Home > Greatest Scores of the Twentieth Century, Reviews > LIFE WITH FATHER – Max Steiner



Original Review by Craig Lysy

Warner Brothers Studios executive Jack L Warner believed that the Broadway play “Life With Father” (1939), which had a record breaking theatrical run of 2,224 performances over 401 weeks could be successfully adapted for the big screen. He purchased the film rights and assigned production to Robert Bruckner, providing a generous $4.7 million budget. Donald Ogden Stewart was hired to adapt the play and write the screenplay, and renown director Michael Curtiz was tasked with directing. A fine cast was assembled, which included William Powell as Clarence Day Sr., Irene Dunne as Vinnie Day, and Elizabeth Taylor as Mary Skinner.

The story is set in New York City circa 1880 and follows the life of stockbroker Clarence Day Sr. and his family life, which he struggles, and often fails to manage as efficiently as his office. Our paterfamilias is arrogant, authoritarian, yet has a heart of gold. He has four red headed sons and when all is said and done, his wife Vinnie really runs the home. Sub-plots of Clarence searching for a maid, a teenage romance between Clarence Jr. and heartthrob Mary Skinner, his sons Clarence Jr. and John embarking on a misadventure selling patented medications, and Vinnie’s tireless effort to get Clarence Sr. baptized all contribute to a family with never a dull moment. The film resonated with audiences and secured a commercial profit of $1.9 million. Critics praised the film for offering a fine and entertaining adaptation of the play. The film earned four Academy Award nominations including Best Actor, Best Cinematography, Best Art Direction and Best Film Score.

Renowned director Michael Curtiz and Max Steiner had successfully collaborated on an astounding nineteen prior films, including classics such as “The Charge of the Light Brigade” in 1936, and “Casablanca” in 1942. He was his go to composer and Steiner was ecstatic to be offered the assignment. He took in the play three times to get the feel of the narrative and consulted with its playwrights Howard Lindsey and Russell Crouse regarding 1880s period songs that would be needed, including; “Sweet Marie” by Raymond Moore and Cy Warman, “Love’s Old Sweet Song” by J. L. Molloy and G. Clifton Bingham, “Sweet Genevieve” by Henry Tucker and George Cooper, “Ye Servants of God” by William Croft and Charles Wesley, “The Treasure Waltz” from The Gypsy Baron by Johann Strauss, “Daddy Wouldn’t Buy Me a Bow-Wow” by Joseph Tabrar, and the hymn “O Come, All Ye Faithful”.

Steiner understood that the film at its heart was a comedy, and so conceived that his musical approach would be to speak to, and support the film’s pleasantries, positive attributes and pleasures. In a significant departure from his modus operandi, Steiner only composed a single original theme, but what a theme it is! The Main Theme supports Clarence Sr., our stern yet loving paterfamilias. It emotes as a confident, self-assured, and purposeful promenade. The theme’s emphatic, descending contour speaks to his authoritarianism, with its sole tender performance attuned to his loving wife Vinnie. Vinnie’s Theme interpolates the melody from the song “Sweet Marie” (1893) by Will F. Denny. The song is gentile, pleasant, and flows with joie de vie. Lastly, there is remarkably no commercial release of the score. As such, I will use film scene descriptors and time indices serving as links.

