Life With Father (1947) – underappreciated

Life With Father (1947) is a delightful, charming, cleverly written and, apparently, underrated gem. In a year in which anti-Semitism was apparently the focal point in Hollywood or at least of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, a film about the life of a White Anglo-Saxon Protestant family in 1883 New York City didn’t really get the recognition it deserved when they were handing out nominations, or Oscars. Even the National Film Registry, which has many times “corrected” such gross oversights by A.M.P.A.S., has neglected to add this Warner Bros. classic to the Library of Congress. Then again, the National Film Preservation Board has only added two of 1947’s features films to the L.O.C. – the Santa Claus yarn Miracle on 34th Street and the venerated film noir Out of the Past – which is the fewest number of movies listed for any year from 1924 (Safety Last is the only listing for 1923) through 1965, from which only The Pawnbroker and The Sound of Music have made the cut thus far.

Gentleman’s Agreement (1947) won Best Picture at the March 20, 1948 Academy Awards ceremony in Los Angeles, which served as a launching point of sorts for its young director Elia Kazan, who also took home the gold as did Supporting Actress Celeste Holm who beat out co-star Anne Revere. Gregory Peck and Dorothy McGuire were Best Actor and Best Actress nominees; Moss Hart’s screenplay and the film’s editor – Harmon Jones, his only Oscar nomination – were also recognized. The story is about a well respected writer (Peck’s character) that’s asked to write about anti-Semitism in America. While posing as a Jew, he experiences bigotry in subtle and not-so-subtle ways, and it affects his life and relationships profoundly, even among those who know he isn’t Jewish. Ironically, one of this Twentieth Century Fox movie’s biggest competitors for Oscar that night in California was RKO’s Crossfire (1947), a film noir crime drama in which the mystery of the motive is as compelling as the “who dunnit?” Robert Ryan earned his only Oscar nomination, for Supporting Actor, as the anti-Semitic murderer; he lost to Edmund Gwenn in the aforementioned Miracle on 34th Street. The film competed in the Best Picture category (with Miracle on 34th Street, The Bishop’s Wife and Great Expectations); director Edward Dmytryk (his only Academy Award nomination) lost to Kazan, Gloria Grahame lost to Holm, and screenwriter John Paxton (his only nomination) lost to Miracle’s un-nominated director George Seaton. What feels almost incestuous was even more so:

William Powell, who was so broken hearted after the death of his 2-year fiancée Jean Harlow that he’d starred in no pictures of any real stature during the 10 years following her premature death at age 26 in 1937, returned to screen prominence in the title role of Life With Father (1947) and earned his third and last Best Actor nomination. Powell, Peck, Michael Redgrave – his only Best Actor nomination, playing opposite Rosalind Russell’s only nominated performance, as Best Actress in the title role of Mourning Becomes Electra (1947) – and John Garfield, who played Peck’s Jewish friend in the Best Picture winner but received his only nomination in the Lead Acting category as an ego-driven boxer in Body and Soul (1947), lost to Ronald Colman’s Othello characterization in A Double Life (1947)). On his fourth and last Best Actor nomination at 56 years of age (two years older than Powell), and with a career that spanned deeper into the silent era than Powell’s, Colman was perhaps the most sentimental favorite that year. Another irony is that – according to TCM’s notes – Colman had been considered for the lead in Life With Father (1947).

However, Life With Father (1947), which was based upon the life of Clarence Day, Sr., a governor on the New York Stock Exchange, AND the longest running non-musical Broadway stage play at the time, received only three other minor Oscar nominations: Color Art Direction-Set Decoration, Cinematography and Score. Despite an outstanding leading actress performance by Irene Dunne, as Day’s spouse Vinnie, and boffo box office, neither Dunne nor the picture received Academy Award nominations. However, it’s quite possible that Edmund Gwenn’s Supporting Actor performance as the Reverend Dr. Lloyd in the film, which features a considerable subplot about Clarence’s ‘need’ to be baptized, contributed to his Miracle win in the category (and the fact that his supporting Santa Claus role was really a leading part). As for Dunne, she would receive her fifth & last unrewarded Best Actress nomination for a performance much like Powell’s – in the title role of a film based upon a loving memoir about a family (of Norwegian immigrants in San Francisco) – the following year in I Remember Mama (1948), which would be her last significant role before a thin string of television appearances and the end of her acting career in 1962.

