Cheaper by the Dozen

Cheaper by the Dozen. 20th Century Fox 1950.
Cheaper by the Dozen. 20th Century Fox 1950.

Before watching the movie:

This is a movie about a very large family. There’s currently a franchise of movies with the title that stars Steve Martin, but this doesn’t appear to have much to do with it, aside from perhaps a “suggested by” remake. I have the distinct impression that the modern version (which I haven’t seen either) involves a blended family, while this doesn’t appear to.

It does appear to just be anecdotes from a real family’s life strung together into a feature film. Not quite as attractive as a slapstick comedy with Steve Martin, but it should be fun and interesting.

After watching the movie:

Frank Gilbreth is an industrial engineer obsessed with order and efficiency. He agreed with his wife that they would have twelve children, half girls and half boys, and by jingo, that’s what they had. He drills for speed on assembling, educates them above their grade level, and is always experimenting with more efficient methods for everything from bathing to teaching morse code to buttoning his vest. When almost everyone in the family gets tonsillitis, Frank talks the doctor into letting him film the surgeries in an attempt to find ways to improve the technique. He normally gets his way, but having twelve children tests him on sticking points like getting a dog and teenage dating.

The title indicates the movie is about living in a large family, but it’s actually very much about Frank’s charming, unusual personality. He’s a rather eccentric character one wouldn’t expect to meet in real life, but he is actually based on a real person, perhaps quite closely. The movie is almost directly lifted from a memoir of the same name by two of his children who clearly meant to convey warm memories of their father and how they were molded by him.

I would have liked more of a narrative thread through all the individual stories, which would have generated interest without resting entirely on Frank’s strength of personality. The lobbying for a dog and the oldest girls’ rebellion against his conservative parenting begin to be threads, but they’re still very self-contained. Frank is certainly interesting enough, but nobody else in the family really is. And there’s a sequel memoir and movie about the family without him.

As far as movies about charismatic affluent patriarchs based on nonfiction books go, I’d recommend The Happiest Millionaire over this, which at least has songs to add entertainment value. It also has Fred MacMurray, who’s widely known for many things, while I hadn’t heard of Clifton Webb, whose claim to fame appears to be portraying Mr. Belvedere in a trilogy of movies that predate the television show that I actually had heard of. Webb’s performance is of course quite good, it’s just that, again, the entire movie rests on his back.

I think I had more fun watching this movie than I did in remembering watching it. It’s like being told about someone else’s day. It might be absorbing at the time, but in the end it was just some time spent hearing the person’s voice, value based on the relationship between the teller and the listener.

One thought on “Cheaper by the Dozen

  1. Valerie November 21, 2014 / 8:08 am

    i should watch this again. Or maybe actually watch this – it had to’ve been a rerelease, but i “saw” it in the days of sleeping through the feature in the backseat.

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