00:00 “Main Title” offers a classic Steiner score highlight where he masterfully sets the tone of the film. It opens with Steiner’s classic anthem for the Warner Brother’s Studios logo. Ascending, resplendent strings are joined by fanfare dramatico declarations of the Main Theme at 0:34, which supports the display of the film’s title. The opening credits display on stereoscope photos of New York City circa 1880. At 00:47 we flow atop strings romantico into the song like Vinnie’s Theme. At 1:02 a happily strolling Main Theme moves to the forefront. The melody shifts at 01:41 to a more wistful and sentimental rendering to conclude the opening credits. We enter the film proper at 02:04 “The Day Family” atop sparkling effervescence as “New York 1883” displays. We see the elite brownstone mansions of the famous tree lined Madison Ave., arriving at the mansion marker “Clarence Day”. A buoyant Main Theme carries a policeman’s walk down the street, shifting to celli as the milkman delivers fresh milk. Spritely strings felice support the cook plating the morning muffins and placing them in the dumbwaiter. Annie pulls the hot dish up supported by an ascent motif. At 3:36 a playful-comic rendering of the Main Theme supports Annie’s transport of the muffins to the dining room. At 8:02 Clarence Day Sr. descends the stairs to the dining room carried by a stately rendering of the Main Theme. He greets Vinnie and his four sons and we bear witness to his imperious, austere formality. We close the scene at 18:01 with Vinnie singing her pleasant song theme, “Sweet Marie”.

Annie goes to serve the master coffee and unknown to her, finds him raving mad practicing a speech he intends to make at the bank. She believes the threat to throw you into jail is directed at her. At 19:53 “Annie Takes a Tumble” Annie falls down the stairs carried by a descent motif with frantic strings following as Margaret and Vinnie come to her aid. Clarence is not pleased with the new maid and as he departs for work, Annie departs sobbing, carried by a distraught musical narrative. He insists to Vinnie that he will hire a new maid and his pompous theme carries his departure, as he boards a trolley car. At 21:25 strings spiritoso bubbling with life support the arrival of cousin Cora and her friend Mary. Mary is immediately smitten with Clarence Jr., so much so that he becomes distracted. 24:39 “Employment Agency” reveals Mr. Day arriving at the agency to hire a new maid carried by his theme, full of determination. He is brusque with the receptionist, a defies her by going in to personally inspect the candidates. He chooses a woman named Hilda and then departs, dismissing the receptionist’s inquiries into his character.

Mr. Day has a fit and argues with Vinnie when he learns cousin Cora and Mary will be staying with them for a week. 34:26 “Clarence Sings” reveals him playing the piano and singing the English ballad “Love’s Old Sweet Song” after seeing a photo of Vinnie. The moment is lost and anger resurges when Clarence Jr. advises him that they are committed to eating at Delmonico’s tonight. He is adamantly opposed and when Mary meets him at the stairs and says she could live in this beautiful house forever, it is the last straw. An ascent motif carries his aggrieved departure up the stairs. Vinnie’s Theme joins on strings felice as she goes upstairs to retrieve her husband. 36:16 “Clarence and Mary” reveals that he too has become smitten as he joins her in the drawing room. After a sparkling prelude, a soft romance for strings unfolds as they converse about their favorite colors. They then decide to play a duet diegetically, “Ye Servants of God” with Mary on piano and Clarence on an out of tuned violin.

40:20 “Delmonico’s” reveals the family dining at the famed restaurant, and Steiner creates an elegant ambiance interpolating “The Treasure Waltz”. In an unscored scene Vinnie is stunned when Clarence discloses that he was never baptized and will not as an adult man get it one now. Later that night they continue the argument, but he remains adamant. At Sunday mass the next day Reverend Lloyd, who has been informed by Vinnie, declares the importance of baptism during his sermon, which agitates Clarence. 47:14 “Departing Church” reveals the Day family departing church supported by non-descript organ music. 51:41 “Remember It’s Sunday” reveals Vinnie seeing that Mary and Clarence are visibly smitten and then reminding them as she departs, that it is Sunday. A romance for strings with a prominent solo violin d’Amore with harp delicato adornment supports their conversation. At 52:07 the romantic moment is shattered with a comic musical narrative when Clarence’s three younger brother barge in, saying mother told them to wait for dinner in the living room. Our two love birds escape to the terrace balcony and the string borne romantic idyllicness resumes with a flirtatious solo violin. Yet Clarence Jr. becomes his father, supported by his theme, when he insists that after she returns home, that she must write him first. She resists and tries using her feminine wiles, now reflected musically, to manipulate him, yet he acts imperiously (like his father whose suit he is wearing). At 54:58 when she sits on his lap and lays her head on his chest, he rebuffs her overt affection, which devastates her. The strings become aggrieved as she tells him she never wants to see him again, and runs away carried by strings of flight into Clarence Sr.’s office weeping, engulfed in a storm of harp glissandi.