While some may dismiss Life With Father (1947) for its dated (to the point of archaic) expressions and attitudes about life, they should remember that it was quaint at the time of its release. Indeed, it’s a time capsule of pre-turn-of-the-century New York, when men were the unquestioned heads of their nuclear families; or were they? In fact, as bombastic and outspoken as (Powell’s) Day is, he is in fact manipulated in subtle ways by his wife (Dunne’s) Vinnie, whom he loves dearly. On the surface, Day is in charge of the money and every household decision, many of which he makes demonstratively by loudly proclaiming his dominance while often belittling his wife’s lack of sound logic. Vinnie, however, while she respects her husband’s traditional position and accepts that he has a superior intellect, doesn’t passively allow herself to be bowled over by him. She sticks to her principles and even wrongheaded notions in a ‘forceful’ yet nonthreatening way – though perhaps a little too frequently by crying – such that “Clare” (short for Clarence), out of his love for her or sometimes just exasperation, has to give in.

There are hilarious scenes concerning the family finances which begin with Vinnie humbly having to ask for money or explain her spending that leave Clare confused and Vinnie with the cash (“a dollar and a half”) or her desired result: a porcelain pug dog is returned to pay for their son’s new suit of clothes (“and it isn’t costing you a penny”). This “battle of the sexes” scenario is then transferred generationally when a “puppy dog romance” develops between Clarence Jr. (Jimmy Lydon) and visiting Cousin Cora’s (Zasu Pitts) traveling companion Mary Skinner, played by 15-year old Elizabeth Taylor. After a lesson about the need to “be firm” with women from Clarence Sr. – a priceless scene, that immediately precedes one in which Clare follows the advice he’d just given his son with Vinnie, telling her “it’s for your own good” when she cries – Junior tells Mary that she must write him the minute she returns home from her visit to New York. But having been properly schooled, Mary of course is determined to have him write to her first; she strikes a balance between using her tears and her will to get her way. Like Clare, who doesn’t know what he said that brought his wife to tears, Junior is also clueless that he’s been manipulated, and he enthusiastically starts to write his first letter to Mary even before her horse cab has left their street. Outwardly, the males have the authority but it’s the females that wield real power, something that’s not really confined to the 19th century.

Edmund Gwenn as the Rev. Dr. Lloyd

The other major storyline that demonstrates “who wears the pants in the (Day) family” has to do with the revelation that Clare has yet to be baptized. Vinnie is convinced that her husband won’t be able to enter Heaven without correcting the situation, the sooner the better, and enlists the support of their children and Dr. Lloyd. But Clarence Sr. is adamant that he doesn’t need to be baptized, saying “They can’t keep me out of Heaven on a technicality” and “if there’s one place the Church should leave alone, it’s a man’s soul!” Upset – or “stirred up” as Clare would say – over her husband’s eternal life, Vinnie falls ill, which is made worse when her entrepreneurial sons (Clarence Jr. and Martin Milner, also fifteen in his screen debut, and the only natural redhead, as John) put “Bartlett’s Beneficent Balm” – a ‘miracle’ cure they’ve signed up to sell – in her tea, thinking it will help with her “women’s complaints”. But their mother then really does become ill and the normally prudent Clare spares no expense to get Vinnie well, even promising her that he’ll be baptized if she’ll just pull through. When she does, he tries to excuse his actions and the argument continues, but in the (literal) end, as always, Vinnie gets her way.

A couple of other odds & ends worth mentioning: one of the ways that Clarence Sr.’s eccentricities are conveyed is through the continuous flow of maids that the family goes through; he inadvertently scares them into quitting or fires them for incompetence. Even when he tries to intervene in his wife’s affairs by hiring a replacement (Clara Blandick appears briefly at the employment agency), Vinnie lets her go because the maid’s outfit doesn’t fit her. There’s also a curious physical gesture that one of the maids does after exclaiming “a redhead” each time she notices the hair color of the Day’s children; she licks two fingers on her right hand before slapping them, and then her fist, into her left palm. “Oh Gad”, I almost forgot, some of the expressions such as this favorite exclamation of Clarence Sr. are priceless, including falderal – akin to poppycock – and “confound it”.

