Movie Reviews: Life with Father (United States, 1947)

Figure 1.--Harlan, the younger boys in "Life with Father" wore a variety of outfits. Here he wears a lace collar and velvet Fauntleroy jacket with a kilt. I understand he wasn't too happy about his costumes.

"Life with Father" is a wonderful family film set in 1880s New York. Through a series of reminiscences, a man recreates a childhood spent with his eccentric Victorian father. A financier rules his numerous family, consisting of his wife and his four sons, with the meticulousity of a bookkeeper.This comedy's plot is simple: get Father baptized. It was quite a well done film about a large New York family in the 1880s. The family was an affluent one. It was a well done period costumed film, with a lot of different period outfits shown--especially for the two younger boys.


Life with Father was based on a book by Clarence Day Jr. based on his childhood in New York. "Life with Father" has been described as "One of the best family films ever" and we do not take issue with this. It was one of Warner Brothers best films of the 1940s. William Powell for his depiction of the family partiarch received a N.Y. Film Critics Award. The film also received four Academy Award Nominations, including Best Actor for William Powell. Warner Brothers essentially filmed the Broadway play for the film. Donald Ogden Stewart based the screenplay for the film on the play by Howard Lindsey (who played Mr. Day in the original production) and Russell Crouse. Due to a legal wrangle with the Day estate, "Life With Father" had to be withdrawn from circulation after its initial run. It finally appeared in the Public Domain market in 1975. "Life With Father" is one of several well-made film from the very competent Michael Curtiz.


The Broadway play was based on a series of articles about his family written by Clarence Day Jr., shortly before his death in 1933.

Broadway Play

This wonderful comedy was based on Howard Lindsay and Russell Crouse's Broadway play gives us a view of upper-class family life in New York City during the 1880s. It was a huge hit and became the longest-running non-musical play in Broadway history, We are not sure who played the boys on Broadway.


The film has a string cast and they delivered wondeful performances. The boys do very well, but unlike many films with kids do not overwealm the marvelous performances by Powell and Dunn. The big names in the film were William Powell (Vlarence Day--the father), Irene Dunn (Vinnie--the mother), and a still young Elizabeth Taylor (Mary Skinner--Clrence Jr.'s heart throb. William Powell masterfully plays the role of Clarence Day, the benevolent patriarchial despot. Irene Dunne co-stars as Vinnie, the wife and mother. She is despicted as a scatterbrain, but as the plot develops she emerges as the heart and oul of the family. The boys were: Jimmy Lydon (Clarence Jr.), Martin Milner (John), Johnny Calkins (Whitney), and Derek Scott (Harlan). All of the boys appeared in several films. I don't jnow if Derek continued his film career.


The plot od the film is a little weak, but the whole point is the family interactions. It is a family value film, rather like a Normal Rockwell painting--idealizing a bygone era. The family interactions swirl around the visits of a vivacious teenager who Clarence Jr. is smitten with and decides he needs a new suit. Of course who wouldn't be smotten with Elizabeth Taylor. Another plot line is the boys wearing money by selling patentb medice and almost killing their mother. The third major plot line is Vinnie's persistent efforts to get her husband baptized. And cut across all of this is a porcelin pug dog. The film unfolds in a series of beautifully crafted comedy skitches just as it did on Broadway. Clarence Day is a hard-fisted banker who is determined to bring a business-like efficency to running the family. Vinnie is expected to account for all the ex[ences--this proves to be a mistake. The accounting sketch is wonderfully done. Then he is faced with the task of explaining the facts of life to one of his sons.

