Delightful little domestic comedy; a must-have for fans of Tish Tash. Sony Picture's Choice Collection line of hard-to-find library and cult titles has released The First Time, the 1952 comedy from Columbia Pictures, directed by Frank Tashlin (his first official feature job), and starring Robert Cummings, Barbara Hale, Bill Goodwin, Jeff Donnell, Carl Benton Reid, Mona Barrie, Kathleen Comegys, Paul Harvey, Bea Benaderet, and Cora Witherspoon. An energetic, nicely snappish look at the emotional and financial perils of having a baby during America's post-WWII economic boom, The First Time's universal, humorous truths about marriage and parenting ring just as true today, while fans of director Tashlin will have fun here spotting satirical themes and visual gags that will crop up in his later big-screen efforts. No extras for this sharp fullscreen black and white transfer.
A peaceful, orderly, tract house suburb of Anytown, U.S.A., circa 1952. Pretty, pregnant housewife Betsey Bennet (Barbara Hale) awakes in the middle of the night, ready to have her first baby. Loving husband Joe Bennet (Robert Cummings), a low-paid architect, is the model of understanding and patience with the nervous mother, in part because he's sure their careful financial planning will see the young couple through this expensive ordeal. Not so fast, Joe. When Joe gets the hospital bill, he's forced to write a rubber check--they're $88 dollars short, money which Joe borrows from neighbors Mel and Donna Gilbert (Bill Goodwin and Jeff Donnell). And that doesn't even begin to address the doctor's bill, or the $55 dollars a week he needs to pay Nurse Salisbury (Cora Witherspoon), who will be living with the Bennetts--on Betsey's doctor's orders--for the first four weeks, training baby and mother....particularly when Joe only makes $55 dollars a week total. So, it's time to get a new job, courtesy of Joe's dad, Andrew (Carl Benton Reid), selling Whirlomat washing machines on commission. While Joe finds little satisfaction (either professionally or financially) with his new high-pressure sales job, Betsey is no better off (no matter how easy Joe thinks she has it), where she's terrified of taking care of the baby alone, and eventually overwhelmed by the sheer volume of work that goes into keeping house and baby clean and orderly. Will the little couple stay together, through thick and thin?
Relatively obscure, The First Time didn't mean anything to me, prior to this Choice Collection release, other than being the first title I would always encounter when researching the list of director Frank Tashlin's big-screen feature-length efforts. And what a nice surprise it turned out to be: a fast-paced, funny domestic comedy with a healthy dose of realistic marital snippiness to it (particularly for this time period), as well as a first peek into Tashlin's coming humorous concerns--often accompanied by cartoonish visual gags--about the minefields of an increasingly mechanized, regimented modern America (...if Tish Tash were alive today, he'd quite rightly snort at such pretentiousness). Yet another little-seen (or perhaps ignored?) counterpoint to the usual cliches and generalities you see parroted back about how "square" and "bland" and "idealized" 1950s mainstream television and movies were, The First Time has a refreshing tang to it concerning the far-from-"perfect" 1950s American suburbs and baby boomer parents it presents. Scripted by at least four credited writers (Tashlin, Dane Lussier, Jean Rouverol and Hugo Butler, the last two right before they were blacklisted), The First Time's suburban couple lead worried-filled lives. Their lack of money is a prime irritant (their little Levittown-like bungalow is cute but realistically modest) and a good source for the comedic/dramatic conflicts that follow, while both prove to be flawed-at-best embodiments of their 50s iconic stereotypes: a long way from Mrs. Cleaver, often exhausted, frumpy Betsey is a rather flustered mother who has difficulty keeping a clean house, while equally-spent, irritable breadwinner Joe never succeeds at his job of hustling defective washing machines. Certainly, The First Time's post-war "good life" is a bit more complicated than what was suggested in the average Sunday paper color supplement.
Even though some of the specific details may have changed since 1952 (sanitizing glass baby bottles, door-to-door salesmen), much of The First Time's marital/parenting situations feel universal and up-to-date: the bickering, meddling grandmothers (and the oblivious grandfather), bottle feeding vs. breast feeding debates, suddenly panicked fathers feeling like a millstone has been put around their necks, and equally frightened mothers wondering just what to do with that squalling, helpless baby in the crib. Situations we think will work out to convention have a way of slipping sideways in The First Time, to still-realistic, thoroughly recognizable, effect. After weeks of physical and emotional stress for both parents, we expect Joe's thoughtful gift of a candlelight dinner (of cold cuts) and that black neglige Betsey specifically asked for prior to the baby being born, to yield a grateful, "Thank you," from a harried Betsey. No such luck: Joe may be in the mood to be nice, but obviously not-"in-the-mood" Betsey isn't, and the two quickly descend into a nasty fight (that most married couples will recognize through some form or variation) about him not making enough money, and her not being efficient or particularly good at her domestic duties. Certainly when things go wrong or negative the laughs increase (as with any comedy), but The First Time is also quite sweet at times when Joe and Betsey believably realize how much they love each other (Joe's heartfelt admonishment to Betsey not to think about her will; loving Betsey's help in teaching Joe how to smile during sales calls).
