Kicking off Turkey Week: “Hey, We Kept the Cool Title!”

turkey falling

That’s right: once again, Lantern Hollow Press is dedicating the week of Thanksgiving to gleefully ripping apart “turkeys” — movies, books, etc. that we are NOT thankful for!

To kick us off this Sunday, I’m tackling a turkey that really deserves to be shot (and then stabbed, plucked, beheaded, burned, and buried under six feet of concrete:  the modern remake of Cheaper by the Dozen.

Frank and Lillian gilbrethTo begin with, let’s look at the origins of the story:  Back in the early 1900s, there was a real family named the Gilbreths.  Frank and Lillian Gilbreth were both efficiency experts who happened to also love children.  They had twelve children (six of each gender, none of whom were multiples) whom they raised according to (mostly Frank’s) efficiency methods.*  The assembly line was a massive part of the family’s way of life.  Additionally, Frank taught the kids morse code by painting it all over the bathroom of their summer house (two lighthouses put together), got all of them to skip at least one grade in school through home tutoring techniques, and turned their home into a surgery (complete with movie camera) when multiple sets of tonsils needed to come out.  They had numerous other adventures as well.  When Frank died of a sudden heart attack, Lillian carried on both his work and the raising of the children, successfully putting all of them through college.  Two of the Gilbreth children, Frank Jr. and Ernestine, wrote two bestselling books (Cheaper by the Dozen and Belles on Their Toes) about their loving, unusual, and highly amusing upbringing (Frank Jr. later wrote additional books on his own).

myrna loy cheaper by the dozenIn 1950, Hollywood turned the Gilbreth’s story into a pretty cute movie that followed the book Cheaper by the Dozen reasonably well.  They took a few liberties, but on the whole, the story was still recognizable as that of the Gilbreths.  (Hollywood took a whole lot more liberties with Belles on Their Toes, including turning the Gilbreths into a musical family, but I can tackle that turkey at a later date.)

Years passed, and the movies faded a bit from public memory.  Clifton Webb, Myrna Loy, and Jeanne Craine, the film’s stars, grew old and passed away.  The movie script likely collected a few layers of dust.  The books continued to be read and cherished, though perhaps with less fervor.

This next bit is just my theory, but I am pretty sure that it happened something like this:

One day, an agent got a hankering to trot out Steve Martin in a film again.  “Hmmm,” the agent said, stoking his greasy mustache thoughtfully.  “Martin’s always good for a remake . . . now what comedy have we not had him remake yet?  Hmmmm . . . ”  The agent took a big swig from the bottle of scotch at his elbow.  Wait — scratch that.  I don’t picture this agent being quite classy enough for scotch.  Okay, he took a big swig from his can of beer, crushed it, threw it and missed the trashcan, and then bumped his head on a bookshelf as he bent down to pick it up.  Shaking the dust out of his thinning hair, he picked up an aged script that had fallen on the floor.

“What’s this?  Cheaper by the Dozen . . . hmm, that’s a great title!  I know, Steve-o can remake this one!”  Excitedly the agent flipped through the first few pages.  “Humph, too much writing — I can’t be bothered to read this.  Say, Sophie!” He called to his cantankerous secretary, who was currently going through The Change.  “Stop draping yourself over that AC and come in here.  I need you to skim this thing and tell me the main points.  Gonna have Steve Martin remake it.”

Fanning herself and glaring at her employer, Sophie accepted the script gingerly, as one might handle a deceased fish.  Sophie did not like men.  Sophie did not like scripts.  Sophie also did not like herself at present.

Rather than read the lengthy epistle, its pages yellowed with the patina of many years of being forgotten, Sophie instead skimmed it while watching Friends reruns and drinking cheap wine straight out of the box later that evening (alcohol plays a key role in this story, as you can see).  Jotting down a few notes, it never occurred to Sophie that she kept mixing up the television show with the movie script.  She also never noticed that she spilled wine on the list of characters’ names.

“Okay, here’s the rundown of this thing,” Sophie yawned to her boss the next day at work. She handed him her crumpled notes, then dry-swallowed a couple of aspirin.  “So, there’s this guy and his gorgeous wife, and they have — let’s see — twelve kids, yada yada yada, and then they all go to Vegas to see Joey.”

“Huh?” The agent asked.  “I don’t see any Joey in this.”

