Holiday Classics: “Bachelor Mother” (1939)

Some romantic comedies are funny but not very romantic. Others are romantic but not very funny. “Bachelor Mother” is both in spades. Released in 1939, the Garson Kanin-directed comedy— a remake of a 1935 Hungarian film titled “Little Mother”—is often overshadowed in a year that also included the likes of “The Wizard of Oz,” “Gone with the Wind,” “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” and many of the other most acclaimed Hollywood films of all time. But while it may not contain eye-popping Technicolor vistas or memorable dramatic performances, it’s about as perfect as a romantic comedy can be, with an enticing holiday settings to boot.

Ginger Rogers stars as Polly Parrish, a salesgirl at the New York City department store John B. Merlin and Son. She was hired as temporary help for the Christmas season, and as the busy shopping season comes to a close, she’s let go from her position. While walking home after work that night, she sees a woman leave a baby on the doorstep of an orphanage. Fearing the baby will catch cold, she brings it inside, only to have the attendant inside believe she must be the mother and insist she take the child home. No one believes Polly’s protests that she’s not an unwed mother: not the folks at the orphanage, nor the playboy son of the owner of the department store she worked at, David Merlin (David Niven), who arranges for her to get her job back after he learns about her situation. The more David ingratiates himself into Polly’s life— to her initial frustration— the more he falls for her, despite her coming with a ready-made family.

Ginger Rogers is salesgirl Polly Parish in “Bachelor Mother”

Let’s be clear: “Bachelor Mother” is wildly unrealistic. There’s no way in this world that mistaken identities would be allowed to go so far, or that a woman like Polly would resign herself to suddenly taking responsibility for a child that isn’t—not only that, but allowing the rest of the world to continue believing that it is her biological child. But a lot of the success of “Bachelor Mother” lies in the fact that we do believe everything that occurs thanks to the well-built characters and the solid performances of the people playing them. When Polly gradually becomes endeared to the baby she’s been forced into caring for, we believe it. And when the initial animosity between Polly and David gives way to friendship and later something more, we believe it too. “Bachelor Mother” becomes even more absurd in its final act with the addition of David’s father J.B. Merlin (played by the always delightful Charles Coburn) but it’s so tightly paced it never feels like it’s venturing too far off the rails.

British actor Niven had been steadily plucking away in minor roles throughout the 1930s, gaining recognition in roles in films like the acclaimed 1936 drama “Dodsworth” and another big 1939 release, the Laurence Olivier-starring “Wuthering Heights.” “Bachelor Mother” was Niven’s first real romantic leading man role, after the likes of Cary Grant and Douglas Fairbanks Jr. were attached and then moved on to other projects; like Grant, Niven deftly uses his inherently distinguished nature to great comedic effect. While “Bachelor Mother” served as a large stepping stone to stardom for Niven, however, Rogers had been a popular leading lady for the better part of the decade. Among the three movies Rogers starred in in 1939, one of them was “The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle,” the eighth of her nine total collaborations with Fred Astaire (they’d pair one more time a decade later in “The Barkleys of Broadway”). The musicals the pair made were huge successes for RKO Studios, but Rogers at this point wanted to get out from under Astaire’s shadow. While she does technically dance in “Bachelor Mother” in a delightful dance contest sequence, the film puts her comedic chops in center stage, including having her hilariously impersonating a non-English-speaking foreigner in the film’s New Year’s Eve sequence when she attends a party with David’s stuffy friends as his date. Together, Niven and Rogers exhibit off-the-charts chemistry; it’s truly a loss for us all that they weren’t paired in more projects together.

Ginger Rogers and David Niven attend a New Year’s Eve party in “Bachelor Mother”

That New Year’s Eve scene, by the way, is a big reason why “Bachelor Mother” is a great watch for this time of year. The euphoria as the party spills out into the bustling streets of New York City, David and Polly losing each other in the throng only to reunite just as the clock strikes midnight, is not only the romantic climax of the film, but one of the all-time great New Year’s scenes in movies. Ginger Rogers would continue to expand her horizons in the coming years, winning a Best Actress Oscar just the following year for the drama “Kitty Foyle.” But “Bachelor Mother” remains one of the best showcases for her talent, as well as a hilarious and heart-warming watch that’s a perfect cap to the end of the year.

Runtime: 82 minutes.

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