Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Real Problems are Too Scary

Films: Life with Father
Format: Turner Classic Movies on rockin’ flatscreen.

Comedies don’t always transfer well from age to age. Life with Father is a dandy example of this. I imagine that in the world of 1947, with the war over and prosperity just starting to return, a comedy about life in the late 19th century would have sold quite well. Life with Father is just that film, the sort of comedy where our titular father simply can’t fathom the life that goes on around him. While he’s a captain of industry in his office, he is constantly befuddled and confounded by everything around him at home, mainly because no one acts with any sense. It’s a tried and true formula, and because of that, it hits a lot of obvious notes.

What this means, though, is that Life with Father is just a series of events with only the characters to tie them together. There are a few running points that carry through a great deal of the film, but no real plot to speak of. In essence, the entire film is about how the father of the title, Clarence Day (William Powell) can’t make sense of his wife Vinnie (Irene Day) or the goings-on of his four sons, Clarence Jr. (Jimmy Lydon), John (Martin Milner), Whitney (Johnny Calkins), and Harlan (Derek Scott).

Of course, as should be expected in something like this, many of the problems come from Clarence himself. A case in point is his dealing with the constant parade of maids, who seem to last about a day. This happens because he tends to scare them off without meaning to, often by having conversations with people who aren’t there—not in an insane way, but more as a way of voicing his own thoughts. Naturally, he blames the stream of maids leaving his employ on his long-suffering wife.

The main character trait of Clarence Day is that he hates change and wants everything to be run according to the way that he sees things. So, when Vinnie’s cousin Cora (Zasu Pitts) arrives with young Mary (Elizabeth Taylor, who was just 15) in tow to stay for a week, he is completely put out. Clarence Jr. is not, though, since he immediately falls for the charms of young Mary. The two attempt a duet on piano and violin, but discover that while she is a Methodist, he is an Episcopalian, which would constitute a mixed marriage in the late 1800s. Mary realizes, however, that one of her parents was actually baptized an Episcopalian. That night at dinner, hopeful that this interfaith romance can continue, Mary asks Clarence Sr. about his baptism, when he reveals that he never was baptized.

This, believe it or not, will be the main story point for the rest of the film. Vinnie is convinced that without baptism, her husband will be forever spiritually lost and he doesn’t much see the point of going through the procedure. That’s really what constitutes the story.

Oh, there are other story points as well. Clarence Jr. wants a new suit and convinces his father to give him one of his old ones, which he has tailored to fit him. However, once he wears that suit, he feels that he can’t do anything his father would do, like kneel in church. When Mary sits on his lap, he stands up, causing a rift in the budding romance, since his father would never allow something like that to happen. John desperately wants to make money and gets sucked into a scheme selling patent medicines, one bottle of which makes his mother very ill.

Through all of this, Clarence makes a number of promises to be baptized, promises that he immediately rescinds once the crisis is over. He also continually deals with Vinnie’s inability (which might well be faked) to understand even the basics of finances. And eventually the movie ends.

I like William Powell, so on that front, the film wins. In fact, I like a great deal of the cast. Edmund Gwenn plays the family’s minister and he’s generally worth watching in anything. I also tend to like Zasu Pitts and I’m always happy to see her in comic roles. Even a few scenes with her in them are worth seeing. It’s also fun to see Martin Milner this young and before his career in Adam-12.

That said, Life with Father is difficult for me to recommend because it’s kind of a cinematic nothing. It feels like a several-week slice of life out of this family, and while there are certainly comic situations, not much of it is really that funny. It meanders along its way, going nowhere, and then it simply ends abruptly, not all of its scant plot threads resolved. I’m not saying it should have been longer. I am saying it should have been more interesting.

Why to watch Life with Father: A young Martin Milner, and William Powell is always fun.
Why not to watch: There’s no plot here to speak of.


  1. I've seen this, but it's been a while and the only thing I remember is 15-year-old Elizabeth Taylor.

    I'd totally forgotten ZaSu Pitts was in it. I've seen her rather unexpectedly a couple of times lately. She was in Bad Sister (Bette Davis's first movies) and It All Came True, one of Bogart's gangster roles, though you'd hardly call it a gangster movie.

    1. I kind of love Zasu Pitts a little for fun comic roles. The word on her is that because she was a scene stealer, no one ever wound up on more cutting room floors.

  2. Have you seen "National Velvet" with a younger Taylor and Mickey Rooney? If you haven't, it's a great film that's provided inspiration for countless young girls, and it features Angela Lansbury to boot. Just watch it before you read the two stars' biographies because watching them acting in the same scenes will never be the same again.

    1. Not yet. It's on the list though, so probably in the next 18 months or so.

      I do like young Angela Lansbury. If you haven't seen Gaslight, it's pretty good and it's Lansbury's first role, where she plays as a pretty saucy young maid.

  3. It's been a while since I've seen this but I do recall it being more of a series of almost cut-out scenes rather than a really cohesive narrative. That's very much how the book on which this was based on was, a reverie by Clarence Jr. about that irrepressible chuckle worthy dad of his.

    That's fine in a book and seems perfect for the stage and the play version of this still holds the record for the longest running non-musical on Broadway, over seven years, but on film it feels disjointed.

    William Powell holds the film together even if Clare Day gets to be a wearing blowhard after a while. I'm not a huge Irene Dunne fan but she does well as the put upon Vinnie, it is too bad though that the producers got cold feet and didn't follow their original plan to cast Mary Pickford in this as a comeback. Good or bad it would have been fascinating to see her back on screen after 20 years.

    I too am an admirer of ZaSu Pitts, such a distinctive performer capable of swooping in stealing a scene from even the most seasoned actor. She's an example of how much of an impact the sound era had on performers careers. In silents she was more often than not cast in dramas and tragedies with her large expressive eyes conveying enormous depth of emotion reaching her apex in Greed where von Stroheim called her the greatest dramatic actress of her age. Based on that she was cast as Lew Ayres mother in All Quiet on the Western Front but by then she had made a series of comedy shorts with Thelma Todd highlighting her squawky voice and the audience at previews laughed through her big scenes. They were reportedly quite beautifully acted but the studio cut them out and replaced her with Beryl Mercer.

    Elizabeth Taylor is in her transitional phase in this and while she's the reason the film gets the steady play it does nowadays she didn't make much of an impact on me.

    1. I agree on Taylor. It's interesting to see her at this age, but she's kind of a non-entity in the film. Of course, almost everyone in the film is kind of a non-entity, so that's not disparaging on her.

      "Disjointed" is a decent word for it, although it does kind of stick on a couple of plot points throughout. It's almost closer to a very long episode of a sitcom. There's just not really enough here to hold my interest for that long, and that's a problem. Make this three or four episodes of a sitcom, with each plot point its own show, and it would almost work.

  4. I seem to have liked this one probably a bit more than you did. I enjoyed the theme of Vinnie expertly circumventing Clarence to run the household, while manipulating him into believing that he is actually calling the shots. It's a good treatment of a common issue: men who are big shots at the office, but sidelined into irrelevance in their own home.

    1. I see that, but I have trouble sympathizing with it too much. Someone who is irrelevant in his own home has only himself to blame, and I don't see a great deal of comedy in the idea that someone would be that detached from his own kids.