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About three years before the blacklist effectively ended the Hollywood career of screenwriter Donald Ogden Stewart, he was suggested by the widow of his friend Clarence Day Jr. as the ideal scenarist for the film version of Life With Father (1947). Day's memoir of the same title, affectionately recalling his family life in 1880s New York with an autocratic father and a sweetly wily mother, had already been adapted for a smash stage comedy that held the record as longest-running Broadway play with more than 3,200 performances. In his 1975 autobiography, By a Stroke of Luck!, Stewart wrote that he "leapt happily at the chance" to rework the material for the screen. "Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse had written such a successful play that there wasn't much need - or indeed much allowance - for any screen writing." After a "couple of understanding consultations with Mrs. Day," he finished the job within a few weeks.
For Life With Father, Warner Bros. had paid the highest price to date for the screen rights to a play ($500,000 plus half of all profits to the authors and their investors). To protect the integrity of the material, playwrights Lindsay and Crouse and Day's widow were brought to Hollywood to serve as technical advisers. They had veto rights over every aspect of the film's production, and no word of the play's text could be cut or changed without their approval. Stewart had diplomatically avoided reworking the dialogue but, whenever possible, moved the action from the stage confines of the Days's dining and parlor room to other parts of the family house, its garden and the street. To the approval of the trio of overseers, he dramatized scenes that were only referred to in the play, setting them in a church, a restaurant and a department store.
Life With Father proved a success on the screen, gathering four Oscar nominations and placing well on Variety's list of all-time high-grossing films. Playing Clarence Day Sr. provided Oscar-nominated William Powell with the high point of his career, and Irene Dunne charmed audiences as his wife, Vinnie. The film also offered a plum supporting part to budding beauty Elizabeth Taylor, then 15.
Stewart (1894-1980) was a man of many talents - screenwriter, playwright, novelist, actor. Playwright Philip Barry, a chum and admirer of the suave Stewart, wrote the role of socialite Nick Potter in Holiday with his friend in mind, and Stewart played the part on Broadway. Stewart's credits as a film writer include The Barretts of Wimpole Street (1934), Marie Antoinette (1938), Love Affair (1939) and the movie version of Barry's The Philadelphia Story (1940), for which Stewart won an Academy Award.
During Hitler's rise to power, Stewart had become involved in the political activities of the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League - an organization accused of being a cover-up for a Communist cell during the McCarthy era. Offered a chance to "clear himself" by giving names to the House Un-American Activities Committee, Stewart refused and was blacklisted. He left Hollywood for good in 1951 and finished out his career in England.
Director: Michael Curtiz
Producer: Robert Buckner
Screenplay: Donald Ogden Stewart, from the memoir by Clarence Day Jr. and the play by Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse
Art Direction: Robert M. Haas
Cinematography: J. Peverell Marley, William V. Skall
Editing: George Amy
Costume Design: Milo Anderson
Original Music: Max Steiner
Principal Cast: William Powell (Clarence Day), Irene Dunne (Vinnie Day), Elizabeth Taylor (Mary Skinner), Edmund Gwenn (Rev. Dr. Lloyd), Zasu Pitts (Cousin Cora), Jimmy Lydon (Clarence Day Jr.), Emma Dunn (Margaret)
by Roger Fristoe