The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer (1947, Irving Reis)
Watching Cary Grant interact with Shirley Temple is the kind of wondrous idea that makes you glad there are still so many old movies for you to see. The playful nature of the premise behind The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer still rings out with comic possibilities to this day: with the intent of letting her get over a crush on him, adolescent Temple is permitted to spend loads of quality time with adult artist nogoodnik Grant — a heartthrob as always, and of course to his embarrassment she calls him her “boyfriend” and stops interacting with dudes her own age. With Myrna Loy in tow as Temple’s older sister, a judge, and an Oscar-winning script by Sidney Sheldon, you’d assume this to be an unmissable comedy. Certainly there’s no reducing the pleasures wrought by the teaming of these three actors. Even if you’re not a fan of Temple’s work as a child, in the work she did as a teenager she displays impeccable comic timing, and those eyes are astonishingly expressive.
Sadly, though, it’s actually difficult to think of a movie with less respect for its characters. It seems as though everyone except the filmmakers realized that having three lead performances as good as these should’ve made their jobs easy. Instead, this is saddled with a ludicrous, nonsensical story even by the standards of the screwball comedy. It’s all pitch and no execution, setting up the interesting relationship between the feared but fair Margaret (Loy) and Temple’s over-eager, erudite youngster Susan, but then doesn’t let either of them experience a full arc. Susan embodies potentially one of the more persuasive portraits of a teenage girl in American cinema of the period but is thwarted by enterprising men behind the scenes to put a stop to all this female-longing nonsense. In much the same way, the film’s enjoyably cavalier treatment of a woman in a position of power ought to make it sort of a proto-feminist classic. Sheldon and director Irving Reis let everyone down.
Judge Turner does exactly what the first male character she encounters predicts she will: she, of course, moves past all these silly foot races and this “career before romance” stuff and bags herself a man (Grant, inevitably). This wouldn’t be so bad — at least she doesn’t retire — if not for the huffing and puffing about it courtesy of Harry Davenport as the girls’ self-righteous uncle and Rudy Vallee as Margaret’s annoying assistant. The only male character in the film who doesn’t come across as somehow awful is Susan’s adolescent (former?) beau played by wide-eyed Johnny Sands. Without him, this is a bleak portrait of sexual politics indeed.
As for the story that is supposed to be the main body of the picture, that of young Susan’s pining for Grant’s cloudy sophisticate Richard Nugent, the film inexplicably forgets about it and allows it to fizzle out into nothing. Temple barely appears in the film for the final half-hour, after it opens with her as its primary focus. When she isn’t on the screen, it’s mostly so dull — even the early sequence in which a smirking Margaret is introduced to her future nemesis, drunk and disorderly Nugent, in the courtroom. By avoiding any slightly sticky iteration of its subject matter — Grant is viewed by both women as a perfect prince in white, literally as envisioned in daydream sequences by director Reis, and the film wholly ignores the strange implications of how Susan will feel if Richard becomes her stepfather; ick — the film sacrifices its early wit for easy Hollywood plastic, surprising coming from a studio as frequently bold as RKO.
Meanwhile, Grant is stuck in between his two warring personas: the mysterious sex symbol and the goofy, erudite comedian, and the only moments when he takes flight are those in which he’s required to “act young.” Bachelor wanders to some pretty strange places, and the less they have to do with anything about the actual story, the better. Temple and Grant have considerable chemistry, especially in the moments when Grant is trying his hardest to make Susan’s guardians disapprove of him and he repeatedly engages in surreal Charles Wood-like patter with responsible adults: “You remind me of the man.” “What man?” “The man with the power.” “What power?” “The power of hoodoo.” “Who do?” “You do.” “Do what?” “Remind me of the man.” “What man?” Of the potentially interesting question of Nugent having more in common with Susan’s excitable pre-maturity than with the calm rationality of the adult woman in the house, nothing much is made. But it’s a kick to see Cary Grant dressing down and cavorting around with the kids, even if stuff like the field day exercises that constitute a ridiculous proportion of the narrative really add or reveal absolutely nothing.
After all that, the film is funny, sometimes hilarious, with a splendidly chaotic scene in a restaurant and some great lines (“I couldn’t help overhearing — I had my ear to the door”), but that seems to be the only purpose for its existence since its script otherwise makes little sense and is finally irksome and unsatisfying, most of all in its treatment of those who are supposed to be its leads save Grant. So many of the important story points occur offscreen that it’s natural to assume no one involved really cared about it, which is a pity because it makes this seem like an overly busy (even for this genre) waste of such a phenomenal premise and cast.