Michael Curtiz directed the Donald Ogden Stewart (The Philadelphia Story (1940)) screenplay, which transformed the successful play by Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse – based on Clarence Day Jr.’s memoir – into movie sets for some scenes and dramatized others that were only referred to in the play. Rounding out the credited cast: Emma Dunn played the Day’s longtime cook Margaret, Moroni Olsen played Dr. Humphries, Elisabeth Risdon was Mrs. Whitehead, Derek Scott was the Day’s youngest son Harlan who adopts a dog and Johnny Calkins their third oldest Whitney (had to learn his catechism), Monte Blue was the policeman, Frank Elliot was Dr. Somers and Heather Wilde, Mary Field, Queenie Leonard and Nancy Evans were the string of maids.

If like me you feel that Life With Father (1947) has been overlooked, and should be considered as an addition to the National Film Registry as a 2011 entry this December, write to:

Donna Ross
Library of Congress
19053 Mt. Pony Road
Culpeper, VA 22701-7551
or
email: dross@loc.gov

30 Responses Life With Father (1947) – underappreciated
Posted By Wendy T. Merckel : June 29, 2011 2:51 pm

Father’s nickname is Clare, not Clara.

Thanks for the write up on this overlooked gem of a movie!

Posted By Wendy T. Merckel : June 29, 2011 2:51 pm

Father’s nickname is Clare, not Clara.

Thanks for the write up on this overlooked gem of a movie!

Posted By MDR : June 29, 2011 3:21 pm

Thanks so much for the correction (already made;-)

Posted By MDR : June 29, 2011 3:21 pm

Thanks so much for the correction (already made;-)

Posted By JeffH : June 29, 2011 4:33 pm

This is one of the best films from Curtiz’ later WB period, and it’s amazing how many actors were brought in from other studios to appear in it (Powell-MGM, Dunne-RKO, Taylor-MGM). It is really too bad the film is now in the public domain-it is so difficult to locate a good print on home video (the print and color quality varies greatly). I wish that Warner Archive would take the films like this (TILL THE CLOUDS ROLL BY, THEY MADE ME A FUGITIVE, etc.) that are in their vault and bring them out in transfers that are from either original negatives or at least remastered. ROYAL WEDDING was part of musical box set a few years ago and looks absolutely gorgeous. The prints that TCM shows of these films are also top-notch and I wish they would be brought out legit so we can watch them the way they were meant to be seen. I wish the same would happen with Paramount and ONE-EYED JACKS, as well.

Posted By JeffH : June 29, 2011 4:33 pm

This is one of the best films from Curtiz’ later WB period, and it’s amazing how many actors were brought in from other studios to appear in it (Powell-MGM, Dunne-RKO, Taylor-MGM). It is really too bad the film is now in the public domain-it is so difficult to locate a good print on home video (the print and color quality varies greatly). I wish that Warner Archive would take the films like this (TILL THE CLOUDS ROLL BY, THEY MADE ME A FUGITIVE, etc.) that are in their vault and bring them out in transfers that are from either original negatives or at least remastered. ROYAL WEDDING was part of musical box set a few years ago and looks absolutely gorgeous. The prints that TCM shows of these films are also top-notch and I wish they would be brought out legit so we can watch them the way they were meant to be seen. I wish the same would happen with Paramount and ONE-EYED JACKS, as well.

Posted By dukeroberts : June 29, 2011 6:38 pm

I absolutely love this movie. It was on on Father’s Day and though I had no intention of watching it beforehand, I sat down and watched the rest of it. It’s one of those movies for me.

Jeff is right about the prints of this film. I have seen some dreadful prints, including the streaming version on Netflix. My letter to the Library of Congress is as good as written. This movie should be restored and saved for posterity.

Posted By dukeroberts : June 29, 2011 6:38 pm

I absolutely love this movie. It was on on Father’s Day and though I had no intention of watching it beforehand, I sat down and watched the rest of it. It’s one of those movies for me.

Jeff is right about the prints of this film. I have seen some dreadful prints, including the streaming version on Netflix. My letter to the Library of Congress is as good as written. This movie should be restored and saved for posterity.

Posted By JeffH : June 29, 2011 11:05 pm

Too bad no version of the film with the final, uncensored line exists-would love to see that.

Posted By JeffH : June 29, 2011 11:05 pm

Too bad no version of the film with the final, uncensored line exists-would love to see that.

Posted By dukeroberts : June 29, 2011 11:20 pm

Say what now? Uncensored line? Do tell.

Posted By dukeroberts : June 29, 2011 11:20 pm

Say what now? Uncensored line? Do tell.

Posted By muriel schwenck : June 30, 2011 7:51 pm

Totally agree about this film. I always watch it when TCM shows it. Very charming! Elizabeth Taylor is soooo sweeet in this.

