It wouldn’t be Father’s Day without Turner Classic Movies’ annual parade of patriarch-themed classic films. One of the most popular is 1947’s “Life with Father,” based on a book of humorous stories written by Clarence Day, Jr., a decade before the film.
Produced by Warner Bros., and directed by Michael Curtiz, “Life with Father” stars William Powell who is widely remembered for portraying the witty, charming, and sophisticated ex-detective Nick Charles in six Thin Man films with Myrna Loy. He was enormously popular with movie audiences during his 30 year career, being nominated for three Best Actor Oscars.
While Powell plays Clarence Day, Jimmy Lydon appears as Clarence Day, Jr., the oldest of his four sons. Lydon, who turned 92 on May 30, appeared in numerous movie and TV roles and has fond memories of “Life with Father.”
“We worked for four and a half months on that picture,” he recalled from his home near San Diego. “Mr. Warner wanted to spend all the money in the world on it and take his time to produce a prestige piece. He paid a million dollars just for the rights to the story.”
The movie was filmed in expensive 3-strip Technicolor, a process that required three bulky cameras.
“The cameras were huge, about the size of three giant suitcases,” explained Lydon. “Before each shot, the cameraman had to open each one and check to make sure there were no hairs or dust on the lens. It was very distracting.”
Despite the filming difficulties and working with four young, energetic boys, Lydon says Powell was patient and professional.
“We had a father and son ‘birds and the bees’ scene together. Bill had about two pages of long dialogue in which he explained everything about girls – everything, that is, but sex! I had just one line in the middle of his long monologue. But with all the camera distractions, every time Bill would get through two-thirds of his long speech, I’d mess up my lines and I could see the bile rising up in Mike Curtiz’s face.”
Powell, however, was understanding. “He said ‘Listen Jim. All actors have times like this in their lives, and this was your day.’ He was just so gracious about the whole thing. So we wrote my lines on a piece of black cardboard with chalk, and finally shot the scene.”
If director Curtiz was seeing red during filming, it may not have entirely been due to anger. All members of the real Day family were redheads.
“I was the only natural redhead in the cast,” said Lydon. “We were all sent to Westmore Salon on Sunset Boulevard every second Sunday to get our hair dyed, including me! Kind of odd to have a red-haired kid dye his hair red, but it had to do with the lighting and cameras, and everyone had to have the same shade of red hair.”
“Life with Father” also starred Irene Dunne in her only color feature film.
According to Lydon, she was not as easygoing as Powell. “I’d rehearse a scene with her and she was very professional, but I found her to be a cold, distant woman. I couldn’t see anything there – she showed no emotion.”
He reversed his opinion when viewing the daily rushes.
“She was absolute magic – it was all there, up on the screen. She had the most marvelous motion picture technique. She knew what to do with just the wink of an eye or the touch of a hand, things I didn’t notice when we were doing the scene. She had the technique like no other woman I have ever worked with.”
Lydon also remembers Powell’s wife, Diana Lewis, visiting the set.
“He called her Mousie and she was the most beautiful girl you ever saw in your life. We were all fascinated by her and we thought the marriage wouldn’t last because she was so much younger than him. But she was with him for the rest of his life.”
Powell died 30 years after making his final film, “Mister Roberts,” which was released 60 years ago this year.
“Life with Father” will be broadcast on TCM on June 21 at 4:45 PM CST and features Elizabeth Taylor, Edmund Gwenn, Zasu Pitts and Martin Milner in addition to Lydon, Dunne and William Powell.
“He was just a delight to work with,” adds Lydon, “a very easy going and a wonderful gentleman.”
Nick Thomas teaches at Auburn University at Montgomery, Ala., and has written features, columns, and interviews for over 600 magazines and newspapers