In Jordan R. Young’s wonderful book The Laugh Crafters, veteran comedy writer Bob Weiskopf recalls that he joined the staff of Eddie Cantor’s radio program shortly after a movie that Cantor did for MGM, Forty Little Mothers (1940), was released to box office ennui. In much the same manner that Jack Benny’s scribes later ridiculed his film The Horn Blows at Midnight (1945), Cantor’s team made certain “every week there was a joke in the show about how bad [Forty Little Mothers] was.”
Weiskopf continues: “And one day Cantor said, ‘No more jokes about Forty Little Mothers.’ What happened? He got one letter from a lady in Nebraska: ‘It wasn’t a bad picture.’ That was the end of that. All he needed was one letter.” While I would probably side with the woman from the Cornhusker State as to the quality of Mothers as a motion picture (it’s not great, but it’s not terrible either), it’s a shame Banjo Eyes put the kibosh on what was apparently a rich vein of comedy waiting to be mined by the scribes who struggled to create laughter on his show week after week.
In Mothers, Eddie plays Gilbert Jordan Thompson—a once prosperous college professor who’s now down on his uppers after losing his job when the school at which he taught loses its endowment. (Gilbert is so embarrassed about his current financial situation that he skips attending his own college reunion; he had been voted by his classmates “Most Likely to Succeed.”) Thompson is at a point in his life where he’ll take any job to pay the rent, which is why he’s anxiously awaiting at the docks to see a man about working as a deck hand. During his wait, he encounters someone else in the same down-and-out circumstances: young Marian Edwards (Rita Johnson), who is struggling to take care of her eight-month-old infant (Baby Quintanilla) after being abandoned by her husband. Thompson stops Marian from committing suicide by jumping off the pier.
Gilbert then arranges for Marian to get a waitressing job, but is unaware that the baby he’s found abandoned in a ticket office is Marian’s son. Thompson takes “Chum” home with him to his rooming house, and asks his landlady to keep an eye on the kid while he figures out a way to get his new roommate some milk. The next thing you know, he’s standing before Judge Joseph M. Williams on charges of “liberating” a bottle of milk. Williams is one of Gil’s old college classmates, and after quickly surmising that his old friend is too proud to admit how much of a financial bind he’s in, the judge arranges for Thompson to obtain a position teaching at a private school for girls.
The school is run by the autocratic Madame Madeleine Granville (Judith Anderson), who dismissed Thompson’s predecessor because he became an object of ardor among the female students. Arriving on campus, Gilbert learns to his dismay that he’ll be expected to live on the grounds of Granville Academy…and that children under the age of fourteen are strictly verboten at the school. Thompson must leave “Chum” with kindly Mama Lupini (Eva Puig) to keep his new assignment…a job that’s threatened by a coterie of students—led by Doris (Bonita Granville)—who want him fired and their former professor re-hired.
As you’ve probably guessed, the “forty little mothers” of this movie are Professor Thompson’s students…who later express regret at trying to get him dismissed once they discover his “little secret.” Sworn to secrecy, the girls joyously adopt their new roles as adoptive mamas, and their “motherhood” generates more than a few chuckles as they surreptitiously knit “baby things” while engaged in their regular activities (swimming, archery, etc.). The reactions from the academy’s instructors (an all-female staff—Thompson is the only male teacher) are riotously funny.
Scripted by Dorothy Yost and Ernest Pagano—they borrowed heavily from a 1936 French film Le Mioche, written by Jean Guitton—Forty Little Mothers is a most unusual Eddie Cantor vehicle. The Ziegfeld Follies legend was best known for a series of spirited feature film comedies produced by Samuel Goldwyn in the 1930s—The Kid from Spain (1932), Roman Scandals (1933), etc. Mothers was the only movie Cantor made for MGM, directed by Busby Berkeley with no trace whatsoever of his trademark choreographed audacity. The movie is also atypical for the Tiffany’s of movie studios in that Mothers has only one musical number: Little Curly Hair in a High Chair. (They get their money’s worth out of this ditty, though.)
Eddie Cantor is one of those entertainers that you either accept wholeheartedly or ask “What the hell is with the singing and prancing and hand-clapping?” I liked his performance in Mothers (Cantor was clearly transitioning to more mature roles, as befitting an individual of his vintage) even though I’ll readily admit that the movie doesn’t quite measure up to his earlier films…and it certainly doesn’t skimp on the schmaltz. (Well, it is MGM—you kind of have to expect that. Also, too: this may very well be one of the rare Cantor films where he does not perform in blackface.) I wish they had brought in a script doctor or two to punch up Mothers with some better jokes, but since this request will not be granted by the genius of the lamp we must settle for what’s onscreen. The interaction between Cantor and the actresses who play “Chum” (“Baby Quintanilla” was actually a pair of female twins, Barbara Diann and Beverly Deann) provides a good deal of amusement, and there’s solid support from character favorite Nydia Westman, whose “Mademoiselle Cynthia Cliché” is very funny as a Granville teacher with a teensy crush on Cantor’s Thompson. Sadly, they didn’t think to work in a Rebecca joke with the presence of Dame Judith Anderson…but she and Westman get Mothers’ biggest laugh when Dame Judith chastises Nydia on the proper method of holding a baby:
GRANVILLE: Anyone can tell you’ve never had children…
CLICHÉ: I can dream—can’t I?
This was Bonita Granville’s first film for MGM after leaving Warner Brothers (where she was best known for playing teen sleuth Nancy Drew in a brief movie franchise); Granville later married oil baron Jack Wrather, and the two of them occupied their time counting not only the money they made from all that light sweet crude but the proceeds from Wrather’s TV properties of The Lone Ranger and Lassie. (Granville was the associate producer of Lassie for many seasons—and if I may borrow an old Fred Allen joke, it’s because she’s the only one who would associate with the producer.) If you’ve got a bionic eye, you’ll spot Francis “Nyoka” Gifford and Veronica Lake (a source says she billed herself as Constance Keane) among the female contingent of Granville Academy.
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