Tuesday 4 June 2013

Movie Review: Life With Father (1947)

A comedy about turbulent family dynamics, Life With Father pokes fun at life within New York's upper crust, and explores the balance of power between men and women.

Clarence Day (William Powell) is a well-respected New York stockbroker, as crusty and set in his ways as he is rich. Married to the resourceful Vinnie (Irene Dunne), they have four red-headed children: Clarence Jr. (Jimmy Lydon), John, Harlan, and Whitney. While Clarence thinks that he runs his household with strict discipline and a tight hold over the family finances, the reality is that Vinnie and the kids successfully navigate around him to do almost as they please.

Clarence hates to have house guests, but that does not stop Vinnie from welcoming cousin Cora (ZaSu Pitts) and blossoming teenager Mary (Elizabeth Taylor) for a visit over a few days. Clarence Jr. is immediately infatuated with Mary, but gets no useful advice from his father on how to nurture the romance. Life in the Day household gets a lot more complicated when it is revealed that Clarence was never baptized. This horrifies Vinnie, but she struggles to get her stiff husband to acknowledge her feelings.

Based on the play by Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse, Life With Father is a sharply written comedy, delivered by a glimmering cast in top form. William Powell and Irene Dunne demonstrate terrific chemistry as a long-married couple who have learned to keep their household thriving for the benefit of their growing children. While the film generally focuses on ultimately frivolous issues besetting a rich family with no real worries, it is nevertheless a pleasing and playful examination of homefront politics.

Powell is quite funny as Clarence Day, nailing the stuffy mannerisms of a man believing that he is the master of his domain. Powell keeps his nose in the air, his tone haughty with finality, and his attitude imperious. Unfortunately for Clarence, the main theme of Life With Father is his utter lack of actual influence. Vinnie and her children have mastered the art of circumventing him, and Vinnie controls the real levers of power. Irene Dunne has all the subtle tricks of household command and control, including controlling on a strict need-to-know basis the flow of information to Clarence, turning on the faucet of tears when convenient, and befuddling Clarence with financial castles in the air to liberate money from his pocket.

Elizabeth Taylor, at just 15 years old, already bedazzles the screen whenever she is on it, with a combination of coquettish girlishness and irresistible charm. Clarence Jr., who initially claims no interest in girls, falls under Mary's spell the minute she walks through the door. Their relationship shows all the signs of evolving into another asymmetrical arrangement where one partner is love-blinded into miscomprehending where the domination lies.

For a two hour comedy that takes place mostly inside one house, director Michael Curtiz is light on his feet, briskly moving the action through the many rooms in the Day mansion, and maintaining a steady stream of playfulness in the antics of the various family members. A running joke about the household maids ties the film together, while there are excellent comic punctuation marks dispersed throughout, including Clarence's intolerance for house guests, a condition ignored with a smile by Vinnie.

A late appearance by an ugly dog statuette, immediately despised by Clarence, is ingeniously deployed by Vinnie to resolve several lingering bones of contention. Life With Father is all about getting the best out of the family patriarch, despite his best intentions to stand in the way of his own happiness.

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