Saturday, July 28, 2012

Cheaper by the Dozen (1950)

“All those kids yours?” 

            Like most of my generation the first time I ever heard of the term or a movie called Cheaper by the Dozen was when the remake in 2003 came out. I actually had no idea the 2003 version with Steve Martin and Bonnie Hunt was even a remake until I became a fan of Myrna Loy. The only reason I sat through the newer Cheaper by the Dozen nine years ago (holy crap it seems like yesterday!) was because Tom Welling played the oldest son and at the time I was in love with him. Other than me loving Tom Welling I remember very little about the movie, well I do remember the line when someone asked Bonnie Hunt’s character about all her kids she replied “… well after the sixth one they just kind of walked out” haha.
            The original 1950 Cheaper By the Dozen with Myrna Loy and Clifton Webb as the parents is very different than the 2003 version. Sure I guess the newer one modernized the story but I found the 1950 one to be nicer. For one the original is set in the 1920s when the real Gilberth lived (the story is based off their lives). It has more of an innocence and sweetness to it. The story really has no running plot like the new one, it goes through different periods and stories of the family’s life just as in real life.  
            Frank Gilbreth (Webb) is an efficiency expert who is sought after the country over. At the beginning of the film the family only has eleven kids and they live in New England. Frank comes home from work one day and tells his family that he was offered a new job in Montclair, NJ (hey Montclair!! Tell why this is special to me later). The kids are not happy at first but they have no choice. They all pile into their oversized car Frank has nicknamed Foolish Carriage because it is always breaking down.
            The family moves into a very nice large house in Montclair. The house is just right for the family of thirteen but not small enough for two servants to work. Frank calls a family meeting to discuss everyone having chores. The kids seem never to have done chores before and do not take kindly to starting them now. Lillian tells them if they do not make some sacrifices they will have to make cutbacks in other places like buying clothes or ice cream. Instead of wanting those things cut out of their lives all the older kids agree to help out.
            One day one of the kids gets sick with whooping cough. Some of the younger kids come home from school to see the doctor’s car parked outside and automatically think there is another baby on the way (which there is but it is not said). Frank says that there cannot be sickness in the house because it is like an epidemic. Which turns out to be the case, all eleven wind up sick at home with the cough.
            The twelfth baby to be born into the family is a boy Lillian and Frank name Robert. The scene in the hospital where Frank sees his new boy for the first time is very sweet. They talk about how from when they were married they planned on having twelve kids.
            On a summer afternoon a woman from the local birth control center comes to the house to speak to Lillian. The woman had spoken to a neighbor of theirs and told her to visit Lillian who is also a psychologist. Lillian plays a joke with the woman. She gets Frank telling him who is in the house and he calls down all the children. The woman is in shock that all the kids are theirs.
            The oldest daughter and child Ann (Jeanne Crain) is growing up. The family goes to the beach for a summer vacation and while there sees a boy from the high school she goes to is a life guard there. Ann also sees the girls who are wearing modern bathing suits that show a little more skin while hers is one from the teens. That night she cuts her hair and tells the next sister that she is doing it for her and the other sisters so that it will be easier for them to be free of the old ideals. Frank at first has a fit but eventually things calm down and he reluctantly accepts his daughter is growing up. During the school year Ann is asked to the prom. Frank refuses to let her go alone and chaperones her at the dance. All the girls and even some of the boys like Frank and sit and talk to him. They all think he is a great man.
            Frank has been given a great opportunity to travel to London and some of Europe to give lectures. The family is sad to see him go for such a long time but they know how much this opportunity means for his career.
            The ending is very sad for the family and comes from left field. For the entire film you come to love every single member and then the sadness comes and numbs even you like it does to them.
            I like the closeness of the family. I am the oldest of four and we are all very close no matter how much we argue and say we hate each other. I missed my brothers and parents terribly when I was away at school only an hour and a half away and when I went away to London for a month. The scene where Frank goes to the dance with Ann reminds me of me and my dad. My dad gets on my nerves to absolutely no end we fight and argue more than anything. The problem is he does not know when to stop and thinks he is so funny when he is not. All our friends love our dad and think he is absolutely hysterical. Sometimes I will give in and give him a hug especially when I am upset over something. I always know that he will be there when I need him.
