Crystal Kalyana of In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood is hosting a blogathon in honor of Elizabeth Taylor’s 86th birthday. Crystal is certainly the most dedicated blogathon host in our circle of classic film writers. Due to her dedication, many of the finest actors of the Golden Era of Hollywood are honored on their birthdays with dozens of excellent articles exploring and explaining their lives and work. I’m joining the celebration of Miss Taylor’s birthday with an article about one of her early pictures, Life with Father from 1947, the Warner Bros. adaptation of the hit play that ran eight years on Broadway. In this article, I’ll discuss the story, the actors, the changes made for Code-compliance, and the supreme exception which the Warner Bros. were given for this movie.
Clarence Day (William Powell) is an eccentric Wall Street man from the 1880s who lives with his wife, Vinnie (Irene Dunne), and their four sons in New York City. He is a fiercely independent man with a hot temper and little regard for authority. He goes to the Episcopalian Church with his family, but he is far from a devoted parishioner. His motto regarding church is “if there’s one place church should leave alone, it’s a man’s soul.” He is sent into an uproar when Vinnie’s cousin Cora (Zasu Pitts) and her young companion, Mary Skinner (Elizabeth Taylor), come to stay with them for a week. He is put out in a very literal sense, since they take over his bedroom. However, he is surprisingly charming and cordial to “the gypsies,” despite his complaints about them behind their backs. Naturally, Mary and the oldest Day son, Clarence, Jr. (Jimmy Lyden), are shyly interested in each other. They attempt to kindle their friendship by playing a duet. Although neither is an accomplished musician, Mary is significantly better on the piano than Clarence is on the violin. When they try to play a hymn together, they realize that they know different melodies, since Mary is a Methodist, not an Episcopalian. They are somewhat discouraged by this denominational difference. However, when Mary remembers that her father was baptized as an Episcopalian, they determine to try the song again. At dinner that evening, Mary asks Mr. Day whether he was baptized as an Episcopalian or in some other denomination, such as Methodist, perhaps. She is eager to find more religious similarities to aid her courtship with Clarence. Mr. Day, after thinking for a moment, replies that he never was baptized. Vinnie scolds him for joking about such an important topic, but he says that he isn’t joking. He reminds her that his parents were real freethinkers, so they believed that a child should decide such things for himself. Thus, he never got around to being baptized. Vinnie is horrified. She can’t believe that a grown, civilized man can call himself a Christian without being baptized. She insists that he must be baptized immediately, but he scoffs. He refuses to be baptized at his age. Thus, the struggle begins. Vinnie is determined to save her husband’s soul, but he won’t be saved easily. She will use persuasion, trickery, tears, sickness, begging, and purposeful misinterpretation to accomplish her task. Clarence Day is a strong, stubborn man, but his wife’s unethical tactics may defeat him.
William Powell is a huge personality in this movie. With dyed red hair and a temper to match, he is perfect as the forceful, disagreeable Clarence Day. Irene Dunne is humorously absent-minded as his long-suffering but determined wife. This Victorian wife shows that, although she is truly unemancipated, she has great control over her husband through the use of her womanly wiles. Elizabeth Taylor is very pretty and cute as Mary Skinner. Her voice is high and ethereal, and she looks charming in the Victorian costumes. Also, she displays some very dramatic crying at several points during the movie. Zasu Pitts is funny as usual in her role of cousin Cora. The four red-headed sons are amusingly and efficiently played by Jimmy Lyden as the oldest son, Martin Milner in his film debut as the second son, Johnny Calkins as the third son, and Derek Scott as the youngest son. Emma Dunn is lovable as the reliable cook, Margaret. She tends the house with the assistance of a long line of maids, who often stay no longer than a day or so due to the frustrating personality of Mr. Day. The rest of the cast is excellent, as well.
In 1939, Life with Father opened on Broadway. That same year, MGM and Paramount sent inquiries about producing the play as a motion picture to the Production Code Administration. Mind you, they had no intention of working together. It was a mere coincidence that they became interested in the same piece of property around the same time. Such coincidences often occurred in the purchasing of popular material. The PCA sent the same letters to both studios. The answer was not a definite no; the self-regulators felt that a Code-compliant film could be made out of the story. However, there was a great deal of profanity, an underlying sense of blasphemy, and a comical portrayal of religion and an Episcopalian minister which would have to be removed. Apparently the moguls of both studios didn’t share the interest in the play which certain producers had. No further action was taken at that time.
