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Monday, November 5, 2007

The Bad Dads (originally published 6/99)

One of the cornerstones of comedy is incongruity. When the objective is to tickle an audience's funnybone, there's nothing quite like bringing them up short with an absurd mismatch to get the job done. Take, for instance, "Big Daddy," the current Adam Sandler vehicle. In it, Sandler plays a young man who decides to adopt a five year old child. If his character's motives were responsible and altruistic, this would undoubtedly be the basis for a heart-tugging drama. In fact, this fellow is an irresponsible sluggard who adopts the child only in an effort to impress his girlfriend. Far from being a competent parent, he is himself a case of arrested development, a child in a man's body. With this kind of grotesque mismatch as a foundation, the intent is clearly to create comedy.

The idea of building a comic film around a child whom fate has placed in the custody of an ill-equipped guardian is actually quite an old one. In fact, its pedigree extends all the way back to the silent film era. Here are a few examples of earlier films featuring unlikely parental figures. Each is available on home video.

"The Kid" (1921). It was Charlie Chaplin who set the standard for comic adoption films with this silent classic. Chaplin, as usual, plays a vagabond, living from hand to mouth and tied down by nothing. When he stumbles across an infant who has been abandoned by a desperate unwed mother, he decides to keep the child and raise him. In time, the infant grows into a winsome little boy, portrayed with irresistible charm by Jackie Coogan (probably better known for his television role as Uncle Fester on "The Addams Family" many years later). The youngster has adapted well to the vagrant life, but inevitably the time comes when the authorities intervene to try to take him away from Charlie to make him a ward of the state.

"Little Miss Marker" (1934). Only Damon Runyon could have written the story on which this film is based. Sorrowful Jones (Adolphe Menjou) is a bookie who requires a "marker," or IOU, from those who owe him money. Against his better judgement, he accepts a debtor's five year old daughter as security against a $20 bet. When the luckless father subsequently commits suicide, Jones is left with custody of the girl. Shirley Temple, who plays the child, was already a scene-stealing show business veteran. This was the film that launched her into superstardom.

"Father Goose" (1964). Cary Grant plays decidedly against type in the role of Walter Eckland, a misanthropic former professor who has sworn off civilization by going away to live alone on a South Sea island. He's a disheveled, drunken bum, but since no one else is around it hardly seems to matter. He hasn't forsworn all contact with the outside world, however. The story is set during World War II, and Walter has agreed to remain in radio contact with the Allies to report on the movement of Japanese aircraft. All is well until his island kingdom is invaded by the daughter of a French consul (Leslie Caron) and seven young girls who were students at the consulate. Suddenly finding himself responsible for the welfare of a gaggle of youngsters, Walter's formerly placid solitary life is turned upside down in short order.

"Paper Moon" (1973). Ryan O'Neal plays a con artist working the backroads towns during the Depression. After attending the funeral of an old flame, he is persuaded to take the woman's orphaned daughter (played by O'Neal's daughter, Tatum) to the home of her nearest relatives in St. Joseph, Missouri. The precocious youngster proves to be even more adept than he at the con game, playing for all it is worth the possibility that he just might be her father. Young Tatum won an Academy Award for her performance.

You've noticed, of course, that all of these questionable guardians are male. Even in films like "Bachelor Mother" (1939) and "Baby Boom" (1987), in which the unlikely parental figure is a woman, it is the fact that she's a career woman that calls her competency as a guardian into question. We should bear in mind, however, that filmmakers didn't invent gender stereotyping. We can hardly expect of them a gender neutrality that we're still working on as a society.

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