Life with Father (Michael Curtiz, 1947) "Oh, GAD!" Another one of those movies I've always had the opportunity to see but never did. A perennial for local television stations to have in their "libraries" for weekend programming (this was back in the day when local stations didn't fill their schedules with info-mercials), I had plenty of chances to catch this one on the tube, (and I would for fifteen minutes—tops—then move on) but I never did. My bad. This one needs to be taken in in one sitting, (preferably in a theater because the Technicolor is breath-takingly sharp), telephone off, and at full attention.
"I am the character of my household!" booms Clarence Shephard Day, as he's choosing the latest in a long line of maids, which he has chased out of his employ int he last few months, many of them in tears and some in hysterics. Truer words were never spoken. He is the titular patriarch of Life with Father, from the hit Broadway play,* based on the remembrances of Clarence Day, Jr. of turn-of-the-century living with a father-figure who paces slowly in his own grooved path. William Powell plays the role, one he actively petitioned for.
It's a charming film, full of easy irony about the mores and prejudices of the time, where male pomposity poses as dignity, and more separates people than unites them—easy excuses for keeping things nice and orderly on the surface, while underneath, they are broiling with chaos that is easily ignored and denied. Clarence Gray, Sr. denies at the top of his lungs, and his monologues—against politics, taxes, unnecessary expenses, and organized religion (organized against him, it seems)—built individually in intensity and volume, are performances for an audience of one—himself. His barely suffering wife (played by Irene Dunne as if she were singing the entire role) has more influence over him than he is willing to admit, or recognize...or even remember. And his kid's are "mini-me's" of him, all boys, all carrot-tops, and as they age they morph further into miniature versions of The Old Man, down to his expletives and bluster.
Michael Curtiz directs formally and breezily, with his actors performing at top gear, and the director altering pace in editing and filling the frame with as much set decoration as it can hold.
The material doesn't need much else. It's strongly forced, comically subtle and has an undercurrent of mature content, that you just don't see in movies nowadays. Life with Father is from a far subtler era in which sub-texts flew over kid's heads, while the adults exchanged knowing glances and suppressed chuckles (that way you don't have to explain it to the youngsters with a simple "you'll understand some day").
And the sub-text is sex. Clarence, Jr. is growing up, voice changed (but his violin playing still has noticeable cracks) and he's noticing girls—and when it's Elizabeth Taylor as a visiting friend's daughter, one can't help noticing. At the time of the film, it was still early in Taylor's career and her performance is breathy, needy and comes from the same type of ingenue training that produced Marilyn Monroe's early performances. Clarence wants to impress Taylor's Mary, but he can't do so in Dad's ill-fitting hand-me-down suits. The excuse is they're practical, but, as he says, "I can't do anything in Dad's clothes." But, the truth is he gets...uncomfortable...in Taylor's presence. It's not bluntly said, it's danced around, implied, suggested, but never spelled out (as would be the norm today). It's hilarious, charming, and pays off in some ironically comic laugh-lines throughout the film.
Yeah, they "don't make 'em like this anymore." More's the pity. Life with Father deserves its classic status—for some reason, it's not in the National Film Registry—because it's smart, pointed...and hilarious.
* It still holds the record for the longest run of a non-musical stage-play.