Left Wing Paranoia

It is amazing to read how some reviewers so committed to political correct thought that they are encapable of enjoying a sonderful film because they are unable to deal with values and productions from a different period. We found this review by Edwin Jahiel. "LIFE WITH FATHER (1947). By Michael Curtiz. A once popular item , from the Lindsay-Crouse Broadway hit, a comedy on Clarence Day's remembrances of his father, ca. 1900, in New York City. With William Powell, Irene Dunne, Edmund Gwenn, ZaSu Pitts, Elizabeth Taylor. The colorful, autocratic, priggish, smug Clarence Day Sr. is meant to be amusing, but he is such a pompous ass that the moments of fun are rather limited. Mrs. Day is an obedient, single-tonish mother and wife, so much of a slave to her lord and master, that I find her alienating. Irene Dunne here is full-time KKK, which, for a long time (and through the Nazi regime) stood, in German Kultur , for what women were supposed to stick to : Kinder, Kirche und Kuche (Children, Church, and Kitchen). "Life" could have been conceived as a document on past times, but it wasn't. Instead, it lays on the sugary idiocy of the whole family with studio and studious "affection." Because of its occasional good bits, the film can still entertain. But it might make the mildest of feminists indignant." This is the left-wing equivalent of John Ashcroft draping the nude sculptures in the Justice Department.

Figure 2.--Harlan wears both kilt outfits and kneepants outfits in "Life with Father." I am not positive that this was commonly done in the late 19th Century.


The youngest boy Harlan (Derek Scott) had quite an impressive wardrobe. I understand he was not to pleased with the outfits he had to wear, especially the kilts. He wears a kilt suit, a Fauntleroy jacket and lace collar with a kilt, velvet kneepants with a Fauntleroy blouse, and a regular kneepants suit. The only outfit he did not wear was a sailor suit, but his older brother, Whitney (Johnny Calkins) wore a simple one. Harlan had an enormous broad-brimmed sailor hat with streamer to wear with his Fauntleroy blouse. The only outfit he did not wear was a sailor suit, but his older brother wore a simple one. His brother also has a wide-brimmed hat--but not as large as Harlan's hat.


One interesting aspect of the film was Harlan's clothing. He wears both kneepants suits and kilt outfits. One question HBC has pursued was the conventions involved with breeching. It is not clear if a boy was breeched by buying him a pair of kneepants for play or dress wear, but having him wear his dresses and kilts until he had outgrown them or wether an entire new wardrobe of clothes were purchased. A further complication is wether the process was different as the child moved from dresses or kilts. The movie has Harlan wearing both kilt outfits and kneepants outfits. His everyday attire appears to be kneepants. However he has two dress outfits. One is a blue kilt suit worn with a Balmoral cap with tassles when he goes shoping with his mother. The other is the Fauntleroy kilt outfit pictures above. He also wears a Fauuntleoy blouse and velvet kneepants at the end of the movie when he goes to church for fathers baptism. One does not know how accurate the film was, but it suggests that a boy might continue to wear his kilt outfits after breeching. Another film, The Magnificent Ambersons, suggests the same. I'm not sure if the producer just wanted Harlan wearing different costumes or if boys at the time wore kilts and kneepants for a variety of activities. Notably in one scene, Harlan and his older brother Whitney both wear kneepants suits. Whitney always appears in kneepants outfits, but Harlan sometimes appears in a kilt and other times in a Fauntleroy blouse, suggesting that breeching was more of a process than a single day when all of his clothese were changed.

Reader Comments

I caught the end of Life With Father which starred a young Martin Milner of the 1960s "Adam 12". a police drama series starring Milner a rookie sidekick. I was a big fan of this American series even though my dad wanted me in bed early for school nextmorning but perhaps decided that if his second son watched the coppers fighting crime then he would grow a good person. William Powell played the opininated father in very Victorian attitudes and Irene Dunn was his rock of Gibralter and the four sons were actually dressed correctly for those times especially to two youngest boys because the third boy wore knicker suits'sailor suits with short trousers and the 4th boy and youngest child wore kilts and 'knickers and a skirt too with long stockings and a 6-year old Milner was the fourth boy"


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Created: April 17, 1999
Last updated: 11:43 PM 12/29/2008