Why on Earth did Three Men and a Baby become a hit?
By all accounts it should have been a genuine disaster, or at best, a mediocre formula comedy that was expected to open to modest weekend box office before fading quickly into obscurity. Like so many films released in 1987, this one didn’t seem any different than the films that opened around it. Yeah, we’re still in love with Planes, Trains and Automobiles and there’s a measure of affection for Less Than Zero. But who saw Flowers in the Attic? Teen Wolf Too? Anna? Date With an Angel? Hiding Out? Those films were like vapor, disappearing into obscurity as quickly as they came.
Somehow Three Men and a Baby misbehaved. It rose above its expectations, broke through its formula plot and became the best selling movie of 1987. That’s right — the highest grossing baby movie of all time turns 30 this year. Oh! And it was directed by Leonard Nimoy. Yes, THAT Leonard Nimoy!
The story couldn’t have been simpler, three chauvinistic bachelors Peter (Tom Selleck), Jack (Ted Dansen) and Michael (Steve Guttenberg) share a lofty New York City apartment that operates as a revolving door of gorgeous nameless women; one-night-stands who come and go with the regularity of a traffic light until one morning their lives are turned upside down by the arrival of the one woman who won’t be leaving in the morning – a precious ten month old girl named Mary.
The better elements of the movie deal with exactly how unprepared these guys are for the rigors of dealing with an infant – most notably the regular issue of pooping. Not only changing, but also buying baby food, getting the baby to sleep and very gently trying to get her to stop crying. My favorite observation comes from Selleck who reasonably complains: “The book says to feed the baby every two hours, but do you count from when you start, or when you finish? It takes me two hours to get her to eat anything, and by the time she’s done it’s time to start again, so that I’m feeding her all of the time.” Later when Michael is left alone with the baby while Peter goes out to get baby food, he tried to talk her down by singing: “Hush little baby don’t you cry/when Peter gets home I’m gonna punch him in the eye!”
Again, there was no reason why it should have worked so well. But settling on basic observations of the way in which unprepared men are shocked by the difficulties wrought from taking care of a baby just grabbed the public’s attention – mostly women. I remember sitting next to my mother in the theater one Saturday (I was 16 at the time) and she was clearly having an even better time than I was – maybe it came from experience.
Revisiting the film again recently on Blu-ray I was kind of struck by how good-hearted the film was. The poop jokes are still funny but what struck me this time was just how much good feeling there was watching these three guys slowly pull away from their misogynistic lifestyle and surrender to a fatherly instinct they never knew they had. They find that they must care about something, someone besides themselves. For no real reason, I found myself with tears in my eyes at the moment when these three guys pulled together and sang a chorus The Spaniel’s 1954 hit “Goodnite Sweetheart, Goodnite” to get Mary to sleep. Something about that scene just grabbed me and I tried to figure out why. Most of it is a shot of the three guys gathered around the crib singing. They start the chorus with the baby still crying (there’s a shot of her), then their voices die down a bit and we see another shot of Mary as she has finally settled into a blissful sleep. I don’t know. Why does that touch me? It’s kind of beautiful.
I was also forced, once again, to question something that bothered me even as a teenager. Why, in a sweet movie about three guys and a baby, does the movie contain a subplot about drugs? The movie is based on a 1985 French film 3 hommes et un couffin (Three Men and a Cradle), which was a hit in France but, for me, was terrible in a way that I expected from this remake. In that film the package that is delivered to the door is actually heroine – the guys think the “package” is the baby. That leads to a badly mangled and unnecessary subplot involving some drug dealers who come looking for their lost booty. But why? Why was this subplot necessary? In a movie involving funny jokes about poopy diapers and baby food and containing lines like “Michael, you’re going to have to wash where the poop was,” do we need a diversion about running around a construction site by men with guns. Maybe it was the 80s element? All movies were required to have a drug subplot whether they needed it or not.
I would also be remised if I didn’t mention the elephant in the room. Yeah . . . that.
Somewhere in the early 90s, around the time that the far inferior Three Men and a Little Lady was set for release, an erroneous urban legend popped up about a ghost that was visible during one scene of the movie. It takes place during a visit from Jack’s mother (Celeste Holm) as she’s carrying the baby around the apartment. During the first pass by a sun-lit window we see what appears to be a rifle standing on its barrel. On second pass there appears to be a little boy peeking through the curtains.
This came to me courtesy of my creative writing teacher who showed the scene to the class. Not being skeptical of such things I watched with fascination. When the “ghost” appeared on screen I got cold chills down my back and I will confess that I didn’t sleep that night.
The story was told that a boy had committed suicide in the apartment where the film was shot, killing himself with – you guessed it – a rifle.
It was a short time later that the so-called “ghost” was revealed to have been a cardboard cutout of Ted Dansen’s character dressed in a top hat and tux for a dog food commercial he had been filming (that scene was deleted). As for the apparently suicide, it was made up too. The interior scenes of the movie were shot on a sound stage in Vancouver.
Selleck even spoke about it recently with Jimmy Fallon on The Tonight Show.