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In 1956, newlyweds Debbie Reynolds and Eddie Fisher were expecting two special arrivals: that of their first child and the opening of their first film together. Married just the previous year, "The World's Most Famous Girl Scout" and the dreamy crooner were America's sweethearts - at least to the public eye. In just three short years, Fisher would leave Reynolds for Elizabeth Taylor, branding himself a scoundrel and Reynolds a saint. Bundle of Joy (1956) was, as Fisher described it, "simply a means of exploiting all the publicity surrounding our marriage." Oh dear.
A remake of Bachelor Mother (1939), starring Ginger Rogers, Bundle of Joy was the musical version of a single woman who finds an abandoned baby but then discovers she is unable to convince people that the baby isn't hers. The production came complete with its own built-in twist: Reynolds became pregnant just before filming began - due to deliver two months after shooting wrapped and one month before the theatrical release. Talk about timing. Yet all was not well on the set: Reynolds and Fisher were beginning to have marital troubles, the results of a seemingly endless power struggle for the limelight. Tensions ran high and Reynolds recalls (in her autobiography) "One morning driving to the studio we managed to get into an incredible argument over whether or not Jesus was born a Jew. Eddie claimed he was not. Eddie had never heard of the King of the Jews. There we were, America's sweethearts, at six A.M., driving down Melrose Avenue in Hollywood, arguing about Jesus being a Jew....several blocks from the studio, I couldn't take it anymore. "Stop the car!" I shouted....He slammed on the brakes. I got out and slammed the door behind me. He drove away in a fury, and I walked to work, so upset I was shaking." Coincidentally, one of Fisher's few acting offers after Bundle of Joy was a script titled King of the Jews.
Fisher was often emotionally frustrated with his wife, but admittedly impressed with Reynolds' professional doggedness. He recalled, "One day, with the temperature on the set at about 120 degrees, we were doing a scene together and she stood under the hot lights in a mink coat during at least fifteen takes, just because the director wanted a few reaction shots." Reynolds was indeed the consummate performer until the end - over Fisher's protests, she was sweating out complex dance numbers at seven months pregnant without missing a beat.
The supporting cast for Bundle of Joy included Adolphe Menjou and Una Merkel, both distinguished character actors. Menjou, the epitome of the dapper, mustachioed gent, earned an Oscar nod for his work in The Front Page (1931). Fittingly, the immaculately dressed actor's autobiography was titled It Took Nine Tailors. Merkel's skill at playing a range of smart-mouthed, brassy women boosted her fortunes: often cast alongside Jean Harlow, the actress peaked not once but twice with Destry Rides Again (1939) and Summer and Smoke (1961). Her varied career caused her to comment, "I liked a variety. I was glad to do anything when the part was good. I didn't care what I was supposed to be." Merkel would work again with Reynolds three years later in The Mating Game (1959). And in another film connection, the director, Norman Taurog, would direct Merkel again, this time in the Elvis Presley vehicle Spinout (1966).
Taurog, who directed more Presley films than any other director, also helmed Oscar winner Skippy (1931) and Boys Town (1938). Nonetheless, Fisher declared that his "chief claim to fame was his ability to work with singers who couldn't act." Fisher later stated in his autobiography, "I tried my best to do a good job. In fact, both Debbie and I worked so hard that we didn't even go home during the last few weeks of shooting. We stayed in a bungalow on the lot." Despite this, the critics weren't overly enthusiastic about their movie. Time magazine decreed, "Eddie Fisher, no actor, has a pleasant voice and Debbie Reynolds has a pleasant face." Bundle of Joy was not the success that RKO had hoped for and was a professional blow to the couple. But the arrival of their daughter, Carrie, overshadowed the disappointment. Effectively making her film debut, the studio took out a huge ad in the trades the day after she was born promoting the film to be the "most prosperous holiday gift you ever had."
A short time later, Eddie became the next Mr. Elizabeth Taylor, a move which served Reynolds’ career well - American audiences were highly sympathetic to the image of the jilted wife, particularly one with such wholesome appeal. Reynolds would go on to more film roles, a successful nightclub venture in Las Vegas, and a recurring role on the popular sitcom Will and Grace. Fisher would later get royally dumped by Taylor for Richard Burton, but when pressed about what lessons he learned from his first marriage, he plainly offers, "That's simple: Don't marry Debbie Reynolds."
Producer: Edmund Grainger
Director: Norman Taurog
Screenplay: Robert Carson, Felix Jackson, Norman Krasna, Arthur Sheekman
Cinematography: William E. Snyder
Film Editing: Harry Marker
Art Direction: Albert S. D'Agostino, Walter Holscher
Music: Josef Myrow
Cast: Eddie Fisher (Dan Merlin), Debbie Reynolds (Polly Parish), Adolphe Menjou (J. B. Merlin), Tommy Noonan (Freddie Miller), Nita Talbot (Mary), Una Merkel (Mrs. Dugan).
C-99m. Closed captioning.
by Eleanor Quin