Thursday, May 27, 2010
Classic Film of the Week: "Life With Father"
During the late 1940s, one of the most sought-after properties was the film rights to Life With Father, the longest-running non-musical play on Broadway. The play written by Howard Lindsey and Russel Crouse, based on stories by Clarence Day, opened in 1939 and ran for seven years. The story has a relatively simple plot: a wife, after discovering her husband hasn’t been baptized, does her best to convince him he needs to, if he wants to see his family in heaven.
From the earliest days of its run, Hollywood was interested in obtaining the film rights. William Powell, after seeing the play, wanted his home studio, MGM, to buy the property for him. He thought the part of Clarence Day (Father) would be the role of a lifetime.
America's Sweetheart No More
While the play was still on Broadway, sisters Lillian and Dorothy Gish both portrayed Lavinia (Mrs. Day) in out-of-town productions. Lillian, who was headlining the Chicago production, thought the role of Lavinia would be perfect for her friend, Mary Pickford. Pickford, the silent-film icon, was looking for a property to make a movie comeback. Gish advised her friend to buy the film rights, but Pickford didn’t act swiftly enough. Soon all the major studios were actively negotiating with the playwrights and members of the Day family. With all this competition, the price skyrocketed and the contract stipulations were too much for most. Warner Bros. eventually bought the rights with a down payment of $500,000 plus half of the film’s profits. Warner Bros. thought Life With Father had the potential to be as big as Gone With The Wind, so they were willing to pay the price.
Davis Drops Out
Bette Davis, the top female star on the Warner Bros. lot at the time, was offered the role of Lavinia Day. Davis struggled to adequately portray the character’s gentleness and decided not to take the role. Mary Pickford, who missed out on buying the film rights, was in the running. Apparently, her screen tests were good, but director Michael Curtiz (Casablanca) didn’t think she had any box office appeal. She had, after all, been away from the screen for thirteen years.
From Anna to Lavinia: Irene Dunne Takes a Chance
The supporting players were easier to find. Elizabeth Taylor, (who was barely 15 years old) was loaned out by MGM to play Mary Skinner, a role created on the stage by Teresa Wright. Zasu Pitts, Jimmy Lydon, and Edmund Gwenn rounded out the rest of the cast.
Star Billing at the Flip of a Coin
A Success for All
Life With Father premiered in August 1947 and was an immediate critical and financial success. Not quite the blockbuster the Warner Bros. studios had expected or hoped, but one that was profitable enough to make all the accountants happy. For Powell, it did turn out to be the role of a lifetime and he received his third Best Actor Academy Award nomination (Ronald Colman won for A Double Life). For Dunne, one of her best roles would come two years later in the George Stevens production, I Remember Mama.
Due to the unusual contractual arrangements between Warner Bros. and Lindsay and Crouse, the movie, after its initial release and re-release in 1948, pretty much vanished into obscurity. And for reasons not known to this writer, it fell into the public domain. Since Life With Father went into the public domain, there have been numerous inferior prints of the movie classic. With most, the color and sound are degraded. One can hope that someday a restored version will be available so modern viewers can see this wonderful American classic the way audiences did in 1947.
Sources used for this post: Romantic Comedy in Hollywood: From Lubitsch to Sturges (1987) by James Harvey; Life With Father Audience Guide (2008) compiled and edited by Jack Marshall;
Irene Dunne: First Lady of Hollywood by Wes D. Gehring