Bachelor Mother (1939)

Not for the first time, I find myself writing up a movie from the 1930s that's smarter, funnier, and frankly more progressive than virtually any I've encountered from the '40s, '50s, '60s, '70s... honestly, I'm not even sure where the cutoff here is. Almost everything in Bachelor Mother holds up more than eighty years after it was produced.

Apparently, this is a remake of a 1935 Austrian-Hungarian film called Kleine Mutti (Little Mother). I found versions of the original on Youtube, but unfortunately none that are subtitled, so I haven't been able to determine just how close the Hollywood version sticks to the original, including whether the holiday setting was carried over or added in the remake. As always, I'd be grateful to anyone who wants to shed some light in the comment section.

Regardless, Bachelor Mother is a romantic comedy starring Ginger Rogers as Polly, a department store clerk losing her job on Christmas Eve due to usual seasonal cuts. During her lunch break, she stumbles across an older woman leaving an infant on the steps of an orphanage. The older woman implies the baby is an orphan before hurrying off, leaving Polly behind literally holding the infant and too thrown by the situation to realize how it will look to the orphanage employees. Before she realizes what's happening, she's given them her name and place of work. When she realizes they think she's the mother, she tries to tell them the truth, but they insist they know better - the child is comfortable with her, after all. Even so, she leaves the kid and hurries back to what's supposed to be her last day of work.

Meanwhile, the orphanage pays her employer a visit and winds up speaking with the owner's son, David Merlin (played by David Niven), who they convince to rehire Polly with a raise so she can raise the child. Polly, not realizing there's a connection between the job and the bizarre misunderstanding at the orphanage, returns home to find the baby's being dropped off in her apartment by the orphanage employees she met earlier, who refuse to listen to her.

Valuing her freedom more than her job, she heads to David's home, where she leaves the child with his butler, along with instructions to sort all this out. David, horrified by what's happening, follows her and winds up at her apartment. Furious, he threatens not only to fire her but to ensure she'll be unable to find employment elsewhere.

Realizing the truth has gotten her nowhere, Polly tries another route, creating a story about an abusive ex-boyfriend. David takes pity on her and leaves her with the child he still thinks is hers.

Over the next week, Polly bonds with the child while David tries awkwardly to help with gifts. In the process, of course, the two begin to fall for each other. This comes to a head on New Year's Eve, when David - after being stood up by another woman - asks Polly to a party. She gets her landlady to look after the infant and goes, and the two kiss at midnight.

Meanwhile, David's father is tipped off by another employee who believes David is secretly the child's father. On New Year's Day, Mr. Merlin follows his son to the park, where he discovers David, Polly, and the child together. Believing his dreams of being a grandfather have been fulfilled, he's at once overjoyed by the situation and angry with his son for keeping the child a secret and for not marrying the mother. In a delightful echo of the start of the movie, David's protests that he's not the father fall on deaf ears. Eventually, Mr. Merlin decides to take legal action and sue for custody of his supposed grandchild.

By this time, Polly loves the child as if it really were her own and is horrified at the thought of losing it. She's even prepared to run away with the child, but of course it doesn't come to that. David, faced with the prospect of losing Polly, simply embraces the fact that - in this movie, at least - lies really do set you free, "admits" to being the child's father, and proposes to Polly, who's more than happy to accept. The movie ends on a punchline as she clues David into the fact she's no more the biological parent of the kid than he is.

It's all, of course, extremely silly - the bulk of the movie's tone embraces farce, only drifting momentarily towards anything serious for a minute or two when the prospect of Polly losing the child is raised (and even this takes a sharp turn back to comedy before long). But while the tone is light and fun, the themes explored have some depth. This is a movie about society's refusal to believe women, the economic and social burden created by motherhood, the labor that burden entails, and more.

On top of that, not even the movie's antagonistic characters attempt to shame Polly for being an unwed mother, and a few key lines imply anyone who'd do so should be shamed instead. The movie is deeply critical of conservative notions of gender roles and the way those are portrayed. As this article notes, the very structure of Bachelor Mother dances around rules designed to censor what was and was not considered suitable entertainment.

Just as importantly, its portrayal of its lead character is in line with its vision. Polly is a ridiculous, flawed character, to be sure, but she's a bit more clever than anyone else. Even when the world is making her the butt of a joke, she's always in on the punchline, even when others aren't. Some of this is due to the script, but a great deal of credit goes to Ginger Rogers, who lands every joke and even materializes a few extra with well-timed expressions. Rogers herself may not have been progressive, but her performance contributes to a movie that is.

Now let's talk Christmas. The movie's setting seems to accomplish a few things. First, it seems to play with the nativity and "virgin birth" motif in ways that are playful and perhaps a bit subversive (this is a movie about lies, after all - is it implying a lie at the heart of the Christmas story?). It's also worth noting that the progressive themes fit in with similar ideas in Christmas media of the time, which tended towards viewing the holidays as a time for social progress (the more conservative, nostalgic portrayal became the norm after World War II).

In addition, the movie heavily features a department store setting at the holidays. This would have been one of the first movies to do so (or at least the first I can think of), predating Miracle on 34th Street by eight years and The Shop Around the Corner by one. 

I also want to call attention to another piece of trivia with (admittedly stretched) holiday connections. A toy Donald Duck, complete with voice acting, plays a small but pivotal role in the film and is credited as himself in the closing credits. Because Mickey appears in the 1934 Babes in Toyland, this is the second time a Disney character officially showed up in a 1930s live-action Christmas movie.

Regardless, this one's worth your time. The humor and politics both hold up, and the performances, writing, and directing are all fantastic. On top of all that, this offers a jaw-dropping New Year's set with an astonishing number of extras. Absolutely track this down the next time you're looking for a holiday movie you haven't seen a million times.