The Blackstone Theatre, a mile away from Rialto in Chicago, had been closed for seven years when this play opened there. It was such an instant success that it revived business in the hotels and shops of the entire district. Cecil Smith, the dramatic critic of the Chicago Tribune said, “Lillian Gish is ideally to the part of Vinnie, though a good case could be made in favor of the superior acting technique of her sister, Dorothy, of the Boston-Philadelphia-Detroit company”. “It had been my hope to be able to tour “Life With Father” from one end of this beautiful country of ours to another, but after our try-out tour beginning in 1939, we opened February 19, 1940, at the Blackstone Theatre in Chicago and stayed for a record breaking sixty-six weeks, closing May 24, 1941. People came by car and bus from hundreds of miles around to see us which denied me the pleasure of taking this amusing play to them.” (Lillian Gish)
When Life with Father opened in New York in November 1939, no one could have predicted that it would become the longest-running nonmusical play in Broadway’s history—3,224 performances in more than six years. Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse’s family comedy meant to raise no earthshaking issues. At a time when war news was crowding the daily press, its depiction of the life of an affluent New York family in the “gilded” 1880s delighted audiences nostalgic for crises no larger than those touched off by the irascible but good-natured ” Father.
Lillian saw the play early in the run and offered to head one of the touring companies as “Mother”; Dorothy would do the same in another. Lindsay and Crouse urged Lillian not to sign a run-of-the-play contract since they were about to produce a vehicle that would be ideal for the two sisters. The Gishes did not heed their advice and lost out on the chance to create the hit Arsenic and Old Lace on Broadway. Life with Father kept them gainfully employed for far longer than they had anticipated.
After a one-week tryout in Baltimore, Lillian’s company opened in Chicago on February 19, 1940, where it stayed, with her, for a record-breaking sixty-six weeks. “Mother” Vinnie Day suited Lillian in many ways. She had no trouble passing for “a charming, lovable, and spirited woman of forty.” She certainly had Vinnie’s “lively mind,” even if hers did not dart “quickly away from any practical matter.” There was also the “bustled” era of the play, when women comported themselves with a gentility and grace that Lillian enacted with ease. She knew something of that world, and she loved it. She also shared Vinnie’s strong religious convictions.
In fact, the play’s denouement hinges on Vinnie’s success in coercing her husband to be baptized. While Father, Clarence Day, appears to dominate the play with his patriarchal will, it is Mother, with the conventional impracticality of “the weaker sex,” who gets her way in the end. On D. W. Griffith, Louis B. Mayer, and Irving Thalberg, on Charles Duell and George Jean Nathan, Lillian had successfully tested her ability to prevail over strong men. And whether inspired by Vinnie or not, Lillian even explored the possibilities of motherhood. During her long stay in Chicago, news of her attempt to adopt a baby girl reached the papers. The adoption agency wrote, “There has been no baby girl available who seemed particularly suitable for the very special and unusual environment your home and care would afford. We hope that the right baby may come along in the not too distant future.” Adoptive motherhood was, however, not to be part of Lillian’s future.
Although the politics of Life with Father are primarily sexual, the authors venture a few statements about government as well. True to his era’s commitment to the big-business ethos of Republican America, Father wants protectionist taxes kept high, a view certainly shared by the coterie to which Lillian was allied during the run of the play. “A joyous play brings lovely people into your life. My days we[re] filled happily by knowing Robert E. Wood and his family—through them the idols of us all, Charles and Anne Lindbergh, Col. McCormick.” Wood chaired the board of Sears Roebuck; Lindbergh was widely recognized as America’s greatest living hero; McCormick published the Chicago Tribune, the most powerful newspaper in the Midwest and one of the most influential in the entire United States. (McCormick, Lillian’s closest friend at the time, used her middle name, Diana, in his many letters to her.)
These imposing figures stood far to the right on the political spectrum. They were emphatically opposed to the incumbent president, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and to American intervention in the war in Europe and Asia. Lindbergh, who became their principal spokesperson, had enthusiastically endorsed fascism. His anti-Semitism would soon be his undoing. McCormick refused to publish the reports of state-sponsored murder in Hitler’s Germany forwarded to him from his Berlin correspondent. Pro-Nazi sentiments were, however, not the province of the Second City alone. H. L. Mencken quipped that Hitler would soon “be marching his guns down Oxford Street.” More seriously, Mencken wrote, “It is my belief that if Hitler landed on the English coast tomorrow thousands of Englishmen would cheer him.”
— Charles Affron —