Happy Mother's Day
Directed by Joyce Chopra & Richard Leacock


A friend of mine -- who at that time was editor of the Saturday Evening Post – phoned to ask, “How much would it cost for you to go down and make a portrait of Mrs. Fischer?” I replied, “Who is Mrs. Fisher?” He said, “Don’t you read the newspapers?” It turned out that Mrs. Fisher had just given birth to quintuplets in the city of Aberdeen, South Dakota.

Well, I’ve forgotten what I said -- $20,000, whatever – What do you want, a half-hour film, and why not, or something like that. And he seemed to be in an awful hurry. Our sponsor, Curtis Publications, had acquired exclusive rights to “exploit” the Fisher Quintuplets and that a TV film was ‘part of the package”. That didn’t mean much to me; we just needed a job. Normally, I’ve always felt that one ought to know what film one wants to make. And I’ve always felt that, being a socially redeeming person, it should be about a subject with socially redeeming features. I couldn’t for the life of me see how this subjecthad anything to do with anything. Why on earth should we make a film about somebody who had quintuplets in South Dakota? But I went along with it, and in retrospect I see that most of my favorite films have been about what seemed at first to be dumb subjects.

Curtis Publications said that our price was reasonable and gave us an advance. I went up to their bank, collected $10,000 in cash, walked down 5th Avenue and put it in our empty bank account. It’s the only time I’ve ever walked anywhere with $10,000 in cash. It was a great feeling… In spite of our misgivings, my collaborator Joyce Chopra and I packed up the little bit of equipment we had and hopped a plane to South Dakota.

The more we filmed, the more interested we got. It was a grotesque story: the exploitation of the Quintuplets, and we were an integral part of that exploitation! After filming for a while and realizing what was going on, we made a deal with Mrs. Fisher. We would only film them in public situations: a compromise. As the story unfolded, we made the film in good faith. I couldn’t believe what I heard in the speeches at the banquet honouring the Fishers. There are no cuts in the Mayor’s speech; that is what he said.

When we screened our edit, my friend – the editor of the Saturday Evening Post – was delighted. He thought it was great. But the publisher – who later buried the Saturday Evening Post -- was deadly silent at the end of the screening. Finally he turned to me and said, “Mr. Leacock, this is not the film that we had in mind!” So, on the weekend following the assassination of President Kennedy, I cut the film down from one hour to thirty minutes, getting rid of interviews and most of the narration. We called this cut Quint City USA.

Fortunately, Pennebaker was good at business and we made a deal with Curtis Publications. We hadn’t paid all of our bills so we still had some of our money left. I remember writing out a check. We said that we’d pay them back the money if we could keep the film. Then we got into a long legal hassle. They got a copy of every single foot of film that we had shot and ABC News edited another version which is all hearts and flowers and loveliness. Presumably, that was “the film they had in mind”; it was sponsored by Beechnut Baby Food and went on the air. Meanwhile, we were out $15,000 in expenses for the project.

Our version was shown at a mini festival in New York and was reviewed with a new title, Happy Mother’s Day.


Archer Winsten
New York Post Monday August 24 1964

In Richard Leacock’s “Mother’s Day” they were showing what seems to be Leacock’s most completely successful work. It deals with quintuplets born in Aberdeen South Dakota, the mother, the father, the other children, the Chamber of Commerce, the Mayor, the entire community, parades and all. It is a marvelously understated, complex, simple and devastating portrait of American small town, Midwestern people. There is neither condescension, nor glorification, neither artificial organization nor stagy fill-ins. This has the ring of truth and the immediate impact of a painting like Grant Wood’s “American Gothic”, except that this is the richer, fuller medium. It is an achievement that says more in what it doesn’t say than in its actual words.

The people of Aberdeen had never seen our version of the film. In 1993, 30 years later, Valerie and I were invited to show it there. We were somewhat nervous that they might take offense. Many critics had claimed that we were cruel. We went and everyone came to the screening, including Mrs. Fisher and some of the Quints. You would have thought we were showing a Marx Brothers comedy. They laughed! They loved it.