Program Notes: The Father of the Bride (1950)
The camera pans across a floor littered with empty liquor bottles, broken wine glasses, and confetti. Finally it comes to rest on a pair of feet.
They belong to Spencer Tracy, who has removed one shoe and is pouring rice out of it.
He glumly looks straight at us.
“I would like to say a few words about weddings,” he says. “I’ve just been through one. Not my own, my daughter’s. Someday in the far future I may be able to remember it with tender indulgence.
“But not now.”
So begins Father of the Bride (1950), a comedy which pulls off a remarkable stylistic juggling act in that it is simultaneously heartwarming and satirical.
The rights to Edward Streeter’s 1949 bestselling comic novel had been purchased by M-G-M producer Pandro S. Berman, who knew almost from the outset that he wanted Vincente Minnelli to direct and 17-year-old Elizabeth Taylor to portray the bride.
Berman had worked with Minnelli on Madame Bovary and with Taylor on National Velvet and was confident of their talents. He also knew he wanted Spencer Tracy as the titular father of the bride, but those plans were almost derailed when a studio executive offhandedly told Jack Benny that he could have the part.
Minnelli immediately recognized that the shtick-prone comic would have been all wrong and had to go through the elaborate charade of conducting a screen test for Benny (who was primarily a radio star) while reassuring Tracy that he was everyone’s first choice all along.
Benny “flunked” the screen test, and Tracy was in.
Father was the most trauma-free shoot of Minnelli’s career. Things whizzed along so effortlessly that principal photography was completed in just four weeks.
The ease with which it was made may have had something to do with its resemblance to an earlier Minnelli film, the musical Meet Me In St. Louis.
Minnelli biographer Emanuel Levy calls Father... “a streamlined New Look refurbishment of Meet Me in St. Louis, with the spotlight shifted from the lovelorn ingénue to her exasperated dad. In both movies a series of small family epiphanies give an elastic plot its shape, while the realistic domestic setting sets the tone for the whole ...
“While Meet Me in St. Louis looked back wistfully to an age of middle-class stability untroubled by depressions or blitzkriegs, Father of the Bride is a Truman-era time capsule, selling the ideal of a return to secure values and suburban comfort.”
The movie has been called “suburban comedic film noir,” a description which recognizes both its humor and its darker themes.
On one level, the film is about money. The family depicted here is upper middle class. Stanley Banks (Tracy) is a partner in a law firm. Mother (Joan Bennett) enjoys the assistance of a full-time maid/cook. They live in a suburban house that even today would be considered a modest mansion.
In short, the Banks family enjoys a standard of living far beyond that of the working stiffs who made up the bulk of the movie going audience in 1950.
And yet Stanley frets and moans and mumbles about all this conspicuous consumption, about all the money being blown on musicians and flowers and caterers and booze. At one point he even seriously suggests to his daughter that if she elopes he’ll make it worth her while.
Moreover, this head of the family finds that he’s absolutely impotent. He’s merely an appendage to this voracious creature – a wedding – that is gobbling up his savings, his time, and especially his beloved daughter.
In the wrong hands Stanley Banks might be considered a skinflint who deserves the indignities heaped upon him. Happily, Spencer Tracy had just the right hands.
At its best this is a story about the bond between father and daughter, and a man’s realization that he’s no longer the leading man in his little girl’s life.
There’s a quietly heartbreaking moment early on when Stanley demands that his daughter wear a more substantial coat to go out on a date. She refuses. But when her fiancé (Don Taylor) makes the same suggestion, she immediately acquiesces.
“Right then I knew that my day was over,” Tracy tells us in the narration that runs throughout the movie. “She’ll always love us, of course, but not in the old way. From now on her love will be doled out like a farmer’s wife tossing scraps to the family rooster.”
Tracy delivers just the right blend of desperation, irritation, and, finally, helpless acceptance of his fate.
He has at least two classic comedy moments. One is his surreal nightmare about arriving late at the wedding only to find that his legs sink up to his knees in the carpet and that his pinstriped pants have been reduced to tatters. Meanwhile the guests look on in horror.
And in one brilliant display of physical comedy, Tracy attempts to squeeze himself into the tuxedo he last wore 20 year earlier.
Observes the Missus: “If that button gives way it’s going to put out somebody’s eye.”
Father of the Bride represented the last time Minnelli would find comfort and warmth in American family life. By the end of the decade he was making films like Some Came Running which depicted an unambiguously dour view of middle-class domesticity.
But in 1950, this was a movie everybody wanted to see. It earned $4.1 million at the box office, making it the year’s sixth top-grossing release. It received Oscar nominations for picture, actor, and screenplay, but won in none of those categories.
Moreover, it spawned a decade’s worth of copy-cat sitcoms on TV. And just a year later Minnelli reassembled the original cast for a sequel, Father’s Little Dividend, in which Stanley Banks becomes a grandfather.
Other films in the series “Vincente Minnelli: A Little Magic”
Saturdays at 1:30 p.m.:
- May 5: Meet Me in St. Louis (1944) Not Rated
- May 12: The Band Wagon (1953) Not Rated
- May 19: Lust for Life (1956) Not Rated
- May 26: An American in Paris (1951) Not Rated
Mondays at 6:30 p.m.:
- May 7: Father of the Bride (1950) Not Rated
- May 14: The Bad and the Beautiful (1952) Not Rated
- May 21: The Clock (1945) Not Rated
Admission to these films is free.
About the Author
Robert W. Butler is a lifelong Kansas City area resident, a graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School and the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. For several decades he was the movie editor of the Kansas City Star; he now writes a movie-themed blog at butlerscinemascene.com. He joined the Library's Public Affairs team in 2012.