Cheaper By The Dozen: Review
Cheaper by the Dozen offers the representation of a father we all wish we had, and all fathers wish they could live up to. Although he’s no Cary Grant or Gregory Peck, Clifton Webb as Frank Gilbreth is undoubtedly one of the most endearing father figures ever to reach the silver screen, and with a dozen kids to raise in this family friendly film you can quickly see the wisdom of his old fashioned ways.
Clifton Webb (Laura, The Mr. Belvedere films) nearly always played the straight-laced man who valued manners, decorum and preciseness above all else. His character's ideas were exceedingly high and their expectations of others even higher. So, it was one of the most brilliant bits of casting to have Webb play a real life efficiency expert managing a large brood while coping with the changing social times of the American landscape in the 1910s.
Now, the conflicts in the Gilbreth family are pretty benign considering the family problems of most modern Americans. At one point the family debates over the question of whether to own a dog or not (dad is dead set against it), and another pressing concern arises when the oldest daughter defiantly bobs her hair (she’s trying to break new strides for her younger sisters). But in truth these modest dilemmas exist today, demonstrating that although the times may change family dynamics will always remain the same. I think parents and kids alike are likely to share a unique moment of understanding when they realize that whatever conflicts they may have they are not unique and will continue to be the bane of family coexistence ad infinitum.
What really holds this quaint film together is the strength of Webb’s performance as the demanding patriarch. His pragmatic father is far from being a two-dimensional character. His characterization of this once living and breathing man is not just of some character on a page but allows for the human factor. He is as tough as he is kind, and is as logical as he is reasonable. The comedy comes when pressing his greatest strength, which is also his greatest flaw and that is the insistence that he is always right (efficiency will out!). And as much fun as there is made at the father’s expense, there is always a large amount of respect maintained for his position as the beloved patriarch. This father is never mocked or made a fool, Webb’s own indomitable personae (which I suspect mirrors that of the real life Gilbreth) makes that impossible.
Jeanne Crain (State Fair, A Letter to Three Wives) is the lovely fresh-faced, eldest daughter who suffers countless social indignities at the hands of her outdated father, but ultimately experiences an indescribable moment of pride over the effect he has on her classmates at a school dance (I get chocked up just thinking about it). Myrna Loy (The Thin Man, The Best Years of Our Lives) is likewise a huge asset as the devoted wife and understanding mother who provides the common ground on which compromises can be made.
Ultimately, Webb’s father is seen as a much wiser and reasonable man than his children first realize. He is a man they can count on and admire for the values in which he stands, or more simply put for being a dad.