with Mad About Music, which was a Deanna Durbin film, and Girl Crazy. Perhaps the real reason the remake is lesser than the original is because it was conceived as a star-vehicle. Eddie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds had just married and Reynolds gave birth to Carrie around the time of the film’s release. It provided a way to sell the film, but not much seemed to go into creating something original and unique, which Bachelor Mother certainly was.
The Final Report
No question, Bachelor Mother is by far superior. It was made in 1939, which is objectively one of the greatest years in film. Ginger and David carry the film with ease and you go on their journey, buying into it and feeling happy to be there!
Bundle of Joy, while certainly extremely flawed, is still worth watching, if only to see Debbie Reynolds at 24, singing and dancing and living with grace, poise, and grit. The songs don’t always make sense, but they’re entertaining too.
Vintage Trailers Below:
Bachelor Mother and Bundle of Joy Gifs property of RKO Pictures.