When Warner Bros. decided to film Life with Father (1947), the 1939 hit play by Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse, they quickly settled on William Powell for the role of Father (Clarence Day Sr.) and borrowed him from MGM. Finding the right actress to play Mother (Vinnie Day) proved a more difficult task, though. Several actresses were tested, including Rosalind Russell, Rosemary DeCamp and even Mary Pickford who, wishing to make her comeback to the screen after a thirteen-year absence, was very eager to play the part. None of these ladies was chosen, however, with Pickford quite devastated when she was rejected. (Producer Robert Buckner recalled: "[Studio boss] Jack Warner and [director] Mike Curtiz were cowards about telling her, so they told me to go to Pickfair and inform America's sweetheart that she was washed up in pictures. She made a great entrance down a staircase and was smiling and beaming, thinking she had the part. She just dissolved in front of my eyes when I told her the bad news.")
|1945, Bette Davis' costume test for Life with Father|
The studio's initial choice for the female lead was Bette Davis, Warners' top leading lady at the time. While Bette wanted the role, the authors of the play weren't convinced she would be right for it, so they insisted that Michael Curtiz shoot a test with her doing a comedy scene. Curtiz travelled to New York to show the test to the theatre people but they were unimpressed and Bette was rejected. In a 1980's interview Bette said she didn't mind losing the part as she didn't want to work with Curtiz again anyway. (Having worked with Curtiz six times, Bette said about him: "He was not a performer's director ... You had to be very strong with him. And he wasn't fun. He could humiliate people, but never me. He was a real BASTARD! Cruelest man I have ever known. But he knew how to shoot a film well.")
The part of Vinnie Day was eventually given to freelance actress Irene Dunne, at the time still a top box-office draw. Irene thought the role wasn't appealing at all —she hated Vinnie's ditsiness— and refused it several times. It took a lot of persuasion from Curtiz before Dunne finally accepted: "... I accepted the part because it seemed to be rewarding enough to be in a good picture that everyone will see." And indeed — Life with Father became a huge box-office hit, receiving generally good reviews and four Oscar nominations to boot (including nominations for William Powell and Max Steiner for his score).
In December 1945, after returning from New York where he had screened Bette Davis' test for Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse, Michael Curtiz sent Bette the following telegram in care of the Plaza Hotel in Laredo, Texas, where she and her third husband William Grant Sherry were still enjoying their honeymoon. Curtiz informed her that the people in New York didn't approve of the test, finding her performance "too powerful, too dominating, too superior and without any naivete...". The director went on to say that he was "heart-broken" as he had looked forward to working with her again. Whether Curtiz was sincere or not I don't know; at any rate, as mentioned above, Bette didn't like working with him and the two never worked together again.
Mrs. William Grant Sherry
December 14, 1945
Dear Bette: Just returned from New York after projecting your test to the group that operates "Life with Father". Bette, it was worse than the Potsdam Conference. I was not born to be a diplomat, so probably hurt a few people's feelings. I was and still am honestly convinced that you are the woman to play the part but I could not overcome objections of these critics using all the technical terms of the theatre, such as the characterization is too powerful, too dominating, too superior and without any naivete, etc., etc. I explained the circumstances under which we made the test without much preparation. Tried to convince them that being the great artist you are you could overcome all objections and you could easily characterize the part as it should be played but I was not very successful; was overruled, and I am afraid Bette, we will have to just consider it for the time being forgotten, unless I can change their minds when they come out to the coast and insist upon other tests. All I can tell you is that I am heart-broken as I had looked forward to working with you and I hope some day we can start on a moving picture which will not have to be approved by superior prejudiced critics of the theatre. Much love and happiness to you and your husband— Michael Curtiz
Source: Inside Warner Bros. (1935-1951) (1985), selected and edited by Rudy Behlmer.