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Tuesday, March 21, 2017

LIFE WITH FATHER (1947)

After a record-setting 8-year run on B’way; endless touring editions; boffo box-office for this film adaptation & multiple Oscar® noms (plus long-term influence on other nostalgic Father Doesn’t Know Best comedies), this once ubiquitous property has seen its cultural footprint shrink to little more than a half-remembered title. Why so? The film remains quite lively under Michael Curtiz’s pacey, if impersonal, direction; the jokes still land, even politically incorrect ones, with a tart freshness true to its 1880s period. (We’ll omit Mother’s muddled ideas on finance.) All smartly trimmed and lightly opened-up by play-to-screen specialist Donald Ogden Stewart. Casting is near perfect with Irene Dunne & William Powell sparking to each other, off each other and magically inside the material. (Powell often alarmingly funny in a role that can come off as simply overbearing.) The four red-headed sons are nicely delineated; one discussion between the youngest two about Father possibly going to Hell a special delight. There’s even a very young, very pretty Elizabeth Taylor as visiting romantic interest in a role Teresa Wright originated on B’way. But the film fell into Public Domain, tossed into the video market with miserable subfusc image & sound. (Faded color or b&w? A reasonably watchable disc, inaccurately listed as ‘Restored’ on Amazon, is available.) Worse, between its B’way opening in 1939 and the 1947 film, its thunder was largely stolen (along with much else in the script) by Vincente Minnelli’s easily superior (and far more personally engaged) MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS/’44. (So much so that when LwF was adapted for a tv series, the role of Father was taken by Leon Ames, just as in ST. LOUIS.) 'Great being the enemy of good,' FATHER now takes a back seat. But even with it’s famous last line sanitized (‘Dammit!’ still too strong for a family pic), the film has much going for it.

DOUBLE-BILL: Both Irene Dunne and Powell were winding down great careers. But where Powell went into a graceful decline, Dunne topped one iconic mother with her another in I REMEMBER MAMA/’48.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Disney also drew heavily from this when structuring characters & story for the narrative shy MARY POPPINS/’64 books, especially in finding their Mr. Banks.

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