September 23, 1963 was a happy mother’s day for Mary Ann Fischer when she gave birth to quintuplets in Aberdeen, South Dakota. Only the third such delivery, five babies all at once, medical history in small town America. What better ingredients for a great story? Everyone thought so, including the Saturday Evening Post, which hired Richard Leacock to document the momentous events. Leacock brought Joyce Chopra on board, to record sound, and the two traveled to Aberdeen when the babies were just two weeks old. What Leacock provided, a few weeks later, was a great film. What the sponsors wanted was a different film and the turmoil ensued.
Leacock’s version was rejected by the sponsors. After various legal hassles, ABC acquired the rights, and put together their own version of the footage. What we’re left with in the end are two very different films and a valuable case study. While the subject matter and even the footage available were the same, the end results are quite different. A comparison of the two films provides a look at the difference between a cinema verite filmmaker’s approach vs. a network’s journalistic handling of the material, or the difference between show vs. tell.
D A Pennebaker
“’Happy Mother’s Day’ gives pleasure to the spectator yet makes one feel uncomfortable at the spectacle. We are shown the foolishness and excessive attention being given to this event, yet in viewing this, we are also contributing to the spectacle. It is obvious why the Post and ABC could not really accept Leacock and Chopra’s cut of the film. It too accusingly points the fingers at all institutions seeking to exploit the quintuplets’ births, including the news media. Studying both films offers interesting insights into the difference between a filmmaker working in the Flaherty tradition of non-preconception and a commercial network whose motive, like the businessmen in Aberdeen, is profit.”
— Tom Grochowski, The Concise Routledge Encyclopedia of the Documentary Film
A film by Richard Leacock and Joyce Chopra 1963, 26 min., color