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NITA Movie Review: A Baby Without Parents, and Ginger Without Fred

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Written by guest blogger Judge McGahey

In December, I like to review a movie that features the law and Christmas, but after Miracle on 34th Street and Remember the Night, the pickings are pretty slim. So I started thinking about movies that feature family law, since my tenure as Presiding Judge of the Domestic Relations Division of the Denver District Court is coming to a close soon[1]. Then inspiration hit me: Bachelor Mother would cover both bases – and as a bonus, it’s from the best year for movies ever, 1939[2].

Ginger Rogers plays Polly Parrish, who’s working as temporary salesgirl during the Christmas season at Merlin’s Department Store in New York City. Laid off because the season is ending, Polly sees a young woman leave a baby on the front steps of what were then called “foundling homes” – places where abandoned children could be raised in safety. The young woman flees and Polly, afraid the child will roll down the steps, runs over the make sure the baby doesn’t. Of course, as she does this, the door of the home opens and the people inside decide Polly must be the mother, in spite of her protests to the contrary. When they find out she’s recently lost her job, they get in touch with David Merlin (David Niven) whose father, J.B. Merlin (Charles Coburn) owns the store. Polly goes back to work, and giving in to fate, starts to raise the child. Not surprisingly, David and Polly begin to care for one another. And J.B., who’s long wanted his playboy son to “settle down,” decides that David must be the baby’s father – and won’t take “no” for an answer. (In a terrific scene, David and Polly each suggest to J.B. that some other man is the baby’s father, to which J.B. exclaims; “I don’t care who the father is, I’m the grandfather!”) Since this a Hollywood movie made in 1939, you can guess how it all turns out.

Bachelor Mother was released by RKO and directed by Garson Kanin. It’s a surprisingly sympathetic treatment of some issues that had a different significance in 1939 (unwed motherhood) and some that we are still trying to figure out (child abandonment.) Throughout the movie, Polly is treated with sympathy and respect, and never condemned for (allegedly) having a baby “out of wedlock.” This is no longer the moral issue that it once was; indeed, in most states, domestic relations law takes for granted that an allocation of parental responsibility or custody can be made in cases where the parents were never spouses[3]. But we still wrestle with what can be done with children abandoned by their parents. Although foundling homes are pretty much a thing of the past, many states now have “safe haven” laws that allow children to be left by their parents in a safe and secure place without legal consequence to the parents[4]. And even J.B.’s line anticipates some modern concepts of family law, including such ideas as grandparents having visitation rights[5] or even, in some circumstances, being allowed to battle birth parents for custody[6].

Bachelor Mother was nominated for one Oscar (Best Original Story) and features some first class actors. We tend to think of Ginger Rogers as Fred Astaire’s partner, but forget that she was an excellent actress, both in comedies and in dramas. Indeed, she would win a Best Actress Oscar in 1940 for her role in the drama Kitty Foyle. David Niven had a long and distinguished career, appearing in nearly one hundred films as diverse as Around the World in 80 Days and The Pink Panther. Niven would win an Oscar in 1958 for Separate Tables. Charles Coburn was no slouch, either. He was a constant supporting presence in movies from the ‘30’s through the ‘50’s, usually, but not always, in comedies. And Coburn, too was an Oscar winner: Best Supporting Actor in 1943 for The More the Merrier.

Bachelor Mother is an interesting take on some important issues in family law, presented in a comedic format. Sometimes laughing while we consider serious matters can help us understand them better. That’s a good reason to find and watch Bachelor Mother. I think you’ll enjoy it[7].

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[1] As I write this review, that would be in 20 days, 11 hours, 57 minutes and 27 seconds, according to the timer I have on my phone – not that I’m counting or anything.
[2] No, I won’t bore you with another argument about why I think this is true.
[3] In Colorado, C.R.S. § 14-10-123
[4] Colorado’s “Safe Haven” statute can be found at C.R.S. § 18-6-401(9).
[5] In Colorado, C.R.S. § 19-1-117. And see, generally, Troxel v. Granville, 530 U.S. 57 (2000), which deals with the constitutional rights of grandparents in custody cases, among other things.
[6] In Colorado, C.R.S. § 14-10-123(3).
[7] And in case you think this is just another example of me picking out some obscure old black-and-white film that no one’s ever seen, when I told my colleague, Judge Karen Brody that I was going to review Bachelor Mother she said: “Oh, I love that movie!” And Mark Caldwell has seen it, too – which I suppose is no surprise.

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