Bundle of Joy (1956)
In the mid-1950s, RKO decided to re-make 1939’s Bachelor Mother, a comedy starring Ginger Rogers and David Niven. This time, the studio wanted a musical, and who better to star than real life husband and wife Eddie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds? The pair were married in September 1955 and were America’s favorite newlyweds. RKO bet that their fans would show up in theaters to watch the couple romance onscreen, so they cranked into action on the newly-titled Bundle of Joy (1956).
RKO hired Robert Carson and Arthur Sheekman to adapt Bachelor Mother‘s script for the singing duo. The studio borrowed Reynolds from MGM and took a chance on Fisher to play opposite his wife. Reynolds was a veteran movie star by now, but this was Fisher’s movie debut. (He was in a small role in All About Eve (1950), but his part was cut from the final film.)
Fisher may have been a movie rookie, but he had been in show business for a while. He started singing professionally in 1946, and his smooth voice made him a fixture on radio and records in the 1950s. He also starred in his own television show, “Coke Time with Eddie Fisher” from 1953-1957, as well as making frequent appearances on other programs. He was extremely popular, and managed to land an astonishing 35 songs in the Top 40 between 1950 and 1956.
When he married Debbie Reynolds, they were one of the most famous couples in the country, and it’s no wonder a studio decided to star them in a movie. In fact, Fisher would later describe this film as “simply a means of exploiting all the publicity surrounding our marriage.” Unfortunately for Reynolds and Fisher, their relationship wasn’t quite as happy as it appeared, and they were destined for a spectacular scandal three years after making this movie, but I’ll get into that later.
Bundle of Joy sticks pretty closely to Bachelor Mother‘s story, though with the addition of several songs by Mack Gordon and Josef Myrow. Norman Taurog, who had been directing since the 1920s and helmed movies such as The Hoodlum Saint (1946), The Bride Goes Wild (1948), and Rich, Young and Pretty (1951), among dozens and dozens of others, was assigned to direct.
To the film! We open at John B. Merlin & Son’s Department Store just before Christmas. Dan Merlin (Eddie Fisher, the son) sings “Worry About Tomorrow, Tomorrow” through the store as the opening credits roll. When he exits the screen, Polly Parrish (Debbie Reynolds) picks up the tune. She and Dan don’t know each other, but their “duet” signals their ultimate perfection as a couple. Plus, it’s Fisher and Reynolds, America’s newlywed sweethearts, so you know they’re going to get together anyway. You can watch the scene here.
Plucky, perky saleswoman Polly works in the millinery department and outsells all her colleagues. In between selling sprees, she fends off the slimy advances of fellow employee, Freddy (Tommy Noonan.)
Polly thinks she’s doing great at the store, but her record sales have caught the eye of the floor manager in a bad way. That morning, he fires her because most of the hats she sells are returned. Poor Polly assumed she was getting a promotion when he called her into his office, so she’s especially bummed.
Meanwhile, John Merlin (Adolphe Menjou) and Dan are busy running the store. Dan is doing a good job in the family business, but his passion is music.
Cue the gratuitous song and a way to keep Eddie Fisher crooning throughout the movie!
He’s a great singer and very handsome, but awfully stiff on camera. It’s not too surprising that Fisher didn’t become a huge movie star. Fun fact: Nick Castle directed the dances in this movie.
Polly visits an employment agency on her lunch break, but they don’t have anything for her. As she leaves, she sees a baby wrapped in blankets on the steps of the building next door. She leans down for a closer look just as the door opens and a woman steps out.
It sure looks as though Polly was placing the baby on the threshold, not casually walking by, so the woman invites Polly inside. A sign on the wall informs us that this is a foundling home, though Polly doesn’t see it…
The staff assume that Polly is the pitiful, shameful mother abandoning her child, though she still doesn’t grasp the situation. So she happily gives them her name and place of employment, and explains that she just got fired. The staff give each other knowing nods–that’s why she’s abandoning her baby! At this point, Polly finally figures out that they think she’s the mom, and she tries to explain what happened. But they don’t believe her. So she runs out, leaving the baby behind.
