Five of a Kind (1938) is a fascinating cultural artifact, and not too bad as a movie, though peculiar out of necessity. The picture is little more than an excuse to show off the Dionne quintuplets - Yvonne, Annette, Cécile, Émilie, and Marie - who as the first ever to survive infancy (a sixth fetus miscarried) became a worldwide sensation. Born in Ontario, Canada, on May 28, 1934, the girls soon became wards of the Provincial crown and, incredibly, put on public display like animals in a zoo. The circus-like tourist attraction-hospital attracted nearly three million visitors between 1936-43.
Five of a Kind was the third of three feature-length movies "starring" the Dionne sisters. The first, The Country Doctor (1936), was a fictionalized account starring Jean Hersholt as a financially struggling doctor whose fortunes change when he helps deliver the "Wyatt Quintuplets." Fox released that to DVD in 2012. Hersholt and others from that film's cast, including Slim Summerville, Jane Darwell, and John Qualen (as their father) returned along with the girls for Reunion (1936) and Five of a Kind.
Posters for Five of a Kind declare, "They Sing! They Act! They Dance!" all of which is technically true, though only just. The girls weren't allowed to leave their care facility, and photographed only under tight restrictions, meaning that most of Five of a Kind's plot has very little to do with them, though it does feature a decent amount of footage of the fivesome in their unnatural environment.
Fox's no-frills manufactured-on-demand DVD of Five of a Kind offers no extras but the transfer is very good.
Christine Nelson (Claire Trevor, a year away from Stagecoach and appealing here) is a reporter for the New York Bulletin. In upstate New York, her search for a missing heiress leads her to the home of Rev. Matthew Brand (Spencer Charters). He runs off on an errand, and while alone in the house a rival reporter, Duke Lester (Cesar Romero), enters, accompanied by the heiress and her boyfriend, who plan to ask the reverend to marry them.
Christine tries to scoop Duke, but he feeds her false information that the proposed husband is insane. Naturally, Christine loses her job when that tidbit is published and the man's family announces plans to file a lawsuit against the paper.
Dejected, Christine and her assistant, Libby Long (Inez Courtney) go to see a Shirley Temple-Mr. Moto double feature, where a Fox Movietone newsreel about the Wyatt Quintuplets' life in Moosetown, Ontario inspire Christine to pitch a newsreel-type radio series sponsored by the New York World-Dispatch.
When Duke gets word that Christine and Libby have boarded a train headed for Moosetown, where Christine hopes to sign the "quints" (as they're called throughout the film) to an exclusive series of radio appearances, he again sabotages her efforts by claiming the two women are notorious con women, and both are soon arrested. Libby fakes a seizure to bring Dr. John Luke (Hersholt) to the jail. Duke's trick is exposed and Dr. Luke agrees to the girls' appearances.
Later on, Christine's success with the quints prompts a visit from Dr. Scott Williams (Henry Wilcoxon), who runs a struggling hospital-orphanage and who asks Christine to help arrange a charity event featuring the quintuplets in New York. The ever-reckless Duke, however, again throws all caution to the wind, setting Christine up to report the birth of sextuplets, a hoax Duke stages. Completely discredited, Christine and all plans for the charity event are threatened.
The top-billed Dionne Quintuplets appear in about 18 of the padded film's 85-minutes. All of their scenes were photographed at the Dafoe Hospital and Nursery where the then-four-year-old girls lived and were ogled at from a public observation area. Only Jean Hersholt is ever seen directly interacting with them. Even Claire Trevor never gets any closer to the quintuplets than rear-screen process shots, and there aren't more than a few of these.
Grandfatherly Hersholt, however, does well with the girls, mostly ad-libbing with these non-actors in pre-staged but semi-documentary scenes, some featuring the Dionnes' actual nurses. The sisters are presented with puppies, which they respond to with a bit of trepidation at first, before playing wholeheartedly with them; Dr. Luke sits with them in a kitchen, asking them to pour him some coffee with milk and sugar; they "play" little pianos in another scene; and later still their fourth birthday is celebrated with cake and presents.
The girls are cute but had none of fellow Fox contractee Shirley Temple's uncanny talent. Instead, they're just (by birth) extraordinary four-year-olds behaving like ordinary four-year-olds. The quintuplets spoke French, not English, so they sing-shout "Frère Jacques" in another scene and an English song written for the film, probably learned phonetically, in another. But even when they speak in English it's almost impossible to understand them, as they tend to ramble on as four-year-olds do, and usually all at once.
These little vignettes have almost nothing to do with Christine's story, though her lion's share of the narrative is as inoffensive as it is innocuous. The movie generally portrays the sisters as living in an ideal paradise, full of games and laughter, and the movie seems to capture them before they became aware just how horribly they were being exploited, and well before their lives took even darker turns.
Born to a poor farming family already boasting five children, the Dionnes initially agreed to exhibit their children for Chicago's Century of Progress exhibition, but the Ontario government interceded, only to exploit the children themselves, declaring the Dionne parents unfit and building the tourist attraction across the street from the Dionne farm, an attraction that ultimately generated $51 million in revenue for the Province. They were returned to their now-wealthy parents in November 1943, who according to the surviving sisters treated them as second-class citizens compared to the other Dionne children (three more sons followed their birth), and denied them many of the privileges the others received, blaming them for the trouble they caused through their mere existence. Their father resented his years-long loss of custody, and according to the sisters he sexually abused them when they were teenagers.
At 20 and 35 respectively, Émilie and Marie met lonely, sad ends, Émilie accidentally suffocating following a seizure, Marie of a blood clot, her body undiscovered for days. Yvonne died of cancer in 2001 at 67, leaving only Annette and Cécile, now 80 years old. In 1997, the three surviving sisters penned a letter of caution to the parents of the McCaughey septuplets, saying in part "Multiple births should not be confused with entertainment, nor should they be an opportunity to sell products. Our lives have been ruined by the exploitation we suffered."
Video & Audio
Five of a Kind is presented in its original black-and-white, standard size (1.37:1) format, and appears to be a recent transfer, as the image is nearly flawless.
The mono audio, English only, is also fine. No subtitle options and no Extra Features.
As a cultural document, Five of a Kind is extremely interesting, while as a movie it's no worse than fair. All told, Recommended.
Stuart Galbraith IV is the Kyoto-based film historian and publisher-editor of World Cinema Paradise. His credits include film history books, DVD and Blu-ray audio commentaries and special features.