Sunday, August 22, 2004

Life With Father

* * * (out of four)
Seen 20 August 2004 in Jay's Living Room (WGBH)

There's a lot to like about Life With Father, especially when William Powell is on-screen. The movie was made toward the tail end of Powell's career, although it's difficult to tell - the man looked the same in his mid-fifties here as when he was making silent movies in the twenties. Here, he hits the right balance between playing for the balconies and naturalism, aided by source material that gives him an bombastic character to play.

It's amusing to see a previous period's nostalgia. Made in 1947, the film is set sometime during the 1880s, in a New York City where William Powell's character, Clarence Day Sr., works as a "businessman" and even the maids look prosperous. Father complains about how his family spends money, but it's a matter of principle, and he is on record as being in favor of "living well". He's opinionated, prone to talking to himself (yelling, actually), and must have everything just so. He goes through maids on a practically daily basis, and insists that his household be run on business principles.

His wife Vinnie (Irene Dunn), of course, smiles agreeably and then undermines... er, balances him. They have four boys, the youngest about four and the oldest, Clarence Jr. (Jimmy Lydon) scheduled to start at Yale in the fall. However, his happy home is about to be invaded by Vinnie's cousin Cora, who has a young neighbor, Mary (a amusingly gloopy Elizabeth Taylor) in tow. Clarence Jr. and Mary soon start making eyes at each other, leading to such innuendo-laced lines as this conversation in the music room:

MARY: Do you ever play... duets?

CLARENCE: I haven't up til now.

MARY: Neither have I... up til now!
You need to actually see it to get the full effect of Taylor's breathy delivery and how both teenagers appear to have never heard of sex.

The plot is thin. Six years later, the same source material (a memoir and a play) would be the basis for one of the first color sitcoms, and that feels like a natural fit. It wouldn't be hard to split the events of the movie into a few half-hour episodes - two sons sell patent medicine, Clarence Jr. finds himself acting like Clarence Sr. when he starts wearing a handed-down suit, and Vinnie is appalled to learn that Clarence Sr. has never been baptized.

A modern viewer will no doubt find it quaint, how close to the forefront religious issues are for these people. One of the children is not allowed to play baseball until he practices his catechism, that Father has never been baptized is a source of worry for the rest of the family, and it's a slightly lesser concern that the family is Episcopalian while Mary is a Methodist. Father's pragmatic religious beliefs, which would probably be considered pretty much mainstream now, are treated as being scandalous.

That quaintness becomes something of a liability, though, as the last act of the movie is swallowed by it. Seeing Father humbled by the sort of thing where he'd be unquestionably in the right today eventually becomes annoying. The movie works best when Powell's character is being a little bit unreasonable and Dunne's tempers that, as opposed to her being unreasonable and him eventually folding.

Overall, Life With Father is pleasant fluff. If the movie eventually disconnects from those of in the 21st Century, it's still got William Powell doing his thing, and he's a consummate pro.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The religious issues may seem quaint by today's standards but in 1947, my mother and father were considered a "mixed marriage" between a Catholic (Mom)and a Methodist (Dad). In 1947, they could not qualify for a (Catholic) church wedding. My Dad had to promise that the children would be raised as Catholics, a vow he fulfilled. These quaint religious issues remain today in some form though admittedly the mores of 1947 seem "quaint". My only point is that when "Life with Father" was made, the USA was not the USA of 2000 or 2009 when many of these "quaint" customs and mores governed common people's lives.