Film Flick: Life with Father

Monday, January 23, 2017

One of the hallmarks of growing up is the discovery that your family is not quite like anyone else's. Each has their own dynamics, and foibles; their own routines and leaders. This is exactly what makes watching Life with Father so delightful.

Post-World War Two brought back a more aged and world-weary audience, which is why film noir flourished, but as much as audiences wanted stories that reflected the world they saw, many also became more nostalgic for the world of their grandparents at the turn of the century. Set along the same lines as the more famous Meet Me in St. Louis, Life with Father is likewise a slow story, almost episodic in nature (though it lacks the song and dances of the Judy Garland film). It follows the happenings of the Day Family in New York one summer in 1883. William Powell stars as Mr. Day, a man who wants to run his household with the same exacting efficiency as he runs his office. Irene Dunne co-stars as his wife Vinnie, the real head of the household who keeps things to Mr. Day's exacting tastes, despite the misadventures of their four redheaded sons! As an interesting aside, because only one of the actors portraying the Day boys was a natural redhead, the rest needed to have their hair dyed. Unfortunately, when the beauticians went to rinse off the dye, they discovered the city had turned off water to complete some public works improvements. The dye, left in too long, could result in hair loss, but luckily one quick thinker suggested diluting the dye with cold cream when water was not available! Despite the imminent threat of baldness, perhaps the red hair still proved worth it; the movie was nominated for best color in film that year.

Star power may have been part of the film's real allure; when Life with Father played in Radio City, they daily switched who had top billing- Powell or Dunne. Mary Pickford also did several screen tests for the part that ultimately went to Dunne, but in the end, executives wanted the sure thing of a current star over the gamble of the silent film actress's comeback. A very young Elizabeth Taylor also proved she had comedic chops in her turn as the eldest son's love interest. The film would be nominated for six academy awards, including Best Actor in a Leading Role for Powell, but ultimately it would win none of these. What it did win was bragging rights- it was Warner Brother's highest grossing film of 1947.

The story itself had gone through multiple iterations and was, ultimately, based on a true story. The real Clarence Day Jr. penned a comedic memoir of the same name, detailing his home life growing up. This then became the basis for one of the longest running non-musicals on Broadway, before being adapted into this film. Even this would not be its last form; in the fifties, Life with Father became a TV show too! For the 1947 film, the play's writers, Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse, as well as Clarence Day's widow, were all on set, and supposedly had veto power over any changes made. It is also rumored that the widow lent Dunne some of her own jewelry to use for the part and that she approved of Dunne's characterization. This is high praise indeed, as it must be odd to see yourself portrayed on screen by another, but Dunne later admitted she cared little for the part, calling the character of Vinnie Day "rattle-brained."

For myself, I found Vinnie's sometimes "rattle-brained" logic hilarious, especially when paired with her husband's sometimes baffling incomprehension and the obvious love that still existed between husband and wife after almost 20 years of marriage. Anyone with a family hopes their own children will look back as fondly on Life with Father as the Day family obviously did.

1 comment

  1. I think I saw this when I was little, but I need to watch this again :)

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