Films about Fathers
As a father I’m particularly “affected” by films which portray relationships between fathers and their children particularly their daughters. No I’m not talking about Godfathers or other “sick” fathers like John Huston’s in Chinatown (1974) nor do I mean pathetic fathers like Kevin Spacey AND Chris Cooper in American Beauty (1999). I mean movies which show a more idealized view of the role especially if the father has to learn what that means themselves. Having recently seen several films which contain unforgettable scenes (at least for me) that reflect these I thought I’d jot a few down. Let me know if I’ve left out any movies about fathers which have “touched” you.
Louis Mann in his only real screen role does an excellent job teaching his children particularly his youngest daughter Alma to curb her temper in Sins of the Children (1930) (which could perhaps be a better known film today if it weren’t for its awful title!). It’s clear that he’s guilty of overindulging them which leads to some problems when they’re grownup but the uncompromising love he exhibits throughout the film is exemplary.
You Can’t Take It with You (1938) – wealthy businessman Edward Arnold who struggles with his son (James Stewart) learns a valuable lesson from Lionel Barrymore the father of a “poor” but happy family of eccentrics whose daughter (Jean Arthur) his son wants to marry.
Watch on the Rhine (1943) – Paul Lukas must find a way to explain to the three children he has raised so well that though he is an honorable man and has been an excellent example for them thus far the horrors of the conflict in their native Germany can cause even good men to do bad things. And that even if a good person is “forced” to commit them the acts themselves are still bad.
Meet Me in St. Louis (1944) – While watching his daughter (Judy Garland) sing “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” to his youngest (Margaret O’Brien) father Leon Ames finally realizes what a move to New York would mean to his family.
Mr. Skeffington (1944) – there’s a terrific touching mature scene between Claude Rains (the title character) and his daughter (played by an uncredited Sylvia Arslan) in which his character has to explain as gently as he can about his separation from his wife (played by Bette Davis) anti-Semitism and more while he tries to hold back his tears and maintain his dignity in the public place (a fancy restaurant) they’re in.
This Happy Breed (1944) – there are several wonderful moments with Robert Newton in this British (comedy) drama from Noel Coward and David Lean not the least of which is a father (Newton) to son (John Blythe) discussion about their differing politics or another on the son’s wedding day (about the “facts of life”).
The Yearling (1946) – Gregory Peck knows what it means to be a boy and shoulders much of the responsibility for raising his son (Claude Jarman Jr.) because his wife (Jane Wyman) is afraid to get too emotionally attached to him after the premature deaths of their other infants.
Life With Father (1947) – Oh Gad! This film is really more about William Powell’s relationship with his wife played by Irene Dunne. But it’s so good and after all its title that I couldn’t leave it out.
Cheaper By The Dozen (1950) – Clifton Webb portrays real-life efficiency expert Frank Gilbreth who along with his wife Lillian (played by Myrna Loy) raised 12 children! Frank’s handling of family matters utilizing his trade to teach is unique given their circumstances. Webb’s portrayal is tender and kind yet firm. Especially memorable moments include having his tonsils removed also to make it easier for his children and his sensitive approach in handling his eldest daughter Ann (Jeanne Crain) who towards the end of the film is just beginning to date.
Father of the Bride (1950) – Spencer Tracy is the father of Elizabeth Taylor who is engaged to be married. There are several touching and humorous scenes between father and daughter in this classic. Remarkably this (the previous film and another Tracy role in The Actress (1953)) may be the only great film from the 1950’s which shows an idealized father though there are several which portray more dysfunctional (particularly father-son) relationships. Of course there is Joseph Schildkraut in The Diary of Anne Frank (1959) & Dean Jagger in The Nun’s Story (1959) but neither of these characters get much screen time relative to their (remarkably similar looking) daughters though both provide them noble examples and/or quiet support. Plus Gary Cooper does provide a strong role model for his son Anthony Perkins in Friendly Persuasion (1956) as well.
To Kill A Mockingbird (1962) – Gregory Peck (again) this time playing a single father to perfection.
Mary Poppins (1964) – David Tomlinson plays a father who needs to learn what he’s working for before it’s too late.
The World of Henry Orient (1964) – Ten years before becoming known as the Dad who always seemed to have the right thing to say (as Howard Cunningham on TV’s Happy Days) Tom Bosley played a disconnected businessman father of an imaginative 14 year old daughter played by Tippy Walker in this Peter Sellers film. However when the daughter runs away he is the parent in lieu of the mother (Angela Lansbury) who is sensitive to the situation and takes steps to “repair” the relationship in a tear jerking scene payoff! Directed by George Roy Hill The Sting (1973).
Shenandoah (1965) – James Stewart as the father of a large family mostly consisting of young men that he’s largely raised by himself after his wife died giving birth to their youngest. He instills an independent spirit in each of them fostering free thinking and open discussion during their family dinners together.
The Sound of Music (1965) – Christopher Plummer reconnects with his children after his wife passes away with the help of a special nanny.
Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967) – Spencer Tracy must deal with his own values and those that he has taught his daughter when she effectively “calls his bluff”.
Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968) – This screen adaptation of the Ian Fleming novel has Dick Van Dyke as Caractacus Potts inventor and father of two small children whose imagination he has cultivated. Though he may spoil them a bit he is very emotionally “connected” to them puts them to bed with song etc. and is even shown to care for orphaned children as well.
Breaking Away (1979) – working class used car salesman Paul Dooley has an awkward relationship with his strange son (Dennis Christopher) who emulates the Italian cyclists he idolizes. But by the end of the film the father has bonded with his son even as he continues to change.
Kramer vs. Kramer (1979) – After he is “forced” into taking on sole responsibility for raising his son (Justin Henry) Dustin Hoffman learns to cherish the relationship such that he must fight Meryl Streep for custody of him.
Ordinary People (1980) – Donald Sutherland is a father who stresses over the well being of his remaining son (Timothy Hutton) who attempted suicide after his eldest was lost in a boating accident. He is very concerned especially because he must fill the gap left by the mother (Mary Tyler Moore) who has withdrawn from him emotionally. He arranges for his son to see a psychiatrist (Judd Hirsch) and unlike his wife is not threatened by their relationship or “how it looks” for their son to be in treatment.
Sixteen Candles (1984) – Paul Dooley (again) has a particularly touching scene as the father of daughter (played by) Molly Ringwald when he realizes that the family has missed her birthday in all the pre-wedding activities for her sister. They talk about boys how beautiful she is inside how lucky any boy will be that comes to learn it etc..
Just so you know there were several other films normally associated with this topic which I intentionally left OUT of this essay (reread my opening paragraph) for instance: The Champ (1931) & I Never Sang for My Father (1970) are more focused on the son and the father in both of these films is too self-possessed to be considered an exemplary role model in my opinion. I also have to plead ignorance in the case of the Andy Hardy series starring Mickey Rooney (and primarily Lewis Stone) with the exception of A Family Affair (1937) which features Lionel Barrymore as Judge Hardy in this first film.