Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
The success of Cheaper by the Dozen inspired this okay comedy about the further adventures of
the Gilbreth family. Neatly turning around his nasty intellectual persona (from Laura and
The Dark Corner) with family films like the then-popular but now forgotten
Clifton Webb passed away at the end of the original show, leaving this sequel with the interesting
efforts of his widow (Myrna Loy) to be hired as an industrial engineer and thus keep her family
It all prefigures the television sitcom, mining the easy chuckles to be had in a houseful of kids.
It's pleasant, fairly progressive, and, as three out of three reviews I have read say identically,
"Good clean fun."
The 1920s. On her own with a brood of kids stretching from college-aged Ann (Jeanne
Crain) to tiny
Jane, Mrs. Lillian Gilbreth struggles to make ends meet and keep relatives from breaking up the
family. She finally succeeds when factory owner Sam Harper (Edward Arnold) hires her to teach
engineering to his employees. Several subplots germinate among the kids. Ernestine (Barbara Bates)
is attracted to college goon Al Lynch (Martin Milner) but her romance is sabotaged by the scamps of
the family. Frank Gilbreth (Robert Arthur) slowly takes on the mantle of elder male. Singer and dancer
Martha (Debra Paget) learns to like being a girl. Faithful family cook and helper Thomas Bracken
(Hoagy Carmichael) keeps trying to make liquor in the basement. And Ann finds herself in a bind when
handsome doctor Grayson (Jeffrey Hunter) proposes, just as it looks like her family needs her to
stay at home.
Cheaper by the Dozen was a true story seen through a nostalgic, "Life with Father" haze. Like
the best of the family saga comedies, it had a sting of reality about it, acknowledging that tragedy
can strike at any time. Belles on their Toes continues this thread but gets a little more
homogenized along the way. Life is beautiful in Technicolor and the only real problem faced by
American families is how to earn enough money to make it all work. Out of 12 kids there's not a one
who isn't sublimely happy or at least agreeable enough to have a civilized response to any social
demand made on them. This is how Americans used to like their family comedies, and the "single parent
copes with a ton o' kids" format has proved successful in everything from Please Don't Eat the
Daisies to The Sound of Music to Yours, Mine and Ours. 1
The key is making the family involved just as cute as pie. The small fry here aren't given much to
do except follow their older siblings around and fill out the compositions on staircases and at
the dinner table. (among them is precocious-looking Jimmy Hunt, who would become immortalized the
next year in
Invaders from Mars.) Most of them are
unbilled, along with familiar faces like Robert Easton (as a hick from Atlanta) and major player
Martin Milner ("I'll be seizin' ya!"). You can see why Milner would take the job even if he had to
pay for the privilege - it's a great showcase.
Robert Arthur (Kirk Douglas' acolyte in Ace in the Hole) is the safe and sane eldest brother,
and the namesake of the author of the original book. It must have been a close family for him to
perceive all of these relationships, or maybe his sisters all confided in him later.
Part of the formula is music. It's the 1920s, nobody has a radio and everybody sings as social
entertainment. Naturally, they sound like professionals and beautiful Debra Paget (looking great
in her "impoverished" costumes) dances on the dock. She and Jeffrey Hunter share high billing as
Fox hopefuls; although she got lots of work as Indian maidens (Broken Arrow) and South Sea
maidens (Bird of Paradise) she didn't go as far as Hunter did, with his
perfect blue eyes and disarming smile.
Myrna Loy has always been a charmer and segue'd into "mother" roles much more smoothly than many
a top glamour star of the 30s. Considerable screen time is given to the interesting idea that
she and her engineer husband had been a scientific team, but when he died, a woman engineer alone
unemployable embarrassment. She shames an industrialist into giving her a chance and succeeds,
although we never really see her at work. She turns out to be an efficiency expert, a work role often
alotted to females, although probably not in the 1920s. There's a groundbreaking scene where she's
refused admittance to a guild dinner where she was supposed to speak, when it turns out they thought
she was a man and the club doesn't allow women. A "liberated" script would have Loy shame them all
and prevail or at least extract satisfaction, but Belles on their Toes has her go off in a
tizz and crack up her tin lizzie automobile. It's more than credible.
The film squanders the women's rights theme with a pointless bit where Edward Arnold publicizes
Loy with a comic newsreel, showing her family being "efficient" by filming them at jerky high-speed.
The last act mines the not-too-convincing chestnut of having top-billed Jeanne Crain jeopardize her
future happiness with hunky Hunter, to take care of her younger siblings. Hunter gets in some
good jabs about giant, tight families like the Gilbreths locking out outsiders and keeping the eldest
daughters as unpaid domestics. With a twist a bit too reminiscent of Meet Me in St. Louis, all
is resolved at a gala dance. Hunter gets his bride, poor Edward Arnold gives up on his romantic ideas
about Myrna Loy (fans would revolt at the dishonor to the Clifton Webb character) and all
ends on a happy note. A flashback wraparound format concludes the show with a grey-haired Loy watching
her youngest graduate from college, as if she's fulfilled her mission and can now die.
Belles on their Toes probably wouldn't have made a good 50s TV sitcom because of the stiff
payroll and child labor laws - the biggest TV families had at most three kids. It is indeed "Good
clean fun", and compared to the vile comedies that pass for Family entertainment now - the Cheaper
by the Dozen remake included - it's charming enough.
Fox's DVD of Belles on their Toes has obviously come out as a marketing adjunct to the new
remake. The Technicolor film only looks so-so on DVD because it was mastered from a composite color
negative that has imperfections, mostly mismatches on the color matrices that make the picture look
soft and occasionally introduce color fringing, as in the main titles where the black lettering is
ringed with a green tint. None of it is so bad that'd you'd eject the disc, but it never looks as
good as one of the rare
digitally composited Tech restorations (wildly cost-prohibitive) or a well-preserved Eastman negative.
The audio is also a little crunchy and slightly muffled, and I'd guess the reason is a lack of a
good source track. Perhaps the optical track of a print was all that was available. The packaging does
say it was remastered in Stereo, however. There's an English mono and a Spanish mono on board as well.
The only extras are some trailers. The original Cheaper by the Dozen appears only in B&W. The
cheesy photo on the back shows Debra Paget and Jeffrey Hunter posing in the flashy red car driven by
Martin Milner in the movie. No image of Myrna Loy appears anywhere on the packaging.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Belles on Their Toes rates:
Video: Good -
Sound: Good --
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: March 14, 2004
1. Yours, Mine and
Ours makes me blanche every time. The last happy "togetherness" event in the film is when
the Lucille Ball and Henry Fonda clan sends eldest son Tim Matheson away to fight in Vietnam!
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson