Sunday 5 October 2008

Cheaper By the Dozen (1950)

Six years before directing the grand and bloated CinemaScope production of The King and I, Walter Lang made this more restrained little picture about the comedic trials and tribulations of a family with twelve children. It makes a strange selection of his pictures for me: beyond these two I've also seen his first film, a 1925 silent romance called The Red Kimona, and a Carole Lombard comedy called Love Before Breakfast from 1937. This one is from 1950 and it doesn't bear a lot of resemblance to the recent Steve Martin remake. It's based on the same source novel, but it actually follows it. That means it's about the Galbreth family, where dad is an efficiency expert and mum is a psychiatrist, and their story was written by two of the twelve kids.

The parents are well cast. Frank Galbreth is Clifton Webb, three times Oscar nominated (not for this one) and believably strict and sympathetic all at once, with a streak of OCD. Lillian Galbreth is America's favourite mother, Myrna Loy, very much into her 'mother' era. In 1950, she had all six Thin Man movies behind her and the William Powell/Clark Gable comedies were all in the past. She'd also already made The Best Years of Our Lives, plus Mr Blandings Builds His Dream House and The Red Pony. How much the rest of her career stayed in the 'mother' mode, I really can't say because while this makes 49 Myrna Loys for me, I've only seen three later than this.

The other name with theirs on the title credits is Jeanne Crain, who plays Ann, the eldest daughter. She's a little out of place, given that she's 25 and supposed to be 16. She looks great though, as she did nearly two decades later in Hot Rods to Hell, opposite Dana Andrews, her co-star from anther Water Lang movie, State Fair. As you'd expect she doesn't get a huge amount of screen time, given that this is less than an hour and a half long and she's but one of twelve kids. She does her best though, and steals a few scenes, doing such daring things as cutting her hair or showing her knees on the beach.

This is but one of the various episodes in a very episodic film that moves from one memorable incident in a family's history to another. We begin with their move from Providence to Montclair, NJ, presumably halving the population of Rhode Island in the process. Then the family get introduced to the teachers at their new school, ignoring the fact that dad explains to the new headteacher his new efficient way to take a bath; they fight the whooping cough and have their tonsils out; find a way to get Anne to enjoy her senior prom, with her dad in attendance as a chaperone. They even have fun with a lady who's been sent their way from a foundation for birth control with a rather misguided view to having Mrs Galbreth as a spokeswoman for their cause.

It's a restrained but effective comedy, certainly not something that would do well if Steve Martin had made a straight remake without updating the humour. The morals are decidedly from a different era, especially as the film was set in a time already in the past when it was released in 1950, and it wouldn't translate too well to today. As a slice of time it's a fascinating glimpse though, and it's done very well indeed. I just can't help but wonder what Ernestine and Frank Jr would have thought about the remake, which credits their book but really only has one similarity: a family with a dozen kids. I'd take this one over The King and I any day, but then again I'd take something like Four Daughters over this one any day too.

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