Thursday, April 21, 2011
Life with Father - 1947
Oh, GAD! It is with only a little tongue in cheek that I wish those who celebrate Easter a pleasant holiday by discussing a movie about a man who refuses to get baptized.
The film is based on the famous stage play that, at the time, had been the longest running show on Broadway. On my New England Travels blog this week, we have a look at the Lakewood Theater in Skowhegan, Maine, where this premiered in 1939. A young Teresa Wright, before she came to Hollywood, played the role taken by Elizabeth Taylor in the film.
Like “Mama” and “Cheaper by the Dozen”, “Life with Father” began as a book. In each case, the authors wrote humorous and heartwarming reminisces about their parents. Opposite of the angst-filled, vitriolic, tell-all books popular today, it’s interesting to think that Mama, and Frank Gilbreth, and Clarence Day could be manufactured by their children into characters in American literature.
Perhaps they are not so well known characters these days, but there was a time when at least a couple of generations of readers claimed familiarity with them. Have a look at this post where we discussed popular novels turned into films.
William Powell plays Mr. Day in a performance that deservedly earned him an Oscar nomination. His tolerant wife is played by Irene Dunne. These two, at the sunset of their film careers, are charming in their roles. She would earn her own Oscar nomination the following year for “I Remember Mama”.
“I Want You” (1951). Johnny Calkins is next in line, and little Derek Scott plays the youngest. All the boys, like their father, are redheads. Martin Milner reportedly mused that of all the cast, he was the only natural redhead of the bunch.
“Bargain of the Century” (1933). It is almost something of a shock to see her act like a regular person, and not that lovable but almost tragically obtuse comic character she created so many years before in Mack Sennett shorts. There’s something vaguely disappointing about Zasu Pitts being normal. I miss the Olive Oyl warble in her voice, and those hysterical expressions that despite their goofiness seemed to indicate a superior knowledge of the human condition.
“It was my fault,” Mr. Lydon gallantly states, but Elizabeth, like a 19th Century Juliet unable to socially bond with her Victorian Romeo:
“No, you’re the Episcopalian.” She then remembers that her father had been baptized in the Episcopal church, but joined the Methodist church when he married her mother.
The question of religious affiliation drives a good part of the film, beginning with third son Johnny Calkins constantly seeking help to practice his catechism for his upcoming Confirmation. Still troubled by the “mixed marriage” of her parents, Elizabeth Taylor asks William Powell if he had been baptized Episcopalian, and Mr. Powell jovially confesses he was never baptized at all.
Though she has taken great pains to accommodate the master of the house in all things from scaring away nervous Irish servants, to banishing her new rubber plant, to maintaining accurate household accounts (mostly), she is unrelenting about the horror of his not being baptized and insists he get the ceremony done immediately.
“They can’t keep me out of heaven on a technicality!”
Of course, among Christians, the idea of being a Christian in one’s own way is nothing new. If this were not the case, there would never have been any Methodists or Episcopalians, Lutherans, Quakers, or Baptists, etc. Re-defining, honing perhaps, the essentials of religious practices seems to be part and parcel of what it is to be a Christian.
“I don’t go to church to be preached at as if I’m some lost sheep!” Powell blusters.
She gets well. It’s time for Powell to pay up, but he still refuses, and it takes a bit more cajoling to get him to the font. It’s another humorous touch that one of the motivating factors that makes him decide to proceed with getting baptized is that the cab Irene Dunne has hired for that purpose is costing him $2 an hour just waiting outside.
Michael Curtiz directs this film with his customary economy, but moments like these make one think of Vincente Minnelli.
The boys try to raise money, and Jimmy Lydon offers his “piece of John Wilkes Booth’s finger” to Martin Milner.
When Irene Dunne laments the newspaper article about a wreck on the old New Haven railroad line because it would disturb Wall Street and therefore her husband: “I do wish the New Haven would stop having wrecks. If only they knew how it upset your father.”
The horse-drawn streetcar, the quiet country lane that once was Madison Avenue in New York City, and the stereopticon pictures. It’s a feast for the eyes.
here’s a link where you can watch the whole thing, interrupted by a few commercials. It’s not the best way to see this delightful movie, but even Clarence Day couldn’t argue about the price.