Life With Father

Life With Father

In our current world when it’s almost unheard of for a Broadway play to run more than a season, it must have come as quite a shock when Howard Russell and Lindsay Crouse’s Life With Father opened in 1939 and ran for over seven years, making it the longest-running play in Broadway history, an honor it still holds today. (Note, I said play not production. The Phantom of the Opera is still the longest-running Broadway production with no signs of closing anytime soon. Life With Father is number 14.)

Based on Clarence Day, Jr.’s memoir, God and My FatherLIFE WITH FATHER (1947) is a warm, comedic look at one off-kilter family in pre-turn-of-the-century New York City, headed by the loving yet authoritative figure of Father (an excellent William Powell). The humor and performances are delightful and there’s real heart in the chemistry between Powell and co-star Irene Dunne. Michael Curtiz’s direction never feels like a filmed stage play, even though the film is basically shot on one main set, and Max Steiner provides a lovely score that perfectly captures the warmth and humor of the story.

As he often does in his scores, Steiner makes use of period songs to accentuate the period of the story. The first, “Sweet Marie,” represents the bond between Mr. and Mrs. Day (Irene Dunne). The second, “Sweet Genevieve,” accompanies the burgeoning fondness between Clarence (Jimmy Lydon) and Mary (Elizabeth Taylor).

“Main Title”

But it is the jaunty main theme first heard accompanying the inventive main titles, which incorporate sepia-toned scenes of New York City as seen through a stereoscope, that represents the most memorable tune in the score. I agree with Tony Thomas’s assessment that Steiner caught the character of Mr. Day with a “theme that delineated both the pomposity and the good-heartedness of the character.”

LIFE WITH FATHER is an enjoyable slice of life from an easier time filled with fine, funny performances, backed by Steiner’s affectionate melodies. The film is in the public domain and, as such, most copies, even the one shown on TCM, are not in pristine condition. But that doesn’t detract from the enjoyment of watching the film, and I defy you to get that main theme out of your head once you hear it. As far as I know, the original tracks are long gone (if any exist with the Steiner papers at BYU, I believe they are unusable), so a new recording would be most welcome. Steiner lost the Oscar to Miklos Rozsa’s A DOUBLE LIFE, but he did take home the first Golden Globe for Best Original Score for this charming score.

  1. Truly wonderful Steiner Americana, and it would really stand on it’s own in a new sound recording.
    If we’re lucky, we may see a TCM exclusive DVD (or less desirable Warner Archive DVD-R) with a quality print of this classic. It’s my understanding that the color palette was planned to be desaturated to accompany the overall tone of the picture, but I think Natalie Kalmus, who supervised all the Technicolor films at the time with fascist control, insisted on standard full saturation (albeit with her proclivity for jaundiced color timing). Sadly, we may never know since it fell into the public domain.

    1. I’d take a better DVD print of this. Mine cuts off the Warner Bros. logo at the beginning! Gary, I love that you bring all this knowledge of these obscure names (at least to me) like Natalie Kalmus to the site.

  2. Thanks for drawing attention to a very nice Steiner score. He is not a particular favorite of mine, but I wonder if its in part because he wrote so darn many scores! In any case, its a perfect score for that light film and, as they say about doing comedy, its easy to underestimate the skill involved.

    1. Steiner–like most composers, I think–was always better when he just played to the heart of the story instead of the comedy. And there is plenty of heart in this particular story. That’s why I think it’s so effective.

      Roger, give Steiner a chance with more of his output. Yes, there are a lot of scores, but there are a lot of great scores in that vast output.

      1. You are right. By the way, one of my favorite scores is Don Juan. (I think its also an under appreciated Erroll Flynn.)

  3. A friend of mine obtained a copy of LIFE WITH FATHER from England. It was digitized over there, and converted to NTSC Region 1 for DVD. But the process leaves it slightly sped up. The characters’ voices are really high. But the print is beautiful. Have you seen how nice MY WILD IRISH ROSE looks? It’s also from Warner Bros. and is from the same year. Well, it looks very much like that.

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