The head of the foundling home goes to talk to Mr. Dan Merlin himself about Polly’s situation. He convinces Dan to re-hire her and give her a raise so that she feels able to take care of “her child.” Polly has no idea why the store has changed its mind about her employment. But she happily accepts.
That evening, Polly is getting ready to compete in a dance contest with Freddy. But when she opens the door, it’s not Freddy! It’s a much younger man. Thanks to Mr. Merlin’s generosity, the foundling home has sent the baby back to “his mother” as a Christmas present. Polly is shocked, and no matter what she says, they still won’t listen to her honest explanation. It’s a nightmare situation, actually. No one believes that it’s not her child, so all the sudden she has a one-year-old! It’s supposed to be a comic mix-up, but it feels really unpleasant and gross, especially when they shame and criticize Polly for her (true) denials of motherhood!
I don’t want to get too dark about this because it’s a musical comedy that’s supposed to be funny and light, but isn’t anyone at the foundling home concerned about leaving a child with a “mother” who clearly doesn’t want him? Isn’t the point of their organization to save unwanted babies? Instead, they’re forcing an unwilling woman to keep a child (that isn’t hers and that she never wanted), and making her feel terrible in the process.
The foundling home people leave the baby with Polly, and Freddy arrives soon after. He is pretty shocked, too, when he sees the baby. Fun fact: the kiddo was played by twins, Donald and David Gray.
Polly can’t deny that the kid is cute, but she doesn’t want to keep him! So when the Merlins come on television and give out their home address (can you imagine?) Polly rushes out with Freddy and the baby. She will take him to the Merlins and let them figure it out!
In the meantime, Dan croons for the television cameras.
When they get to the house, Freddy overhears Polly explain to the butler as she drops off the kid, “That baby is as much Mr. Merlin’s as it is mine!” and “He got me into this!” and misunderstands, of course. He assumes, as most people might in this situation, that Dan Merlin is the father. Then he and Polly rush away to the dance contest.
Dan, the butler (Melville Cooper), and the baby follow Freddy’s car. They’re horrified when they see this terrible mother abandoning her child to go dancing, but they can’t get close enough to talk.
Later that evening, Polly returns to her apartment to find Dan waiting with the kid. He fires Polly and says the store won’t give her a reference, which basically means no one else will hire her. But then he re-hires her because of the baby–he’s not a monster.
Polly tries to explain once again that it’s not her baby, but Dan won’t believe her. So she improvises. She knows that Dan will make sure she has a job if he pities her and the baby, so she “admits” that she’s the mother, and claims that the father beat her, so she left him. That’s why she is raising the baby alone. You can watch the scene here.
Fun fact: Reynolds was pregnant during filming and gave birth to her first child, Carrie Fisher, about two months after they finished shooting. So she was roughly four to seven months pregnant during filming. In most of the film she looks as trim and tiny-waisted as usual, but the style of the empire-waist mustard coat from earlier in the day, and this hot pink swing coat were probably used to camouflage any baby bump. Howard Shoup designed the costumes for this movie, and he makes good use of voluminous coats. The director, Norman Taurog, also films from the waist up perhaps more than he normally would.
After Dan leaves, Polly’s sweet landlady, Mrs. Dugan (Una Merkel) shows up in the nick of time. Remember that Polly has no idea what to do with a baby, nor any of the gear. We assume that Mrs. Dugan will be judgmental and mean because everyone else has been, but instead she calmly and kindly helps clueless Polly and makes sure the baby is okay. No questions, no criticism, no judgment. It’s wonderful. Fun fact: Una Merkel would appear with Reynolds in The Mating Game (1959), too.
The next day, Freddy decides to use Polly’s “relationship” with Dan to further his own career. He asks Polly to put in a good word for him, but she doesn’t. Coincidentally, though, Freddy gets a promotion, which only furthers his belief in Polly’s influence with Dan.
