"Madam, I am the character of my home."
Clarence Day, Sr. (Powell) is a New York City stockbroker, married to the lively but slightly scatterbrained Vinnie (Dunne). They live on Madison Avenue with their four sons, who range from the college-age Clarence Jr. to five-year-old Harlan. Although Clarence Day tries to keep his household as neatly ordered as his office, the activities of his family frequently thwart this goal. Though affluent, he insists on keeping a tight budget (cabs and charge accounts both come in as objects of his ire), while Vinnie sees nothing wrong with spending some of the money they have on dining out and pretty decorations.
The plot follows the typical ridiculous doings of the Day family, from Clarence Sr.'s outrage over the visit of Vinnie's cousin and her young friend Mary, John's dodgy job selling "medicine," and Whitney's attempts to learn his catechism. The latter half of the film follows Vinnie falling ill and her husband's reaction to it, and her reaction to his dismissal of baptism.
Elizabeth Taylor, starting to make the transition to more adult roles, plays Mary, who becomes Clarence Jr.'s love interest.
This work provides examples of:
- All-Natural Snake Oil: The "Bartlet's Benificent Balm" that John is hired to sell. It turns Vinnie's minor ailment into a medical emergency and kills a neighbor's dog. (This is Truth in Television; before the Food & Drug Administration came along, the market was rife with "medicines" that were loaded with alcohol and narcotics.)
- Artifact of Doom: Clarence Jr. finds himself acting very strangely when wearing his father's old suits—he can't do anything in the suit that his father wouldn't do, like kneel in church or let a girl sit on his lap.
- Aww, Look! They Really Do Love Each Other: For all of Clarence's shouting and insensitivity, he rushes home as soon as he hears that Vinnie's illness is worse and is deeply concerned. He's much more open and affectionate when she recovers.
- Bridal Carry: Clarence carries Vinnie back upstairs after she comes down to find out what he was shouting (read: praying) about.
- Comically Missing the Point:
Vinnie: Clare, I don't think you understand what the church is for.
- Clarence Sr. complains that he doesn't go to church so he can be preached at like "some lost sheep," and furthermore, if there's one thing the church should leave alone, it's a man's soul.
- He keeps asking Vinnie why she can't keep their maids from quitting, oblivious to the fact that it's his behavior driving them off.
- The page quote is his classic response when the director of a maid-hiring service protests his refusal to answer any of her questions in lieu of just walking into the back room and ordering one of the maids to follow him.
- Control Freak: Clarence Sr. tries to be this at home and frequently insists that the household must be run in the same orderly way as his business, but it never takes.
- Deliberate Values Dissonance: Both Clarences espouse the era's incredibly paternalistic view of "females." Clarence Jr. even tells Mary Skinner that girls going to college is a waste of time and money. (It's more dissonant in the 21st century than 1947, but the film takes place about thirty years before women's suffrage.)
- Dreadful Musician: Clarence Junior. Supposedly he plays the violin, but you can see why his father says he needs more practice.
- Entendre Failure: John and Clarence Jr. reason that the medicine will be good for their mother because it purports to treat "women's complaints." She's a woman, and she's complaining about her headache. They don't realize it's a euphemism for menstrual problems.
- Exact Words: Clarence Sr. backs out of his promise to get baptized after Vinnie recovers, but she gets him when he rails that he wouldn't get baptized as long as her latest purchase (a ceramic statue of a pug) is still in the house. She immediately dispatches Clarence Jr. to return it and makes arrangements.
- Fiery Redhead: Annie, the first maid in the story, watches with trepidation as the Day children come down for breakfast, each just as redheaded as the last.
- Gender-Blender Name: Mr. Day's nickname of "Clare" sounds like this to modern audiences.
- Gosh Dang It to Heck!: Mr. Day's frequent outbursts of "Oh, GAD!" are a replacement for "Oh God."
- Hair-Trigger Temper: Clarence Day Sr. can be driven into a rage by politicians, ministers, houseguests, sloppy bookkeeping, bad coffee, the idea of paying for a cab, and accidents on the New Haven line.
- Insistent Terminology: John keeps trying to correct his father that the tonic he sold was not "dog medicine."
- Large Ham: Clarence Day Sr. is loud, bombastic, and flies off the handle at the smallest provocation. It's amazing there was any scenery left intact after William Powell got through with a scene.
- Ms. Red Ink: The most frequent source of disagreement between Clarence Sr. and Vinnie are her spending habits and lack of precision in recording them. Her solution is to open charge accounts so that the shops will "do my bookeeping for me."
- Nice Job Breaking It, Hero!: John and Clarence Jr. put some of the medicine in Vinnie's tea when she catches the cold going around. It gives her such violent attacks of nausea that two doctors and the minister are called in. One of the doctors accurately describes it as symptoms of poisoning.
- O.O.C. Is Serious Business: When informed that his wife is terribly ill, Mr. Day immediately ends his meeting with a client and takes a cab home.
- Parenthetical Swearing: The original line at the end of the film was "I'm going to be baptized, dammit!" but the Hays Code forced the omission of the final word. However, it's pretty clearly implied in Powell's delivery.
- Rage Against the Heavens: When the minister starts a prayer by asking for mercy on "this miserable sinner", meaning Vinnie, Clarence Sr. takes charge of the supplication to the Almighty by shouting at the ceiling that his wife is not a miserable sinner and He knows it, and that He had better cure her right now.
- Running Gag: Although Annie's departure is the only one shown, every time there is a maid in a scene it's someone new.
- Suspiciously Specific Sermon: After Vinnie informs him of Clarence's unbaptized state, Reverend Dr. Lloyd's sermon that Sunday is all about how unthinkable it is that anyone would reach adulthood without undergoing that sacrament.
- Unusually Uninteresting Sight: Everyone is so used to Mr. Day's habit of haranguing the newspaper that they can't understand what Annie is talking about when she says he has a visitor, nor why she leaves in tears after Mr. Day looks right at her and says that he'll see "you" sent to jail and that "you" won't be able to escape the consequences of "your" actions. (In reality, he's addressing the mayor over a new plan to raise taxes.)
- Unwitting Instigator of Doom: Mary Skinner's dinner conversation about the differences between Episcopalians and Methodists lead Clarence Sr. to offhandedly reveal that his free-thinking parents never had him baptized. This becomes the main conflict for the rest of the film. When he finally has his arm twisted into it, he snaps at Mary that it's all her fault.