“LIFE WITH FATHER” (1947) Review

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“LIFE WITH FATHER” (1947) Review

Warner Brothers is the last studio I would associate with a heartwarming family comedy set in the 19th century. At least the Warner Brothers of the 1940s. And yet, the studio did exactly that when it adapted Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse’s 1939 play, “Life With Father”, which happened to be an adaptation of Clarence Day’s 1935 novel.

If I must be frank, I am a little confused on how to describe the plot for “LIFE WITH FATHER”. But I will give it my best shot. The movie is basically a cinematic account in the life of one Clarence Day, a stockbroker in 1880s Manhattan, who wants to be master of his house and run his household, just as he runs his Wall Street office. However, standing in his way is his wife, Vinnie, and their four sons, who are more inclined to be more obedient of their mother than their father. You see, Vinnie is the real head of the Day household. And along with their children, she continues to demand that Mr. Day overcome his stubbornness and make changes in his life.

Thanks to Donald Odgen Stewart’s screenplay, “LIFE WITH FATHER” focused on Mr. Day’s attempt to find a new maid; a romance between his oldest son Clarence Junior and pretty out-of-towner named Mary Skinner, who is the ward of his cousin-in-law Cora Cartwright; a plan by Clarence Jr. and second son John to make easy money selling patent medicines; Mrs. Day’s health scare; Mr. Day’s general contempt toward the trappings of organized religion; and Mrs. Day’s agenda to get him baptized. Some of these story lines seem somewhat disconnected. But after watching the movie, I noticed that the story lines regarding Clarence Junior and John’s patent medicine scheme were connected to Clarence Junior’s romance with Mary and Mrs. Day’s health scare. Which played a major role in Mrs. Day’s attempt to get her husband baptized. Even the baptism story line originated from Cousin Cora and Mary’s visit.

Many would be surprised to learn that Michael Curtiz was the director of “LIFE WITH FATHER”. Curtiz was not usually associated with light comedies like “LIFE WITH FATHER”. Instead, he has been known for some of Errol Flynn’s best swashbucklers, noir melodramas like “MILDRED PIERCE”, the occasional crime drama and melodramas like the Oscar winning film, “CASABLANCA”. However, Curtiz had also directed musicals, “YANKEE DOODLE DANDY” and “FOUR DAUGHTERS”; so perhaps “LIFE WITH FATHER” was not a stretch for him, after all. I certainly had no problem with this direction for this film. I found it well paced and sharp. And for a movie that heavily relied upon interior shots – especially inside the Days’ home, I find it miraculous that the movie lacked the feel of a filmed play. It also helped that “LIFE WITH FATHER” featured some top notch performers.

William Powell earned his third and last Academy Award nomination for his portrayal as Clarence Day Senior, the family’s stubborn and temperamental patriarch. Although the Nick Charles character will always be my personal favorite, I believe that Clarence Day is Powell’s best. He really did an excellent job in immersing himself in the role . . . to the point that there were times that I forgot he was an actor. Powell also clicked very well with Irene Dunne, who portrayed the family’s charming, yet manipulative matriarch, Vinnie Day. It is a testament to Dunne’s skill as an actress that she managed to convey to the audience that despite Clarence Senior’s bombastic manner, she was the real head of the Day household. Unlike Powell, Dunne did not receive an Academy Award nomination. Frankly, I think this is a shame, because she was just as good as her co-star . . . as far as I am concerned.

“LIFE WITH FATHER” also featured excellent performances from the supporting cast. Jimmy Lydon did a wonderful job portraying the Days’ oldest offspring, Clarence Junior. Although Lydon was excellent portraying a character similar in personality to Vinnie Day, I found him especially funny when his Clarence Junior unintentionally project Mr. Day’s personality quirks when his romance with Mary Skinner threatened to go off the rails. Speaking of Mary Skinner, Elizabeth Taylor gave a very funny and superb performance as the young lady who shakes up the Day household with a burgeoning romance with Clarence Junior and an innocent remark that leads Mrs. Day to learn that her husband was not baptized. Edmund Gwenn gave a skillful and subtle performance as Mrs. Day’s minister, who is constantly irritated by Mr. Day’s hostile stance against organized religion. The movie also featured excellent performances from Martin Milner, ZaSu Pitts, Emma Dunn, Derek Scott and Heather Wilde.