That evening, Dan stops by with some baby gifts, including a book on parenting.
There’s a whole routine in which the pages on “how to feed the baby” get stuck together so Dan “reads” ridiculous instructions about putting the food in the baby’s navel, but the scene is more about Dan and Polly falling slowly in love. And Polly becoming very fond of the baby, whom she names John. Instead of worrying about having to keep the kiddo, now she’s worried that the truth will come out and he will be taken away from her. (There’s never a thought for the real parents, or for finding a nice home for John with people who really want a child. And what about his birth certificate? How will he get through life without basic paperwork? Maybe I should relax. It’s a musical comedy.)
You can watch the scene, including a sweet lullaby, here:
A week later, it’s New Year’s Eve. Dan stops by once again and invites Polly to a swanky party. Mrs. Dugan is happy to babysit, so off they go! But first, they play Cinderella and Fairy Godfather at the store. Dan leads Polly around the upscale showroom and gives her shoes, stockings, underthings, a gown, a fur coat, and assorted accessories. It’s a fun scene. There are also some clear references to Cinderella (1950) with the shoe moment, the birds holding up the gown, and the outfit’s pale blue color scheme.
Then it’s off to the party. Dan tells his friends that Polly is from Sweden and doesn’t speak any English. It’s his “cute” way of keeping her to himself, though it strikes me as controlling and mean. But Polly doesn’t seem to mind, and spends most of the evening dancing with other men, anyway. Then it’s off to Times Square for the countdown, though the pair get separated in the crowd and find their way back to Polly’s stoop on their own.
Once there, they cement their new relationship with a song and some kisses. Fun fact: the fur coat does double duty: it looks chic and expensive, and covers up any baby bump!
As stoop scenes go, it can’t compete with The More The Merrier (1943). But it’s okay.
Over the next few days, Freddy continues to pursue a very uninterested Polly. Her friend and colleague, Mary (Nita Talbot), steps in once in a while to get Freddy to lay off. Mary is a sarcastic joy and I wish she had more screen time.
After one such encounter in which both Polly and Mary tell Freddy to stop bothering them, he gets demoted and assumes it’s because Polly asked Dan to punish him. To retaliate (even though Polly never said anything to Dan), Freddy leaves a note with John Merlin telling him he is a grandfather. Mr. Merlin goes looking for Dan and finds him in the park with Polly and John. He assumes (everyone leaps to conclusions in this movie!) that John is Polly and Dan’s child and thus his grandson. Instead of being upset, he is overjoyed. (Notice Polly’s pregnancy-hiding coat in this scene.)
When Polly and Dan realize what has happened, Dan rushes after him to explain that John isn’t his kid. But Mr. Merlin won’t listen, and instead yells at Dan for keeping the child a secret, not marrying Polly, and not bringing John into the Merlin home to be raised in luxury. How interesting is their breakfast room, by the way?
Mr. Merlin is so convinced that John is Dan’s son, and so desperate for a grandson that he decides to seek custody of John. Polly is terrified of losing the baby so she invents a father (Mrs. Dugan’s nephew) to prove to Mr. Merlin that John isn’t his grandson. But Dan had the same idea–he gets Freddy to pretend to be the dad–so suddenly there are two (fake) fathers claiming John! But Mr. Merlin remains convinced that Dan is the dad.
After this debacle, Polly rushes home to run away with John before Mr. Merlin can take him.
She is now in another nightmare situation: a rich, powerful man is determined to take her child just because he wants to. Polly has no doubt that Mr. Merlin would be able to get custody even though he has no relationship to the baby; her rights as the “mother” evaporate completely when confronted with money and power. Her only option is to disappear with the baby.
I know, I know–it’s a musical comedy with a fairly fantastical plot that isn’t meant to be taken seriously, but still! When you think about it, Bundle of Joy presents a world in which it’s horrible to be a woman. Powerful people (who actually aren’t that powerful, they’re just more powerful than Polly) first make her a mother even though she doesn’t want to be, pile on the shame, and then take “her” child away willy nilly. (Never mind the constant harassment she suffers at work thanks to creepy Freddy!)
