Last night, Hanna and I took a couple of hours out of our evening to screen the 1947 William Powell / Irene Dunn film Life With Father. Why did we do this? We were looking for something holiday-centric (Holiday Inn, Miracle on 34th Street) but came up dry … and decided to give this a try instead. While I can’t say it was an unqualified “win,” I definitely found myself fascinated by the entire package for a variety of reasons.
First, the original trailer.
This film is wrong on so many levels I’m only going to hit the highlights in hopes of encouraging you to check it out. Why? Because I think films from previous eras, much like our own, are fascinating windows into the normative pressures of certain periods in time.
In this case, the way in which American cinema in the postwar era was enlisted to construct a certain narrative of gender, of family, of class, and of the American past. This film is further complicated by the fact that it is a costume drama: it employees the collective memory of/nostalgia for a bygone era — in this case, a particular understanding of upper-middle-class New York City in the 1880s.
So, a few observations.
1) According to this film, men make and understand money while women spend money without any ability to understand finance. The titular father of the film (played by William Powell) is a banker and supports his wife and four sons in a luxurious townhouse complete with servants. Nevertheless, he and his wife (Irene Dunn) constantly bicker about the household budget which “mother” is incapable of managing in the manner which her husband believes is appropriate. Some of the best comic exchanges in the movie, in fact, revolve around Father attempting to get Mother to explain how she has spent the money he has given her, and Mother attempting earnestly to account for her purchases. This trope of gender differentiation is employed for comic value without ever being challenged. Neverthess, it’s fascinating to watch how blatently the paternalism is.
2) The whole movie is worth watching for the scene where Father explains to Jr. all he needs to know about women. When the eldest son falls in love with a young Elizabeth Taylor (only three years after her breakout role in National Velvet) Father takes him aside to explain a thing or two about women. What follows is instruction in how to avoid women’s advances, what to do when they cry, and a stern dismissal of Jr.’s (veiled) questions concerning heterosexual relations. I wish I had been taking notes at the time, because it really was self-parodying.
3) Making and breaking your promises is totally manly as long as you think your wife is dying. The central conflict in the film is, for reasons that defy my understanding, that Father has never been baptized and Mother is convinced this means their marriage is invalid and that he will go to hell. So she extracts promises from him to be baptized, all of which he breaks until (spoiler) the very end, of course, when he finally capitulates and the whole family goes off together in a horse-drawn cab into the happily-ever-after. The thing that struck me was the fact that every time Father promises to be baptized, he is inevitably extending the promise as a way to get Mother to do something (or stop doing something) he wants (or doesn’t want) … including die. Then, when the situation ceases to irritate him, or distress him, he immediately retracts the promise. It made me think of Toad of Toad Hall in the Wind in the Willows protesting, “Oh, in there! I would have said anything in there!”
4) Women (and to some extent children) care only about men as providers. This is an extention of the first point about women and math: the narrative of the entire film, to some extent, could be read in terms of consumption. The children want new clothes and toys. The mother wants jewelry. The household must be provided for. Friends come to the city to go shopping. And Father, above all, spends the entire film fretting about how much his family is spending of “his” money. The entire household, he feels (and often says — though perhaps not in so many words) should be arranged around his needs and desires as the wage-earner. And instead, his life is “controlled” by his wife and children who spend all his money and disrupt his peace, giving him very little gratitude in return. This resentment was at the forefront of postwar gender politics, and I don’t think it’s a mistake that this narrative is so blatant. I’d argue it says more about the era in which it was made than the era it was made about.
5) Religion is the sphere of women and children. Similar to the narrative of money and gender, the narrative of religion and gender is at once drawing upon 19th-century notions of women’s particular piety and purity and twentieth-century, postwar perceptions of religion as a particularly feminine practice. The central tension in the film revolves around the discovery that Father has never been baptized (into the Episcopal Church … the main rift in the film appears to be between Methodists and Episcopalians; any holy rollers or other non-mainstream, and/or non-protestant religious groups, including Catholics, are entirely absent). Mother is appalled and distressed by this revelation, fearing for her husband’s immortal soul as well as for the sanctity of their marriage. Father insists that baptism is a formality, a waste of time, and resists the pressure of his wife for most of the two hours before finally surrendering to her desires and thus restoring unity back to the household.
The centrality of religious practice — if not the more personalized faith we’ve become used to in recent years — is startling to see on the big screen, incorporated into the narrative of what it means to be a White, middle-class, urban family.
That’s about all I’ve got at the moment. You can check the film out on Netflix streaming or free through the Internet Archive’s Moving Image Archive: Feature Films collection.