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Based on a "non-fiction novel," Cheaper by the Dozen (1950) is the story of Frank Gilbreth, an industrial engineer and efficiency expert, and his wife Lillian, a psychologist, who are raising a family of 12 children in the 1920s. Gilbreth uses his brood as guinea pigs for his motion study and efficiency theories, with many comic complications, while his wife is the mediator and voice of reason. The film is episodic rather than plot-driven, but it's a great showcase tailored to the talents of Clifton Webb and Myrna Loy.
Webb, who had begun his career as a ballroom dancer and became a star of the Broadway musical stage in the 1910s and 1920s, had also become a Hollywood star by the mid-1940s. In 1948, he created the character of the comically supercilious babysitter Mr. Belvedere in Sitting Pretty, which was so successful that it spawned two Mr. Belvedere sequels and established Webb's screen persona.
Loy's screen image as the perfect wife had also evolved, from the glamorous Nora Charles of the Thin Man series in the 1930s, to a more mature version in films such as The Best Years of Our Lives (1946). When she appeared in Cheaper by the Dozen, Loy was 45 and her days as a leading lady were behind her. She didn't really mind, since she had other interests. She was active in liberal politics, and she had been appointed as a member of the U.S. National Commission for UNESCO. But she still needed to make a living, and she was an admirer of the real Lillian Gilbreth, so even though some of her contemporaries warned her that playing a mother of 12 was career suicide, she was glad to do it.
20th Century Fox contract player Jeanne Crain, who played the eldest Gilbreth daughter (and was billed above Loy), was less pleased with her role. "After having the best role of my career in Pinky , I was absolutely crushed when they cast me as a teenage ingnue," she told Loy's biographer James Kotsilibas-Davis. "Well, I accepted the role and the whole thing turned out to be a joyful association." A huge fan of Loy's, Crain was at first intimidated to be working with her idol, but Loy went out of her way to put her at ease. Crain observed first-hand what a consummate screen actress Loy was. "When Myrna does a scene, she appears to be so low-key and doing practically nothing discernible, yet when you sit in the rushes the next day, she zings out of the screen....It's as though she has something, an elusive quality, that only the camera can see."
Crain went on to say that Webb was just the opposite, as a person and as an actor, calling him "temperamental, bombastic and dictatorial." But she added, "Myrna was the perfect foil for Clifton, letting him fly all over the place while she remained serene and submissive and really in charge of the whole thing. Their surprising chemistry made the picture believable and successful."
Loy agreed with Crain's description of Webb, an inveterate scene stealer, who used stage tricks like moving around and forcing her to move off her marks. After cinematographer Leon Shamroy blew up at Loy for ruining the shot, a chastened Webb behaved, although he never apologized. Loy shrugged it off, and they remained friends, but according to Loy, when Webb watched her do an emotional scene he was not in, he accused her of trying to steal the film from him.
Reviews for Cheaper by the Dozen were good, with one critic calling it "engaging, heartwarming, upbeat and positive in the true sense of that much-abused adjective." It performed so well at the box office that two years later Loy and Crain reprised their roles in a sequel, Belles on Their Toes (1952).Director: Walter Lang
Producer: Lamar Trotti
Screenplay: Lamar Trotti, based on the novel by Frank B. Gilbreth, Jr. and Ernestine Gilbreth Carey
Cinematography: Leon Shamroy
Editor: J. Watson Webb, Jr.
Costume Design: Edward Stevenson
Art Direction: Leland Fuller, Lyle Wheeler
Music: Cyril Mockridge, Alfred Newman
Cast: Clifton Webb (Frank Bunker Gilbreth), Jeanne Crain (Ann Gilbreth), Myrna Loy (Lillian Gilbreth), Betty Lynn (Deborah Lancaster), Edgar Buchanan (Dr. Burton), Barbara Bates (Ernestine Gilbreth), Mildred Natwick (Mrs. Mebane), Sara Allgood (Mrs. Monahan).
C-87m. Closed Captioning.
by Margarita Landazuri