The Dionne quintuplets, arguably the century's most famous siblings, celebrate their 60th birthday Saturday as shooting begins on a new movie that tries to set the record straight on their tragic lives.
Cecile, Annette, Yvonne, Emilie and Marie Dionne were born to an impoverished Ontario farm couple at the height of the Great Depression. They were the first quintuplets ever to survive more than a few days.As word of the extraordinary birth spread, so did the controversy about the infants' future.
Local doctor Roy Dafoe knew the babies would not survive without incubators so he ordered them removed from the home of Oliva and Elzire Dionne and the saga that would captivate the world began.
After Oliva Dionne made a deal with a Chicago promoter to help pay for medical and other expenses, public sentiment shifted toward Dafoe, who was made the quints' legal guardian without the Dionnes' knowledge.
For the next nine years Dafoe raised the children in a private compound in northern Ontario soon dubbed Quintland. Millions of people, including film stars Clark Gable and Bette Davis and Britain's King George VI, flocked to see the girls on display. Quintland soon surpassed Niagara Falls as Canada's most famous tourist attraction.
In the media frenzy that followed, the French-speaking Dionnes, struggling to feed six other children, were portrayed as unfit parents. Oliva was branded a villain trying to exploit his children and Dafoe became the savior in the struggle over the guardianship of the girls.
Now "Million Dollar Babies," a television miniseries co-produced by Montreal-based Cinar Films and Toronto's Bernard Zuckerman, is aiming to present a balanced picture of the much-told and still misunderstood Dionne story.
The series stars Beau Bridges as Dr. Dafoe, Kate Nelligan as Helena Reid, the popular American radio personality who broke the story of the quints' birth, and Canadian actors Roy Dupuis as Oliva Dionne and Celine Bonnier as Elzire. The four-hour series airs next season on CBS and the Canadian network CBC.
Screenwriter Suzette Couture spent the past three years pouring over numerous books, articles and films that have documented the Dionne quints' lives with varying degrees of truth for the past 60 years. Couture said at first she rejected the project because she viewed the quints story as a "footnote in history."
"Like so many people I realized I'd picked up an attitude that the parents didn't deserve the children, so they were taken away and lived happily ever after," she said. "That wasn't the case. They were the subject of a bizarre 1930s experiment in child rearing."
Couture said she was drawn to the Dionnes' story because it wasn't as simple and clear-cut as reported decades ago. She cited the powerful ethnic and class issues that motivated the decisions about the quints' upbringing and the enormous impact of the media in molding the story and defining its central figures.
For Couture one of the most important moments came when she learned the three surviving Dionne quintuplets had read and approved her screenplay.
"There's been so much myth-making and such distortion about the Dionnes' story. It was tremendously valuable to know they thought I got their story right," she said.
The three surviving sisters, Annette, Yvonne and Cecile, live in Quebec. Emilie Dionne died as the result of an epileptic seizure in 1954, and Marie, the weakest sibling, died in 1970.