TELEVISION

The Dionne quint-essence

Dramatizing the early lives of Canada’s famous quintuplets

BARRY CAME June 6 1994
TELEVISION

The Dionne quint-essence

Dramatizing the early lives of Canada’s famous quintuplets

BARRY CAME June 6 1994

The Dionne quint-essence

TELEVISION

Dramatizing the early lives of Canada’s famous quintuplets

At the time, it was widely viewed as a miracle. More precisely, five little miracles, weighing just a couple of pounds apiece. They arrived with the dawn on a chilly spring day 60 years ago.

On May 28, 1934, Elzire Dionne, the 25-year-old wife of a farmer as poor as his mortgaged land in the Depression-wracked backwoods of Northern Ontario, gave birth.

In the most primitive of conditions, the young woman delivered a child every half hour until five identical girls lay side by side in a wooden butcher’s basket.

The tiny infants survived, beating all the odds, to become the first set of quintuplets in five centuries of recorded medical history to

live beyond a few months. And when they did, they entered Canadian history, creating a legend that captivated much of the world.

The saga of the five little girls who became Canada’s celebrated Dionne quintuplets is a sad story, a tale of greed, exploitation, media manipulation and political chicanery. It has

been recounted many times, in books and films. For those who grew up during and immediately after the Great Depression, the details are as familiar as the five dimpled smiles that endorsed everything from corn syrup to typewriters, earning the children more than $800,000. But the memories have faded for succeeding generations, to the point where the Dionne “quints,” if they are remembered at all, are recalled as curious relics of a bygone era. The three surviving sisters, who live in the tranquil Montreal suburb of St-Bruno, have kept a low profile. All of that is changing, however, as the result of an ambitious film project currently being shot in and around Montreal.

Million Dollar Babies is a four-hour, $9.5million television mini-series dramatizing the first five years in the lives of Cécile, Yvonne, Marie, Emilie and Annette Dionne. A joint effort by Toronto’s Bernard Zukerman Productions and Montreal’s Cinar Films, it is scheduled for simultaneous broadcast in

November on CBC and CBS. The cast is firstrate. Beau Bridges stars as Dr. Allan Roy Dafoe, the country doctor who won international fame for delivering and caring for the quints. Kate Nelligan plays the fictional Helena Reid, an American broadcast journalist who first deifies Dafoe, then vilifies him.

Quebec’s latest heartthrob, Roy Dupuis, appears as Oliva Dionne, the girls’ father, and Céline Bonnier is Elzire, their mother. Among the supporting players is a who’s who of Quebec’s acting elite: Rémy Girard, Ginette Reno, Marcel Sabourin, Pierre Curzi and Monique Spaziani.

The TV series marks yet another collaboration between producer Zukerman and scriptwriter Suzette Couture, the same team that won acclaim for two previous successes—Love and Hate, the story of Saskatchewan politician Colin Thatcher’s arranged murder of his wife, and Conspiracy of Silence, recreating the rape and murder in northern Manitoba of native teenager Helen Betty Osborne. Like those projects, Million Dollar Babies is solidly grounded in fact, a reflection no doubt of Zukerman’s background as a highly regarded documentary-maker for the CBC.

Last week, Zukerman and his crew were shooting on the elaborate set of the Dionne family farmhouse that has been constructed at Montreal’s Panavision Studios. The scene was one in which two Ontario officials visit to offer an incubator and shipments of breast milk. “I like stories that are based in reality,” he said while relaxing between takes. “And the Dionne story is so incredible that it could not possibly be fictionalized. This is a family that was destroyed by many of the same issues we confront today: media hype, commercial greed, government manipula-

tion, rich against poor. There’s even a French versus English tension that will surely resonate in the current political climate in this country.”

