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Before the disintegration of romantic comedies into the most clichéd of films, with rampant sexual behavior and jokes replacing true romance and comedy, the genre was defined by movies that offered quality entertainment as they celebrated love, clever humor, and sometimes touched on important issues. Bachelor Mother is one such film. Though the title may worry a conservative parent, the film’s content presents no cause for concern. Bachelor Mother has all the qualities that made romantic comedy popular in the first place—doles of clean entertainment, fun romance, and even some substance in the form of still-relevant messages about family, adoption, and the value of human life.
In one of her rare non-musical roles, Ginger Rogers shows her gift for comedy as Polly Parish, a sales clerk at a department store called John B. Merlin and Son. It’s anything but a good day for Polly when she is handed a slip of paper that turns out to be notice for termination of her employment. Having been at the store only three weeks, Polly is a bit at a loss as to what to do.
Despite the bad news, Polly isn’t too caught up in her own problems to notice what is taking place outside the foundling home she passes on her walk to her apartment. A woman is leaving a baby on the top step, just outside the front door of the home. Polly tries to stop the woman, but the woman leaves quickly, saying that the baby isn’t hers. Fearing the infant might tumble down the stairs, Polly goes to lift him. As soon as she does, a member of the foundling home staff opens the door and sees Polly with the baby.
From that moment on, Polly’s life changes, as she tries and fails to get anyone to believe her claim that she is not the mother of the baby. Her case isn’t helped by the fact that the infant responds to her as if she were his mother, and she is drawn to him in return. Polly manages to leave the baby at the home and dash off, but even that escape attempt doesn’t work. Demonstrating a very different approach to childcare and abandonment than exists in our current society, the foundling home workers contact Polly’s employer.
Though single parenthood was far from the norm and not very accepted in the 1930s, David Merlin, played by actor David Niven, responds to hearing of her plight with a compassion and generosity that, again, is rarely seen today. David, who runs the department store with his father, John, has never met Polly, and yet he immediately raises her salary and arranges to have her assumed baby son dropped off as a surprise “gift” at her apartment that evening. Mistaken though he may be, the support that David automatically offers demonstrates a high value placed on keeping families together and helping those in need.
Polly, of course, is none too happy about David’s kindness, since she is not actually a destitute mother. Still, no one will believe her when the baby is brought to her apartment and she again insists that he is not her child. A comedy of mistaken assumptions and events continues as Polly tries to set matters straight, but only seems to get in a deeper mess. Armed with his good intentions to help Polly and the baby, David gets caught up in the confusion, which is made all the more enjoyable by Niven’s trademark blend of charm, wit, and sincerity.
Amid the chaos, more than one kind of love begins to blossom. There’s the romance, of course, which is delightfully handled by stars Niven and Rogers. But there’s an unusual depth to this film with the exploration of non-romantic love, prompted by the relationship of the characters to the baby.
Though Polly resists the baby initially and denies that he is hers, she is constantly drawn to him and sensitive to his needs. She hasn’t had him long before she falls in love—with the baby! Polly’s motherly love rapidly grows so strong that she not only happily accepts the responsibility of motherhood for the rest of the baby’s life, but she is also ready to go to any lengths to keep him as her own when her parenthood is threatened.
Other characters are equally quick to accept the baby boy as family and to love him as their own relation, despite their misconceptions about the situation surrounding his birth. Only David, who still does everything he can to provide for the baby’s health and physical needs, has difficulty with the idea of marrying into a “ready-made family.” Even this struggle is only temporary, however, and ends in a powerful testament to the strength and importance of genuine love.
When watching this film, I can’t help but wonder how many abortions and abandonments could be prevented and how many orphans could be given loving homes if our modern culture demonstrated the compassion, love, and societal responsibility so strongly present in this story. No character in the film is approving of the circumstances they believe may have led to Polly’s status as an unmarried mother, but neither do they let their legitimate condemnation of the supposed immorality effect the level of service and support they offer to Polly and the baby. Though not labeled as such, this is Christian love in action.
In further contrast to current romantic comedies, this film is refreshingly free of obscenities and profanities. There is a bit of name-calling, but to a quite harmless extent, particularly to modern ears. In addition, David’s father claims that his son is out every night with “women and things,” but we never see David engaging in womanizing or any related objectionable behavior.
The only other significant issue in the film that might bother some parents is when Polly insults another woman. The character verbally attacks Polly first and is presented as a particularly derisive and snobbish woman, but Polly’s insult is still not, of course, the kind of behavior one should emulate. But considering the type of concerns that would surround any contemporary romantic comedy, this point is almost amusingly small.
A family-friendly romantic comedy? A romantic comedy with a valuable message? Bachelor Mother proves both are possible—and a lot of fun, too.
Check out these similar titles:
It Happened One Night (Columbia Pictures, 1934)
Dinner at the Ritz (New World Pictures, 1937)
His Girl Friday (Columbia Pictures, 1940)