Seventy-eight years ago tonight, the play Life with Father opened at the now long-departed Empire Theatre. It was a mostly autobiographical comedy that depicted a turn-of-the-century New York City family, based on stories by Clarence Day, an author and cartoonist, who was an early and significant contributor to the New Yorker Magazine. The playwrights Howard Lindsay and Russell Crouse adapted Day's book, which had been a great success when it was published in 1935. Previously, the team had written the librettos for musicals such as Cole Porter's Anything Goes and Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg's Hooray For What! But Life with Father proved to be their biggest hit, and that includes one of their final shows, The Sound of Music.
Dorothy Stickney and Howard Lindsay in Life with Father (1939).
When it opened in 1939 and went on to score the then unheard run of nearly eight years (to this day the longest ever for a nonmusical), Lindsay himself played the title role; one that had been rejected by two of the greatest stage actors of the day: Alfred Lunt and Walter Huston. William Daniels (the one and only John Adams in 1776), told me in an interview that Huston had been a mentor of his, and that the grand old man never tired of bringing up his association with the play: “They offered me the part, Bill ... and I turned it down. They asked me to back it with some money—and how long did it run, Bill?”
With Lindsay taking on the role of "Father," (the name by which the character is referred in both the written text and the Playbill), the casting of "Mother" wasn't nearly as large a problem: it went to Lindsay's real-life wife, the noted actress Dorothy Stickney. I got to see Stickney on stage back in 1969 during my teenage theatregoing years in a four-performance flop, Brian Friel's The Mundy Scheme. She played the part of a little old lady (seventy-one at the time), and it's nice to report that Stickney didn't let that bomb serve as her last stand. When the great Irene Ryan took ill during the original production of Pippin, it was Dorothy Stickney who succeeded her in the role of "Granny." It was highly appropriate that her final Broadway show would have her singing "No Time At All," with its refrain of "It's time to start living," as she didn't leave this earth until three weeks before her one-hundred and second birthday.
Life with Father had its try out in summer stock in Skowhegan, Maine, common for its day. Stickney was quoted as having said: ''We weren't at all sure we were good enough for the parts. We had never originally intended to play them ourselves.'' As for whether it would be a hit upon bringing it to New York, the odds seemed to be stacked against the entire enterprise.
According to the New York Times, "The opening night was filled with minor disasters. In the first scene the actress playing the maid accidentally dropped a tray of dishes, and, later, several actors forgot their lines." Years later, when recalling these events, Stickney told the same paper that she and her husband went home and cried that night: ''Little did we realize that the play would last through World War II.''
Unquestionably, what made the Life with Father rack up 3,224 performances, was that it was of its time. The situation in Europe in 1939 being what it was, the play gave audiences a wholesomeness they were craving. Its depiction of a large family attempting to keep things together as the world was changing all around them, was both pertinent and nostalgic at the same time: a winning combination. The Lindsays commitment was (for reasons both personal and financial) a strong one. They returned to their original roles in 1947 in order to take the play past the 3,183th mark, when it became the longest running show in Broadway history. They stayed on a few weeks longer, until it closed on July 12th after 3,224 performances. One month later, its Hollywood film version had its world premiere. And guess what city the publicists arranged for that to happen? Skowhegan, Maine—where it all began. The film starred William Powell and Irene Dunne (at their very best) and was produced by Warner Bros, which bought the stage property for $500,000 (a great deal of money back in the day). It was their biggest earner in 1947 and received four Academy Award nominations. Powell won the New York Film Critics Award for Best Actor, alongside another terrific performance he gave that year in The Senator Was Indiscreet.
As plot goes, Life with Father didn't offer much of one. Mostly anecdotal, it concerns itself with Mother's need to find a new maid; the eldest son's interest in a new young girl; and the storyline's main thread: the attempt by Mother to get Father properly baptized in order that "he may enter the kingdom of God." All of which led to its famous curtain line, which borderlined on the blasphemous. Finally capitulating to his wife's pleadings, Father agrees to go to church. When his son asks "Going to the office, Father?," he is met by Father's snapping back, "No! I'm going to be baptized, damn it!"
For the film, the line was censored. William Powell was left only to "act" the last two words without saying them. And damn it if he doesn't pull it off.
Lobby card for the 1947 film version.
A year after Life with Father closed, Lindsay and Crouse were back again with an adaptation of Clarence Day's sequel, Life with Mother, which had been published posthumously. In fact, Life with Father was also published after Day's death. He succumbed to pneumonia at age sixty-one, having been semi-invalided much of his life due to crippling arthritis. He died never knowing how much the stories of his family were appreciated by audiences the world over.
Dorothy Stickney and Howard Lindsay in Life with Mother (1948),
surrounded by four of their stage sons.
Life with Mother opened at the Empire, the same theatre as its predecessor, and ran for a year. The property's popularity extended to the airwaves, when between 1953 and 1955, a TV series of Life with Father aired on CBS, starring Leon Ames and Lurene Tuttle in the leads.
Unfortunately, due to what are plainly its misogynistic ways, Life with Father is rarely revived anymore. There’s no denying that today, Mother and Father would be revealed as the sexist patriarch and submissive wife that they are, as outdated as the horse and buggy of the time it depicts. But whether it ever sees the light of day again, Life with Father has secured its place in theatre history. For due to audiences no longer interested in keeping plays running as long as musicals, it’s safe to say that no other will ever achieve such longevity. For that alone, I salute it.
If you enjoy these columns, check out Up in the Cheap Seats: a Historical Memoir of Broadway, now available at Amazon.com. Please email me with comments or questions at Ron@ronfassler.org.