In 1946, Life with Father was in its sixth year on Broadway. No correspondence had been written about it since December 6 of 1939. However, on February 11 of 1946, it returned to the files. The PCA wrote a letter to Warner Bros., informing Mr. Jack Warner that the script had been read and that the basic idea was in compliance with the Code. There is no letter asking for approval of the initial story, nor is there a letter which announces the arrival of the script. It was probably presented to Mr. Breen or some other member of the PCA at an in-person meeting such as a lunch conference. In this letter, the PCA noted numerous profanities and blasphemous lines uttered by Mr. Day which would have to be omitted. The letter, like almost all the letters sent from the PCA, was signed Joseph I. Breen. However, in the large space provided for his signature, there is no signature. In the bottom left corner, the cryptic symbols 2:H can be seen. Such numbers and letters were used as a record of the authors of individual letters, since they all were signed Joseph Breen. Unfortunately, Mr. Breen was unable to personally review and report on every movie. The other gentlemen of the PCA reviewed films in groups of twos, and then a third man would review their work on them. However, Mr. Breen wanted the office to have an appearance of uniformity; even if some of the other PCA workers were not as firm, they could benefit from the strength of his name in their confrontations with the studios.
The next letter in the file is dated March 18. It is an air mail letter from “Joseph I. Breen” to Eric Johnston, the head of the MPAA. In this letter, Mr. Breen explained Warner Brothers’ eagerness to retain the last line, “I’m going to be baptized, – it!” (I think it’s sufficient to say that the dash does not represent darn.) The situation was detailed, and Mr. Breen referred to the exceptions which had been granted by the MPAA upon appeal in the past, notably the famous Clark Gable line in Gone with the Wind. He closed his letter by saying that the PCA unanimously felt that an exception should be given to this “very excellent story,” since the last line seemed to be “a perfect line in this particular setting.” Because of this recommendation, Mr. Johnston, who was an easily convinced politician, gave his official approval of the forbidden profanity in another air mail letter dated March 25. Thus, the Warner Brothers were able to proceed with their questionable line, which was all the sweeter because it was forbidden.
I must say that the above struggle seems to have been remarkably smooth. There is nothing between the initial script approval of February 11 and the letter to Mr. Johnston on March 18. Over a month passed with no letters to or from the PCA, yet the letter to Mr. Johnston referred to Warner Brothers’ insistence on using the forbidden word. Either some letters are missing from the file, or all the negotiations during that month were conducted over the telephone or in person. Either way, the struggle is nothing compared to the huge battle which was waged over the iconic line in Gone with the Wind.
From then on, things went the usual way. Pages of the revised script were sent to the PCA, and they were reviewed. All the profanity except the last line was eliminated from the dialogue, and the blasphemous, mocking attitude toward religion was toned down. In addition, attempts were made to remove the comical elements from the minister’s character. The Warner Brothers were being friendly, affable, and a little too agreeable. The PCA didn’t trust them, since they knew their tricks well. They were cheerful and informal, expressing their gratitude and addressing Mr. Breen as Dear Joe. They were always like that. However, they had mischief up their sleeve. As always, the PCA screened the film to see whether it was worthy of a Seal of Approval. Despite the fact that all the profanity besides the exception had been removed from the script, there were four additional uses of the word which had been allowed at the ending! They had trickily removed these from the scripts which were sent to the PCA but retained them in the shooting scripts. Well, the PCA wasn’t going to let them profit because of their dishonest tricks. They insisted that these four words be removed, and the studio agreed, since the PCA seal was necessary. Certificate No. 11667 was issued, and the film was released in 1947, the year the play closed on Broadway. The profanity in the last line was deleted in Pennsylvania, the film was heavily censored in England, and it was banned in Turkey. However, it was approved without deletions in the rest of the United States.
I made reference to the 2:H in the lower corner of the first letter. It is very interesting to study these notations to decipher who worked on which pictures. 2:H is rather puzzling, since 2:S represented Geoffrey Shurlock, since he was second in command, and S was his initial. The H is the only clue. There were three men at the PCA who had the initial H, Arthur Houghton, Milton Hodenfield, and M. A. J. Healy. I believe all three of them were working at the PCA in 1946. My only hypothesis regarding the 2 is that Geoffrey Shurlock may have been on vacation at this time, so someone else was second in command. The only thing which challenges that theory is an analysis chart of the picture from September of 1946. At the bottom of the chart, it says that Messrs. Shurlock and Metzger analyzed the picture for the chart. Thus, Mr. Shurlock was obviously in the office in September, despite the fact that 2:H appears on letters from the same time. I don’t know why that’s the notation. On a few of the letters, 12:H is in the lower corner. Thus, I infer that two of the three gentlemen whose names began with an H worked on this picture.
