Sunday, June 30, 2013

Mill Creek comedy classics #28: "Life with Father" (1947)

William Powell's hair isn't quite this red in 1947's Life with Father.

The flick: Life with Father (Warner Bros., 1947) [buy the set]

Current IMDb rating: 7.1

Director: Michael Curtiz (Won an Oscar for Casablanca; nominated for Yankee Doodle Dandy, Captain Blood, Angels with Dirty Faces, and Four Daughters)

Actors of note
  • William Powell (six Thin Man movies with Myrna Loy; My Man Godfrey, Mister Roberts, How to Marry a Millionaire, a great deal more; three-time Oscar nominee, including this very movie!)
  • Irene Dunne (The Awful Truth, My Favorite Wife; five-time Oscar nominee)
  • Elizabeth Taylor (Oscar winner for Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and Butterfield 8; nominated three more times; starred in Cleopatra, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, National Velvet, etc., etc.; famously married eight times, twice to Richard Burton)
  • Edmund Gwenn (won an Oscar as Kris Kringle in Miracle on 34th Street; worked for Hitchcock in The Trouble with Harry and Foreign Correspondent; so much more)
  • Clara Blandick (Auntie Em from The Wizard of Oz)
  • Martin Milner (Hitchcock's Dial M for Murder; star of TV's Route 66 and Adam-12)
  • Jimmy Lydon (worked steadily in TV for 30 years on everything from The Wonderful World of Disney to St. Elsewhere)

The whole brood.
The gist of it: New York, 1883. Blustery Wall Street big shot Clarence "Clare" Day (Powell) has a devoted wife, Vinnie (Dunne), four red-headed sons, and an ever-changing roster of maids. Day is a stubborn, exacting man who likes to have everything just so in his household and is not shy about expressing his discontent. He's really a softie at heart, though, and his "orderly" household is always in some sort of turmoil, as when Cousin Clara (Pitts) comes to visit and brings attractive young Mary (Taylor) along with her. Mary begins a chaste though not untroubled courtship with the Days' eldest, Clarence, Jr. (Lydon), who has inherited one of his father's suits and has seemingly been "possessed" by the personality of his father when wearing the garment.

At dinner with Mary, Clare reveals that he was never baptized, scandalizing Vinnie, who then becomes ill and is bedridden. Her condition is inadvertently worsened when one of her sons, John (Milner), spikes her tea with some of the patent medicine he's been selling. The whole family, along with their church's rector Rev. Dr. Lloyd (Gwenn, who has also been attempting to get Clare to donate $5000 towards a new church), tries to get the father to submit to baptism, but he won't budge on the subject until Vinnie seems to be at death's door. He makes a solemn promise to be baptized, but breaks that promise he breaks as soon as his wife is out of bed, and the cycle starts all over again. Ultimately, the proud and independent Clare, who will not kneel in church before God, admits how much Vinnie truly means to him.

My take: As you might have gleaned from those credits up there, Life with Father is no black-and-white cheapie from Monogram or PRC, filmed in an afternoon for $1.95. This is a major Warner Brothers production in Technicolor (though you'd hardly guess from the faded print I just watched), directed by one of Hollywood's heavy hitters and starring a lot of big-deal, honest-to-god movie stars. At two hours, it's the longest film in this collection. You could watch two Olsen & Johnson or "Dodo Doubleday" flicks in the time it takes to watch this one. So what's it doing here? Well, the sad answer is that Warner neglected to copyright it. Whoops! So if you watch this for free, consider it payback for all those times that Warner Music Group (WMG), heartless scourge of the Internet, took down one of your favorite YouTube clips. 

The TV version
But, anyway, how's the flick? Well, citizens, if you read the last entry in this series, you'll remember that I was having trouble judging the actions of the characters because they were playing by different rules than we are. That's even more true of Life with Father, but part of that is built-in, since this film is set in 1883 and was a nostalgia piece when it was brand new. Old-timeyness is pretty much the whole point of this film.

It's no surprise to learn that Life with Father was based on a play, since virtually all of it takes place within the walls of the Days' admittedly magnificent home. It's scarcely more surprising that the play was based on a series of autobiographical short stories, since the film is episodic in nature and deals with the trivial and mundane. Not a great deal "happens" in Life with Father, and yet the film has about seven or eight different stories developing simultaneously.

Appropriately, a Life with Father television series starring Leon Ames ran on CBS from 1953 to 1955. That seems about right. Compared to the more recent crop of "rough and tumble" family comedies like Cheaper by the Dozen 2 (2005) or Are We There Yet? (2005), this is practically Downton Abbey. A maid does tumble down a flight of stairs after hearing Clare practice one of his fiery tirades, and John's patent medicine does manage to poison one of the neighbor's dogs.

But, generally, this film is all about the minutiae of family life, i.e. the $15 ceramic pug dog that Vinnie has purchased from a local department store or the placement of a particular rubber tree plant or whether or not one son will eat his oatmeal. Ultimately, families are families, and human nature is human nature. The specifics have changed, but the general outline hasn't.

In some ways, even though it's much more genteel, this film reminded me of the TV show All in the Family (another CBS sitcom!), which was also about the domestic life of a hardheaded man. The real gift of that show -- and this movie -- is simply the opportunity to observe a family, up close and personal, as they bicker and negotiate, retreat and advance. Archie Bunker would have been even more ornery than Clare about the baptism issue. I can just imagine him discussing it with Edith.

As an atheist who has struggled with issues of faith all my life, in fact, I was most intrigued by the religious aspects of Life with Father. Frankly, I was with Clare all the way on the anti-baptism issue and didn't want him to give in. Furthermore, I wondered why Edmund Gwenn's character needed a new church. The existing one -- and we see it a few times -- seems a very fancy building indeed. I was shocked by the mention that the Days have purchased a pew at this church for $5000. It seems altogether too close to the selling of "plenary indulgences" for the forgiveness of sins. William Powell and Edmund Gwenn have an amusing scene in which the former argues that the purchase of the pew was a bad investment, since it would only go for $3000 now. Powell's character, while still a believer, is the only one who seems to question the methods and morals of the church, dismissing a lot of the customs and traditions as "folderol."

The other characters in the movie obey without question or even curiosity; they're so hung up on the formalities of their faith that it's a big deal when Mary reveals to Clarence, Jr. she's a Methodist, while the Days are Episcopalian. I could not help but think of that marvelous sketch, "Heaven is for Presbyterians" by the Canadian comedy troupe The Frantics.

Is it funny: It's more agreeable than laugh-out-loud funny, but I got some good, solid guffaws out of Life with Father, as when Martin Milner sells $128 worth of fraudulent "medicine" and is paid in... more medicine. Namely, the laughs come from the redoubtable William Powell who seems to be the only one with any sense of integrity in this film. Why shouldn't he live his life the way he sees fit? And why shouldn't his home and his meals be exactly as he wants them? After all, it's his life and his money.

Had he lived a century later, Clarence Day, Sr. might well have taken Tom Petty's "I Won't Back Down" as his anthem. (Too bad George Zimmerman has ruined the phrase "stand my ground.") Perhaps the film's funniest scene occurs when the two youngest Day children discuss whether or not their father is going to Hell. The younger one starts to cry, and his older brother hilariously tries to drown him out by singing "O Come, All Ye Faithful."

My grade: B+

P.S. - No onscreen black stereotypes here, but there are some remarks about "Hottentots" and "savages" that you wouldn't hear in a modern movie.