It was a rite of passage for rising male stars to take second- or third-billing to an established top-billed female. And, more importantly, rein in all attempts at scene-stealing. This is a Cliff Robertson minus the distinctive hunk of hair and lip-chewing of later performances and a David Janssen only beginning to learn the knack of talking out of the side of his mouth. They were probably kicking themselves for the indignity of ending up in such as harmless concoction, but the idea was, if it was a hit, it’d be a leg up the career ladder.
This frivolity, by the way, is probably offensive to a contemporary audience since the thrust of the story is an actress abandoning a successful Broadway career in favor of motherhood. On the other hand it is the very definition of comfort movie.
Janice (Debbie Reynolds), in love with her aggressive and somewhat conniving producer Marty Bliss (David Janssen), collapses at a publicity junket and convalesces at her second home in Connecticut, so far removed from the center of theatrical civilization that she never visits and in consequence the property has been taken over, for their own enjoyment, by her housekeeper and her daughter, who now object to spending a moment catering for their employers. In the grounds lurk a brood, half a dozen orphans taking refuge from their exploitative foster parents.
It doesn’t take long for Janice to sucker herself into taking them into her house, assistant Ethel (Eileen Eckhart) as clueless. On hand offering advice is local minister Jim (Cliff Robertson). If the kids are a handful, refusing to be separated which entails them all sleeping in the same room, they’ve got nothing on their boisterous hound Butch.
We’re past the halfway mark before it occurs to Janice that she is treading dangerous emotional waters and she jumps at the chance to star in a heavyweight drama by current Broadway playwright kingpin. Meanwhile, smelling a hefty payoff, drunken foster parents Doreen (Mary McCarty) and BJ Smith (Max Showalter) turns up, Jim takes an unrequited romantic interest in his neighbor, Janice discovers her community spirit by helping raise money for charity, one of the kids runs away from hospital, and another has trust issues, leaving the other four with little to do but look cute.
Somehow within all this there’s a cue for a song, “It’s a Darn Good Thing” before Janice has to take the decision to sink or swim with the kids or hi-tail it back to Broadway where the prospect of a Tony beckons.
You’ve probably seen this all before, but somehow – taking the career issue out of the equation – it all works, an overactive ice machine, racing in and out of the school bus, meal-time complications, and wouldn’t you believe it a slice of love. No prizes for guessing the ending.
But it’s testament to Debbie Reynolds (How the West Was Won, 1962) that the movie has an appealing center. Cute kids are ten a penny in Hollywood but an actress able to make believable such an old-fashioned family-friendly tale is hard to come by. Sure, by today’s standards it’s outdated, but if we can just slip on a retrospective hat, she would not be the first career-minded woman of that decade to find she had ignored her maternal instinct. It might have been better all round if she had found a way to have both career and motherhood but the planet and certainly not Planet Hollywood was not yet on that wavelength.
Of course, it being lightweight ensures none of the other characters have any depth and to their credit neither Cliff Robertson (Masquerade, 1965) nor David Janssen ((Warning Shot, 1967) resorts to showboating, a smart decision because with the charismatic Reynolds taking center stage they could hardly compete. And I have to confess I quite like this early version of Robertson before he was overtaken by a need for weightier roles. He showed a neat comedic touch, had some of the best lines, and proved no slouch in the verbal sparring department. Janssen, too, showed a lot of promise.
Max Showalter (How to Murder Your Wife, 1965) had such a convincing drawl that I was convinced I was watching Strother Martin (Cool Hand Luke, 1967). A good opportunity also to check out distinctive character actors Eileen Eckhart (No Way To Treat a Lady, 1968) and John McGivern (Midnight Cowboy, 1969)
You can hardly blame famed Broadway director Gower Champion (The Bank Shot, 1974), only too aware of the pressures of maintaining a stage career, for thinking that a life in Connecticut with a bunch of eventually pliant and cute kids would be a welcome alternative. It took three screenwriters to spin this tale – John Fante (Maya, 1966), William Wood (The Lively Set, 1964) and Joseph Calvelli (Death of a Gunfighter, 1969).
Bearing in the mind the aforementioned provisos, not a bad Sunday matinee. Alternatively, come at it from today’s perspective and you will be inclined to rip it to shreds before you give it a chance to be entertaining. You might even consider it a tad more adventurous in its more realistic approach than other multiple-kid pictures like Cheaper than the Dozen (1950) and Yours, Mine and Ours (1968).