The Funny Papers: Cinematic Fascination with The Big (and Sometimes Blended) Family
When my husband and I married a dozen years ago, we were each going to the altar for the second time. We became a blended family, bringing with us our own pair of kiddos to turn into a family of six. This union of opposites- of introverted blondes and outgoing brunettes- brought more than a few comparisons to “The Brady Bunch.” While a blended family of six is a bit smaller than the Brady family, that’s a mere fraction of the much bigger cinematic families celebrated on the big screen.
Ma and Pa Kettle Films
Chester Erskine’s The Egg and I (1947) started it all. Based on Betty MacDonald’s best-selling 1945 novel of the same name, starring Claudette Colbert and Fred MacMurray, the Ma and Pa Kettle characters were brought to life by Marjorie Main and Percy Kilbride. Marjorie Main earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress in a Supporting Role for her cackling, countrified portrayal of a mother of fifteen. The Ma and Pa Kettle characters went on to star in nine more films that essentially saved Universal Studios.
Trivia: In 1969, the Kettle farm set was demolished. It is now the site of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Studios in Hollywood.
Cheaper by The Dozen (1950)
Directed by Walter Lang and stars Myrna Loy, Clifton Webb, and Jeanne Crain. Based on the real-life Gilbreth family of twelve kids, this film follows the popular “Mr. Belvedere” character that Clifton Webb portrayed on-screen in three films where he masterfully wrangled any chaotic crew. Walter Lang’s Sitting Pretty (1948) starred Maureen O’Hara and earned Webb an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor, in his first Belvedere role. Two more followed with Mr. Belvedere Goes to College (1949) and MR. Belvedere Rings the Bell (1951).
Favorite line: “Are all these kids yours, mister, or is this a picnic?” Clifton Webb: “They’re all mine and believe me, this is NO PICNIC!”
The ‘reel’ Gilbreth family returned for a sequel in Belles on Their Toes (1952). Myrna Loy returned for this role but sans Clifton Webb. Perhaps due to his absence, or more likely due to a much cheaper production value, this film has not held the same staying power as the original version.
Cheaper By the Dozen was remade in 2003, directed by Shawn Levy, and starred Steve Martin and Bonnie Hunt. While it was not critically acclaimed, it was box office gold for younger audiences, thanks in part to the popularity of the younger members of the cast such as Ashton Kutcher (then aged 25) and Hillary Duff (then aged 16). Its sequel was released two years later with Cheaper By the Dozen 2, which additionally co-starred Eugene Levy.
Please Don’t Eat the Daisies (1960)
Doris Day and David Niven star as Kate and Larry Mackay, along with their rambunctious four sons. Based on a novel of the same name, the story centers on Larry as he transitions from professor to high-profile play critic and how that challenges the entire family as they decide to move away from city life. While not a large family in comparison to others in this group, the boisterous boys and the changes they face bring enough chaos it deems an honorable mention. This is one of my favorite films that offers the beauty, humor, and charm of Day and Niven, but also a fun supporting cast with Janis Paige, Spring Byington (her last film role), Richard Hayden, Patsy Kelly, and Jack Weston. You may recognize the familiar faces of the Mackay sons, including Stanley Livingston, later known as “Chip Douglas” from the famed tv series, “My Three Sons.”
The Sound of Music (1965)
Directed by Robert Wise, starring Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer, this heartwarming musical is based on the real-life story of the Von Trapp Family singers. This beloved classic takes the large family into untraditional territory via the convent. While falling for the nanny may seem a bit cliché by today’s standards, the nanny being a nun was certainly a twist in the storyline. At the center of this unique love story, is the supremely talented singing nun (Andrews), a brood of charming children as gifted with song as their father (Plummer), and the drama of battling Nazis. There’s no doubt that in addition to the perpetually catchy Rodgers and Hammerstein songs, it’s the seven children- Liesl, Frederich, Louisa, Kurt, Brigitta, Marta, and Gretl- that add so much to our collective love of this charming film.
The year 1968 was a pinnacle year for the cinematic big, blended family. The concept of the traditional, nuclear family was beginning to change in the American landscape. While not as prominent as the peak of divorce rate immediately following WW2, not to mention the surge of many war widows, single parenting was on the rise again in the late 1960s. A year later in 1969, then-governor Ronald Reagan signed into law the no-fault divorce, with California being the first state to sign such a bill. It became federal law in 1975. All of this influenced society’s growing acceptance of blended families and fascination with big families. Howard Morris’s With Six You Get Eggroll and Melville Shavelson’s Yours, Mine and Ours both reflected the chaotic comedy that erupts when families collide.