Another aspect of “LIFE WITH FATHER” that I found admirable was its production values. When it comes to period films, many of the Old Hollywood films tend to be on shaky ground, sometimes. For the likes of me, I tried to find something wrong with the production for “LIFE WITH FATHER”, but I could not. J. Peverell Marley and William V. Skall’s photography, along with Robert M. Haas’ art direction, and George James Hopkins’ set decorations all combined to the household of an upper middle-class family in 1885 Manhattan. But the one aspect of the film’s production that really impressed me was Marjorie Best’s costume designs. Quite frankly, I thought they were beautiful. Not only did they seem indicative of the movie’s setting and the characters’ class, they . . . well, I thought they were beautiful. Especially the costumes that Irene Dunne wore.

As much as I had enjoyed “LIFE WITH FATHER”, I could not help but notice that it seemed to possess one major flaw. Either this movie lacked a main narrative, or it possessed a very weak one. What is this movie about? Is it about Clarence Junior’s efforts to get a new suit to impress Mary Skinner? Is it about Mrs. Day’s health scare? Or is it about her efforts to get Mr. Day baptized? I suspect that the main plot is the latter . . . and if so, I feel that is pretty weak. If this was the main plot in the 1939 Broadway play, then screenwriter Donald Odgen Stewart should have changed the main narrative. But my gut feeling tells me that he was instructed to be as faithful to the stage play as possible. Too bad.

I see now that the only way to really enjoy “LIFE WITH FATHER” is to regard it as a character study. Between the strong characterizations, and superb performances from a cast led by Oscar nominee William Powell and Irene Dunne, this is easy for me to do. It also helped that despite the weak narrative, the movie could boast some excellent production values and first-rate direction from Michael Curtiz. You know what? Regardless of the weak narrative, “LIFE WITH FATHER” is a movie I could watch over and over again. I enjoyed it that much.

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Favorite Films Set in the 1830s

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Below is a list of my favorite movies (so far) that are set in the 1830s:

 

FAVORITE FILMS SET IN THE 1830s

1. “The Adventures of Huck Finn” (1993) – Elijah Wood and Courtney B. Vance starred in this excellent Disney adaptaion of Mark Twain’s 1885 novel about a young Missouri boy who joines a runaway slave on a journey along the Mississippi River toward the free states in antebellum America. Stephen Sommers directed.

 

1- The Count of Monte Cristo 2002

2. “The Count of Monte Cristo” (2002) – James Caviezel starred as the vengeful Edmond Dantès in Disney’s 2002 adaptation of Alexandre Dumas, père’s 1844 novel. Directed by Kevin Reynolds, the movie co-starred Guy Pearce and Dagmara Dominczyk.

 

2 - Pride and Prejudice 1940

3. “Pride and Prejudice” (1940) – Greer Garson and Laurence Olivier starred in this entertaining adaptation of Jane Austen’s 1813 novel. Robert Z. Leonard directed.

 

3 - The Count of Monte Cristo 1975

4. “The Count of Monte Cristo” (1975) – Richard Chamberlain gave an intense performance in the 1975 television adaptation of Dumas’ novel. Tony Curtis and Kate Nelligan co-starred.

 

4 - Impromptu

5. “Impromptu” (1991) – Judy Davis and Hugh Grant starred in this comedic tale about author George Sand’s pursuit of composer Frédéric Chopin in 1830s France. James Lapine directed.

 

5 - Amistad

6. “Armistad” (1997) – Steven Spielberg directed this account of the 1839 mutiny aboard the slave ship La Amistad and the trials of the Mendes tribesmen/mutineers, led by Sengbe Pieh. The movie starred Djimon Hounsou, Matthew McConnaughey, Morgan Freeman and Anthony Hopkins.

 

6 - Wide Sargasso Sea 2006

7. “Wide Sargasso Sea” (2006) – Rebecca Hall and Rafe Spall starred in this 2006 television adaptation of Jean Rhys’s 1966 novel, which is a prequel to Charlotte Brontë’s 1847 novel, “Jane Eyre”. It focused upon the early marriage of Antoinette Cosway (Bertha Mason) and Edward Rochester.

 

7 - My Cousin Rachel

8. “My Cousin Rachel” (1952) – Olivia de Havilland and Richard Burton starred in this adaptation of Daphne Du Maurier’s 1951 novel about a young Englishman’s obsession with his late cousin’s widow. Henry Koster directed.

 

8 - The Alamo 2004

9. “The Alamo” (2004) – John Lee Hancock directed this account of the Battle of the Alamo, the only production about the Texas Revolution that I actually managed to enjoy. The movie starred Billy Bob Thornton, Patrick Wilson and Jason Patric.

 

9 - The Big Sky

10. “The Big Sky” (1952) – Howard Hawks directed this adaptation of A.B. Guthrie’s 1947 novel about a fur trader’s expedition up the Missouri River. Kirk Douglas and Dewey Martin starred.

