Clifton Webb, whether playing Lynn Belvedere, Frank Bunker Gilbreth or Horace Pennypacker, battled kids (and kid actors) as no one else in Hollywood couldIn Henry Levin's "The Remarkable Mr. Pennypacker" (1959), based on the popular Liam O'Brien play, the bracingly fey Clifton Webb got to play for one last time - and to refine - a character he had made all his own.
Namely, the precise curmudgeon who, either by design or accident, ends up in the company of a lot of children, a role/character which also appealed to Cary Grant. A singular mainstay of the Fox stable of actors, the stage-trained Webb proved his acting chops in such serious films as Otto Preminger's "Laura" (1944), Edmund Goulding's "The Razor's Edge" (1946) and Jean Negulesco's "Titanic" (1953), among others.
But for all intents and purposes, he became his own one-man franchise in a string of family-friendly films about kids.
There was Walter Lang's sublime "Sitting Pretty" (1946), so successful that it spawned two sequels ("Mr. Belvedere Goes to College" and "Mr. Belvedere Rings the Bell"). Then came Lang's "Cheaper by the Dozen" (1950), about the sprawling Gilbreth clan, which also sired a sequel ("Belles on Their Toes"), although one sans Webb, as well as a bad Steve Martin remake. And, finally, there was Levin's "Mr. Scoutmaster" (1953).
"The Remarkable Mr. Pennypacker" came towards the end of Webb's career. He made his last film, Leo McCarey's difficult-to-see "Satan Never Sleeps," in 1962 and he died of a heart attack at age 77 in 1966.
In the delightful
"Pennypacker," Webb assumes the role played on stage by Burgess Meredith - that of one Horace Pennypacker, an unrepentent bigamist who has set up two households full of children in both Philadelphia and Harrisburg, shuttling between the two. Webb gets around the questionable qualities of his character by playing it in his standard way - as a resolute, extremely willful, likable free-thinker.
What's especially impressive about the film - or rather Levin's pacing of it - is that it isn't the least bit hectic or antic, instead taking its composure from its confident star. The terrific cast includes Dorothy McGuire as Mrs. Pennypacker of Philadelphia, Charles Coburn as Webb's father-in-law (and chief foil), Jill St. John (new to films at the time) as one of his older children and Ron Ely (a one-time "Tarzan") as her love interest.
It would be nice if Fox Home Entertainment unearthed "The Remarkable Mr. Pennypacker" - and, for that matter, "Mr. Scoutmaster," too - for a boxed set devoted to Webb. Both have been unseen for far too long.
Note in Passing: The same year, Webb made another film for Levin and Fox, "Holiday for Lovers," from the Ronald Alexander play, also co-starring St. John, along with Jane Wyman, Carol Lynley and Gary Crosby.
Like "The Remarkable Mr. Pennypacker" and "Mr. Scoutmaster," it is a Webb-Levin film that is lost. Three for three.