Posted By muriel schwenck : June 30, 2011 7:51 pm

Totally agree about this film. I always watch it when TCM shows it. Very charming! Elizabeth Taylor is soooo sweeet in this.

Posted By ZZinDC : July 4, 2011 3:13 pm

Love this movie. When it was shown on TCM not long ago, I missed part of Robert Osborne’s comments, but heard a bit about how a different actress was initially cast to play Vinnie, and then – something(?) happened and the role went to Irene Dunne. Could anyone fill me in on what I missed in this story? Thanks!

Posted By ZZinDC : July 4, 2011 3:13 pm

Love this movie. When it was shown on TCM not long ago, I missed part of Robert Osborne’s comments, but heard a bit about how a different actress was initially cast to play Vinnie, and then – something(?) happened and the role went to Irene Dunne. Could anyone fill me in on what I missed in this story? Thanks!

Posted By mbm : July 4, 2011 3:37 pm

Due to the Production Code’s guidelines, the final line of the film, which was to be Mr. Day’s “I’m going to be baptised, dammit!” had to be re-writted.

is it true that Mary Pickford turned down the role of Vinnie?

Posted By mbm : July 4, 2011 3:37 pm

Due to the Production Code’s guidelines, the final line of the film, which was to be Mr. Day’s “I’m going to be baptised, dammit!” had to be re-writted.

is it true that Mary Pickford turned down the role of Vinnie?

Posted By JeffH : July 4, 2011 6:33 pm

Actually, the line was not re-written. They shot the scene with the line intact, probably hoping that since the play was so popular and the line so well-known, the Hays Office would give them a pass, and it looks like they did not shoot an alternate version, because you will notice there is a jump cut where “Dammit” would have been. The MPAA probably decided that since the word was being used in conjunction with a religious ceremony, it would not pass it so the word had to go.

Mary Pickford was considered for the role, according to biographer Scott Eyman, even though she was not tested for the part, but the producers decided to go with Irene Dunne, probably because she was a proven commodity and was at that time one of the biggest female stars working. Pickford had been off the screen for 15 years which is almost a century in Hollywood.

The film cost $4.7 million, probably for the property and the salaries of Powell and Dunne, grossed just a little over $5 million domestically, $1.4 million overseas for a total of just under $6.5 million worldwide, making it second only to JOHNNY BELINDA (total worldwide of almost $7 million) for that season.

Posted By JeffH : July 4, 2011 6:33 pm

Actually, the line was not re-written. They shot the scene with the line intact, probably hoping that since the play was so popular and the line so well-known, the Hays Office would give them a pass, and it looks like they did not shoot an alternate version, because you will notice there is a jump cut where “Dammit” would have been. The MPAA probably decided that since the word was being used in conjunction with a religious ceremony, it would not pass it so the word had to go.

Mary Pickford was considered for the role, according to biographer Scott Eyman, even though she was not tested for the part, but the producers decided to go with Irene Dunne, probably because she was a proven commodity and was at that time one of the biggest female stars working. Pickford had been off the screen for 15 years which is almost a century in Hollywood.

The film cost $4.7 million, probably for the property and the salaries of Powell and Dunne, grossed just a little over $5 million domestically, $1.4 million overseas for a total of just under $6.5 million worldwide, making it second only to JOHNNY BELINDA (total worldwide of almost $7 million) for that season.

Posted By Jenni : July 6, 2011 12:08 pm

Just watched LWF, as I had tivoed it, been on vacation, and took a break yesterday to view it. I hadn’t seen it in a while, and laughed so much. Truly a great movie, and I sent an email to the National Film Registry lady just now. Hoping it is added this year!

Posted By Jenni : July 6, 2011 12:08 pm

Just watched LWF, as I had tivoed it, been on vacation, and took a break yesterday to view it. I hadn’t seen it in a while, and laughed so much. Truly a great movie, and I sent an email to the National Film Registry lady just now. Hoping it is added this year!

Posted By Gayle : July 14, 2011 2:19 pm

I very much enjoyed this look at Life with Father and agree it should be added to the Nationa Registry. I’d read the original Day books when I was in junior high so it was a big treat the first time I saw the film in the 1970s. William Powell was already one of my favorite actors from the 1930s. Not classically handsome but his enunciation and delivery give him a certain charisma and attractiveness. I’m happy to say I share his birthday of July 29!