“PRIDE AND PREJUDICE” (1940) Review

 

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“PRIDE AND PREJUDICE” (1940) Review

There have been at least eight adaptations of “Pride and Prejudice”, Jane Austen’s 1813 novel. But as far as I know, only four are well known or constantly mentioned by many of the novelist’s present-day fans. And one of the four happens to be the movie adapted in 1940 by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. 

Directed by Robert Z. Leonard, “PRIDE AND PREJUDICE” told the story of the five unmarried daughters of a 19th century English landowner and the efforts of his shrill wife to get them married before his estate is inherited by a distant male cousin. For years, this version of Austen’s novel has been highly regarded by fans and critics alike. But ever since the advent of numerous Austen adaptations in the past 15 to 20 years, these same critics and fans have been incredibly harsh toward this Hollywood classic. Many have complained that the movie failed to be a faithful adaptation of the 1813 novel.

Many of the complaints volleyed by recent Austen fans include:

*The movie’s fashions and setting changed to the late 1820s and early 1830s
*The deletion of Elizabeth Bennet’s trip to Derbyshire and Pemberly
*Mr. Darcy’s slightly less haughty manner
*Instead of a ball, Charles Bingley held a fête for the Hertfordshire neighborhood
*The change in Lady Catherine de Bourgh’s reason for visiting Longbourn

The 1940 movie was the first version of Austen’s novel I had ever seen. Since then, I have become a major fan of some of the adaptations that followed – including the 1980 miniseries, the 1995 miniseries and the 2005 movie. So, when I had decided to watch this version again, I wondered if my high regard of the film would remain. Needless to say, it has.

“PRIDE AND PREJUDICE” had a running time of 117 minutes. To expect it to be a completely faithful adaptation of the novel seemed ridiculous to me. If I must be frank, I have NEVER SEEN a completely faithful adaptation. But I can say this about the 1940 movie, it remains as delightfully entertaining as ever.

However, the movie is not without its faults. And I was able to spot a few. One, I found Laurence Olivier’s portrayal of the haughty Fitzwilliam Darcy as not quite so haughty . . . especially in his pursuit of Elizabeth Bennet during the Netherfield Fête. The time span between Elizabeth’s departure from the Collins household in Kent and Darcy’s arrival in Hertfordshire, to announce his knowledge of Lydia Bennet and George Wickham’s elopement seemed ridiculously short. Since the movie was nearly two hours long, it could have spared a scene in which Colonel Fitzwilliam had revealed Mr. Darcy’s part in Charles Bingley’s departure from Hertfordshire. Instead, we are given a scene in which Elizabeth angrily conveyed the colonel’s revelation to her friend, Charlotte Lucas. And speaking of Charlotte, I was rather disappointed by her portrayal. It made Gerald Oliver Smith’s (Colonel Fitzwilliam) appearance in the movie rather irrelevant. I found nothing wrong with Karen Morely’s performance. But screenwriters Aldous Huxley, Helen Jerome and Jane Muffin failed to do justice to Charlotte’s character or her friendship with Elizabeth.

Despite these disappointments, I managed to enjoy “PRIDE AND PREJUDICE” as much as ever. A good deal of Austen’s words and wit remained in the screenplay. And the screenwriters also added some of their own memorable lines that left me laughing aloud. After my recent viewing of the movie, I believe this “PRIDE AND PREJUDICE” is one of the funniest Austen adaptations I have ever seen. Director Robert Z. Leonard has been nominated for a Best Director Academy Award at least twice in his career – for 1930’s “THE DIVORCEE” and 1936’s “THE GREAT ZIEGFIELD”. It seems a pity that he was never nominated for “PRIDE AND PREJUDICE”, because I believe that he did an excellent job of injecting a great deal of atmosphere, humor and zest into the film. And his pacing of the film is top-notch. Not once did I ever have the inclination to fall asleep, while watching it.

While many Austen fans were busy bemoaning that the movie was not completely faithful to the novel, I was too busy enjoying it. And if I must be brutally honest, there was one major change to Austen’s story that really impressed me. At the Netherfield Fête, Elizabeth began to show signs of warming up to Mr. Darcy, following her demonstration of her prowess as an archer. But when he noticed the less pleasant sides of the Bennet family, Mr. Darcy withdrew himself from Elizabeth, deepening her dislike toward him even further. This was a creation of the screenwriters and to my surprise, I ended up enjoying it.

