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Glenn Ford in the '40s
Remind Me
,Babies for Sale

Babies for Sale

"What happens in this story," the opening title card of Babies for Sale (1940) intones ominously, "could happen to you." Maybe, but one would tend to doubt it. This forgotten B-movie's title might, from our modern perspective, suggest a comedy, but in fact the film, a factory-made programmer released fresh from the Columbia lot the very day the Germans marched into Paris, is a somber, hand-wringing morality tale, a topical "issue film" that takes a bead on a social crisis and never lets up for its 65 minutes.

Except it wasn't really a social crisis at all. A screed against the semi-legal adoption-for-profit baby market, this modest but heartfelt film never manages to suggest that the practices of its nefarious characters are a real or pervasive problem, or in fact that the particularities of the story represent any kind of mass black-market phenomenon. What we get instead is the exposé of a single certain criminal scenario, a charity-run home for expectant mothers and orphaned infants run by shady doctor Miles Mander (who just a year earlier played, rather unforgettably, Mr. Lockwood in the 1939 version of Wuthering Heights) and bully nurse Georgia Caine. Into this innocent-seeming institution wander needy souls of all stripes, including Rochelle Hudson's recently-widowed mother-to-be, who insists she doesn't want to surrender her child. Mander has other ideas, of course, as he makes all of the wayward or otherwise helpless pregnant broads work without pay in the maternity ward, and locks them in their rooms if they threaten to leave with their newborns.

The goldbricking is first glimpsed in the horrified eyes of vet character actor John Qualen, who returns with his shell-shocked wife and their newly adopted child to complain that the baby Mander sold them is essentially catatonic - a hopeless situation that soon compels the wife to throw herself and her silent little bundle under a subway train. Parallel to Hudson's travails, which involve having her baby stolen and then told that it died at birth, is the investigative trail laid down by cub reporter Glenn Ford, who ends up at Mander's door and sets the money-grubbing charlatan up. (A trip to the police fingerprinting bureau to compare inked newborn footprints is a late-act highlight.) All this plus Isabel Jewell as a wisecracking, heartbroken abandoned young mother wise to the abuses of the system, packed into just over an hour of rather artless celluloid. The film's director, Charles Barton, directed scores of films (including many Abbott & Costello comedies) without ever displaying notable grace or wit, and in Babies for Sale, which is merely his 19th movie, you get a startling dose of how mass-produced B-level programmers were made during the Golden Era, quickly and simply, for a movie-hog audience that didn't much care where the camera was placed or how drama was visually manifested. Columbia in particular was tight with budget resources; the lovely interior and exterior sets were obviously built for some other film, or films. At the very least it gives you an unalloyed appreciation for the personality and expressive care now-famous auteurs like John Ford and Leo McCarey and Howard Hawks brought to their projects. In 1940, for the vast majority of films the narrative substance and the actors' allure were all that mattered; only a few filmmakers had the time and the iron will to worry about the medium's formal eloquence.

Like Souls for Sale (1923) and Heroes for Sale (1933) before it, Barton's movie is horror-stricken and preachy - "sales" per se was not the esteemed capitalistic activity in the first half of the American century that it became later - but the feelings it musters are genuine. If you're a parent, I'd defy you to not feel the creep of feverish anxiety with the film's relentless crises over not being able to see or hold your own baby, or, even worse, having it sold off without your knowledge, into someone else's home. The sexual politics on hand are nothing if not practical - a nurse, joking about the adorable smallness of a baby, cracks that eventually "he'll be six-foot-four, 240 pounds, and he'll beat his wife every Saturday night!" Everyone present chuckles, but none too convincingly; Hollywood in the '30s and '40s was intimately engaged with the struggles of modern women in ways and to a degree American movies cannot touch today. Certainly, leading ladies then outnumber working star actresses today ten to one. With her eyebrows tweezed to a naked whisper, Hudson makes for an adequate plaintive heroine, if not as memorable as she was as a teen in William Wellman's Wild Boys of the Road (1933) or as Natalie Wood's irate mother in Rebel without a Cause (1955). Ford, all of 24 and only in his second year of small roles in small movies, come off decisively as a teenager himself, and is easily overshadowed by the cast's elder statesmen, especially bit actor Joseph De Stefani, as a wizened and pure-hearted doctor crusading against the baby thieves.

Babies for Sale is a curious artifact - impassioned about a social dilemma that may not have ever existed. The screenplay, based on a story by smalltime hacks Joseph Carole and Robert Chapin, was not as you might suppose based on a newspaper article or magazine exposé; it appears to have been made up from thin air. Surely no one involved gave the film or its "issue" a second thought once production was over (the actors and filmmakers each made at least four more films in 1940), and the movie, quaintly trapped in its backlot universe, has the pleasant, brisk, no-nonsense air of a riff on a theme, unencumbered by pretension, art or genuine social trauma.

By: Michael Atkinson



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