The Dionne quintuplets became a sensation only hours after they were bom. Hordes of reporters and newsreel crews descended upon the family’s clapboard farmhouse in rural Corbeil, an impoverished village not far from North Bay. Eager to document a happy

episode in a Depression-weary world, the media transformed the girls into wondrous fairy princesses. The simple doctor who delivered them in a house without running water or electricity became an overnight celebrity. But the girls’ parents were portrayed in a different light, as barely competent rustics, second-class citizens by virtue of their French language and Roman Catholic faith. Alarmed by the attempts of Chicago-based entrepre-

neurs to coax the parents into sending the girls off to the United States, the Ontario government stepped in and placed the babies under the guardianship of Dafoe. The girls were raised in glorified captivity, ensconced in Quintland, a bizarre theme park erected by the government to house them and show them off. Hundreds of thousands of tourists pumped millions of dollars into the local economy, watching the children grow up behind oneway screens.

Finding children to portray the Dionne girls—and their seven siblings, five of them older—at various ages was a major headache. “We have two

sets of triplets, one from Mary-

land and another from Ottawa, as well as a couple of pairs of

twins,” says Zukerman, admitting that he was not looking forward to a shooting schedule that will occasionally require all the child actors portraying the Dionnes at different ages to be on the set at the same time. “Can you believe there are times when we’re going to have to handle 22 kids?”

The fact that the Dionne girls were born two months premature, ranging in weight from one pound, 8‘/2 ounces to 2'/2 lb., ruled out the participation of any live infants. The producers solved that problem by hiring a company to create mechanical babies. Richard Conway Effects, the same British firm of puppeteers who worked on Jim Henson’s Muppet movies, designed five eerily lifelike latex infants. Each one requires three handlers, who work remote controls that move limbs and features.

Gadgetry aside, the driving force behind the mini-series is, by all accounts, Couture’s script. “I jumped at the chance to direct after I read it,” recalls Montreal director Christian Duguay, who has earned a burgeoning reputation shooting action films for American television. “It’s a wonderful piece of work.” Ironically, Couture was initially reluctant to take on the project, turning down several approaches from Cinar president Micheline Charest. “I have a bias against ‘worthy’ projects in Canadian history,” the Toronto-based writer says. Then, Zukerman came on board and urged her to reconsider. ‘When I did,” she adds, “I finally saw a point of entry. It revolves around the whole issue of the tabloid press and its power to manipulate events. That’s an issue that has always interested me. It’s what led directly to the creation of Kate Nelligan’s character. She’s a construct really, one of those American sob sisters who could wield tremendous influence over the way we viewed things.”

The same issue intrigued the film’s male lead, Beau Bridges. “Dr. Dafoe starts out as the hero of the piece in the press’s eyes,” he remarks while sunning himself in Panavision’s parking lot, dressed in the rumpled tweeds of the rural Ontario doctor he portrays. “Oliva Dionne is the bad guy. And then the situation suddenly changes. The press turns the doctor into the villain while the father becomes the hero, a simple man trying to get his children back. It’s a very contemporary issue, something we should all be thinking about.”

The real tragedy of the Dionne story, according to Bridges, is the relationship between Dafoe and Oliva Dionne. “I think both of these two people were doing their best to do right for the children. But they never managed to establish any means of communication.”

That failure to protect the girls from exploitation has blighted their lives ever since. Marie, Annette and Cécile had failed marriages, and Marie suffered from depression and alcoholism. The three survivors (Emilie died in 1954, during an epileptic seizure, and Marie in 1970, from a blood clot on the brain) have shunned the public scrutiny that robbed them of a normal childhood. But last week, to mark their 60th birthday, Annette Allard, Cécile Langlois and Yvonne Dionne granted an exclusive interview to the National Enquirer for an undisclosed sum. The three have read—and approved—the script of Million Dollar Babies. In the fall, they will appear again in public to help promote the mini-series in return for a hefty fee. After half a century, the surviving Dionne quints are again part of the media circus. But this time, they are doing it on their own tenus.

BARRY CAME in Montreal