Some stories strike a chord with audiences and creators alike and find expression again and again throughout generations. Author Robert L. Fontaine was born in Illinois but spent part of his childhood in Ottawa, Canada, the setting for his 1945 novel The Happy Time, which began life as several magazine short stories.
In 1950 Samuel Taylor (Sabrina Fair, No Strings) adapted the stories for a Broadway play which had a successful run of 614 performances. Earl Felton (The Narrow Margin, Armored Car Robbery) received a Writers Guild Award nomination for his 1952 screenplay adaption for the Stanley Kramer production of The Happy Time. The Happy Time once again went to Broadway in 1968 as a Kander and Ebb musical winning three Tony Awards out of eight nominations. Thanks to DVDs and the astute TCM programmers, the winning film continues to find an accepting audience.
Director Richard Fleischer was keen to work on the project for his friend Stanley Kramer and recounts in his 1993 memoir Just Tell Me When to Cry:
"The making of The Happy Time was an unadulterated delight, and we were all pleased with the result. In the 1950s Radio City Music Hall was to movies what the Palace Theater used to be to vaudeville. To play the Palace was to achieve the pinnacle of success. To play the Music Hall was something to be proud of. The Happy Time played the Music Hall."
Springtime in Ottawa, circa 1921 is full of confusion and joy for Robert Bonnard, known affectionately to his large and loving family as Bibi. It is the springtime when Bibi will grow in understanding and from short pants to long. Bibi is played by 15-year-old Bobby Driscoll (Peter Pan, So Dear to My Heart, special Oscar winner for The Window). His performance is sincere and amusing, showing a young man with natural gifts who needed only guidance and material to fulfill his potential.
Bibi's Anglo-Scot Presbyterian mother is played by lovely Marsha Hunt (Raw Deal, The Valley of Decision). Madame Bonnard sees herself as the voice of reason and discipline in a family of crazy francophone males. For all her protestations she is as open-hearted and fun-loving as the rest of the Bonnards.
Bibi's father Jacques is an artist, the music director at the local vaudeville theatre. His philosophical nature is a great influence, not only on Bibi but on his whole family. Four time Oscar nominee Charles Boyer (Algiers, Love Affair) is charming in the role of family man. He wears it like a glove.
Grandpere, played by versatile character actor Marcel Dalio (Casablanca, Tip on a Dead Jockey), lives with Bibi and his parents. For all his years, he is a man whose hobby, avocation and reason for living is "the ladies". The dapper skirt chase is frowned upon by his daughter-in-law and accepted with a smile by his eldest son. His youngest son is the infamous Uncle Desmond played by Louis Jourdan (Gigi, The Swan). Desmond is a chip off the old block and, as Mme. Bonnard fears, a bad influence on Bibi. Ah, Louis Jourdan!
Kurt Kasznar, Jeanette Nolan, Ann Faber
In a neighbouring house resides Uncle Louis played by Kurt Kasznar (Lili, The Ambushers). Like his older brother Jacques, Louis is a philosopher, but one whose wisdom comes from a water cooler filled with wine. He is well-meaning, but more than a little cock-eyed. Louis' wife Felice is played by Jeanette Nolan (MacBeth, The Big Heat) and perhaps one of these days she will wear out from yelling at him. Perhaps not.
Kurt Kasznar played the role of Uncle Louis in the Broadway production and while Kramer and Fleischer agreed he was brilliant in the role at first they balked at paying the requested price for his service. They offered the role instead to Zero Mostel, but Harry Cohn of Columbia Studios who was backing the project refused to hire the blacklisted Mostel.
Another neighbour of the Bonnard's is Peggy O'Hare aka "The Fighting American" played by Marlene Cameron, also from the original Broadway production. Peggy is Bibi's classmate and fervent admirer.
Kurt Kasznar, Charles Boyer, Bobby Driscoll, Marsha Hunt, Louis Jourdan
Into this mix of high spirits comes Linda Christian (Battle Zone, The V.I.P.s) as the beauteous Mignonette. Eva Gabor played this role in the play. Mignonette is the refugee from a handsy vaudeville magician. The stranded showgirl is hired by Jacques to help his wife with the housework. Her charms are not lost on either Desmond or Bibi, although the proper young woman only has eyes for Rudolf Valentino.
Bibi's infatuation with Mignonette is not lost on Peggy and this inadvertently leads to a school crisis which requires the combined forces of the Bonnard clan to solve. The Happy Time is filled with charming and nostalgic episodes. It is amusing and touching in surprising and frank ways. Be prepared as the last scene will burst your heart.
Charles Boyer as Jacques Bonnard in The Happy Time is one of my all-time favourite movie dads. Perhaps someone at TCM agrees with me as they are screening the movie as part of their Father's Day Salute on Sunday, June 15th at 8:00 am.