6 Unforgettable Movie Mothers and the Real Moms They Depicted


Some women are more extraordinary than others. They raise children, start businesses and schools, write books, and even advise kings and presidents. A few get their life stories turned into movies, but sometimes a bit of truth gets lost along the way. As Mother's Day approaches, let's look at six mothers who were immortalized in film.

1. The Movie: Cheaper by the Dozen (1950)

Cheaper By The Dozen was based on the book of the same name by two of Frank Bunker Gilbreth and Lillian Moller Gilbreth's twelve children. The couple were efficiency experts who often tried out their theories on their children. The movie was a series of comedic anecdotes starring Clifton Webb and Myrna Loy. The mother's role was not developed as much as it could have been; the movie focused more on the father and his relationship with his children. A sequel released in 1952 was entitled Bells on Their Toes. A remake in 2003 had nothing in common with the original except for the title.

The Mother: Lillian Moller Gilbreth

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Lillian Moller Gilbreth was an engineer and an industrial psychologist who was known as "the mother of modern management". She achieved a master's degree in literature and a doctorate in psychology (by which time she already had four children). She and her husband (who never went to college) studied scientific management principles and time studies. While Frank concentrated on worker efficiency, Lillian explored the effects of incentives, job satisfaction, stress, and fatigue on workers. Did I mention she raised twelve children? After Frank's death, she became the first female professor in the engineering school at Purdue University. Lillian Moller Gilbreth continued to work up into her eighties; she wrote books, lectured, and even served as a consultant to five presidents on various issues. She was 93 when she died in 1973.

2. The Movie: The King and I (1956)

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The musical The King and I was based on the Rodgers and Hammerstein  Broadway production of the same name, which was based on the book Anna and the King of Siam by Margaret Landon. That book was based in turn on the 1870 book The English Governess at the Siamese Court by Anna Leonowens. The story revolves around Leonowens (Deborah Kerr), who takes a position in the palace of King Mongkut (Yul Brynner) of Siam in the mid 19th century. She was employed as a teacher for the king's many wives and children. In the movie, she sang and danced with the king and brought enlightenment to a backward country. A 1946 film, Anna and the King of Siam was based on the same story, as well as the the 1999 film Anna and the King. All these movies are banned in Thailand as being disrespectful to the king.

The Mother: Anna Leonowens

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Anna Harriette Edwards Leonowens was born in India in 1831. She hid the fact that one of her grandparents was Indian; the rest of her ancestors were British. She had four children (two who died in infancy) with her husband Thomas Leonowens. By the time Thomas died in 1859, Anna had already founded schools in both Australia and Singapore. To support her daughter and son, she accepted a job teaching the 39 wives and 82 children of King Mongkut in 1862. Leonowens took her young son with her and sent her daughter to school in England. She served the king until his death in 1868. Leonowens moved to New York where she wrote travel articles and worked on her book. She then moved on to Canada where she founded the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design and later retired to live in Montreal. Leonowens was a crusader for women's rights and women's education until she died in 1915. Some say that her adventures in Siam were somewhat exaggerated, or possibly made up of whole cloth, but one of her students, Mongkut's successor King Chulalongkorn made many reforms including beginning the process to abolish slavery in Siam.

3. The Movie: Yours, Mine, and Ours (1968)

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How's this for a movie plot: a widow (Lucille Ball) with eight children falls in love with a widower (Henry Fonda) who has ten children. Yours, Mine, and Ours begins with a cute courtship in which neither mentioned how many children they have until they had already fallen in love, advances through the difficulties of blending 20 people into one family, and ends with the birth of a 19th child and the oldest leaving home. It was one of the top-grossing movies of 1968. A 2005 remake was even further fictionalized.