A father son talk follows where young Clarence is presented a very patriarchal view of how the world, and a man and a woman needs to work. Music concludes the lecture at 59:57 in “Be Firm” as the young Clarence departs carried by his father’s pompous theme. He meets Mary in the hallway and orders her ‘firmly’ to write him first, which she completely ignores as she returns upstairs. We close on a crescendo of outrage as Clarence Sr., who is reviewing the weekly bills in his study, finds a bill of $5 for a new coffee pot and erupts with anger. After a lengthy debate Vinnie once again manages to confound Clarence about her spending, managing to weasel out of him another $1.50. 1:05:52 “The Accounts Are All Square Again” reveals her departure carried by a very happy and satisfying statement of her theme with interplay of his flustered theme. 1:08:16 “Mary Snubs Clarence” reveals she is still angry over young Clarence’s overbearing behavior and refuses to shake his hand or write to him. As she departs strings spiritoso emote a chagrined variant of the Main Theme. After they depart strings of flight carry Clarence’s run to the desk where he begins writing a letter to Mary.

A letter from Mary arrives, which Clarence Sr. mistakes as addressed to him. He takes offense that it is so “Lovey Dovey”, crumbles it and throws it into the unlit fireplace. 1:12:45 “Oh Clare, Hush Up” reveals Vinnie is feeling ill and Clare offers insensitive support, which sends her back to her bedroom weeping carried by her theme borne by strings doloroso. He follows her upstairs carried by a distressed rendering of his theme and strings spiritoso of flight carry Clarence Jr. to retrieve and read Mary’s love letter. Upstairs in Vinnie’s bedroom Clare enters carried by his sad theme. His second attempt to cheer her up goes awry and she angrily orders him to leave and go to the office, which he does carried by his pompous theme. 1:14:03 “Boys In Business” reveals John coming home with his new plan to make money – selling bottles of medicine, which claim to cure every malady under the sun! A sparkling musical narrative supports his enthusiasm and selling of the scheme to Clarence Jr. To test it, they pour some in their mother’s tea.

1:16:18 “Vinnie is Ill” reveals Whitney going to his father’s office and informing him he has to return home at once as mom is very ill. Clarence orders a cab. His pompous theme carries his departure and escalates with the horse drawn carriage, increasing in tempo from trotting to galloping as he orders the driver to go faster. At home he is greeted by the doctor who informs him that Vinnie seems poisoned. The doctor departs, saying he will return, while the maid Clare goes up to see her. 1:19:56 “Baptism” reveals Whitney practicing his catechism with his father, and baptism coming up once again, which causes an awkward moment. Clarence has had enough and commands the boys to leave, their departure carried by a bassoon comico and kindred woodwinds. Outside a string ascent carries Clare up to Vinnie’s Room. Later, Clarence’s beleaguered theme supports his anxious pacing. A warm Vinnie’s Theme joins, and becomes romantic after he gazes at a photo of her on the piano. He sees her rubber plant, goes over to water it and then begins to fret again supported by his aggrieved theme. Dr. Humphries returns with Dr. Somers, whom he has asked to consult.

