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After finishing their nineth film together, The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle (1939), Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire got their wish to go their separate ways professionally. With her follow-up film, Bachelor Mother (1939), Rogers proved that she would do just fine on her own. At first, however, Rogers was understandably nervous when she read the script for Bachelor Mother. The story of mistaken identity -- a single working girl finds a baby on a doorstep, and everyone assumes it's hers -- had certain pitfalls, and Rogers worried that the characters had no "dramatic honesty." Producer Pandro Berman assured her that it would not be vulgar, that the characters would be warm and human, and that her fans would love it. So, Rogers reluctantly agreed to make the film, and eventually grew to like it. And although her role in Bachelor Mother was strictly an acting one, Rogers didn't disappoint fans of her musicals. In one scene, she dances in a contest with Frank Albertson.
The story by Felix Jackson had been filmed once before, in German, as Kleine Mutti (Little Mother, 1935). It would be re-made in 1956 as Bundle of Joy, starring the then-married Debbie Reynolds and Eddie Fisher. Screenwriter Norman Krasna, who adapted the story as Bachelor Mother, was already a master of romantic comedy, and specifically, romantic comedy based on mistaken identity, such as The Richest Girl in the World (1934), in which heiress Miriam Hopkins pretends to be her own secretary. Garson Kanin, a successful Broadway director who had gone to Hollywood two years earlier, was chosen to direct. It was his fourth film, and his first major production.
Scottish-born David Niven had been languishing in supporting roles for several years. Under contract to Samuel Goldwyn, Niven had recently done excellent work in the thankless role of Linton in Wuthering Heights (1939). RKO borrowed Niven to play Rogers' boss, the department store heir who falls for the "unwed mother" and her baby. It was his first romantic comedy lead, and he proved more than equal to the task. Also outstanding was veteran character actor Charles Coburn as Niven's father...one of the few actors who could steal a scene from a baby.
Together, this team produced a sparkling farce that became one of RKO's biggest box-office champions, in that championship year of 1939. Critics seemed surprised that such shopworn material could be made so fresh and charming. Variety's summary, "story itself is a rather ordinary Cinderella yarn, gaining substance and strength through adroit direction, excellently tempoed lines and situations, and top-notch cast performances," was typical. And the reviews for Rogers and Niven were nothing short of ecstatic. "Ginger Rogers, who has become one of the finest actresses on the screen, dominates the proceedings from beginning to end with her radiant personality and fine acting," according to the New York World-Telegram. The New York Post said that Niven, "expanding the promise of his less important roles, gives the best performance of his career."
After Great Britain declared war on Germany in September of 1939, Niven went home to enlist. Bachelor Mother was playing in London, and he was greeted with posters for the film, calling him "the star who came home to join the RAF." But the publicity made little impact within the venerable men's club Boodles, where Niven was approached by an elderly member one day. He looked vaguely familiar, the clubman told Niven. Had they met? Unlikely, Niven replied, he'd been abroad for six years, doing pictures.
"Really? Watercolours or oils?" asked the man.
Producer: B.G. DeSylva, Pandro S. Berman
Director: Garson Kanin
Screenplay: Norman Krasna, based on a story by Felix Jackson
Editor: Henry Berman
Cinematography: Robert de Grasse
Costume Design: Irene
Art Direction: Van Nest Polglase, Carroll Clark
Music: Roy Webb
Principal Cast: Ginger Rogers (Polly Parrish), David Niven (David Merlin), Charles Coburn (J.B. Merlin), Frank Albertson (Freddie Miller), E.E. Clive (Butler), Elbert Coplen, Jr. (Johnnie), Ferike Boros (Mrs. Weiss).
BW-83m. Closed captioning.
by Margarita Landazuri