Undercurrents aside, The First Time is flat-out funny, too, as you would expect from Tashlin. There's a straightfaced smartass tone to The First Time right from the start, as unseen Timmy Bennet (young Stuffy Singer, in a perfectly delivered voice-over) positively comments on his street ("Nice, huh?"), and his mother, Betsey ("Love that girl,"), before he informs us he hasn't even been born yet--an amusing twist. His wry observations drop down throughout the movie ("There I was: Delightful. Delicious. And deductible." "My father paid for his bouncing baby boy with a bouncing rubber check,"), adding further pleasing contrast between the omniscient artifice of his bemused, detached comments, and the amusing, realistic pitfalls plaguing his parents. Tashlin, getting good, quirky rhythms and line readings from his cast (Cummings is always funny, but he has a nice, angry edge here at times, while beautiful Hale gets to really stretch in a surprisingly complex performance) does everything he can to pump up his scenes with throwaway bits and business. When Cummings backs his car out into the street, he doesn't just back out--he smashes cartoon-style in a garbage can full of trash; when the neighbors take a picture of the returning new parents, amateur photographer Mel naturally cuts their heads off. Tashlin would work out some remarkably funny visual and aural gags involving babies in his later Jerry Lewis outing, Rock-A-Bye Baby, but a few score here, as well, including Cummings' amazed reaction to the unseen baby's super-strength bending a spoon, or a fast, hilarious cut to the baby expertly playing his rattles like maracas (either of these could easily have come from a Lewis outing), while Tashlin is always on the look-out to visually exploit a scene for laughs (the couple's viciously-whispered fight is quite delightfully done against candles that flame up with their every insult).
Thematic elements that Tashlin would satirize in numerous future outings can be seen right here at the start of his big-screen career. Anyone who has seen Tashlin's Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? will recognize the tongue-in-cheek approach he brings to The First Time's Whirlomat sales meetings, where the phony, glad-handing boss Mr. Leeming (Paul Harvey, perfectly cast) spits out power of positive thinking platitudes to boost sales while repeatedly calling "valuable" team player Joe by the wrong name (his approval of married salesmen who work harder and are "less touchy" masks his real feelings: those married men will toady to his bullsh*t like Joe's father has done for 25 years, and they won't say "boo" about it for fear of their family's paycheck). In the finale, former cartoon animator Tashlin gets to indulge his slapstick love of machinery run amuck, as the rattletrap Whirlomat gets a mind of its own, crashing about the stage under its own power, spewing suds as its water hose sprays everyone down. Tashlin's suspicions about an increasingly organizational, buttoned-down 50s America is married quite nicely here with his penchant for 50s "sick" humor in the guise of Nurse Salisbury, who tyrannically keeps Betsey on an impossibly rigid feeding/diapering/sleeping schedule for the baby, before she blithely walks out of Betsey's life, supremely confident that she's taken another clueless little mother and trained her up right (in the movie's funniest moment--one that reminded me of Tashlin's The Disorderly Orderly, and its preoccupation with catastrophic bodily functions--the hysterically funny Cora Witherspoon leaves terrified mother Hale with three horrific images of parenting-gone-wrong as she blithely bustles out the door: permanent brain damage should Hale wash the baby's face too close to the soft spot, swallowing a diaper pin, and the possibility of draining every drop of the baby's blood for a Rh transfusion. This is Tashlin at his grotesque best.).
And of course, no Frank Tashlin comedy would be complete without some sex jokes. When Joe and Betsey have run out of options for a sitter because they're either too young or too old, like the delightful Ida Moore, who's stone deaf (when Cummings discovers this and silently pays her off, hustling her out of the house after only just sitting down, she confusedly remarks, "Seems like we just got here!"), hospital roommate Bea Benaderet calls and says her regular sitter is waiting at a bus stop, so Joe can just drive by and pick her up. Sooner than you can say, "dirty joke," Tashlin orchestrates a deliciously crude little throwaway scene where Cummings innocently "picks up" smoldering good-time girl/hooker (?) Jean Willes, who's game for anything Cummings is inadvertently suggesting, before she draws the line at Cummings' wife orchestrating what she thinks is a sex party (Tashlin got this one by the censors: "You are a sitter, right?" an increasingly confused Cummings asks, with lynx-eyed Willes dirtily replying, "Two scotches and I'll sit anywhere,"). Even better is a notable extended scene (one you initially think is a dream sequence, such is Tashlin's outsized, adept comedic posturing) where Cummings comes home after his first big fight with his wife (he not only accused his stressed, exhausted wife of keeping a bad house, but of being unkempt personally, too--a cardinal sin for any husband, then or now). Gorgeously made-up and looking devastatingly sexy in that black nightie, in-heat Hale shocks dope Cummings with a spic 'n' span house and a meal fit for a 1950s suburban king: rare prime rib, pumpkin pie, and an ice cold beer. Cummings can't believe his luck as she slavishly fills his pipe; all the resplendent material expressions of the suburban "king of his castle" are set before him, with every one of his sensual (and societal) desires promised fulfillment: a perfectly-kept house, a groaning buffet of expensive foods and spirits, and a wife who looks...and seems ready to act...like a vampish whore. What more could a wearied, pressured, beaten-down 1950s married male want after dragging his ass home (Tashlin even composes some of his static shots like those humorous advertisements from that period that celebrated the idealized 50s "good life")? And that's right when Hale spills his beer on Cummings and starts roughing him up, because she sees that she was unfortunately right all along: her clueless husband would rather have a fantasy wife, and a selfish, sexist image of the perfectly satisfied suburban husband fulfilled, instead of the reality that imperfect, drained Hale inhabits every day. It's a remarkable scene, both hilarious and slyly insightful, in this unexpectedly successful little comedy.
The fullscreen, 1.37:1 black and white transfer for The First Time looks quite sharp, with solid blacks, a crisp image, and good contrast. Screen imperfections are light.
The Dolby Digital English mono audio track for The First Time is okay, with low hiss, and no subtitles or closed-captions available.
No extras for The First Time.
Unexpectedly fine domestic comedy. Director Frank Tashlin mixes realistically snappish marital strife in so-called "perfect" 1950s America suburbia, with his usual quota of cartoonish slapstick gags and risque humor. A real treat for fans of the director. I'm highly, highly recommending The First Time.
Paul Mavis is an internationally published movie and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.