Thursday, August 22, 2013

Life With Father

A search of the blog suggests that I have never done a full-length post on Life With Father before. It's airing tomorrow morning at 11:00 AM on TCM, so now is a good time to write that post.

The "Father" in the title is Clarence Day, Sr., played by William Powell. He's a banker in Manhattan in the 1880s living in one of those fine brownstones of the day with his wife Vinnie (Irene Dunne) and their four children. Eldest of these is Clarence, Jr., played by Jimmy Lydon. In real life, Clarence Jr. would grow up to write the book Life With Father and two others about his experiences growing up; those books were turned into a very popular Broadway play and then into this movie. Father rules the house with an iron fist. Or, at least he thinks he runs the house with an iron fist; in fact, Vinnie knows more about what's going on and continually maneuvers things skillfully to get her way, while having her husband think he's getting his way. However they're doing it, their marriage seems to be working. Or, if it wasn't working, Clarence Jr. wasn't about to let on that it was a failing marriage.

That's the basic synopsis of the household, but there are a couple of subplots running throughout the movie. One of these involves Mary (Elizabeth Taylor), who comes to the house for a visit. She's the travelling companion of Vinnie's cousin Cora (Zasu Pitts) She and Clarence Jr. are just getting to that age where they start thinking about sex, or whatever their late Victorian minds conceived of sex and romance as being. So they play songs on the piano and sing to each other and do other innocent first love things.

However, when the topic switches to religion, it turns out that Clarence Jr. and Mary belong to different Protestant denominations. Worse, the conversation reveals that Clarence Sr. has never been baptized at all! So another story in the movie involves Vinnie and her minister, Rev. Lloyd (Edmund Gwenn) trying to get Clarence Sr. to agree to be baptized. It's another of those things that seems quaint in 2013, but 125 years ago, it would have been a big deal.

Third is the desire of Clarence Jr. and younger brother John (Martin Milner; yes that Martin Milner), who are trying to make a litle money: Clarence to buy a suit and John to buy supplies for his junior science experiments. They sell patent medicine, which of course is a quack, but at least they could only go house to house instead of sending out millions of emails claiming to be able to enlarge certain body parts. Not that putting the subplot that way would have made it past the Production Code, of course. Anyhow, the patent medicine makes Vinnie ill, tying together this subplot with the baptism subplot.

Life With Father is one of those movies that's great for the whole family, at least if the family is OK watching old movies. If you want action, you're not going to get it from this one. William Powell and Irene Dunne are both excellent in their late Victorian parent roles, with the various subplots being charming in their old-fashionedness The movie also feels much more natural than the aritificial musical numbers of another period piece like Meet Me In St. Louis. The bad news is that every time I've seen it on TV, it's a print that's sorely in need of restoration. The color was terrible and the focus not crisp enough. I don't know if there's a better print that TCM will be airing, or what prints have made it to any of the DVD releases. (Well, the older DVD releases would all have bad prints; I don't know about the DVD available from the TCM shop.)

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