A young man, who has vowed never to marry and doesn't particularly like children, is left in charge of his two very young nieces. At first they drive him to distraction, but then he begins ... See full summary »

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Cast

Cast overview:
...
...
Alice Mayton
Jeanne Carpenter ...
Budge (as Jean Carpenter)
...
Uncle Harry
...
Helen Lawrence
George Reed ...
Rastus - the coachman
Mattie Peters ...
Mandy - the housekeeper
Richard Tucker ...
Tom Lawrence
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Storyline

A young man, who has vowed never to marry and doesn't particularly like children, is left in charge of his two very young nieces. At first they drive him to distraction, but then he begins to warm to them, and also to a beautiful young local girl. Written by frankfob2@yahoo.com

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12 October 1924 (USA)  »

Also Known As:

As Filhas de Helena  »

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1.33 : 1
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Featured in Clara Bow: Hollywood's Lost Screen Goddess (2012) See more »

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User Reviews

 
Baby, take a bough.
16 December 2007 | by (Minffordd, North Wales) – See all my reviews

I viewed a print of "Helen's Babies" that was restored by the Library of Congress; despite their laudable efforts, the first title card is missing, and the nitrate deterioration is prominent throughout the first reel. I mention these flaws not to chivvy the wonderful people at LoC but because Diana Serra Cary (more about her later) has told me she has viewed every known surviving print of this movie, and she claims that LoC's is the best print in existence.

"Helen's Babies" is often cited as a Clara Bow movie, since she's the cast member who remains most well-known and popular. She has considerably less screen time here than Edward Everett Horton and the titular children, and Bow's hairstyle and make-up here are not the ones she wore during her stardom. Director William Seiter gives Bow no star treatment whatever: during her first scene (oddly clutching a white cane: where's her tin cup and her guide dog?), Bow receives no close-ups at all, and the sequence is blocked so that several other characters stand in front of her, preventing the camera from even getting a clear view of her.

Because Edward Everett Horton is remembered for his distinctive vocal traits, it's intriguing to see him in this *SILENT* film. Horton displays less of the "nelly" body language here than he did in his later films, possibly because in this movie his character is attracted to Clara Bow. Horton's character here wears a wristwatch: a decade earlier, male wristwatches were often regarded in American culture as a symbol of effeminacy, but that stereotype was put paid during WW1 when wristwatches proved more useful than pocket watches for the doughboys in the trenches.

The film's premise is strictly Plot-o-Matic: Harry Burton (Horton) has written a best-selling book about child-rearing even though he knows nothing about the subject. Because of his alleged expertise, his sister Helen Lawrence and her husband connive to put him in charge of their two young daughters while the parents go off on a holiday. To show what great parents they are, Mr and Mrs Lawrence depart *BEFORE* Horton arrives, leaving the wee tykes to their own devices. From here we're in Baby Herman territory, with the girls wreaking mayhem that causes problems for Horton.

Oh, those girls! Annoyingly named Budge and Toodie, they are refreshingly played by two genuinely delightful child actresses, giving affectless and believable performances. Budge is played by gap-toothed Jeanne Carpenter, but the ringleader of their mayhem (Toodie) is played by none other than Baby Peggy, in a truly virtuoso performance. Baby Peggy (now known as Diana Serra Cary) is still alive and well as I write this; I first met her in October 2006 at the Cinema Muto festival in Sacile, Italy: while watching "Helen's Babies", I found it rather strange to be viewing the antics of a five-year-old in 1924 while realising that I *KNOW* her (considerably older but still young at heart) in 2007! In an early scene, Baby Peggy clutches a Felix the Cat doll: could this be an early example of product placement?

Much of this comedy's effect is down to the crucial fact that Toodie and Budge are genuinely guileless in all their mischief: unlike Beryl the Peril or the Katzenjammer Kids, they have no malice for their adult guardian. Most of the comedy works, although I disliked one scene in which Baby Peggy continually tweaks the face of the sleeping Horton without wakening him: since Horton's character wasn't drugged or comatose, I couldn't believe that he could sleep through this. Also, Horton's character often behaves implausibly ... as when he gives the girls his wristwatch to play with, then he forgets to reclaim it.

In several sequences the comedy depends upon suspense, with Toodie wandering into genuinely dangerous situations (and no stunt double available for Baby Peggy). These sequences are staged and edited skilfully to keep the child actress safe while making her character seem to be in danger ... as when Toodie falls off a high tree bough without Baby Peggy actually being placed at treetop height.

Where the comedy really fails (for modern sensibilities) is in this movie's racial stereotypes. The Lawrences engage a black handyman who enters the house in a servile cringe, and who runs away from a frightening event at superhuman speed (via undercranking). The black chauffeur's one dialogue title is written in "yassuh" dialect. More positively, black actress Mattie Peters gives a very realistic and humane performance here (unlike her role in 'The Bedroom Window') as the housekeeper who clearly loves the two little girls and who is likely the only reason they haven't died of neglect by their careless parents.

Even more extensive (and offensive) than the stereotyping of the black characters in this movie is the extreme stereotyping of some Italian characters who arrive in a Romany caravan and speak in Chico Marx dialect. When Toodie and Budge wander into their camp, the sequence is staged to emphasise the swarthiness and foreign behaviour of these transients: the girls are potentially in danger not because they're among strangers, but rather because these are dark-skinned foreigners.

The climactic sequence, with the two girls and a dog on a railway track while a train hurtles towards them, is well-staged and has one hilariously unexpected gag. Train-spotters will be intrigued that the choo-choo in this sequence is the only steam locomotive ever made which stops at the precise instant when the engineer pulls the brake, instead of half a mile farther down the rails. At least, that's what we see here. Despite an astonishingly good performance by Baby Peggy and one almost equally as good by Jeanne Carpenter, many of the gags in this movie were too obvious or too implausible or both. I would have liked this comedy better without the stereotyping of Negroes and Italians. My rating: 6 out of 10, and most of that is for Baby Peggy's and Horton's performances.


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