Holiday Classics: “Bundle of Joy” (1956)

Last week, I discussed what I referred to as a perfect romantic comedy, 1939’s “Bachelor Mother.” Today, I’m talking about its 1956 musical remake, “Bundle of Joy.” “Bundle of Joy,” also a product of RKO Studios, isn’t without its charms, but it never manages to step out of its predecessor’s shadow. The story is identical: a New York City salesgirl, Polly Parish (Debbie Reynolds in the Ginger Rogers role), is fired from her position in the middle of the Christmas season. She finds a baby on an orphanage doorstep, is mistaken for its mother, and a series of misunderstandings lead her back to her job at J.B. Merlin’s department store and into the arms of his playboy son Dan (Eddie Fisher). “Bundle of Joy” adds little new to the story, recycling many of the same gags, including one in which an overly helpful Dan tries to correct Polly’s method of feeding the baby, and the scene where Polly, attending a stuff New Year’s Eve party with Dan, masquerades as a foreign socialite. If “Bundle of Joy” feels like a pale imitation of “Bachelor Mother,” it’s because it was primarily crafted as a vehicle to capitalize on the popularity of its two stars. Fisher was one of the most popular recording artists of the 1950s, with a whopping 17 songs on the top 10 charts between 1950 and 1956. Reynolds had fast become America’s sweetheart after her leading role in the 1952 musical “Singin’ in the Rain” catapulted her to stardom. The pair married in 1955, and the pair’s status in pop culture is evident just in examining the marketing for “Bundle of Joy.” “Eddie and Debbie—America’s New Sweethearts together for the first time in a movie!” the film’s posters and newspaper ads proclaimed.

Eddie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds in “Bundle of Joy”

Eddie and Debbie’s marriage was already on the skids by the time they began filming “Bundle of Joy,” however, and they frequented fought both on and off set; in her autobiography, Reynolds recalls getting out of their car and walking the rest of the way to the set after the pair got into a heated argument over whether or not Jesus was a Jew. They don’t exactly have the most sparkling chemistry in the film. Reynolds carries the bulk of it with her spunk and bubbly charm, even if she doesn’t quite possess the hard, almost world-weary edge Rogers had that made the humor in “Bachelor Mother” so sharp. Fisher, on the other hand, just barely skates by on his natural charisma; like many pop stars cast in movies solely based on their celebrity, his acting is fairly wooden, but “Bundle of Joy” gives him plenty of opportunity to sing to make up for it, the script even allowing for his character to inexplicably also have a career as a radio star. But the movie’s soundtrack by Hugo Winterhalter and Walter Scharf, peppered with easy-listening tunes, isn’t particularly memorable, and there aren’t any big splashy music numbers to make up for it.

But like so many Technicolor musicals of the 40s and 50s, “Bundle of Joy” possesses a certain visual flair that’s charming to watch. William E. Snyder’s bright cinematography serves as a wonderful time capsule, taking us to the lavishly-decorated holiday windows and interiors of J.B. Merlin & Son and the grand neon signs looming over the crowded streets of Times Square on New Year’s Eve. “Bundle of Joy” was directed by Norman Taurog, a prolific filmmaker who got his start in the silent film era, became the youngest person ever to win the Best Director Academy Award in 1931 for the comedy “Skippy” (until Damien Chazelle broke that record in 2017 when he won for “La La Land”), and helmed more of Elvis Presley’s movies (nine of them, in fact) than any other director before he retired in 1968. The technical prowess on display, in addition to its lovely, warm holiday setting, alone is worth giving “Bundle of Joy” a watch.

Adolphe Menjou plays Dan’s father J.B. Merlin in “Bundle of Joy”

And there’s another big thing that makes “Bundle of Joy” a noteworthy film too. Reynolds, as it turns out, was pregnant with her and Fisher’s first child during filming; she gave birth to their daughter, Carrie Fisher, less than two months before the movie’s December 12, 1956 premiere (giving the publicity folks at RKO even more fodder to use in their marketing). But “Bundle of Joy” was a box office bomb, and the Fisher/Reynolds’s marriage didn’t last. The pair had one more child together, Todd, and then divorced in 1959 after Fisher’s affair with star Elizabeth Taylor became public, creating one of Hollywood’s biggest scandals. Fisher acted in movies one more time, opposite Taylor in the 1960 drama “Butterfield 8” after they were married, but his career was hurt by the affair much more than Taylor’s or Reynold’s, the latter treated as a martyr thanks to her long-standing persona as America’s sweetheart. We all know the iconic turn daughter Carrie’s acting career took in 1977 when she accepted the role of Princess Leia in “Star Wars,” and Debbie Reynold’s immense talent in the fields of film, music, and television sustained her career for decades to come, right up to her passing at the end of 2016.

Runtime: 98 minutes.

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