The Mother: Helen North Beardsley

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Helen North married Frank Beardsley in 1961. They began corresponding to offer grief support to each other after their spouses died. There was no attempt to hide how many children they had from each other. After they married, they moved into Frank's home, which had to be expanded to eight bedrooms and five bathrooms. Unlike the movie, the children liked their stepparents and step-siblings from the beginning and even encouraged Helen and Frank to marry. The Beardsleys, both devout Catholics, had two more children together for a total of twenty. After Frank retired from the Navy, the family opened three bakeries. Helen Beardsley died in 2000. At the time of her death, she had 44 grandchildren and 2 great-grandchildren. Helen Beardsley wrote a book about her family, Who Gets the Drumstick in 1965.

4. The Movie: Mommie Dearest (1981)

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The movie Mommie Dearest was based on the 1978 book by Christina Crawford, the daughter of Joan Crawford. Movie star Crawford, portrayed by Faye Dunaway, adopts a baby girl and then a boy and treats them cruelly. Crawford is obsessed with appearances and will not tolerate children acting like children when there are movies, photo shoots, and parties to deal with. As Crawford's career declines, she becomes more abusive to (and even competitive with) her daughter. Although a commercial success, the movie was critically panned.

The Mother: Joan Crawford

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Joan Crawford entered show business in 1923 and worked until 1972. Crawford adopted a total of four children, ending with a set of twins in 1947. All four children were eventually sent to boarding schools. When Crawford died in 1977, she deliberately excluded Christina and her brother Christopher from her will. A year later, Christina's book was published. Some of Crawford's friends claimed the story was not true, but many conceded that Crawford's obsessive-compulsive behavior and bad temper were real.

5. The Movie: Finding Neverland (2004)

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In Finding Neverland, Johnny Depp portrays playwright J.M. Barrie. He strikes up a friendship with a family led by widow Sylvia Llewelyn Davies (Kate Winslet) who has four young boys. Barrie becomes a father figure to the children, and is inspired to write Peter Pan. His attraction to Davies stirs gossip and drives Barrie's wife to leave him. When Davies dies, she names Barrie one of the guardians of her children.

The Mother: Sylvia Llewelyn Davies

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Sylvia Jocelyn Llewelyn Davies was not a widow in 1898 when she met Barrie, who already knew her three sons. She and her husband Arthur Llewelyn Davies eventually had five boys. The entire family befriended Barrie and even took him along on vacation. Arthur Llewelyn Davies died in 1907, and Barrie divorced his wife in 1909. Barrie supported Davies' family financially, but there is no evidence that the relationship was anything but platonic. Davies died in 1910 and willed guardianship of her children to four people, including Barrie, who continued to support them financially.

6. The Movie: The Sound Of Music (1965)

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The Sound of Music won five Academy Awards in 1966 (including Best Picture) and was nominated for five more. Young novitiate Maria (Julie Andrews) leaves her convent to work for wealthy Baron Georg von Trapp (Christopher Plummer) as a governess for his seven musically-inclined children. They fall in love and marry. After returning from their honeymoon, they escape Austria while being chased by Nazis who want to conscript Georg. The 1965 musical that spawned many classic songs was based on the 1959 Rodgers and Hammerstein Broadway production of the same name, which was a fictionalized version of the 1949 book The Story of the Trapp Family Singers by Maria von Trapp.

The Mother: Maria von Trapp

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Maria Augusta Kutschera was hired as a tutor for one of the von Trapp children in 1926, but came to love all seven of them. She married their father Georg von Trapp in 1927. The real Maria was much more dominant in the family than the movie version revealed, while Georg was more easygoing than his film character. Eleven years later in 1938, the family of professional singers left Austria to escape Nazi rule. They rode a train to Italy and with the help of their booking agent, immigrated to the United States where they made a living touring, recording music, and running a music camp. Maria bore three more children, the last after coming to America. After Georg died in 1947, Maria opened the Trapp Family Lodge in Vermont. She kept the family singing together professionally until 1955. The family did not see profits from The Sound of Music, as Maria had sold the rights to their story years before. Maria von Trapp was 82 when she died in 1987. Here's a clip of Maria appearing with Julie Andrews on TV just a few years after the movie appeared.