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Film Friday: «Life With Father» (1947)

In Portugal (where I'm from), Father's Day is celebrated on March 19. So, for this week's «Film Friday» I thought I'd bring you a film that features a father as its main character.

Directed by Michael Curtiz, Life With Father (1947) follows stockbroker Clarence Day (William Powell), who strives to make his 1890s New York City household run as efficiently as his business. He and his wife Vinnie (Irene Dunne) have four sons. The eldest, Clarence, Jr. (Jimmy Lydon), is headed for Yale. John (Martin Milner), the next eldest, likes to invent things, while brother Whitney (Johnny Calkins) struggles to learn his catechism, and Harlan (Derek Scott), the youngest, is most interested in his dog. Knowing how much Clarence dislikes it when visitors stay in the house, Vinnie neglects to tell her husband that their cousin, Cora Cartwright (ZaSu Pitts), and her young companion, Mary Skinner (Elizabeth Taylor), will spend a week with them.
 
LEFT: Irene Dunne and William Powell. RIGHT: Jimmy Lydon and Elizabeth Taylor.

During the course of a religious discussion, it is revealed that Clarence has never been baptized. Vinnie is very upset and insists that her husband rectify the oversight, but he refuses. In the meantime, Clarence Jr. becomes convinced that wearing his father's made-over suit forces him to behave like his old man. When his stern reaction to Mary's innocent flirtation sends her away in tears, Clarence Jr. becomes determined to earn enough money to buy his own suit. He and John get a job selling patent medicine and try it on Vinnie without her knowledge. The medicine makes Vinnie so ill that Clarence, believing her to be near death, promises that he will be baptized if she gets well. However, when Vinnie recovers, Clarence reneges on his promise. 
 
Unbeknownst to Clarence, Vinnie then arranges for him to be baptized at a church where he will not be embarrassed in front of his acquaintances, but he remains adamantly opposed. Vinnie's opportunity arrives when Clarence is repulsed by a ceramic pug dog that she recently purchased and refuses to be baptized as long as it remains in the house. Vinnie quickly dispatches Clarence Jr. to return the dog to the store and authorizes him to spend the money on a new suit. The next morning, Cora and Mary return for another visit and, wearing his own suit, Clarence Jr. makes up with Mary. Taking advantage of the confusion, Vinnie arranges for an expensive cab to drive Clarence to the church. Although Clarence protests the expense and denies that he agreed to be baptized if the pug was returned, Vinnie uses her own subtle persuasion to round up the entire family to witness Clarence's long-postponed baptism. 
 
FATHER: Vinnie, if there's one place the Church should leave alone, it's a man's soul!

The son of a Wall Street businessman, Clarence Day began writing while attending Yale University, where he also edited the campus humor magazine, The Yale Record. His penchant for comedy eventually led him to pen a series of humorous autobiographical stories affectionately recalling his family life in 1890s New York City with an autocratic father and a sweetly wily mother. Originally published in The New Yorker, these essays were later compiled in book form and published as Life with Father shortly before Day's death in 1935. 
 
Four years after Life with Father was released, Howard Lindsay and Russell Crouse adapted the book into a stage play, which premiered at the Empire Theatre on Broadway on November 8, 1939. It starred Lindsay, his wife Dorothy Stickney and Teresa Wright. The play was a massive critical and commercial success, running for a total of 3,244 performances until it closed at the Alvin Theatre on July 12, 1947. With a run of almost eight years, Life with Father became the longest-running non-musical play on Broadway, a record that still holds today.
 
LEFT: Derek Scott, William Powell and Johnny Calkins in Life with Father. RIGHT: Elizabeth Taylor, William Powell and ZaSu Pitts in Life with Father.

In 1940, Samuel Goldwyn offered $200,000 for screen rights to Life with Father to Broadway producer Oscar Serlin, but the purchase ended up not taking place because Serlin demanded a three-year clearance clause before the exhibition of the film.
 
In July 1944, Mary Pickford negotiated with Serlin for rights, planning to star in the film with William Powell. Warner Bros. eventually acquired the screen rights to the play in November 1944 for a reputed down payment of $500,000 plus a percentage of the net proceeds. As part of the agreement, the film was not to be released before 1947 and the property was to revert back to Serlin after a period of seven years. The agreement also stipulated that Warners could make only one picture based on the play, the script could use only that part of Day's life which was included in the Broadway play, and that the owners were to have editorial rights over matters of good taste in the film version. To protect the integrity of the material, Howard, Lindsay and Day's widow, Katherine Dodge, were brought to Hollywood to serve as technical advisers.
 
LEFT: William Powell and Irene Dunne. RIGHT: William Powell and Elizabeth Taylor.

Dodge suggested that Academy Award winner Donald Ogden Stewart, a close friend of her late husband, write the screenplay of Life with Father. According to Stewart, he «leapt happily at the chance» to rework the material for the screen. «Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse had written such a successful play,» he said, «that there wasn't much need or indeed much allowance for any screen writing.» Stewart diplomatically avoided reworking the dialogue but, whenever possible, moved the action from the stage confines of the Days's dining and parlour rooms to other parts of the family house, the garden and even the street. With Lindsay, Crouse and Dodge's approval, he also dramatized scenes that were only referred to in the play, setting them in a church, a restaurant and a department store.

Howard Lindsay, as well as Fredric March and Ronald Colman, were all considered for the lead role of Clarence Day Sr., but Warner Bros. eventually borrowed two-time Academy Award nominated actor William Powell from MGM to play the character. Dorothy Stickney, Bette Davis, Rosemary DeCamp and Mary Pickford tested for the role of Vinnie Day, but the studio ultimately cast Irene Dunne instead. Shirley Temple and Ann Todd auditioned for the role of Cora, but the part was assigned to 15-year-old Elizabeth Taylor, also working on loan-out from MGM. Jimmy Lydon was chosen in favor of Freddie Bartholomew to play Clarence Jr., the elder son.
 
LEFT: William Powell, Irene Dunne, Johnny Calkins, Jimmy Lydons, Derek Scott and Martin Milner. RIGHT: Jimmy Lydon and Elizabeth Taylor.

Directed by Michael Curtiz and filmed in Technicolor, Life with Father opened on August 14, 1947 to positive reviews from critics and solid box-office results, grossing $5.9 million in domestic rentals. The film received four Academy Award nominations: Best Actor for William Powell; Best Art Director (Color); Best Cinematography (Color); and Best Original Musical Score. Powell lost to Ronald Colman for A Double Life (1947), which also won Best Original Musical Score, while the other two awards were both given to Black Narcissus (1947).
 

Comments

  1. I just finally watched A Double Life and I still think Powell should have been awarded the Oscar. He made Clarence Day a likable person, which someone like Fredric March could have NEVER done, and also believable that his wife loves him. Rosemary DeCamp would have been good but her Vinnie would have been very different. This is a favorite of my family's. I need to read the book!

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