“Oh, probably didn’t happen then,” Sophie said dismissively.  “Anyhow, twelve kids, and I’m pretty sure the parents are married.  The married part seems a bit far-fetched to me, but maybe if you cast someone young enough to be Steve Martin’s daughter as the wife people’ll believe it.”

“Okay,” the agent agreed, slapping his hands together happily.  “Let’s call up Martin, line up a studio, and shoot this thing!”

Occasionally, during the weeks and months that followed, people touched, moved, or in other ways gently disturbed the script.  One person happened to remember there being a book by that name, so someone’s assistant googled it.  “Something to do with Gilbreths,” he reported back.  “It’s kind of a cool name — let’s randomly insert it somewhere in the movie.”  A bunch of people gave him a thumbs up.

About two weeks into shooting the movie, someone remembered that it needed a script.  Unfortunately, Sophie had fallen into a blind rage one day, owing to her unstable hormones, and had torched the only copy they had of the original.  So, going by Sophie’s only-slightly-legible notes and the results of a drunken brainstorming session held late one night, several underpaid writers slapped together something vaguely resembling a script.  “People will still know it’s a remake because we kept the cool title and because Steve Martin’s starring in it,” they reassured themselves.

steve martin cheaper by the dozenThe final product was every bit as high quality as one would anticipate, having heard the story of its creation.  Steve Martin did indeed star in it, and he did some funny pratfalls and looked old enough to father the woman playing his wife.  There were twelve children.  Some cute twins were available, so the family had some multiples.  No one had any idea what an efficiency “export” was (Sophie had misspelled “expert” in her notes), so they made the father a football coach.  Since Sophie had spilled wine on the list of names, they flipped through a telephone book to name the kids.  Selfless, loving parents were far too ridiculous to be believed, so they had the parents make REALLY stupid, selfish decisions as part of the plot.  To add some tenderness, they threw in a neglected misfit kid to the family mix.  To ensure laughs, they made the kids total brats, mixed in vomit and a few injured male crotches, simmered, and stirred.  Having never read the book, no one involved had any idea what the title actually meant, other than that it had the number twelve in it, so they added some sentimental commentary about numbers to the beginning and end of the film.  They spent several million dollars on advertising and called it a great picture.  The archivist in Hell’s movie section cheerfully catalogued the new submission.

Be sure to check back each day this week as Lantern Hollow Press authors joyously slay turkey after turkey!

*Although the Gilbreths had twelve children total, eleven survived to adulthood.  Mary, one of the oldest daughters, died from illness as a little girl.

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About HistoryGypsy

I'm a high school history teacher and author of upcoming novel Sidhe Eyes. I live in gorgeous Qingdao, China, where I spend much of my free time studying the fascinating and frustrating Chinese language, eating odd things, or taking long walks along the Yellow Sea. At "While We're Paused" I have the pleasure of blogging about things that catch my interest: good books, language, history, poetry, writing tips, grammar rants, random humor . . . I don't like to get in a rut! Some of my favorite writers include (and this is by no means an exhaustive list): Dorothy Sayers, J.K. Rowling, C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Agatha Christie, Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, William Shakespeare, Jules Verne, Baroness Orczy, Geoffrey Wawro, John Lynn, Bill Bryson, the Bronte sisters, John Christopher, J.M. Barrie, O. Henry, Roald Dahl, and Robert Graves. I usually find myself reading no less than three books at a time!

Posted on November 20, 2011, in Books, Movie Reviews, Stephanie Thompson, Turkey Posts and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. I remember loving the original movie when I saw it as a child.
    I remember cringing when I saw the remake.
    I didn’t cry, I didn’t love the original enough to cry, but I came close to a blind rage.
    p.s. Books are always better, anyway. 🙂

  2. Yay! Turkey week! I love Turkey Week on While We’re Paused.

    I actually kind of liked this movie when I saw it as a kid, but I assumed that it wasn’t connected to the book, which I loved. The only similarities were the title and the twelve kids.

  3. They actually put out an edition of the book Cheaper by the Dozen that has Steve Martin and his movie family on the cover, to promote the film (it thoroughly perplexes me, since, again, the only similarities are the title of the film and the number of kids). So, clearly Hollywood wants to claim that they based the film on the book — even though none of them ever read the book! The modern remake of Yours, Mine, and Ours is even worse — and yet again, Hollywood took a fascinating true story, divested it of all meaning, and kept the title and number of kids the same.

  4. You sure you’re not describing the creation of the plot of the next Narnia movie?

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