There seems to be nothing Polly can do about any of it, and it’s terrifying that some of the most important, enormous decisions a woman can make are all made for her, by strangers, against her will. The situations are obviously taken to the extreme in this movie, but it’s not hard to think of parallels in today’s “enlightened” world…one could even approach this movie as an allegory of women’s rights/reproductive freedom if one was so inclined. Or you can just enjoy it as light entertainment and not get as worked up as I clearly have! I’m not Mr. Merlin; I won’t make your choice for you…
Anyway, as Polly rushes to flee with John, Dan and Mr. Merlin arrive at her apartment. Fortunately, Dan confesses his love for her and for the baby, and even says he believes her story about finding John on the steps. Finally!
Their reconciliation thrills Mr. Merlin. He’s getting a grandson, though it’s unclear if they ever tell him the truth. And so it’s a happy ending for this new family! In about two weeks, Polly has morphed from a single, childless salesgirl to wife of Dan Merlin and mother to a toddler. Things happen quickly in this colorful world!
This movie was in production from early June to August 1956 and premiered on December 19 in New York. As I mentioned, Reynolds and Fisher’s daughter, Carrie, was born in October, and RKO did not miss an opportunity to promote the movie through its stars’ personal life. In fact, the studio hosted the press at Grossinger’s Resort in the Catskills for an overnight preview shindig–the same resort where Reynolds and Fisher were married in 1955! And most reviews mention the fact that the stars are married and recently welcomed their first child, just like in the movie!
Motion Picture Daily was highly positive about the film, calling it a “delightful comedy with music.” Fisher “makes up in heart, sincerity, and a fine singing voice what he lacks in acting finesse,” and Reynolds is “charming and talented.” She is also “tops in the fan polls,” plus, she “recently presented her guy with a real-life bundle of joy, after a much publicized romance and marriage followed by millions of the younger set. Exhibitors know from past experience what that spells out in box office parlance.”
The Los Angeles Times review by Edwin Schallert also emphasized the stars’ personal life. The headline was, “Debbie, Eddie Inspire Sparkling Yule Premiere: Young Couple, Recent Parents, Play Hosts at Opening of Clever Film, ‘Bundle of Joy’.” Schallert wrote that the movie “has a freshness, gaiety, and wholesomeness that will make it especially appealing to the family audience.” Though the movie’s plot “requires considerable co-operation on the part of the audience for its acceptance…since it is a harmless bit of entertainment designed for laughter, its popularity may be quite substantial.”
But the movie wasn’t a smash hit, though Reynolds was nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Actress in a Musical or Comedy. (She lost to Deborah Kerr for The King and I.)
And although Reynolds and Fisher had barely been married a year, their “perfect” union was already strained by the time they made this film, and the set was tense. But even when they weren’t getting along, Fisher was impressed by his wife’s stamina and professionalism, especially because she was pregnant. During what was probably the makeover scene, he remembers how, “One day, with the temperature on the set at about 120 degrees, we were doing a scene together and she stood under the hot lights in a mink coat during at least fifteen takes, just because the director wanted a few reaction shots.”
The pair would have one more child, Todd, born in 1958, before Fisher left Reynolds for their good friend Elizabeth Taylor in 1959. The story goes that after Taylor’s husband, Mike Todd, was killed in a plane crash, Fisher went to comfort her. And just never came back…
The affair, Fisher and Reynolds’ divorce, and Fisher and Taylor’s marriage in 1959, were widely reported, as one can imagine. Reynolds came out looking like a saintly, abandoned wife, and Fisher a cruel, heartless husband. But when they made Bundle of Joy, all of that was a few years away. And despite the mostly false story below about how much Fisher and Reynolds loved working together and how deliriously happy their marriage was, this was the only movie the pair made.