Being a mother is the hardest job in the world, and it is even more difficult when the mother discovers her husband is not what he appears to be. Living outside of the box is a challenge in a society where certain standards are expected of young women, but can be done successfully when the individual will to survive is strong enough. “When the Bough Breaks” explores the myths and realities of motherhood as well as the complexity of human relationships where trust is involved.
The movie opens with a scene of a hospital in England. A young woman by the name of Lily Gardner (Patricia Roc) has just given birth to a baby boy when a policeman (Torin Thatcher) comes in to see her and give her the news that her husband has just been arrested on bigamy charges. Lily is left to be a single mother, having to raise a child all on her own and at the same time, hold a job so she can have a place to live. She seeks advice from the head nurse at the hospital, who tells her that the baby should be put up for adoption. Lily is not ready to part with her baby, however. Explaining that she has to work in order to support herself, she is then told to put the child in daycare. Lily wants to try to do everything on her own at first, even though this proves to be difficult. She leaves the hospital and takes the baby home with her, but her son cries all night, every night to the point where she is told to leave the boarding house and find another place to live. The only problem is, there is not a boarding house in the area that allows babies or children to live there.
Lily starts a new job at a local department store, reverting back to her maiden name of Bates. She quickly makes friends with a co-worker, Ruby Chapman (Brenda Bruce). At this time, her baby is in daycare, which doesn’t seem so unusual even in the immediate post-war years. During World War 2, daycares were common for women who went to work to help the war effort. Lily wisely does not tell Ruby or anyone else she works with that she has a baby and is a single mother through no fault of her own. One woman at the day care where her son stays takes to the baby very quickly. Frances Norman (Rosamund John) is a married woman and lives in a big house, but is unable to have children with her husband Robert (Patrick Holt). Being so drawn to Lily’s son Jimmy, she eventually becomes the child’s mother, but through an informal adoption, meaning that no legal papers were ever signed.
Lily works hard at her minimum wage job and discovers it is much easier to have a job instead of working and being a mother at the same time. “Having it all” wasn’t quite the catchphrase when this movie was made in 1947 but Lily’s character is a prototype of a liberated woman: Lily put her child up for adoption willingly, is trying to get over having had a very bad experience with a man, and is content with her life. The one missing part, of course, is Jimmy, who is being happily raised in a loving home with Frances and Robert Norman, living a wealthy lifestyle where he is closely kept an eye on. Back then the phrase “helicopter parenting” did not exist, but later on when Lilly attempts to get her son back, she tries to duplicate the type of upbringing Jimmy had with the Normans. Lily is able to spend time on herself and not worry about having to look after other people, especially a baby. In a way, some of her needs get met at this point, which bucks the social belief of a woman being completely fulfilled only when she has a baby.
Frances Norman mentions to her husband Robert the baby boy she takes care of a her day job. Again they discuss the possibility of adoption, but Frances doesn’t want just any baby, she wants the one she is attracted to the most, which is Jimmy. The unraveling for Lily begins when she passes out while at work to exhaustion. While recovering in the hospital, Ruby comes to see her and learn of the reason why she is exhausted. Regarding Lily’s former husband, she says that men always have to have three at once: “one on, one off, and one in the wash”, referring to the number of women a man usually has at any given time. In a way it is not so unusual how a man views a woman in a married relationship, for Lily’s former husband could have been working on number three behind her back. Even though Lily has a natural fear of the social stigma of her status as an unmarried woman with a child, she soon learns that it is her own esteem that gets in the way, and not the individual judgments of the people she meets, especially her future husband.
Lily finally allows Frances and Robert to adopt Jimmy, knowing he will be raised in a good home. Lily possibly makes the unconscious decision to leave a legal loophole open in her favor, meaning that if she wants to reclaim Jimmy in the future, she can, since there was never a legal adoption process involved. She battles with the stereotype that an adopted mother cannot love a child as much as the birth mother can, but it is not before long when Jimmy gets put on the back burner when she meets a man while vacationing with Ruby, her husband George, and their four children at a resort. Eight years into the future, Jimmy celebrates his birthday with friends. Lily still works in the department store, but Ruby is married to George (Leslie Dwyer) and has children. Lily is still single, unmarried, with no more children, and is well into her twenties, something rare for a woman back then. Lily discovers it is hard to make friends with other women who have obligations to husbands and children. Ruby tells her that being married with children is not the most glamorous thing in the world, even though societal standards expect women to be happier at home than in the workplace and certainly more so than being single and unattached. Lily no longer keeps in touch with Frances or Jimmy so she has no idea how he is. She feels she is better off not knowing how her son is doing.
Ruby invites Lily on a vacation getaway. Lily feels like she is intruding, but she is actually quite comfortable being around Ruby and her husband George. It is at this time when Lily meets a man, Bill Collins,(Bill Owen) who takes an interest to her, though Lily keeps her distance and tries to discourage him from getting too close to her. She does not tell Bill about her past until he actually proposes to her, while showing her the shop he owns. Lily considers herself to be used goods, but Bill loves her so much he doesn’t care. Neither does he care over the fact she has had a child who is now in grade school. They marry and make their home in the apartment right next to the store. Lily’s esteem issues temporarily disappear right after they marry but she still longs to have Jimmy with her.
Bill suggests that Lily try to ask Frances to have Jimmy back. Jimmy (Cavan Malone) is now eight years old and living happily with his adopted parents. Lily goes to visit Frances and discovers that her son grew to be a fine young man. Lily and Frances have anything but a pleasant exchange: since Frances never told Jimmy he was adopted, she believes that if he were to return to Lily’s home, his world would be shattered. Lily gets a lawyer and goes to court and not surprisingly, the judge(Noel Howlett) rules in her favor, even though he mentions that the boy would also fare well with Frances even though Lily now has the means to provide well for Jimmy. Bill is willing to be a stepfather to Jimmy, but as soon as Lily gets him back, she tries to duplicate the “helicopter parenting” technique: she forbids him to ride a delivery bike, play with other boys, and get a speck of dirt on him, even though it is normal for boys to play as boys. That was not allowed for Jimmy and as a result, he gets himself disliked by the neighborhood boys. He tries to escape but finds himself shuffled between the Collins home and the Norman home, experiencing class wars as a child only could – not being totally accepted by the neighborhood boys where Lily lives, but gets along well with the upper middle class children he grew up with at the Norman home. Not only does Lily spend too much time with Jimmy, making her world revolve around him, but her relationship with her husband suffers in the process.
Written by Muriel Box and Sydney Box, “When the Bough Breaks” is a watchable film with a story that could have taken place in 2007 instead of 1947. Patricia Roc is outstanding as Lily Bates, the young mother who buys into many misconceptions of motherhood and thinking that if only she had Jimmy with her, everything would be just perfect. Her husband Bill does not fill the void in her life, even though she obviously loves him. Lily seeks that special “unconditional love that can only come from a child” – another myth that has no basis in reality. When Jimmy was dependent on Lily as a baby, she did not have a clue how to take care of him, especially when he was crying. Mistaking dependency for unconditional love, she then errs in trying to be a big buddy to her son in his eighth year. Supporting actors Brenda Bruce, Torin Thatcher, Bill Owen, Leslie Dwyer, and Patrick Holt play unforgettable roles in this film. Rosamund John is able to hold her own as Jimmy’s adopted mother, portraying Frances as the married woman who is well off and desperate for a child of her own. Directed by Laurence Huntington, this movie is for anyone who appreciates a bittersweet story and isn’t afraid of learning the harsh realities of motherhood and its demands on a woman, regardless if she is single or married.