This article comes from Den of Geek UK.
In 1987, a comedy directed by Mr Spock with Magnum PI, Sam from Cheers and the star of Police Academy was the highest grossing film at the US box office. For context, it made almost as much money as Lethal Weapon, Predator, and Robocop in that year combined. So where are all of its diehard fans?
Among the most successful films of the 1980s, Leonard Nimoy’s Three Men And A Baby stands out as a bit of an anomaly. Despite being hugely popular in its time, it seems to have faded out of the public consciousness without leaving much of a mark, and you’d be hard pushed to find someone who would name it as one of their favourite films. In fact, it is mostly known nowadays for the urban myth that a ghost appears in the background of one of its scenes. (Sorry to spoil the fun, but it isn’t a ghost – it’s a cardboard cutout of Ted Danson. We’ve all made the mistake.)
Even less remembered than Three Men And A Baby itself is the fact that it was a remake of a French film, Trois Hommes Et Un Couffin (literally Three Men And A Cradle), made two years earlier. The films share an almost identical plot, but the remake does have some deviations from the source material that highlight cultural differences in 1980s France and the US, as well as differences between French cinema and Hollywood.
The plot of Three Men And A Baby involves three bachelors – Peter (Tom Selleck), Jack (Ted Danson) and Michael (Steve Guttenberg) – having their lives turned upside down when a baby is left on their doorstep. There’s a note from the mother saying that Jack is the father and that she is leaving the baby with him for a while because she is unable to cope.
However, Jack is abroad when the baby arrives, and a mix-up occurs when he tells Peter and Michael to expect a ‘package’ in his absence that they need to take care of and keep quiet until it is collected. The package he’s talking about is something a friend has asked him to keep at his apartment for a few days, which unbeknownst to him is full of drugs, but Peter and Michael assume he is referring to the baby and start looking after her. Although initially reluctant and clueless, the men grow attached to the baby over time. This plot is the same in the 1985 French film, apart from the men are, of course, called Jacques, Pierre and Michel and they live in Paris rather than New York.
It may sound a bit clichéd to say that a Hollywood remake is lighter and cheesier than the original foreign film it was based on… but in this case it’s definitely true. This doesn’t mean that Trois Hommes Et Un Couffin is necessarily better than Three Men And A Baby though, and it’s worth noting that neither of them are exactly masterpieces.
The films appear to be set in two polar opposite worlds – one where everyone is enamored with babies and one where people view them as nothing but an annoyance. In the American film, the men seem to be surrounded by people who have a soft spot for babies, including their neighbor, a taxi driver and a police officer, who melts and starts cooing as soon as he sees the baby in their apartment. At one point, we see women swarming around the men when they take the baby to the park.
Meanwhile in the original French film, the baby is presented as much more of a cramp on the men’s bachelor lifestyle. Both films feature a scene where the three men stop the baby crying in the middle of the night by singing to her, with one of the men leaving a woman in his bed in order to do this. Whereas in Three Men And A Baby the woman seems to find this endearing, in the French film the woman is immediately turned off and leaves. The French film also has a scene where the baby disrupts a dinner party by crying, and the guests quickly leave in disgust.
On a similar note, looking after a baby appears to be a lot more fun in the remake than in the original. In Three Men And A Baby, it does look like hard work at first, as we see Peter and Michael struggling to change the baby’s diaper, bathe her and feed her. However, once Jack is back, he seems to adapt to fatherhood pretty quickly, and the three men are soon having a grand old time taking her on days out and throwing her bottle around the apartment like an American football.
They also take the baby to work, with Jack strapping her to his back while he’s rehearsing a play and Peter taking her to a building site wearing a tiny pink hardhat, and this cheery montage is all set to the song Daddy’s Girl by Peter Cetera. In the French film however, parenting looks significantly more difficult and exhausting, and we see the men take time off work in order to cope with it. Although they certainly grow attached to the baby, they never really reach a point where taking care of her is a barrel of laughs. What’s more, there isn’t a heartwarming montage or an upbeat pop song in sight.
In both films, the baby’s mother eventually shows up to collect her, but the two sets of men react in very different ways. The French film cuts to some months later, in which time all three men have become noticeably depressed. Throughout the film they are reluctant to show fondness for the baby, due to worries about looking uncool or unmanly, so once she has left, they bury their feelings and do not talk to each other about missing her. Even when they are ultimately reunited with her, it isn’t a hugely emotional moment.
On the other hand, within literally a few hours of the baby being gone in Three Men And A Baby, the men are openly discussing how much they want her back in their lives and rushing to the airport, because the mother is whisking the baby away to London that night. After a dramatic race against time, they arrive at the airport too late and return home dejected, only to find both mother and baby on their doorstep waiting for them.
And if this ending wasn’t quite schmaltzy enough for you, the men then invite mother and baby to move in with them! I defy you not to laugh at the ridiculous final shot, in which they’re cheerfully pushing a pram with an extendable four-person handle while “Something happened baby in my life, the minute I saw you” blares out. I was surprised it didn’t go the whole hog and end with a mid-laugh freeze frame.
One big non-baby related difference between the two films is their handling of the drugs subplot, which sees the men unwittingly become involved in criminal activity and fall under suspicion from the police. Commenting on the adaptation of the French film for Hollywood, Rogert Ebert said: “I assumed that the drug angle would be the first thing written out of the script.” It’s easy to see why, as getting rid of it would have made the film more family friendly and less morally murky. Surprisingly, the subplot was not only kept in the remake, but was actually made into an even bigger part of the film and used as a way of injecting some action and giving the protagonists a chance to be heroic.
The predicament in both films is the same – the men want the package of drugs out of their apartment, but if they hand it over to the dealers they might get caught by the police, and if they hand it over to the police they will likely get trouble from the dealers. In the French film, the men essentially work with the dealers in order to get the drugs to them without the police noticing. They do this by concealing the drugs in a diaper and binning it in a park for the dealers to then collect. To sum up, they commit a crime, get away with it and it never comes up again.
Meanwhile, in Three Men And A Baby, the men devise an elaborate plan which involves trapping the criminals in an elevator with the drugs in their possession for the police to find. This change to the story makes the situation more clear-cut by ensuring the bad guys are punished and the good guys are rewarded. The men even manage to record a tape that completely exonerates the three of them, and all of this action is accompanied by obligatory 1980s saxophone music.
This desire to clean up the French film’s more morally iffy moments can also be seen in other, subtler ways throughout Three Men And A Baby. For instance, Peter initially discovers the baby on his doorstep after going for a morning jog, meaning she can’t have been there for more than an hour. This sits in comparison to the men in the French film finding the baby when they wake up in the morning, suggesting she could easily have been out there alone all night.
Falling between Rain Man and Fatal Attraction on the list of the US box office’s top grossing films of the 1980s, the success of Three Men And A Baby is a bit of a head-scratcher today. No doubt the film was aided by the popularity of Magnum PI, Cheers, and Police Academy at the time – none of which are particularly big now among people born after the’ 80s like myself – plus the appeal of its corny but charming message about the joy of having a baby. Despite its lack of cultural impact over the years, Three Men And A Baby is still an interesting artefact due to its status as the all-time most successful Hollywood remake of a French film and the France vs. US differences that it highlights.