I must have been 11 0r 12 years old the first time I saw the 1947 film Life With Father. I remember enjoying this old movie that I stumbled upon one afternoon. The movie was funny, it was shot in gorgeous technicolor and the side-plot of whether or not Father would ever get baptized was amusing to me.
When I next rewatched the movie, as a college student, I realized that a young Elizabeth Taylor was in this film and a very young Martin Milner, pre- Route 66 and Adam-12 days. I knew by this point that the parents were played by William Powell, who was pitch perfect as the bombastic father, Clarence Day Sr. and the lovely Irene Dunne was excellent as the loving, but fiscally- challenged wife, Vinnie. I also learned that Life With Father actually had its beginning as a book, written by Clarence Day Jr. From this book came a Broadway play and then the hit film. When I learned that blogs The Rosebud Cinema and Rachel’s Theatre Reviews were hosting a blogathon devoted to stage plays that were turned into films, I decided to participate with Life With Father. Be sure to visit the two sites in order to read about more movies that began life on the stage!
Owning my late grandmother’s encyclopedia set from 1957 I was able to find a bit more info on the real Clarence Day Jr. Born in 1874, he grew up in New York City, his father, Clarence Day Sr., nicknamed Clare, was a stockbroker. Day’s grandfather, Benjamin H. Day founded the New York Sun newspaper. Clarence Jr. grew up in an upper middle class family, graduated from Yale, and went into the same brokerage firm where his father worked. Clarence Jr. joined the US Navy to fight in the Spanish-American War, but afterwards he became afflicted with crippling arthritis and had to live the rest of his life as a semi-invalid. During this time, Clarence Jr. began writing and his first major literary success was a book, God and My Father. Next came the book, Life With Father, a humorous look at life in 1890s New York City with his domineering, loud, but lovable father and the rest of the Day family. Clarence Jr. died in 1935, and several more of his books were published posthumously. The 1937 book, Life With Mother, was also successful and in 1939, Howard Lindsey and Russel Crouse wrote a play based upon God and My Father, Life With Father, and Life With Mother. What was astounding is that this new play, Life With Father, was such a hit with audiences that it ran for over seven years to become the longest-running non-musical play on Broadway.
Warner Brothers brought the rights to the play in order to turn it into a film and Donald Ogden Stewart wrote the screenplay. Michael Curtiz directed, and in addition to William Powell and Irene Dunne, as Clarence Sr. and Vinnie, they were joined by: Jimmy Lydon as Clarence Jr., Martin Milner as John, Johnny Calkins as Whitney, and Derek Scott as the youngest son, Harlan. Zasu Pitts portrays Vinnie’s cousin, Cora, visiting from Ohio, and Elizabeth Taylor plays Mary Skinner, a traveling companion of cousin Cora’s. Edmund Gwenn is Reverend Dr. Lloyd, who has to carefully deal with an unbaptized Clarence Sr., and maids for the family are played by Emma Dunn, Heather Wilde, Mary Field, Queenie Leonard, and Nancy Evans.
The film is fast-moving, with various plots woven throughout it, all leading to the climax: will father get baptized or not? While this might not seem funny, and may seem downright boring, it is told with humor and wit. William Powell’s performance is the glue that holds this story together and he was so good in the part that he was a Best Actor nominee at the Academy Awards in 1948.
Powell’s Clarence Day Sr. is in his late 40s, and he works at an efficient office. He believes that his home should also be run in an efficient manner, and when it isn’t-which is quite often-he feels compelled to honestly let all in the house know how displeased he is with this inefficiency. He is loud, curt, and a bit oblivious to the fact that his wife, Vinnie, is really running things at home the way she wants them run. Powell’s Clarence adores his wife and even though she can frustrate him, especially when she doesn’t understand purchasing items on credit and keeping to the budget he has set up, he still worships the ground she walks on. A running gag in the film is the Day family’s inability to keep housemaids. The maids are all afraid of Mr. Day, especially when he makes a loud outburst about something that has displeased him. One maid, a new Irish immigrant, takes it as a bad sign that the Day’s are all redheads and when Mr. Day let’s loose with a loud complaint, this new maid quits. Vinnie scolds Clarence Sr. for scaring off yet another maid so she says he has to hire the next one. When Clarence Sr. gets to the employment agency to hire a new maid, the employment agency representative tells him, “Sir, before I can let any girl go from this establishment, I must know the character of the home in which she will be employed.” To which Mr. Day replies, “Madam, I am the character of my home!”
Cousin Cora’s visit, which Vinnie knew about but forgot to tell Clarence Sr., is an irritant to him. He doesn’t like the fact that they are putting Cousin Cora up at their house for a week and he rails against it, as he isn’t running a hotel. He isn’t also happy that Vinnie has told Cora that they are taking her and Mary, her traveling companion, to Delmonico’s for dinner, a meal that Clarence Sr. doesn’t want to have to pay for as he believes the restaurant is too expensive.
The sons, especially the oldest two, Clarence Jr. and John, add to the swirling plots of the film. Clarence Jr. hates wearing his father’s old suits and wants a new suit of his very own. He is hit with the love bug when he meets Mary Skinner and feels awkward around her if he’s wearing one of father’s suits. He gets the urge to act like father would act and this upsets poor Mary! John, always looking for a way to earn money, hires Clarence Jr. to help him sell a new medicine door to door. Then Clarence Jr. will earn enough money to buy himself a new suit. Unfortunately, John decides to give his mother some of the medicine and it doesn’t help Vinnie at all, in fact she becomes very sick and the doctor has to be called.
Whitney, the third son, is practicing his catechism in order to be confirmed in the Episcopal church the family attends. During one of his practice sessions, Clarence Sr. admits that he’s never been baptized. This news horrifies Vinnie and she asks him to get baptized or they won’t be reunited in Heaven. Clarence Sr. scoffs at this notion, stating that God wouldn’t be able to keep him out of Heaven! This dilemma even leads Vinnie to wonder if their marriage is legal!
Since this film, though autobiographical in nature, is mainly a comedy, you can rest assured, there are happy endings for all of the characters.
Life With Father is available to purchase or even watch on instant rent at Amazon. It’s also available through TCM’s Shop and through Netflix. Also, the entire film is available to see on Youtube! For a funny, endearing movie the whole family can watch, and with one of William Powell’s best performances, seek out Life With Father!