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An out-of-work professor gets a break from an old college buddy to teach at an exclusive girl's school. But events conspire against him: he finds an abandoned child which he takes under his wing, despite the school's rules against teachers having a family; and the girls in the school resent his replacing a handsome and popular teacher, and do everything in their power to get him fired.Written by
Gary Dickerson <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Gilbert Jordan Thompson:
Now wait a minute girls, you know motherhood is not a government project - at least not in this country.
[a thinly-veiled reference to Nazi Germany in this 1940 film]
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FORTY LITTLE MOTHERS (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1940), directed by Busby Berkeley, stars comedian Eddie Cantor in a delightful change of pace from anything he's ever done before. Known virtually for his excitable and nervous "Eddie" character with those "Banjo Eyes" who bursts into song, sometimes in black-face, a trademark best known during his peak years for Samuel Goldwyn (1930-1936), for his sole venture at MGM, Cantor not only abandons much of these traits, but gives a serious, well-intentioned performance on his part. FORTY LITTLE MOTHERS also reunites Cantor with choreographer, Busby Berkeley, from his Goldwyn days, with Berkeley now taking control from the director's chair. Unlike those early Cantor musicals, there's no promise of any lavish-scale musical numbers, yet it does provide some Berkeley trademarks in the narrative quite recognizable for anyone familiar with his creative visual style.
The story opens at a college reunion where the class of 1916 from Canford University, headed by Joseph M. Williams (Ralph Morgan), are gathered together at a reception rally. Everyone but Gilbert J. Thompson, a graduate with the highest academic honors whom Williams remembers as being the most likely to succeed. Williams wonders whatever became of him? Next scene reveals Gilbert J. Thompson (Eddie Cantor), a former college professor down on his luck, awaiting for a job opening as a deck hand during the late night hours. He soon loses his job opportunity when saving the life of a troubled girl named Marian Edwards (Rita Johnson) from jumping off a pier. He changes her luck by finding her a job as a waitress after buying her a cup of coffee. What Gilbert doesn't know is that Marian had earlier abandoned her eight-month old baby in the waiting room of a nearby depot. Gilbert soon finds the infant (Baby Quintanilla) in a basket with a note attachment reading "Please give my baby boy a good home." Flat broke and about to be evicted from his boardinghouse apartment, Gilbert takes in the baby, naming him "Chum." Finding Chum to be hungry, Gilbert leaves the infant in the care of his landlady, Mrs. Mason (Esther Dale), to get some food. Gilbert is arrested and taken to district police court on charges for stealing a bottle of milk. As luck would have it, the judge in this case turns out to be his former college classmate, Joseph Williams. Seeing his old friend down on his luck, the judge arranges Gilbert a position of college professor in an exclusive Madame Granville School for Girls. Due to Madeleine Granville's (Judith Anderson) strict rule for not having babies, especially males, allowed on campus, Gilbert arranges for Mama Lampini (Eve Puig), an Italian mother with children of her own, to look after Chum for the time being. All goes well until one of Mrs. Lampini's children comes down with the mumps, thus, forcing Gilbert to take in Chum and keeping him secretly in his room. Because the forty students, especially Doris (Bonita Granville), refuse to accept Gilbert as their new professor, they do whatever possible to get him to leave, but once Chum is discovered, Gilbert gains the girls' respect and confidence from, hence the title, his "forty little mothers." While trying to keep Madame Granville and her assistant, Cynthia Cliché (Nydia Westman) from learning the truth about Gilbert, the baby's mother resumes her frantic search for her baby with the help from detectives working for the bureau of missing persons.
New tunes by Harry Tobias and Nat Simon include: "The Canford School Song," "Old Acquaintance" (by Robert Burns); "Little Curly Hair in a High Chair," "Little Curly Hair in a High Chair" (reprise/both sung by Eddie Cantor); "You Were Meant For Me" (by Nacio Herb Brown and Alfred Freed, sung by co-eds); and "Little Curly Hair in a High Chair" (reprise).
Although "Little Curly Hair in a High Chair" did not do for Eddie Cantor as "Sonny Boy" did for Al Jolson, it's a cute song that goes underscored through much of its sentimental moments. Others in the supporting cast include Diana Lewis (Marcia); Margaret Early (Eleanor); Martha O'Driscoll (Janette); and Louise Seidel (Betty). Judith Anderson is ideally cast as the serious-minded faculty head while Rita Johnson as the mother is believable in her small but key role. Film buffs will try to spot future film star, Veronica Lake, as one of the unbilled extra students.
While a welcome change of pace for Eddie Cantor, the subject matter of a single man suddenly becoming an adoptive father is far from original. Perfect examples of this include Charlie Chaplin with Jackie Coogan in the great silent comedy-drama, THE KID (First National, 1921), and A BEDTIME STORY (Paramount, 1933) casting French entertainer Maurice Chevalier with "M'sieur Baby" LeRoy. Yet, FORTY LITTLE MOTHERS, like A BEDTIME STORY, is a forgotten gem of bachelor and baby story, never distributed to home video or DVD thus far.
Quite underrated, it's quite an enjoyable 90 minute item. Through all of Baby Quintanilla's scene stealing cuteness, Eddie Cantor still gathers enough attention from viewers while Berkeley behind the camera keeps his lens on those youthful and pretty "forty little mothers." Can't blame him for that. Watch for it the next time it's scheduled again on Turner Classic Movies cable channel. (**1/2)
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