             I must warn you that while the film portrays the father as loving and somewhat close with his children you cannot watch it with modern eyes. Frank is very much a man from the early 1900s. As I said he was somewhat close with his children but not what we think of as a warm and loving relationship today. In terms of being modern and ahead of his times Frank did want all of his children to go to college including the girls. Lillian was most definitely an early 1900s wife taking care of the children and pretty much doing whatever her husband says and letting him take control of situations. But she was also a working woman she was a rare woman for the time she obtained her degree in psychology which meant she went to college. She also had the inner strength and courage most women had at the time. In the end she becomes the strong mother and the strong woman who takes over and is respected.
            Myrna Loy and Clifton Webb were great in their roles but they would not have been my first choice to play Frank and Lillian Gilbreth. I kept thinking to a quote of Loy’s as I watched her play mother to all these kids: “Some perfect wife I am. I've been married four times, divorced four times, have no children, and can't boil an egg.” Loy just looked uncomfortable and awkward playing this part with all the kids around. I noticed even when she was in The Thin Man films and in the third one they made Nick and Nora have a kid, she just looked awkward around kids. I am so used to her as this bold 1930s woman matching wits with the guys and spouting off these wisecracks that no matter how many times I see her in her later roles as “the perfect wife” and mother she just seems awkward and odd. Of all her films I have seen Loy never gave any of her performances less than one hundred percent. Her best scene is at the end where Lillian has to become the rock of the family. She puts on a brave face and tells her oldest children what she is bravely going to do and how they can help. That to me was pure, wonderful Myrna Loy. No matter how many times she has had to toughen up in her films that never gets old because that is her and she played the quiet bravery and toughness to perfection. In her autobiography Loy tells how she got the part: “… Daryl Zanuck offered me the role of Lillian Gilbreth in Cheaper by the Dozen. What an irony! Zanuck, who typed me as the sloe-eyed exotic at Warners, casting me as the wholesome mother of twelve.” This quote is interesting to think about especially if you have seen any of her early films where she played the exotics or the mean girls. Loy definitely came a long way from those days. She goes on to say how she should have fought like Bette Davis and Joan Crawford not to play perfect wife roles with children but at the time she was more concerned with her political work. She did read the novel by the real Lillian Gilbreth and it did seem like a good role for her.
            Clifton Webb to me is just an odd choice to play a father. The man always seems like such a flame in his other films and like Loy seems so awkward around children. But what do I know he was perfect for the role. Jeanne Crain wrote for Loy’s autobiography that while Loy was calm and submissive Webb was all over the place he was very demanding and temperamental. Loy herself wrote that he would try to move her out of the way of the camera and bully her a bit like he would when he acted on stage and this almost drove the cinematographer off the film. Crain wrote that while Webb would be everywhere else Loy remained quiet and let Webb fly off the handle and that it is amazing to see how great their chemistry was on screen.
            Jeanne Crain was adorable as Ann. I never saw her in a film before (or so I think) I thought she was very good and I very much look forward to seeing her in more films. Crain was not very happy that the studio was making her do this film because she had just made the dramatic film Pinky and really liked doing that she did not want to be playing a fifteen year old. Zanuck got to her though by saying that soon no one would be asking her to play a fifteen year old anymore. Crain said she had a great time making the film especially working with Loy who she had adored for years and looked to as an idol.
            Oh, let me tell you why I loved the Montclair, New Jersey location: I went to college at Montclair State University and had many fun nights driving around the town with my roommate and her friends. The main entrance to the campus is on this gorgeous road called Valley Road with all this beautiful houses and a nice little town center. As soon as I saw the house in the film I wondered if it was on Valley Road. Even the houses down the side streets are beautiful. If I ever make enough money to buy a house in Montclair I will definitely be moving up there. Also any New Jersey reference I love, especially in old films and this one even more so because no one was making fun of the state.
            Cheaper by the Dozen is a very well made film with a great cast down from Clifton Webb, Myrna Loy and Jeanne Crain to the youngest kid. I cringed a bit with all the kids because I could never imagine living in a house with that many kids (my great-grandma is the youngest of sixteen!). There are several themes throughout the film but I liked how the family was very close. I loved Cheaper by the Dozen pretty much right from the beginning and I am sure when you see it you will too.

1 comment: