Talkie of the Week: The First Time
USA 1952, 89 minutes, black & white, Columbia Pictures. Director: Frank Tashlin, Written by: Hugo Butler. Cast: Barbara Hale, Robert Cummings, Bill Goodwin, Jeff Donnell, Carl Benton Reid, Mona Barrie, Kathleen Comegys, Paul Harvey, Cora Witherspoon
Plot summary: Joe and Betsy Bennet are expecting their first child and are soon confronted with all the (un)pleasantries of being first time parents.
Review: My theory is that most things in life have not changed over the past few decades, at least not as drastically as today’s insolent perception often suggests. Have a look at this comedy from 1952 for instance: The First Time depicts a year in the lives of Joe and Betsy Bennet, happy newly-wed parents-to-be until they bring home a gurgling, laughing and blaring baby boy called Tim. With his arrival, all their trouble starts: bills, overbearing nurses, household inadequacies and a grandmother who doesn’t want to be identified as such.
In order to pay the pile of bills, Joe gives up on architecture and starts working for the company his father’s been selling washing machines for for years. Completely unqualified for the job, Joe soon brings his frustration home to his equally frustrated wife. Betsy, a hearty young mother, soon reaches her limits as her son grows older and thus his demands. She cannot cope with the household that seems to explode around her, especially when her husband’s own washing machine conks out and she has to wash the diapers by hand again or call the costly diaper service instead. She feels left alone and exhausted by the end of a long day of running errands and trying to look after her family’s needs. At the same time, Joe cannot cope with his own inadequacies at work and the miserable product he has to sell with a fake smile. When the situation finally erupts, husband and wife have their first big argument over a life they both don’t want to live that way: not with cold cuts, a fridge full of milk for the baby, warm beer and a dreadful job that eats away their marital sanity.
Barbara Hale and Robert Cummings deliver a brilliant performance throughout the entire film, but the fireworks of their seething argument and their desperate attempt to whisper their way through it to not wake baby Tim top notch and as sparkly as it can get. A natural comedian, Robert Cummings pulls off his lines and stunts with expert precision, overdoing his act the way comedians are expected to. Barbara Hale is his hilariously refreshing wife Betsy who gives a multifaceted portrayal of a woman who has to adapt to being a young wife with a baby. She is funny in her very own way, bubbly, beautiful and quick on her feet – a real joy to watch, especially when she acts with “her” baby.
The on-screen chemistry between Robert Cummings and Barbara Hale supports the well-knitted script and papers over the few dramatic cracks. The First Time is a comedy and thus lives on screwball moments and odd circumstances. Witty dialogue and an overall fantastic cast of actors are great additional ingredients. The film, although from 1952 some of you may say, is a must for young parents and those who are planning to have a baby anytime soon. It is wonderfully chaotic, entertaining and blunt: the supposed easiness of marriage with a child, the joys and traps, and all the unpleasant (or pleasant?) first months of growing up as parents. The film is packed with exhilarating situations and emotional struggles, always going deeper than the airiness of the genre may suggest. It would be a shame if this film was forgotten because in my humble opinion it is a real gem, even if you’re not (yet) a parent yourself.
Available on DVD-R. The First Time: Betsy proves a point