I do take issue with your statement that “William Powell, who was so broken hearted after the death of his 2-year fiancée Jean Harlow that he’d starred in no pictures of any real stature during the 10 years following her premature death at age 26 in 1937.” Powell was still under contract at MGM as he turned 50 (1942) and he continued with the Thin Man series plus other comedies. There wasn’t that much ’cause and effect’ due to Harlow’s death. Before her passing, they’d already broken off the engagement though he didn’t ask for the return of the engagement ring he gave her. It was still only natural for him to be grief stricken over her early passing but it wasn’t due to the feeling that he’d been robbed of a future with her. Bear in mind too that in 1938 Powell underwent treatment for rectal cancer and survived it; that was more of a reason his career took a slight hiatus at the end of the 1930s what with recovery time. When I think about it, it stands out that he was still under contract at MGM in the 1940s. Granted with the war on, younger contract players like Gable and Stewart went into military service so MGM still needed male players that could effectively do romantic leads. Powell must have fit that image in the studio’s and/or Louis B. Meyer’s eyes. In comparison, many of MGM’s female contractees from its early days like Joan Crawford and Norma Shearer were being dumped to make room for younger, fresher faces like Judy Garland (since she was old enough by then to play romantic parts) and Lana Turner. Certainly going over to Warner Brothers for Life with Father was an upturn in Powell’s career. If Ronald Coleman hadn’t also been nominated, then it might have been Powell who’d won Best Actor as the sentimental favorite in a powerhouse role for which he was perfectly suited.

Posted By Gayle : July 14, 2011 2:19 pm

I very much enjoyed this look at Life with Father and agree it should be added to the Nationa Registry. I’d read the original Day books when I was in junior high so it was a big treat the first time I saw the film in the 1970s. William Powell was already one of my favorite actors from the 1930s. Not classically handsome but his enunciation and delivery give him a certain charisma and attractiveness. I’m happy to say I share his birthday of July 29!

I do take issue with your statement that “William Powell, who was so broken hearted after the death of his 2-year fiancée Jean Harlow that he’d starred in no pictures of any real stature during the 10 years following her premature death at age 26 in 1937.” Powell was still under contract at MGM as he turned 50 (1942) and he continued with the Thin Man series plus other comedies. There wasn’t that much ’cause and effect’ due to Harlow’s death. Before her passing, they’d already broken off the engagement though he didn’t ask for the return of the engagement ring he gave her. It was still only natural for him to be grief stricken over her early passing but it wasn’t due to the feeling that he’d been robbed of a future with her. Bear in mind too that in 1938 Powell underwent treatment for rectal cancer and survived it; that was more of a reason his career took a slight hiatus at the end of the 1930s what with recovery time. When I think about it, it stands out that he was still under contract at MGM in the 1940s. Granted with the war on, younger contract players like Gable and Stewart went into military service so MGM still needed male players that could effectively do romantic leads. Powell must have fit that image in the studio’s and/or Louis B. Meyer’s eyes. In comparison, many of MGM’s female contractees from its early days like Joan Crawford and Norma Shearer were being dumped to make room for younger, fresher faces like Judy Garland (since she was old enough by then to play romantic parts) and Lana Turner. Certainly going over to Warner Brothers for Life with Father was an upturn in Powell’s career. If Ronald Coleman hadn’t also been nominated, then it might have been Powell who’d won Best Actor as the sentimental favorite in a powerhouse role for which he was perfectly suited.

Posted By MDR : July 14, 2011 5:08 pm

Thanks so much for the info/correction Gayle!

Posted By MDR : July 14, 2011 5:08 pm

Thanks so much for the info/correction Gayle!

Posted By dukeroberts : July 18, 2011 12:05 am

I finally got around to writing Miss Ross about the movie. I made an impassioned plea in three parts. I hope all of our letters and emails help make a difference.

Posted By dukeroberts : July 18, 2011 12:05 am

I finally got around to writing Miss Ross about the movie. I made an impassioned plea in three parts. I hope all of our letters and emails help make a difference.

Posted By MDR : December 28, 2011 1:00 pm

Unfortunately our efforts to have this film added to the 2011 National Film Registry were for naught:

http://www.loc.gov/today/pr/2011/11-240.html

But thanks for trying!

Posted By MDR : December 28, 2011 1:00 pm

Unfortunately our efforts to have this film added to the 2011 National Film Registry were for naught:

http://www.loc.gov/today/pr/2011/11-240.html

But thanks for trying!

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