The letters to Mr. Johnston are another matter. The letter of March 18 was signed Very Cordially, Joseph I. Breen. Mr. Breen always signed his letters Cordially Yours unless he was writing to a friend, when he would sign Very Cordially. Perhaps he would consider Eric Johnston a friend, but I doubt it, since the letter addresses him as Mr. Johnston instead of Eric. In the bottom left corner, the initials JIB:T can be seen. This would imply that Mr. Breen himself wrote the letter, but somehow I don’t think he did. Firstly, there is no signature, which seems strange if he himself wrote it. Secondly, I think the T after the colon represents something, although I don’t know what. I think that 2:H probably wrote the letter and put JIB in the corner so that Mr. Johnston wouldn’t know that Mr. Breen hadn’t written the letter. In addition to the lack of a signature and the closing salute, the body of the letter is unlike Mr. Breen’s correspondence. I know his phraseology and his epistolary style, and they are not in this letter. Furthermore, I can’t imagine him describing a line which is in direct violation of the Code as “perfect.”
Upon careful reading of this three page letter, I noticed something definitely peculiar about it. It begins neutrally, simply explaining the situation on Page 1. On Page 2, it is stated that the troublesome line was a highlight of the play and that Mr. Warner is anxious to retain it. The PCA told him that it was in violation of the Code. Then, an amendment which was added after the Gone with the Wind battle is quoted, stating that an exception is sometimes granted when the word is necessary for historical context. In the next paragraph, the writer states that the PCA feels that this particular line does not fall within that exception. The page ends with reference to past cases in which the studios appealed to the MPAA in New York for approval to use the word, specifically Rhett Butler’s famous line. On Page 3, the writer says that Mr. Warner is going to appeal for approval, so the PCA wants to warn Mr. Johnston and give him the real facts before he receives Mr. Warner’s letter. However, in the second to the last paragraph, the attitude completely changes. Notice the casual, liberal attitude in the following ending:
I need not tell you that Life with Father is a very excellent story, – wholesome, clean and entertaining. It is not even suggestively offensive in any way, and it is our unanimous judgment that if a way can be found to allow Warner Bros. to use this word, no serious harm will be done.
This line is not offensive per se and it does seem to be a perfect line in this particular setting.
Joseph I. Breen
What happened to the author? He went from saying that the line did not deserve an exception to saying that it should be allowed. It seems to me that he wasted two pages of paper and ink. He should have just said that the PCA gives Warner Brothers its blessing for using that profanity. I find this change of heart to be very striking. It almost seems like two people wrote the letter, or the letter was written over a long period of time. Perhaps there was another meeting before the conclusion was written. Anyway, despite the firm beginning, the author proved at the end that he was not Joseph Breen, since he completely lost his will power.
Strangely, despite the special permission, most copies of Life with Father in existence today do not include the final profane word. Mr. Day says, “I’m going to be baptized!” before climbing into the carriage. In 1975, the film’s copyright expired, so it is now in the public domain. Thus, numerous poor copies are sold on DVD. Perhaps the most commonly reproduced version is the copy which contains Pennsylvania’s censored ending. Wikipedia, IMDb, and all the other internet sources which I have read state that the Production Code forced the changing of the last line. I would like to believe that, but I’ve read the letters which state otherwise. I’m glad that the film is now in the state in which it should have been released. The clergyman still looks slightly foolish, and Mr. Day’s attitude toward religion borders on blasphemy, but the overall quality of the film is Codish. That last line, however, was unacceptable, so I say good riddance to it. I don’t know which members of the PCA reviewed this picture, but I know that Joseph I. Breen did not.
Elizabeth Taylor’s birthday is February 27. Celebrate by watching Life with Father or one of the other excellent Code films she made during her career! This movie didn’t feature her biggest role, although she did get third billing, but she is very sweet in her youthful beauty in it. This is one of my favorite movies with her. Both Shirley Temple and Ann Todd were considered for the role, but neither could have played the role with the quiet, refined elegance that Liz brought to it. Happy Birthday, Elizabeth!
Extra! We are thinking about hosting another blogathon around June 13, the Perfect Code Film Blogathon, and Crystal Kalyana of In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood has graciously agreed to co-host it with us. This blogathon would be all about movies that were made even better by the Code. I described why San Francisco is a perfect Code film in my article for the Singing Sweethearts Blogathon, and I wrote an article describing how the three movies with the Singing Sweethearts that Robert Z. Leonard directed are perfect Code films. If you are interested in writing about a movie made between 1934 and 1954 that followed the Code and profited by it, leave a comment! If I get enough positive response, I’ll issue an official announcement! –Tiffany Brannan
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