As I had hinted earlier, I found it to be one of the funniest adaptations I have ever seen. There were so many scenes that either had me laughing on the floor or smirking (with delight). Some of them included the Bennet family’s introduction to Mr. Collins, poor Mary Bennet’s attempt to entertain the guests at the Netherfield Fête, Mrs. Bennet and Lady Lucas’ race to reach their respective homes in order to order their husbands to call upon Charles Bingley, Elizabeth’s first meeting with George Wickham at the Meryton Assembly, and Caroline Bingley’s attempt to express interest in Mr. Darcy’s letter to his sister Georgiana. But the few scenes that I consider my personal favorites were the interaction between Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy during a game of archery, Mr. Collins’ marriage proposal to Elizabeth and the dinner sequence at Rosings with the verbose Lady Catherine de Bourgh.

I tried to find a performance that seemed out of step for me. The only one that left me feeling less than satisfied came from Karen Morely, who portrayed Charlotte Lucas. Her Charlotte seemed to fade into the background, in compare to the other characters. I suspect that the problem had more to do with Huxley, Jerome and Muffin’s screenplay than the actress’ performance. But everyone else seemed to be at the top of their game. Both Ann Rutherford and Heather Angel were outrageously silly as the younger Bennet sisters. Marsha Hunt was hilarious as the Bennet family’s wallflower, Mary. Bruce Lester was charming as the extroverted Charles Bingley. He also made a strong screen chemistry with Maureen O’Sullivan, who was equally charming as the eldest Bennet sibling, Jane. Frieda Inescort was both convincingly cool and sometimes rather funny as the imperious and ambitious Caroline Bingley. Edward Ashley Cooper gave what I believe to be the second best portrayal of the roguish George Wickham. He was charming, smooth and insidious. And Edmund Gwenn gave a subtle, yet witty performance as the quietly sarcastic Mr. Bennet.

However, there were five performances that really impressed me. One came from Melville Cooper, who had me laughing so hard, thanks to his hilarious portrayed the obsequious William Collins, Mr. Bennet’s annoying heir presumptive for the Longbourn estate. Equally funny was the unforgettable character actress, Edna May Oliver as Mr. Darcy’s overbearing aunt, Lady Catherine de Bourgh. Her role as an English aristocrat seemed so convincing that I was amazed to discover that she was an American from Massachusetts. Mary Boland gave a superb and entertaining performance as the equally overbearing and gauche Mrs. Bennet. In fact, I have to say that her portrayal of Mrs. Bennet is my absolute favorite. My God . . . that voice! She really knew how to put it to good use. Fresh from his success in 1939’s “WUTHERING HEIGHTS”, Laurence Olivier tackled the role of Fitzwilliam Darcy, regarded as the favorite Austen hero by many fans. Personally, I thought he did an excellent job, although his Darcy never struck me as haughty as the other interpretations I have seen. From what I have heard, he was not that fond of the picture or his role. I was also amazed that he had such a strong screen chemistry with his leading lady, considering that he thought she was wrong for the part. Olivier had this to say in his autobiography:

“I was very unhappy with the picture. It was difficult to make Darcy into anything more than an unattractive-looking prig, and darling Greer seemed to me all wrong as Elizabeth.”

I thought it was nice of Olivier to call Greer Garson “darling”. But I do not think I can take his comments about her performance that seriously . . . especially since he wanted Vivien Leigh – his paramour at the time and soon-to-be future wife to portray Elizabeth. Personally, I am glad that Garson ended up portraying Elizabeth. I thought she was superb. Garson had a deliciously sly wit that she put to good use in her performance . . . more so than any other actress I have seen in this role. Some have commented that in her mid-thirties, she was too old to portray Elizabeth. Perhaps. But Garson did such an excellent job of conveying Elizabeth’s immaturities – especially when it came to passing judgment on Mr. Darcy that I never gave her age any thought. All I can say is that she was brilliant and I heartily disagree with Olivier.

Many fans have commented upon Adrian’s costume designs for “PRIDE AND PREJUDICE”. They seemed to have taken umbrage that he designed the costumes from the late Georgian Era – namely the late 1820s or early 1830s, claiming that Austen’s story should have been set during the Regency Era. However, Austen first wrote the novel in the late 1790s. And she did not change it that much before it was finally published in 1813. There was no law that “PRIDE AND PREJUDICE” had to be set in the 1810s – especially when one considers there was a version set in early 21st century India. Personally, I found Adrian’s costumes beautiful, even if they were filmed in black-and-white. And since “PRIDE AND PREJUDICE” was not a historical drama, I simply do not understand the fuss.

After reading so many negative comments about “PRIDE AND PREJUDICE” in recent years, I wondered how I react to watching it again after so many years. To my surprise, I discovered that I still love it. Even after so many years. I admit that it is not perfect. But neither are the other versions I have seen. The magic of Greer Garson, Laurence Olivier and director Robert Z. Leonard still holds up after so many years.