1:25:28 “The Doctors Consult” reveals them asking for a private room so they may consult. The atmosphere seems grim as they close the door and Clarence seems anxious. A forlorn rendering of his theme carries him to the living room, where he joins Reverend Lloyd. He asks Clarence to join him in prayer, but Clarence explodes with anger after the reverend beseeches God to forgive this sinner (Vinnie). Clarence bellows for God to have mercy, and Vinnie comes down to him. He promises her he will get baptized if only she will get well. She faints at the news and as he carries up to her room a joyous rendering of her theme carries them. 1:27:42 “Shopping” offers a delightful score highlight. It reveals Vinnie and the four boys shopping at an import company supported by a resplendent and sparkling musical narrative, joined by her buoyant theme as she marvels at all the beautiful clothes and hats. 1:37:02 “Vinnie’s Plan” offers a tender score highlight. It reveals that she agrees to return her pug dog ceramic in exchange to Clare getting baptized. As Clarence Jr. departs with it, she opens a music box, which plays her happy theme, “Sweet Marie”, supported by her singing its lyrics. He takes the moment to gift her a ring from Tiffany’s and then tells her how there has not been a single moment in twenty years that he has not loved her. The revelation brings thankful tears of joy and as she lays her head on his shoulder, she sings again “Sweet Marie”, to which he joins for a tender husband and wife moment.

1:40:20 “Clarence And His Sons” offers the music box rendering of Vinnie’s Theme as we see Clarence bantering with his four sons in the dining room. 1:45:13 “They’re Back!” reveals Clarence erupting when he sees a taxi dropping off cousin Cora and Mary at his house. Steiner offers a vibrant musical narrative, which juxtaposes Clarences outrage. But soon his imperious theme moves to the forefront as he forbids anyone to answer the door. Trilling woodwinds of delight support Vinnie greeting them at the door as Clarence fumes. 1:51:38 “Clarence Concedes” reveals Clarence finally conceding to Vinnie’s demand that he get baptized as the carriage arrives to take the family to church. A celebratory Vinnie’s Theme supports her joy as they prepare to depart. As Clarence departs, he yells “Oh Gad!” and his pompous theme caries him to the carriage. As the carriage travels along Madison Ave., a vibrant trotting rendering of his theme carries their progress, concluding in a flourish to end the film. 1:52:34 “End Credits” is supported by a grand and most satisfying rendering of the Main Theme.

“Life With Father” was by all accounts Max Steiner’s most enjoyable assignment of the year, which earned him an Academy Award nomination, a Golden Globe win, and a written commendation by Warner Studio Executives who credited the film’s massive commercial success to his score. Steiner understood that the film’s narrative focused on the Day family’s paterfamilias Clarence Sr. and his adorable wife Vinnie. To that end he created memorable themes for both, which perfectly embodied their personas, and deep abiding love for each other; a confident promenade for him, and a sweet canzone romantica for her. Most interesting is the versability of Clarence’s Theme with its multiplicity of expressions; ranging from imperious, pompous, and determined, as well as its articulation with a variation of tempi, such as trotting and galloping. In scene after scene the expression and interplay of these two primary themes brought the film to life and endeared us to these characters. The remaining music for Steiner’s soundscape offers classic ambiance, where he speaks to moods, and emotions of the other characters, none of which were given a personal thematic identity.

Folks, this score was a departure from Max Steiner’s historic modus operandii, with only two themes written, and only one that was original. Yet the confluence achieved with the film’s narrative was masterful and resonated with both critics and the public alike. A scant two minutes of music from Life With Father was released in the 1970s on a Tony Thomas-produced vinyl LP entitled ‘The Film Music of Max Steiner,’ along with selections from Steiner’s scores for Santa Fe Train, A Star Is Born, and Bird of Paradise, but the full score has never been released commercially on CD, and so I add this fine effort to the list of truly wonderful Golden Age scores, which merit a rerecording. Until that day we must be content to experience Steiner’s handiwork while watching the film, as the LP is long out of print.

For those of you unfamiliar with the score, I have embedded a YouTube link to the opening Fanfare and Main Title; https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ffUwMRjX98g

Buy the Life With Father soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Suite from Santa Fe Trail (8:35)
  • Suite from A Star Is Born (8:20)
  • Theme from Life With Father (2:15)
  • Suite from Bird of Paradise (29:35)

Running Time: 48 minutes 42 seconds

Medallion ML-309 (1947/1975)

Music composed and conducted by Max Steiner. Orchestrations by Murray Cutter. Recorded and mixed by XXXX. Score produced by Max Steiner and Leo F. Forbstein. Album produced by Tony Thomas.

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