Films whose sole purpose seems to be displaying a specific slice of family life as seen through their own cultural and historical lens do not often age well. Older films are almost without fail so optimistic and idealistic that modern cynical audiences have trouble suspending their disbelief over “perfect” family units. Even families of older cinema who were supposed to be semi-disfunctional seem downright Leave It to Beaver to modern viewers. Clarence Day Jr.’s Life With Father (I believe) still holds the record for longest running non-musical play on Broadway and 1947’s film adaptation was a massive box office draw. But for this modern viewer, not even the direction of Casablanca‘s Michael Curtiz could save this film from being overly-long, overly sentimental drivel with easily the worst Film-to-DVD transfer job that I’ve ever seen in my entire life.
Based on the playwrights memories of his childhood, Life With Father is a sentimental tale of the domineering (but ultimately loveable) Clarence Day Sr. (How to Marry a Millionaire‘s William Powell). As the patriarch of the massive Day brood, he’s a penny-pinching, sermon-delivering curmudgeon. Tended to by his loving wife Vinnie (My Favorite Wife‘s Irene Dunne) and beset upon by his four children, Clarence tries to assert his authority over his family and his life even when it quickly becomes apparent that his wife and kids have the real say. After the family is visited by a cousin and her young friend (Giant‘s Elizabeth Taylor) who catches the eye of Clarence Jr., Clarence Sr.’s life is only thrown into more upheaval when it’s discovered that he’s never been baptized.
William Powell and Irene Dunne are serviceable as the hen-pecked husband and the one doing the pecking, and between those two and an astonishingly young (but always beautiful) Elizabeth Taylor, they are the only reasons to watch the film. The exceedingly rare occasions where I actually laughed out loud during the film all involved Powell’s spot-on turn as the gruff father. At one point, his eldest son and Elizabeth Taylor’s character have an argument where the son makes Elizabeth Taylor cry. When Powell tells Clarence Jr. that he’s glad to see his own held his own in the argument, I nearly spit Dr. Pepper all over my television screen. It was the perfect response. And watching Irene Dunne fast-talk her away around Clarence Sr. to convince him that impossible math adds up was consistently charming.
Sadly, the writing didn’t live up to the potential chemistry of the stars. Although William Powell was able to make me laugh, I probably laughed out loud less than five times the entire film and that counts slight chuckles. The only big laugh came from the aforementioned incident with Elizabeth Taylor. The film would set up long, meandering scenes where William Powell would go on seemingly endless monologues. There were few jokes, puns, sight gags, or inherently funny situations. The comedy was meant to arise by the subversion of expectations between what Clarence Sr. thought about his family and what was really going on, but let’s be honest. That was never actually all that funny. The best moments came when they played Clarence Sr.’s stubborness and total obliviousness to the world around him for maximum comedic value such as him trying to figure out how his wife returning a pug meant he could now afford to buy his son an expensive suit.
This isn’t something I usually harp on (because I’m not an expert on film transfer), but as I mentioned earlier, this was one of the worst transfer jobs I’ve ever seen. This looked worse than a VHS copy of a film (unless I simply don’t remember how bad VHS looked which is possible). The resolution of the image was worse than 480p (probably around 270p), the color would fade in and out (although that’s semi-common in early Technicolor films which this definitely was), you would see the sorts of lines and static that you associate with ancient VHS cassettes, and the audio was atrocious. The film is in the public domain which means that any Tom, Dick, and Harry can release it on DVD if they wish, and because of that cheapness, the film looks horrendous (which is a shame because it’s obvious that the original color scheme for the film was extraordinarily vibrant).
Should you watch this film? Not if you like good movies. Perhaps, if you don’t find Leave It to Beaver or Father Knows Best to be sickeningly idealized, then you could enjoy this film. For anyone who demands even the most remote semblance of reality to their portrayal of family life will find this film to be as much fantasy as Lord of the Rings. Still, it has its moments. I may not have so much as grinned for the first half of the film, but once it began to find it’s footing, I found myself finding the film less unbearable and more simply unfortunate and ill-constructed. Perhaps, I’m just too much of a jaded, modern cynic to appreciate something innocent like this, but that is what it is.
Final Score: C-