Sitting Pretty (1948): Walter Lang’s Comedy, Starring Clifton Webb as Nanny

Rather incredibly, Clifton Webb became a box office star at middle-age, when he played Lynn Belvedere, the self-styled genius and eccentric educator in the broad but solid comedy, Sitting Pretty.

Our Grade: B (*** out of *****)

The Fox comedy hit is directed by Walter Lang from a screenplay by F. Hugh Herbert, based on the novel by Gwen davenport. Herbert won the Writers Guild of America for Best Written American Comedy. 

The film’s original title was “Belvedere,” but it was later changed to Sitting Pretty. John Payne was meant to play the role of the husband.

Belvedere accepts the job of babysitting the troublesome children of Harry and Tracey King (Robert Young and Maureen O’Hara).  Advertising their need for a nanny, they are most impressed by the credentials they receive by mail from Lynn Belvedere, whom they assume to be a sweet old lady.

Neither sweet nor a lady, Mr. Belvedere turns out to be a snobbish man and opinionated whiz.  He wins the job in an unusual way by dumping a bowl of cold oatmeal on the head of the couple’s most contentious offspring!  He proves that he can bring order out of the chaos that prevails in the household.

At first the family chafes at Belvedere’s imperiousness and unlimited resourcefulness, but gradually everyone–especially the children–grow fond of the man.

The couple’s snoopy neighbor, Clarence Appleton (Richard Haydn), noting that Belvedere spends quite a lot of time in the house when the husband is away, begins spreading rumors of a clandestine affair.

Belvedere himself contributes to the gossip by working on a “secret project” in his room. That project turns out to be a salacious book about the community where he is staying, a revealing volume that exposes the pettiness and hypocrisy of several respectable citizens. The book’s blurb describes it as “a screaming satire on suburban manners and morals.”

Hammond fires Harry and Bill, and then announces his decision to sue Belvedere, who is pleased, hoping the publicity to increase the sales of his book. He hires Harry and Bill to defend him, then reveals the source of his information: Clarence Appleton. The informant flees, with Hammond and others in hot pursuit.

Harry nearly loses his job over the ensuing scandal, but when the community becomes world famous and the object of increased business activity, Belvedere becomes a hero.  Despite his fame, Belvedere agrees to keep his job, as his successful book is only the first volume of what will become a trilogy.

One of the first Hollywood satires of suburbia, Sitting Pretty was a huge commercial success, one of 1948’s Top Ten grossing pictures.

Sequels

Clifton Webb made such vivid an impression as Mr. Belvedere—he garnered his first and only Best Actor Oscar nomination– that he repeated the role in two sequels, Mr. Belvedere Goes to College (1949) and Mr. Belvedere Rings the Bell (1951).

From then on, Webb became known (and typecast) for his acerbic  manners and precise comic timing. Webb gets to do yoga and dance in this film, cashing in on his skills as a Broadway star accomplished in dancing and singing, as well as comedy.

Webb also played variations of Mr. Belvedere (with emphasis on his “child psychology” tactics) in such films as Cheaper by the Dozen and Mr. Scoutmaster.

After failed attempts at launching a TV series based on the Gwen Davenport-created character, Mr. Belvedere settled into a long video run in 1985, with Christopher Hewett in the title role and sportscaster Bob Uecker as Belvedere’s nonplused employer.

Oscar Nominations: 1

Best Actor: Clifton Webb

Oscar Awards: None

Oscar Context:

The winner of the 1948 Best Actor Oscar was Laurence Olivier for Hamlet, which also won Best Picture.

Cast
Robert Young as Harry King
Maureen O’Hara as Tacey King
Clifton Webb as Lynn Belvedere
John Russell as Bill Philby
Louise Allbritton as Edna Philby
Randy Stuart as Peggy
Ed Begley as Horatio J. Hammond
Larry Olsen as Larry King
Anthony Sydes as Tony King
Richard Haydn as Clarence Appleton
Willard Robertson as Mr. Ashcroft
Betty Lynn as Ginger

 

Credits:
20th Century Fox

Directed by Walter Lang
Produced by Samuel G. Engel
Screenplay by F. Hugh Herbert, based on Belvedere, Gwen Davenport’s 1947 novel
Music by Alfred Newman
Cinematography: Norbert Brodine
Edited by Harmon Jones
Release date: March 10, 1948
Running time: 83 minutes

Note:

I had a chance to revisit the film and my notes, when TCM showed it on Thanksgiving Day, November 28, 2019.