Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Caftan Woman's Choice: One for July on TCM

Satirist, columnist, short story writer Clarence Day Jr. (1875-1935) was born and raised in New York City and his most well-remembered works involve his youth in the place of his birth. A man with a quirky sense of humour and strongly liberal views (suffrage supporter), might his parents have looked at each other at one time or another and wondered where he got it? Day certainly observed his parents, and his amusing memoirs Life With Father and Life With Mother have kept their memory and the New York City of his youth alive with warm laughter to this day.

Howard Lindsay, Dorothy Stickney

Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse wrote the play Life With Father which opened on Broadway November 8, 1939. The play closed (Some thought it would never close!) on July 12, 1947. Howard Lindsay and his wife Dorothy Stickney played Father and Mother. You can see Lindsay and Stickney as the King and Queen in the 1957 TV version of Rodgers and Hammerstein's Cinderella to get an idea of how they might have been as Clare and Vinnie. 20-year-old Teresa Wright played the ingenue role of Mary Skinner. The previous season on Broadway she played Emily Webb in Our Town. Soon Hollywood would call.

Life With Father came to the movies after the play closed on Broadway. Donald Ogden Stewart (The Philadelphia Story, The Barretts of Wimpole Street) adapted the screenplay. Michael Curtiz directed in glorious Technicolor and Max Steiner provided a sprightly nostalgic score. Academy Award winning (Adventures of Don Juan) costumer Marjorie Best dressed our players in the finest of 1890s attire. The Days were a well off family.

Oscar nominations for Life With Father:
Best Actor - William Powell
Best Cinematography, Color - J. Peverell Marley, William V. Skall
Best Art Direction - Set Decoration, Color - Robert M. Haas, George James Hopkins
Best Music, Scoring of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture - Max Steiner

Martin Milner, Jimmy Lydon, Irene Dunne
Johnny Calkins, William Powell, Derek Scott

Father:  "Madam, I am the character of my home."

Father (William Powell) is a character! A successful businessman with a comfortable home, lovely wife, Vinnie (Irene Dunne), and four fine sons; all redheads. Clarence Jr. (Jimmy Lydon) is about to go off to college and trying to find his way out of his father's shadow. John (Martin Milner) goes his own way with money-making schemes. Whitney (Johnny Calkins) takes out the pressure of his upcoming catechism by teasing the baby of the family, Harlan (Derek Scott).

Father likes life to run smoothly and the way this happens is if everybody does what Father wants and expects. He is not oblivious to opposing views, he simply discounts them. In Day Jr.'s stories we learn that in matters of good health this meant camping in the summer under conditions the family considered less than civilized, but Father knew what was best. In matters of privacy, the Days were the last family of their acquaintance to have a telephone. They could afford one well enough, but Father wouldn't have one of the damn things in the house. However, no matter how well thought out Father's plans may be, something was bound to happen to upset the apple cart. The play revolves around one of these unimaginable moments in Father's life.

Vinnie's favourite cousin, Cora (Zasu Pitts) arrives in the City for a visit bringing a young family friend Mary Skinner (Elizabeth Taylor). Vinnie insists on putting them up for a few days. Mary is just about Clarence Jr.'s age and young romance is amusingly in the air. Father is hospitable, to a point, but people are always popping in unexpectedly. Or is it that Vinnie neglects to inform him of their imminent arrival?

As Mary and Clarence get to know each other it becomes of paramount importance to Mary to discover if the Days are Episcopalian or Methodist. Mr. Day informs her that they have always attended the Episcopal Church, but when pressed as to whether he was baptized Episcopal or Methodist, Father proudly proclaims that he has never been baptized. His own Father and Mother were free-thinkers. Mother's outrage at discovering Father's lack of baptismal status is only equaled Father's outrage at her demand that he goes through all the folderol of the ceremony. Father flat out refuses the indignity.

Father:  "Vinnie, if there's one place the Church should leave alone, it's a man's soul."

Life gets more and more complicated with and for Father including the search for a maid who will stay more than ten minutes, Mother's mysterious illness, Clarence's new suit, John's disastrous sales business, a rubber plant, and a porcelain pug dog. 

William Powell is marvelous as the bombastic, loving, confused, and bemused head of the family. Irene Dunne is sweetness personified if slightly air-headed. The bond between Clare and Vinnie is most charmingly expressed by a gentle scene with the pair reminiscing and singing. Most of Life With Father makes me smile and laugh, but the "Sweet Marie" scene makes my sentimental heart swell, and little tears escape the corners of my eyes.

The fondness that fills the stories in Life With Father and Life With Mother is evident in every whimsical and droll incident in the movie. Father's political rant and attempt to have "the talk" with Clarence are particularly funny and charming. Warning:  Do not listen to Vinnie's economic theories! They'll wreck your life; they ruined mine.

Vinnie:  "I didn't pay anything. I charged it."

TCM is screening this all-time comedy classic on Wednesday, July 29th at 2:30 pm on a day filled with eight William Powell movies to celebrate his 1892 birthdate.


  1. Sounds kinda Andy Hardy-ish.

    1. I never thought of that comparison, probably due to the time frame. I hope you catch the movie and see if you still retain that impression.

      William Powell's Oscar nominated comic performance is on a par with Oscar winner Ronald Colman's dramatic turn in "A Double Life". Well worth seeing if only for that.

  2. I love this film! Every DVD version seems to be a knock-off though, and not an "official" release. Public domain material has its downfalls. You've wetted my appetite now to read Life with Mother - never knew that even existed! Too bad Teresa Wright did not play in the screen version, although I'm certainly glad that Liz Taylor got the role.

    1. TCM has a pristine copy with the Technicolor as gorgeous as I remembered from when I first saw the movie when I was in my teens. No more will we have to waste time with those watery public domain tapes.

      The "Mary" role was perfect for 15-year-old Elizabeth, and Teresa was busy with a little film called "The Best Years of Our Lives" so I guess things turned out for the best.

    2. What a great review of one of my favorite movies. Powell and Dunne are great in this, and Powell certainly deserved an Oscar. One of my favorite scenes is when they sing "Sweet marie" and my favorite line is "They can't keep me out of heaven on a technicality! I think WB did a great job producing it.

    3. WB truly did do justice to such a popular hit play. It is gorgeous to look at and oh, so funny.

      One of my favourite parts is Day ranting at the newspaper unaware of how he is frightening the maid.

  3. Yes, LIfe with Mother was the follow on to Life with Father. C. Day's mother is a more formidable character is the book!

    1. She traveled and hosted, was influential in society. Quite the woman.

  4. Great choice, one of my favorites. So wry and funny. William Powell is a hoot. They all get to play ridiculous characters to varying degrees, and that must have been fun. The only curveball is Zasu Pitts playing a fairly severe and stereotyped spinster, when she's the one (despite turn at drama), who usually got the off-the-wall roles and played them brilliantly.

    1. Zasu Pitts - practically normal! When will Zasu get to be "Star of the Month"? Has she even had a day in "Summer Under the Stars"?

  5. Well, CW, I give up. I've tried to publish 2 comments, and neither of them came through. It's my own fault. I've hit the wrong buttons both times. Well, I LOVE this movie and I'm glad you picked it for July -- that's my birthday month!

    1. Happy Birthday!

      Technology is a wonderful thing - when it works! Day Sr. probably wouldn't allow a computer through the front door.



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