Based on the record-setting Broadway play by Howard Lindsay and Russell Crouse, the film focuses on Clarence Day, Sr. (William Powell), a wealthy stockbroker who lives with his wife, Lavinia (Irene Dunne), and four sons in 1890's Manhattan. Clarence, a cantankerous sort given to swearing, admits to Lavinia one evening that he was never baptized. She then initiates a series of tricks and ploys designed to lead him to baptism.
Any producer who buys the screen rights to a famous Broadway play knows he is handling a two-edged sword. On the one hand, the play is famous and well loved; it has a presold title. On the other hand, the authors and the producers of the play extract a heavy price from the movie producer for that fame, perhaps more than it is really worth. With numerous road companies crossing the continent and the original Broadway company holding on, the public may be weary of it or have unrealistic expectations that the film cannot meet. Considering all these things, the fact that LIFE WITH FATHER was Broadway's longest- running play, and the fact that Warner Bros. paid the highest price to date for the screen rights, the filming of LIFE WITH FATHER was an enormous gamble. It was a challenge that studio head Jack Warner, with his producer Robert Buckner and director Michael Curtiz, met cautiously, and in the end, successfully.
When the play LIFE WITH FATHER opened on Broadway in 1939, no one
predicted its enormous popularity. Written by Howard Lindsay and Russell
Crouse and based primarily on Clarence Day, Jr.'s, autobiographical
book, GOD AND MY FATHER, it told of Clarence Day, Sr., a wealthy stockbroker
who lived with his wife Lavinia and their four sons in a comfortable
townhouse on Upper Madison Avenue in the 1890's. The father swears
a lot and one evening admits that he has never been baptized. Lavinia
spends the rest of the play trying to persuade or trick him into a
baptism and finally succeeds. Other plot elements were gleaned from
Clarence Day, Jr.'s, other two books, LIFE WITH FATHER and LIFE WITH
Clarence Day, Jr., was literally on his deathbed while writing these
books, and, after their publication and moderate success, he almost
sold the movie rights to Paramount, but changed his mind when he learned
the studio intended them as vehicles for W. C. Fields. Day did not
live to see the production of the play, LIFE WITH FATHER. After major
actors and actresses had declined to play the leading roles, author
Howard Lindsay and his wife, actress Dorothy Stickney, undertook them.
The play finally opened, the critics raved, and it was an immediate
hit. The Lindsays continued as Mother and Father for the next five
A Chicago company headed by Lillian Gish and a National Company starring
her sister Dorothy Gish were soon sent out. Lillian Gish immediately
advised her friend, silent star Mary Pickford, that the role of Lavinia
would be perfect for Pickford's long-awaited movie comeback and urged
her to buy the screen rights immediately. Pickford procrastinated,
however, and soon all the major studios were trying to outbid one
another for the rights. William Powell felt that the role of Clarence
Day, Sr., could be the greatest of his entire career and urged his
studio, M-G-M, to buy the rights. Rumor around M-G-M, however, had
it that if the studio succeeded in buying LIFE WITH FATHER, the title
role would go to Spencer Tracy, whose box-office following was better
than Powell's. In the end, Warner Bros. outbid M-G-M, agreeing to
give the authors and the original investors a down payment of $500,
000, plus half of all profits. In addition, Lindsay and Crouse and
the widow of Clarence Day, Jr., were to be brought to Hollywood to
serve as technical advisers. No word of the play's text could be cut
or changed without their permission; indeed, they were to have veto
power over every aspect of the film.
The problems of casting began. Lindsay made a screen test, but disliked
the way his voice sounded on the film and withdrew himself from consideration.
Warner asked M-G-M to loan out Powell; the studio agreed and the
public and the press voiced hearty approval.
Casting Lavinia proved more difficult. As the top Warner Bros. Actress,
Bette Davis had first refusal on any important female role. She worked
hard on her makeup, hair, and characterization, but simply could not
convey the daintiness and innocence that conceal Lavinia's will of
iron. Pickford made several tests and all agreed that she would be
perfect in the role since Lavinia was a somewhat older variant on
Pickford's most popular silent screen roles. Warner wondered, however,
whether Pickford had any following after a thirteen-year absence
Director Curtiz was holding out for Irene Dunne, whose ANNA AND THE
KING OF SIAM (1946) had just been released to enormous success. Curtiz
called on Dunne repeatedly, but she kept reading the script and refusing
the role. She though Lavinia was silly, and she did not see how she
could make sympathetic a character who lied to and tricked her husband
and who burst into tears when she did not get her way. Curtiz used
all his powers of persuasion and finally, at the very last minute,
Dunne called Warner to accept the role. Had she waited a few minutes
longer, Pickford would have been signed.
Although Powell was playing the title role, Dunne was not about to
concede top billing, so her agents met with his and a compromise was
arranged: half the prints would bear her name first and the other
half would have his. They would flip a coin for the New York premiere,
with the loser getting first place for the Los Angeles premiere.
First-run theaters would be required to alternate prints, with advertising
alternating the same way.
The first chore was to dye all cast members' hair red. Genetics revealed
that two red-headed parents would probably have all red-headed children,
but each would be a different shade. Only Martin Milner, who was
portraying Whitney, was a natural red-head, so the rest of the cast
reported to the Westmore Beauty Parlour one Sunday morning to get
their proper tints: Powell deep auburn, Dunne strawberry blonde and
the children in various shades in between. When it came time to rinse
the dye off, the beauticians found that the water had been turned
off during street repairs. Panic set in as the operators struggled
to remove the dye before it turned the hair vermillion. Finally one
of them found a vat full of cold cream and applied it by the handful
to inactivate the dye.
