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Viewer Guide: Yours, Mine and Ours and Philomena

January 29, 2021 | Richard Peña


Yours, Mine and Ours (1968)

This week’s classic is Yours, Mine and Ours, the 1968 family comedy directed by Melville Shavelson.

Based on Helen Beardsley’s 1965 autobiographical book Who Gets the Drumstick?, Yours, Mine and Ours stars Lucille Ball and Henry Fonda as the cinematic embodiment of Helen and her husband Frank, and recounts the daunting feat of how the two widowed spouses combined their families to create a new super brood of eighteen children. Frank is a senior Navy officer who decides to take a research job at the Naval Air Station in Alameda, California, in order to have more at-home time with his ten children, especially given the family’s increasingly high turnover rate with housekeepers. Helen is a civilian nurse working at the Navy base with eight children of her own, and first encounters Frank at the commissary when their overflowing grocery carts collide. For fear of prematurely sabotaging their mutual attraction, they each strive to keep the awful truth of the size of their families from the other. But after a bit of mischievous reverse matchmaking from friend in common Darrell Harrison, played by Van Johnson, Frank and Helen soon realize they’re perfectly suited for each other: how many people would be brave enough to take on a huge new family—unless they already had a huge family of their own?

Lucille Ball founded Desilu Productions in 1950 with her then-husband Desi Arnaz for their nightclub act and to develop a little TV series that eventually became the pioneering blockbuster I Love Lucy in 1951. When Desilu acquired the rights to Helen Beardsley’s autobiographical book Who Gets the Drumstick?, there was little doubt who would be playing Helen, but the role of Frank was up for grabs, with stars like Art Carney, Jackie Gleason, Fred MacMurray, James Stewart, John Wayne and even Desi Arnaz discussed for the part. But upon hearing of the film’s production, Henry Fonda volunteered himself for the role, which met with Ball’s rapid approval. Ball was reportedly dissatisfied with the first story outline written by I Love Lucy writers Bob Carroll Jr. and Madelyn Davis as being too similar to her iconic TV persona. Various writers were then hired to work on the script, including director Melville Shavelson. Supposedly, Ball required strenuous coaxing from Shavelson to play the family dinner scene in which Frank’s boys spike Helen’s drink, which Ball transformed into the comic high point of the film. After buying out Desi’s shares and becoming Desilu’s sole owner—and Hollywood’s first woman media mogul—Ball sold the company to Gulf+Western in 1968 for $17 million—roughly $130 million in today’s money. Desilu would eventually be transformed into Paramount Television.


Philomena (2013)

This week’s indie is Philomena, a 2013 drama directed by Stephen Frears.

Adapted from British journalist Martin Sixsmith’s 2009 nonfiction book, Philomena is the partially fictionalized story of Philomena Lee, a London-area resident born in County Limerick, Ireland in 1933, and portrayed in her senior years by the magnificent Judi Dench. In a layered structure, the film establishes how Sixsmith and Lee first met. Played by Steve Coogan, Sixsmith is a former BBC correspondent recently fired from his job in Tony Blair’s government for—according to him anyway—exaggerated reasons. And while at first glance Philomena looks like a typical British grand-mum, flashbacks reveal her traumatic secret. Becoming pregnant at the age of 18, Philomena quickly learns the terrible price for being an unwed mother in Catholic Ireland. Shunned by her family, she’s sent to have her baby in secret at the Sean Ross Abbey in the town of Roscrea, and after the baby’s birth forced to four years of menial labor in the convent laundry to pay off the nuns’ “generosity” for taking her in. When Philomena finally divulges her long-held secret to her daughter Jane, played by Anna Maxwell Martin, Jane makes an impromptu pitch to Sixsmith upon encountering him at a party—might Philomena’s story become his next journalistic project? Initially, Sixsmith begs off—human interest stories aren’t his thing—but perhaps the story behind Philomena’s story might be more important than he first thinks?

The scandal of the “Magdalene Laundries”—institutions which for years provided shelter for unwed mothers and other “fallen women”—has rocked the Roman Catholic world since the truth of their cruelty and abuse was finally revealed in the 1990s. Released to mostly critical acclaim and garnering four 2013 Oscar nominations including Best Actress for Judi Dench and Best Picture, Philomena does take a number of factual liberties in dramatizing Martin Sixsmith’s book, “The Lost Child of Philomena Lee.” Philomena did not actually accompany Sixsmith on his trip to the US, and Sister Hildegard—the wheelchair-bound nun Sixsmith confronts at the end of the film—had been dead for several years by the time Sixsmith began his investigation. And Philomena ultimately learned of her son’s death from a convent nun, and not from Sixsmith’s online research.

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