Bob Hope movies are a cultural study all their own. A comedy legend of the highest order, Hope’s entertainment career lasted more than 70 years, over many of which, he was a household name. By the middle of the twentieth century, Hope wasn’t just a legend, he was an establishment and with that, he brought a filmography which was fully and completely his own. In fact, the Bob Hope movie should really be their own genre. These films are fully and completely representative of not only the entertainment industry, but culture as a whole in this very unique era. There really is a lot to see in these fluffy comedies.
Bachelor in Paradise follows Hope as author Adam Niles. He’s thrown for a loop when he discovers his former business manager committed massive fraud and Niles is now liable for the missing tax payments. To avoid government reprocussions, he gives up his lavish European lifestyle and moves into a typical, post-WWII suburban neighborhood with aims of writing a book on this very specific sub-section of United States culture. Lana Turner, Paula Prentiss, Jim Hutton and Don Porter co-star in the movie. Jack Arnold directs the film from a script by Valentine Davis and Hal Kanter.
The culture of the United States during the post-World War II era has come to be defined through a very specific lens. We often see the suburban neighborhoods which sprung up during the post war rush to normalcy shown in the movies and television shows of the era. We see life during this time as innocent, orderly and decidedly grown-up. However, there’s one thing we forget to factor in: many of these images come from the popularized mass media of the time. This is what we’re supposed to see.
It’s fascinating to take a step back into the works of the early 1960s– like Bachelor in Paradise— with the realization that culture has imprinted many of these views on our perception of the Eisenhower fifties. Could it be things weren’t as orderly as we envision while watching classic situation comedies like Father Knows Best and The Donna Reed Show?
Bachelor in Paradise casts a tremendously self-reflexive eye towards life in “Paradise”, (the name of the suburban housing development in which Niles takes up residence). This is particularly noticeable in the treatment of gender roles and romantic relationships within the script. Could this be a product of the film’s definite allegiance with Niles’ perspective as an “outsider” in this orderly life?
The brunt of the movie’s conflict centers around Niles’ relationship with the women of “Paradise”, most specifically a housewife Linda (Paula Prentiss), a divorcee with a wandering eye Dolores (Janis Page), and the perpetually single, working woman, Rosemary (Lana Turner).
The assumption when thinking back to this period– as it relates to gender roles– stamps women of the era with a ‘Happy Housewife’ image. Think of the opening credits from The Donna Reed Show.
Coming two years before Betty Friedan’s groundbreaking study, The Feminine Mystique, Bachelor in Paradise shows some hints (and it wasn’t alone in culture) that Friedan’s ideas about ‘The Problem with No Name’ weren’t new when she presented them in 1963.
As Linda, Paula Prentiss personifies the very woman Friedan wrote about two years later. She’s a young, college educated housewife. She mentions studying romance languages with the intention of being a teacher, but she married right after graduation and is now saddled as a housewife with two beyond rambunctious children.
This is the woman Friedan wrote about in The Feminine Mystique. These were privileged young women who found themselves able to pursue an education in large numbers for the first time in history. However, with few exceptions a degree is where their luck ended. With few serious professional opportunities, many had few options other than to marry after college while their husbands went to work. All of a sudden, they found themselves lost, frustrated and unfulfilled with no apparent reason why. When you have a successful husband, children, a nice house and every whim catered… how can you complain? Hence, ‘The Problem with No Name’.
This isn’t to paint Bachelor in Paradise (or Bob Hope for that matter) a Trojan horse of twentieth century feminism. It isn’t. Interestingly though, even shortly after Niles’ arrival in ‘Paradise’, Thomas Jynson (Don Porter) acknowledges that something has changed in the women of the little suburban hamlet. They are wearing dresses again… instead of… slacks! (Gasp)! They’re wearing make-up! They care about life!
Niles quickly works his way into the neighborhood community of housewives and suddenly, he’s finding ways to reinvigorate their hum drum lives. He helps them jazz up their relationships and it is implied, their sex lives with their equally struggling ‘Man in the Gray Suit” husbands.
By vestige of the narrative construction, the men in the neighborhood play a much smaller narrative part in the story. However, this is exactly the historical problem. While housewives often found themself struggling through their issues alone, this generation of men found themselves equally weighed down by the post-World War II return to “normalcy”. Many men in this generation returned from overseas military service before quickly marrying and starting a family. They were often (though not always!) the lone breadwinners, pressured into jobs they didn’t always like with families they weren’t ready for. (Dare we even talk about the (unspoken) presence of PTSD among this generation of men after the war). Newspaper sources during the time cite the average age of marriage during the late 1950s as being between 21 and 23 for women and men respectively. These were young adults who (to use the millennial parlance) were forced to “adult” and ended up having to “grow-up” very quickly.
Bachelor in Paradise is by far and away at its most interesting in the first two acts as it dives headfirst into this suburban space. It looses its focus a bit towards the third act as it tries to turn the narrative into a sex romp surrounding Niles before tying things neatly into a bow of domestic bliss.
The film under-utilizes Lana Turner as Rosemary Howard, a single, career woman who lives and works in in ‘Paraidse’. There’s some immense narrative potential for her character, especially considering the movie’s in-depth study of this very specific cultural era. Ultimately though, she’s little more than a plot device. After all, Mr. Hope needs to end up with a lovely lady at the end of the movie! Everything ends happily and everyone is suitably partnered off.
Yes, a big chunk of Bachelor in Paradise focuses on Niles teaching these women how to recapture the spark in their love lives by not being so shrill (my words, not his). So, no, as I mentioned, this isn’t to hold this up as an early feminist work. However, watching the film through a contemporary perspective, it is possible to see (even a slight) awareness of the growing gender struggles in mid-twentieth century culture. It becomes clear that our society over-simplifies the Eisenhower fifties in our reading of the domestic space as “Dad, his happy housewife and their two point five children”. The societal changes of the coming decade were very much present, the words to describe them just didn’t exist quite yet.
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Podcaster at Hollywood and Wine, historian and filmmaker studying contributions of women in Classic TV. Film critic for Geek Girl Authority. Classic film lover for Ticklish Business.
You can find me on Twitter @kpierce624!