LIFE WITH FATHER, a pillar of theatrical Americana and humorous social commentary, sprang from the autobiographical 1930’s writings of Clarence Day. They spawned a phenomenally successful play, 7½ years and 3,224 performances, the longest non-musical run on Broadway. Jack L. Warner outbid MGMs Louis B. Mayer for the rights, a whopping $500,000 (in 2023 roughly $7,610,000). Donald Ogden Stewart (Holiday, The Philadelphia Story) wrote the screenplay adaptation, and Warner’s warhorse Michael Curtiz was tasked to direct. With constant interference from the play’s authors (Russel Crouse and Howard Lindsay) and Day’s widow, a projected 42-day shoot turned into 102, costs rising to $4,710,000. All ended well; there are plenty of chuckles, the pro efforts culled a quartet of Oscar nominations and registers rang up $13,700,000, the #4 hit pic of 1947.
New York City, the 1890’s. With volcanic force, outraged pronouncements of “Oh, GAADD!” periodically sonic boom the just-so atmosphere of the comfortable Day household. That’s because successful banker and lord of his domain Clarence Day Sr. (William Powell, 54) has found someone or something that has disturbed him. It could the budget-taxing math skills of wife Vinnie (Irene Dunne, 48) or her vain but dogged insistence that he be baptized. It might be the peace-ruffling actions of one of their four sons, or an innocent miss-step by one of a succession of hapless maids. Visiting relatives don’t help his blood pressure, even one as pretty as teenaged ‘Mary Skinner’ (Elizabeth Taylor, 14). Plus there’s a “Democrat” in the White House!
Pseudo-aware modern audiences (let alone the woke-hypnotized), coarsened by the decades-long degradation of civility (and historically challenged by anything they haven’t personally experienced, been told by news “personality” or read on a phone–what’s a book?) may find this Truman-age harken to the days of Grover Cleveland hard candy to swallow. True, some of it creaks a tag, plus the 118 minutes could have been shorn a good ten. Well, their loss.
Its obvious nostalgic appeal for an earlier, more socially genteel and rules-based time (at least for those of a certain class, position and wherewithal) succeeds not just because the performances are winning and the trappings attractive but because the authority figure (benignly tyrannical papa) is repeatedly challenged and bested, providing affectionately subversive irony to dice his quaint certitude.
Along with the ‘Thin Man’ role, this is Powell at his comic keenest, and his bluff roost-ruler earned him his third Academy Award nomination as Best Actor (another overlooked old pro, Ronald Colman took it for A Double Life). His timing is masterful, especially when sparring with the likewise superb Dunne, who bracketed this with winners Anna and the King of Siam and I Remember Mama.
The four boys are a mixed bag. As Clarence Jr. (later to write about it all), Jimmy Lydon, 23, does nicely; he was familiar to era audiences from nine popular B-pictures as ‘Henry Aldrich’. Martin Milner, 14, is not bad in his debut role as #2 son John; after filming concluded, Milner was stricken with polio, but luckily recovered. As Whitney, 11-year-old Johnny Calkins clangs with obvious “child actor” delivery. In his only movie, the scene-stealer is 7-year-old Derek Scott as Harlan, who stakes a defiant position on breakfast with oatmeal: “I HATE it!”
Burgeoning beauty Taylor had been such a success in National Velvet (and the now-forgotten The Courage of Lassie) that Warner’s “borrowed” her from MGM at a cost of $350,000 to play the houseguest who sparks with Lydon: she gets some solid laughs by issuing a deft collection of cute squeaks and squeals, variously signaling delight or chagrin.
Along with Powell, Oscar nominations went to the Art Direction, Cinematography and Music Score (Max Steiner’s 17th of 24 nominations). With Edmund Gwenn (his banner year, claiming Miracle On 34th Street), Zasu Pitts, Emma Dunn, Moroni Olsen, Elisabeth Risdon, Heather Wilde (the flustered maid who tumbles down the stairs), Douglas Kennedy. Arlene Dahl, 21, is in there somewhere, her first bit part.