Feb 13, 2016

William Powell, Life with Father

Won: New York Film Critics Circle - Best Actor

What made William Powell an interesting presence in The Thin Man was that in spite of the fact that he wasn't necessarily doing much in the film, he still bolstered his performance with an inane charm, which in turn made him likably watchable. That is what's severely lacking from Life with Father and the character of Clarence Day, and that's what makes it such a task to finish up the film.

In playing Clarence, a wholly strict and buttoned-up curmudgeon of sorts, Powell is densely lacking in charisma or personality. Instead, he spends the entirety of the movie on one elongated note, running from scene to scene barking out his lines in an upper register. There is no magnetism here as there was in The Thin Man--he is unlikable without being intriguing--and besides the sharp recoils my ears endured from his incessant yelling, I regularly paused the film because I just was not interested in anything it had to offer. This is an interesting scenario because my impression (and anticipation upon viewing this film) of Powell was that he is very adept at comedy. He gets a chuckle here and there in Life with Father, but Powell plays up Clarence's greed and severity pretty strongly, and without the much needed charisma, one ends up perceiving him as rather mean and non-heroic. As a character that's simply supposed to be quirky and difficult to live with, he instead reads as a rude, unpleasant human being, bullying Irene Dunne and the characters around him virtually non-stop for the film's entire two hour duration. At some point, it begins to become irksome to deal with, and what's more aggravating is that it doesn't appear that Clarence changes in any sort of pivotal way by the time the film ends. Why should any of us care about this man if it he seemingly provides us no reason to? Overall, it's a rather unexciting turn from an actor of whom I expected much more from. One typically says that an actor is "wasted" by a film's material, but in this case, it's more as if Powell wasted his own potential on this film with his haphazard approach.


  1. The film is based on a play (which was based on a book) and I've always found it a bit stagy and the plot contrivance of his refusal to be baptized becomes grating after a while. Part of the problem, your right, is Powell. He starts on one note and stays there for the film's duration. The problem is, that note's pretty abrasive. His light comedic touch from the "Thin Man" series or "Libeled Lady" is nowhere to be found. It's too bad, because I've always found 'that' William Powell to be a real charmer.

  2. I don't think I've ever seen this one, but I feel cautioned not to hurry. Nick Charles, Godfrey, Libeled Lady, the teamings with Gable - Powell in the 30's, I think I'll stick with them. He might have been wonderful with Garbo in Ninotchka; I read that illness prevented him in it. He was the last great love of Jean Harlow's life too.

    1. His '30s persona was witty and sardonic and he had chemistry with Loy, Lombard and Gable (and Tracy). Here he's more grouchy and I don't think he and Dunne ever really click. I've always thought of this as his 'career-capping' nomination that might have led to a sentimental win if Ronald Colman hadn't come along with his 'career-capping' nomination the same year in a better film. Timing.

  3. I have to say, that I really enjoyed William Powell's performance and thought he certainly deserved his Oscar nomination. I feel the blustery performance was what was needed to portray the blustery Clarence Day. The Powell charm was found here and there throughout. I found his and Irene Dunne's singing of Sweet Marie while sitting on the sofa showed the sweetness and charm of William Powell. His interactions with the boys were, I believe, conveyed with Victorian reserve perfectly. Everything I've seen William Powell in, has had his sweet, witty, charming personality show through.