Life With Father (1947)
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” (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.
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.
© 2011 Turner Classic Movies - this article originally appeared on TCM's official blog