Life With Father
There's a saying that there are no atheists in foxholes. It means that when the stakes are life and death, people are more likely to turn to God for comfort. That might have been true once, back when humans knew little about the world and their place in it, but times have changed, and besides, not everybody worships God in the same way - or at all.
William Powell's character in Life With Father isn't an atheist, but he might be the closest thing to one I've ever seen in a studio-era, Old Hollywood movie which, strictly speaking, isn't that close. It puts him in the ballpark, but he's in the last row of the upper deck in the left field seats. Still, it's surprising how sympathetically he's portrayed.
Powell plays a Teddy Roosevelt-esque patriarch of a turn-of-the-century New York family. Irene Dunne is his devout Episcopalian wife. Powell's character, Clarence Sr., explicitly states that his parents were "freethinkers" (a label often used interchangeably with "atheist") and that they let him decide whether to choose a religious faith or not. He identifies as a Christian, and for the sake of his wife Vinnie (? I guess that's short for something), he attends weekly services with the rest of the family, but he makes it clear that he wishes to worship in his own way, without any undue impositions - such as kneeling.
One of the plot threads in this ensemble comedy involves Vinnie attempting to get her husband baptized so he'll be ensured a seat in heaven. She gets sick at one point, and Clarence, desperate to see his wife get better, entreats God for help, promising he'll get baptized if Vinnie recuperates. (The way he does it is both funny and poignant, bossing God around with his brand of bluster, as if He were one of the many maids Clarence goes through in the story - one more employee not living up to his exacting demands.) She does recover, and he is forced to make good on his promise, though not before a lot of kicking and screaming.
I've never been in a relationship in which this type of incompatibility was a problem, but I think what we should take away from this situation is not anything along the lines of "The Lord worked through Clarence and changed his heart," because at the movie's end, when he's on his way to get baptized, he's still as cantankerous about keeping his promise as he was before, and there's no indication that he has or will become as devout as Vinnie. Rather, I think this speaks more to Clarence's love for his wife - a love that is able to overcome their religious differences.
Clarence and Vinnie seem like a happy couple, despite their occasional bickering, but locked as they are within their societal gender roles, they don't appear to have a great deal in common. The great joke that runs throughout the movie is that he struts and preens around like he's the lord and master of the house, but he's really wrapped around Vinnie's finger, which is consistent with the change of heart he has about getting baptized.
We don't get a strong sense, however, of where their love for each other comes from. What would make a man like Clarence fall in love with a woman like Vinnie, and make the compromises he has made in his life to accommodate her, such as raising their children within her faith? (We see one of the younger sons practice reciting a catechism, but of course, there's no indication that he understands the deeper, underlying meaning behind the words, nor is any required. I wonder how Clarence feels about that, given his upbringing.) He says something about how lonely he gets without her around, but I suspect there's more to it than that, and I would've like to have seen this explored a little deeper.
So guess who recommended this one? Father is based on a true story, written as a memoir by Clarence Sr.'s son, Clarence Day Jr., which was adapted as a play. Powell earned his third Oscar nomination, and the film led to a short-lived TV show as well. Maybe it was because it was filmed in Technicolor, but the movie reminded me of Meet Me in St. Louis, another color film about a turn-of-the-century family with a red-headed lead character. Indeed, there were lots of moments where I anticipated the characters about to break into song!
The film begins in a unique way, with what looks like a primitive View-Master (anyone else remember those? I used to love playing with them growing up - and they still make them!) showing "slides" of 19th-century New York. No one in the film actually uses this thingamagig, but as a method of easing us into the world of the Day family, it's quite an original touch on director Michael Curtiz' part.
I also loved the way Powell's character is set up. We begin with seeing people on the street talking about Clarence Sr.; we follow the latest in a series of new maids as she's initiated into the Day household, eager to make a good impression on the boss; then we see the family, one at a time, beginning with Dunne's Vinnie. At one point we hear Powell but all we see of him is his shadow at the top of the stairway - very clever! Once all the other family members have taken the "stage," then we finally see Powell.
This may be based on a true story, but I find it hard to believe that the entire Day family were redheads. The maid makes this peculiar hand gesture each time she sees the Day children, redheaded boys all, as if warding off evil spirits. I can only assume that this must have been an aspect of some old-fashioned prejudice. It's never explained. I've known only a few (natural) redheads in my life. The one that sticks out in my mind most is this friend named Michelle that I knew in junior high. Her red hair was short and thick, as I recall. She was very funny, and fairly popular. I have a memory of her singing silly songs from the back of the bus during a school trip. I still think about her every once in awhile.