Shooting started in August of 1946 amidst much fanfare. At great cost,
Warner Bros. tore down its largest exterior set, a Viennese street,
and replaced it with a replica of Madison Avenue in the 1890's. The
Day house was painted and furnished mostly in shades of green, mauve,
and blue which made a becoming setting for the red hair. Milo Anderson,
who designed the costumes, said that he was careful to use a green
and blue plaid for the dress that Dunne wore through much of the film,
and as Dunne was frequently required to run up and down flights of
stairs, he kept the bustles on her skirts as small as possible while
maintaining period accuracy.
On the stage, LIFE WITH FATHER takes place entirely in the Days' dining
and drawing rooms. In writing the screenplay, Donald Ogden Stewart
avoided changing the dialogue but, wherever possible, moved the action
to other parts of the house, the street, and the back garden. He wrote
brief scenes in the church, Delmonico's restaurant, and McCreeries'
Department Store, playing out action which had only been referred
to in the play. Lindsay and Crouse were on the set most of the time
and occasionally reworded sentences to please Curtiz. They did not
exercise their veto power unreasonably, nor did Mrs. Clarence Day.
She approved of Dunne's characterization and even lent Dunne several
pieces of jewelry that the real Lavinia Day had owned.
Curtiz had the reputation of working very fast, but the awesome reputation
of LIFE WITH FATHER plus Warner's stated belief that the film would
be "another GONE WITH THE WIND" slowed him down. Powell and Dunne'
s reputations as comedians in the 1930's had come from quickly made
comedies using much improvisation. Here the importance of LIFE WITH
FATHER with its every almost holy word well known to the American
public did not permit them to do anything off the cuff.
A simple story in few sets with a small cast which could have been
filmed easily in six weeks was scheduled for twelve, then ran over
into sixteen. Much of the delay was due to Powell's inexplicable absences
from the set. The company would return after lunch, wait a few hours,
then be told to go home. Although Powell never complained, he often
seemed to be in great pain. It was not until many years later that
he would reveal his history of cancer surgery during this period.
Once the film was cut and scored, the world premiere was delayed until
August 15, 1947, the eighth anniversary of the Broadway premiere of
the play. The reviews were good without being raves; most critics
agreed that Clarence Day was a once-in-a-lifetime role for Powell,
and although his frequent explosions of "damn" had to be toned down
by movie censorhip, the enormous energy Powell put into his substitute
"Egads" compensated for the loss. Dunne, Elizabeth Taylor, Jimmy Lydon,
and Edmund Gwenn, among others, all received favorable mention but
not enthusiastic praise. Edwin Schallert of the LOS ANGELES TIMES
was franker than most when he commented that LIFE WITH FATHER had
a "... lack of spontaneity. ..."
LIFE WITH FATHER, famous as it was, could not be another GONE WITH
THE WIND (1939). It was a simple little story, best told quickly and
with affection. The massive production values dwarfed it. Nominated
four times, it did not win any Oscars but it did respectably at the
box office, placing well on VARIETY's all-time highest-grossing film
list. Warner Bros. made back their sizable outlay and a very good
profit. LIFE WITH FATHER was given a major reissue in 1948 on the
first anniversary of the initial release, but after that it faded
away. When Warner Bros. films were first sold to television, LIFE
WITH FATHER could not be included in the package because the studio
had agreed not to distribute the film to any media after 1954. The
film would remain in limbo for sixteen years, until a new agreement
between Warner Bros. and the authors and producer made possible a
network television sale. The story of LIFE WITH FATHER continued to
be popular in a television series of the same name during the 1950'
s starring M-G-M character actor Leon Ames as Clarence Day, Sr.
Release Date: 1947
Robert Buckner for Warner Bros.
Director: Michael Curtiz
Cinematographer: Peverell Marley and William V. Skall
File Editor: George Amy
Costume design - Milo Anderson
Run Time: 128 minutes
Clarence Day, Sr. - William Powell
Lavinia Day - Irene Dunne
Mary Skinner - Elizabeth Taylor
Cousin Cora - Zasu Pitts
Clarence Day, Jr. - Jimmy Lindon
Reverend Dr. Lloyd - Edmund Gwenn
John Day - Martin Milner
Margaret - Emma Dunn
Dr. Humphries - Moroni Olsen
Mrs. Whitehead - Elisabeth Risdon
Harlan - Derek Scott
Whitney - Johnny Calkins
Annie - Heather Wilde
Policeman - Monte Blue
Maggie - Queenie Leonard
Girl In Delmonico's - Arlene Dahl
New York Times: August 16, 1947, p. 6
Newsweek: August 18, 1947, p. 76
Time: August 25, 1947, p. 88
Variety: August 20, 1947, p. 16
Named persons in Production Credits:
Studios named in Production Credits:
Donald Ogden Stewart
Clarence Day Jr.
Academy Awards - Nomination - Best Actor - William Powell
Academy Awards - Nomination - Cinematography (Color) - Peverell Marley, William V. Skall
Golden Globe Award - Winner - Best Score - Max Steiner
New York Film Critics - Winner - Best Actor - William Powell
The story became the basis for a popular 1950's television series with Leon Ames.
Magill's Survey of Cinema, 06-15-1995.