With Six You Get Eggroll (1968)
Mitch McClure: (While all gathered at a table in a Chinese restaurant) “Boy, am I glad you two got married!”
Abby McClure: “You are?”
Mitch McClure: “Mm-hmm. Because with six, you get eggroll!”
Doris Day returns to raucous family life in this film co-starring Brian Keith. In Howard Morris’s With Six You Get Eggroll, Day and Keith portray widow Abby McClure and widower Jake Iverson, who fall in love but find that blending a family can be a roller coaster ride of troubles. Abby’s three sons and Jake‘s teenage daughter (a young Barbara Hershey) bring hostile resistance to this merger. In addition to all the fun comedic moments that reflect the generation gap and counter culture themes, this flick also features a slew of familiar faces from classic TV such as Pat Carroll, George Carlin, Jamie Farr, Alice Ghostley, and Vic Tayback.
This was Doris Day’s last feature film before she transitioned to television. In 1968 when this film was released, it was a significant year for Doris. The producer of this film and Day’s husband, Martin Melcher died. Upon his death, and to her shock, she soon discovered that Melcher had been lying for years about their finances. He had squandered millions amassed from her many years of success and signed her to a television contract – all without her prior knowledge. She owed over a million dollars to the IRS and was able to work hard and eventually turn her finances around. It was also Melcher, not Day, that turned down the iconic role of Mrs. Robinson from The Graduate (1967) the year prior. It thrills me to ponder the possibilities if Melcher had not been an obstacle and she had explored more variety in her career choices.
Yours, Mine and Ours (1968)
Based on the 1965 novel “Who Gets the Drumstick” by the real Helen North Beardsley, story written by Bob Carroll, Jr. and Madelyn Davis, screenplay by Mort Lachman and Melville Shavelson, this was the perfect vehicle for Henry Fonda and Lucille Ball to express their comedic skills. In this tale, Lucille Ball is Helen North, a Navy widow with eight children who meets navy widower Frank Beardsley (Henry Fonda) with ten children. Romance blossoms and marriage follows but not without a tremendous amount of chaos and unique challenges. Considered by many to be the best in this particular category of family films, Melville Shavelson’s Yours, Mine and Ours was nominated for two Golden Globes and was a smash hit at the box office.
Lucille Ball co-produced this film under her own production company, Desilu. Some of the names tossed around for the role of Frank included Desi Arnaz, Frank MacMurray, and John Wayne. Both Ball and Fonda shine in memorable scenes such as when a highly intoxicated Helen attempts to make a good impression as Frank’s kids spike her drink. In addition to the many recognizable faces in the family (Tim Matheson and Tracy Nelson, for example), Tom Bosley provides comic relief as the family doctor.
Romance bloomed on set. Co-stars Tim Matheson and Jennifer Leak, who portrayed eldest siblings Mike Beardsley and Colleen North, were married the same year as the film’s release. Additionally, according to an interview with Jane Fonda, her father fell madly for Lucille Ball during filming. Within a year, “The Brady Bunch” was already in production. BB producer Sherwood Schwartz settled the legal score on copyrighting when he revealed his original draft for The Brady Bunch was titled, “Yours and Mine” and pre-dated the film’s.
In 2005, Yours, Mine and Ours was remade with Dennis Quad and Rene Russo. The remake takes a few liberties with the plot details to update it. Spoiler alert: I do think an essential missing piece from the storyline comes in the “OURS” department. But why quibble?
Many films and television shows embraced this big and sometimes blended family concept. One of my personal favorite twists on this idea is Stanley Donen’s Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954), which offers a very colorful and musical take on this notion. What films or television shows come to mind for you?
– Kellee Pratt for Classic Movie Hub
When not performing marketing as her day gig, Kellee Pratt teaches classic film courses in her college town in Kansas (Film Noir, Screwball Comedy, Hitchcock, Billy Wilder, and more). She’s worked for Turner Classic Movies as a Social Producer and TCM Ambassador (2019). An unapologetic social butterfly, she’s an active tweetaholic/original alum for #TCMParty, member of the CMBA, and busy mom of four kids and 3 fur babies. You can follow Kellee on twitter at @IrishJayhawk66 or her own blog, Outspoken & Freckled (kelleepratt.com).