Sunday, June 17, 2018

Don't Make a Scene: Life with Father

The Story:  It's Father's Day today.  So, for our regular "Don't Make a Scene" feature, we have one from Michael Curtiz's film of the hit stage play Life with Father from 1947.  A staple of film catalogs sold to local television stations "back in the day" (probably because it fell into the public domain), it was one of those films I regularly ignored in the programming black holes of weekends in the time before infomercials and other balderdash.

But it's a great film, funny and wise and before its time, a sort of upper-class "All in the Family" set in the 1883, with an authority figure who sees himself as Lord of the Manor, but who in reality is lord of a house of cards.  He is loved and respected (of course), but he's more than a little pedantic, and the joke is that everybody, family, audience, everyone knows he's full of malarkey.  Everybody except him.

Now, this scene has an undercurrent running through it, which is one of those veiled references that the adults might get, but will go right over "the kids'" heads, and is rather surprising for the post-Code era of 1947.  Clarence Jr. has an advanced yearning for friend of the family Mary Skinner, which leaves him in an advanced state of awkwardness.  She is equally smitten, but...  

But this is 1883. 

Even in the scene before this when Mary and Clarence go out to the balcony—alone—to discuss how they can keep in communication after her leave-taking, he's warned by his Mother, "Remember, this is Sunday."

Things are not helped when she sits on his lap, and he panics: "Get up!  Get up! Get up!"  She thinks he is alarmed by her behavior, but he's probably more alarmed at his own...if you get my drift.

Yeah, this is about sex, but nobody comes right out and says it, the most being stated is that Clarence, wearing one of his father's old suits, feels uncomfortable in the old thing, as it probably doesn't fit and because in his words, he “can’t do anything in them that father wouldn’t do.”

Oh, gad.

There, then proceeds a lecture about women that is completely off the subject, irrelevant, and very much to the Father's concerns, and when it gets to his son's...the subject is closed.  That's the joke.  But, it's one of my favorite scenes from this one for what it says, and what it doesn't say.

Apologies for the screen-caps.  The source for them is a DVD which has a poor print for the transfer, the usually eye-popping Technicolor is faded, the images soft, very grainy and very multi-generational.  I have seen it in all its sharp glory on TCM, but, for now, and probably while it remains in public domain, all DVD versions of it will be terrible.

The Set-Up: The Day household is in turmoil. And the problems usually concern the head of the household who rules with an iron hand—Clarence Day, Sr (William Powell), who seems to think he has everything under control, and has nothing under control.  A stockbroker by trade, a malcontent by habit, he is subtly pushed and prodded by the demands of his loving and respectful family.  In this scene, oldest son Clarence, Jr. (Jimmy Lydon) has just talked to the girl he's got a crush on, Mary Skinner (Elizabeth Taylor) about keeping up a correspondence after she leaves that day.  And as these things can go, it goes badly, especially when Mary sits of young Day's lap, sending him into a panic and putting her into rejected hysterics, which Day Sr can't help but notice as she runs through his office. 


CLARENCE JR: Yes, father?
CLARENCE SENIOR: That young lady’s tears.  
CLARENCE SENIOR: What’s the meaning of this?
CLARENCE JR: I’m sorry, father, it’s completely my fault.
CLARENCE SENIOR: Nonsense!  What’s that girl trying to do to you?
CLARENCE JR: Oh..n-n-no, she wasn’t.  It was all my fault.
CLARENCE SENIOR: (chuckles) Well, whatever the quarrel was about, Clarence, I’m glad you held your own.
CLARENCE JR:  Father, I’ve got to get a new set of clothes! You’ve got to give me the money for it!
CLARENCE SENIOR: Young man, do you realize that you are addressing your father?
CLARENCE JR:  I’m sorry, father.  I apologize.  But you don’t know how important this is to me.
CLARENCE SENIOR: A new suit of clothes is so import...well, why should...  
CLARENCE SENIOR: Clarence. Has your need for a suit of clothes anything to do with that young lady?
CLARENCE JR:  ...Yes, father.
CLARENCE SENIOR: Why, Clarence...
CLARENCE SENIOR: Well, this comes as quite a shock to me.
CLARENCE JR:  What does, father?
CLARENCE SENIOR: Well, your being so...grown up.
CLARENCE SENIOR: Still, I might have known with your going to college this Fall. Yes, you’re at the age when you’ll soon be meeting girls.
CLARENCE SENIOR: Clarence, there are things about women I think I think you ought to know. (Looks around) (Ahem) Sit down.
Senior goes to the door, looks around, closes it.
CLARENCE SENIOR: Yes, I think it is better for you to hear this from me than to have to learn it for yourself.
CLARENCE SENIOR: Clarence, women aren’t the angels that you think they are.
CLARENCE SENIOR: Well now, first let me explain this to you.
CLARENCE SENIOR: You see, Clarence, we men have to run this world.  And it’s not an easy job. It takes work. And it takes thinking. A man must reason things out.
CLARENCE SENIOR: Now, you take a woman.  A woman thinks...
CLARENCE SENIOR: No! I’m wrong right there. 
CLARENCE SENIOR: A woman doesn’t think at all.
CLARENCE SENIOR: She gets stirred up.  And she gets stirred up over the most confounded things. Now, I love my wife just as much as any man. But that doesn’t mean I should stand for a lot of falderal.  
CLARENCE SENIOR: By gad, I won’t stand for it.
CLARENCE JR: Stand for what?
CLARENCE SENIOR: That’s the one thing I shall not submit myself to. Clarence, if a man thinks a certain thing is wrong, he shouldn’t do it.  If he thinks it’s right, he should do it.  Now, that has nothing to do with whether he loves his wife or not.
CLARENCE JR: Who says it has, father?
CLARENCE JR: Who, sir?
CLARENCE SENIOR: Women!  They get stirred up! And then they try to get you stirred up, too.
CLARENCE SENIOR: But, don’t you let them do it, Clarence.  Don’t you let them do it!  
CLARENCE SENIOR: Now, if you can keep reason and logic in the argument... 
CLARENCE SENIOR: ...a man can hold his own, of course.
CLARENCE SENIOR: But, if they can switch you, pretty soon the argument is about whether you love them or not!
CLARENCE SENIOR: I swear I don’t know how they do it.
CLARENCE SENIOR: But, don’t you let them, Clarence...
CLARENCE SENIOR: ...don’t you let them!
CLARENCE JR:  I see what you mean so far, father. If you don’t watch yourself, they can make you do a lot of things you don’t want to do.
CLARENCE JR:  But, if you do watch out and know just how to handle women...
CLARENCE SENIOR: Then you’ll be alright. All a man has to do is be firm!
CLARENCE SENIOR: You know how sometimes I have to be firm with your mother.
CLARENCE JR:  Yes, but father...what can you do when they cry?
CLARENCE SENIOR: Well, uh….that’s quite a question.
CLARENCE SENIOR: You just have to make them understand that what you’re doing is for their own good.
CLARENCE SENIOR: Well, Clarence, now you know all about women!
CLARENCE JR:  But...father...
CLARENCE JR:  I thought you were going to tell me about…
CLARENCE JR:  ...about...women.
CLARENCE SENIOR: Clarence.  There are some things gentlemen don’t discuss.  
CLARENCE SENIOR: I’ve told you all you need to know.
CLARENCE SENIOR: The thing you need to remember firm!
Clarence leaves, bewildered.

Words by David Ogden Stewart (from the play by Howard Lindsay and Russell Crouse from the book by Clarence Day)

Life with Father is available on DVD from Alpha Video.

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