Filmed in Toronto by Bernard Zukerman Prods./Cinar, Canadian Broadcasting Corp., CBS Entertainment, Telefilm Canada and Ontario Film Development Corp. Executive producers, Micheline Charest, Ronald A. Weinberg; producer, Bernard Zukerman; director, Christian Duguay; writer, Suzette Couture; Airing simultaneously in Canada and the U.S., dressed-up account of the travails of the French Canadian Dionne farm family after the quintuplets were born in 1934 speaks out loudly about commercialism, opportunism, gouging and greed. It speaks, too, in commanding tones about exploitation.
Well-done telefilm penned by Suzette Couture doesn’t just cut, it saws. Elzire and Oliva Dionne (Celine Bonnier, Roy Dupuis, both far more appealing than the originals, speaking of huckstering), already blessed with five kids, become parents of quintuplets with the help of “the good country doctor,” affable Dr. Allan Roy Dafoe (Beau Bridges).
Couture’s script, directed with sophistication by Christian Duguay, spotlights how everyone soon wants a piece of the five girls. A fictional N.Y. radio personality, Helena Reid (Kate Nelligan), who’s not shy, moves in like a buzz saw; the ambitious Oliva signs a contract with reps from the Chicago World’s Fair to show off the babies; a stingy Canadian government, led by Premier Mitch Hepburn (Sean McCann), shamed by U.S. offers, moves to put the kids under its protection.
The apparently modest, amiable Dafoe gives interviews, turns up in newsreels, parties in New York and pulls down a bundle as consultant on his film bio, the 1936 “The Country Doctor,” with Jean Hersholt. Oliva and Elzire and their other youngsters, who aren’t allowed to approach the children because of “germs” and others’ avarice, watch the apparently expanding fortunes of the quints.
Dafoe develops a nursery/hospital across the road from the Dionnes’ house where the girls appear for the paying public. Elzire isn’t allowed to see her daughters most of the time, and Dafoe picks up all the income they’re making from endorsements, appearances and for his own interviews.
Oliva, wrestling with the problem, finally gets a good mouthpiece who’ll take the case. For those who considered Dr. Dafoe the quintessential country doctor, “Million Dollar Babies”may send a jolt. Though dialogue’s made up and celebs who don’t look like celebs pass through (an unlikely “Sally Rand” fan-dances before Dafoe, but she’s wearing skivvies), the two-part vidpic successfully captures essences of human nature. The telefilm’s windup may be the most disheartening part of the whole story.
Bridges’ deliberate Dafoe shines, and Nelligan’s account of how the media behaved outrageously is pointed. Canadian actors Dupuis and Bonnier are terrif as the quints’ parents. The five infants, who look like the real thing, are rubber animatronics operated by radio control, and two sets of triplets were used for the girls at six.
David Franco’s lensing boasts an attractive glow, and Yves Langlois’ editing is a plus. Francois Seguin’s period production design looks true, and Christopher Dedrick’s score subtly adds to the amazing drama. Slick telefilm ends with an epilogue card reeling off what happened to the girls and to Dafoe.