Father of the Bride: Minnelli’s Noir Comedy

A noir comedy may sound like a contradiction in terms, since film noir, whether defined in thematic, stylistic, or ideological ways, is typically dark, somber, downbeat and pessimistic. A comedy about wedding, made by Hollywood’s sunniest studio, MGM, sounds even more bizarre. Yet a closer look at Minnelli’s 1950 film offers enough evidence to consider it as a noir comedy, and not only because it was shot in black-and-white.

A gentle satire of the nuptial rites of upper-middle class suburbia, Father of the Bride was a perfect film for a studio that celebrated the ideal American family under the guise of being typical. Producer Pandro Berman hoped that Minnelli would bring to Father of the Bride the same charm and resonance that had marked Meet Me in St. Louis.

There are significant similarities between Meet Me and Father of the Bride. Like Meet Me, Father of the Bride is a basically plotless film, but one with strong premise and several poignant vignettes. In both films, a realistic domestic setting and family epiphanies give the films a more shapely structure. The Smiths and the Bankses alike are defined by upper middle-class existence. In both stories, the home is the arena where the important events happen, and in both, every family member plays a narrowly-defined role based on societys mores.

While Meet Me looks back nostalgically to the turn of the century as an age of stability, Father of the Bride is a Truman-era product that propagated a return to traditional family values after the War. No wonder, Father of the Bride became the prototype for TV sitcoms in the 1950s.

MGM labeled the Banks as a typical family, but there was an undertone of smugness and elitism to them. Though seemingly ordinary, the characters belong to a higher social scale than the average moviegoers at the time. Stanley Banks, or Pop, is the breadwinner, domesticated by the chic matron Ellie, who combines immaculate grooming with feminine practicality. Their teenaged sons, Tommy and Ben, play peripheral roles, and the familys favorite is clearly Kay, nicknamed Kitten. Kay wishes to replicate her mothers life, as if no changes occurred in womens roles since the 1940s.

Minnelli used Beverly Hills North Alpine Drive as a model for Everydale, USA, with white Colonial houses on a tree-lined street. Like most MGM movies, Father of Bride dilutes the more specifically Scarsdale tone of Streeter’s book. It presents a suburban community as an exclusive enclave. In Kays speech about the Dunstans, her in-laws, she says, “they’re as good as you and Mom, which was meant to reassure audiences that they, too, were as legit and desirable as the Bankses.

Nonetheless, not everything is as smooth as it appears to be. Minnellis intimations of middle-class trouble are evident throughout the film. Kay’s wedding reception is an example of claustrophobic giddiness. In the course of the story, Stanley Banks is insulted by the catering staff, is berated by his wife, and is half-trampled at the wedding rehearsal. Stanley can’t even find relief in slumber, where terrifying visions of himself ruining the Protestant rites on the happy day shatters him. As with Meet Me in St. Louis, the manifest buoyant spirit of Father of the Bride constantly collides with the films latent darkness.

Minnelli would never again look at the American family with such cheerful fondness. In later films, Minnelli would be much more critical and cynical of such families, as evident in Some Came Running, with its dysfunctional family and adulterous father, and Home from the Hill, with its repressed, emasculating matriarch. Minnellis late melodramas would show that Metros depiction of the nuclear family was more a product of myth than reality.

But in 1950, as someone who himself had lofty ambitions in his youth, Minnelli sympathized with the Bankses, including their class snobbery. “I always used to think that marriage was a simple affair,” Pop says at the beginning, echoing Minnelli’s own opinion about marriage. The ensuing story shows how wrong Pop and Minnelli, the husband and father, were about marriage and the family institution.
The film shows middle-class weddings as occasions of ostentatious materialism. Stanley Banks asks, “What are people going to say when I’m in the gutter, because I tried to put on a wedding like a Roman emperor

The Bankses’ social status suffers one blow after another. Buckley’s folks, the Dunstans (played by Moroni Olsen and a Billie Burke), turn out to be more sophisticated than the Bankses assumed; theyve got a white (rather than black) servant. And Ellies dignity crumbles, when a snotty caterer (Leo G. Carroll) observes, little cakes and tea sandwiches is what we usually serve for children’s parties.”

The comedys most vulnerable character is Stanley Banks, the benevolent patriarch, whos a quintessential Minnelli screen hero. Displaced, Stanley is thrust haplessly into situations he doesn’t relish and can’t control. The poignancy derives from Bankss series of humiliation–he loses his most cherished person and gets to pay for the privilege. Though Banks is the narrator, he lacks authorial power; in fact, hes the last person to know what’s going on. Banks doesn’t even know which suitor his daughter will marry. Minnelli presents a montage of close-ups of a gallery of nerds types, a chinless egghead, a scowling radical, a rubber-jointed be-bopper (Spike Lee would borrow this montage for his parade of foolish man in Shes Gotta Have It). The lucky one, Buckley (Don Taylor), is a bland and muscled man holding a tennis racquet.

Tracy’s moral gravity and pragmatism were assets for the role, and it was refreshing to see him playing a victim for a change, the stoic who loses his dignity before collapsing. Tracy wasn’t a light farceur, but he was good at projecting offhand details that humanize the character. At one point, he toys with a rice-filled show, as a he surveys the wreckage after the festivity. Tracys grave gaze, gruff tone of narration, and under-acting stood in contrast to the high energy exhibited by most Hollywood comedy actors.

Minnelli imbues the whole comedy with disquieting undertones. Shot in black-and-white, the film has a shadowy texture. Stylistically, it qualifies as a suburban, comic film noir. More than half of film takes place at night, when the family succumbs to the worst nightmares a family could have, wedding bills, serious doubts about Kays groom and their the in-laws, and arguments over just about any topic.

Minnelli instructed composer Alfred Deutsch to avoid the kind of schmaltzy score that usually manipulates audiences feelings. The first half of the movie contains no music at all, while the second uses minimal music, and it comes from the story, what filmscholars call diegetic sound, like the church-organ at the wedding. Moreover, the pre-nuptial trials are not accompanied by any music. Much like Benrard Herrmanns score for Hitchcocks dark movies, Deutch’s one sustained theme is the discordant score that frames Stanley’s hallucination of the ceremony, a Gothic sequence even by standards of Minnelli’s screen nightmares.

In the book, Stanleys bad dream is mild and innocuous, amounting to clothes that dont fit. But in Minnellis film, its harsher, showing a man whos completely lost and debased. Punctuated by silent screams of the throng, the sequence consists of a surreal-like collage of superimposed images. Stanley Banks is not an unthreatening and unthreatened dad like Leon Ames in Meet Me in St. Louis. The character hes close to in that movie is Margaret O’Brien’s; like Tooties traumas, Banks anxieties are real and primal.

In the end, however, as in most Metros films of the era, balance is restored. Kay calls before her honeymoon to thank her parents. The movie ends as it begins, showing Banks an exhausted man, sunk in his armchair amid the wreckage left by the party. “Nothing really changes, does it” He then takes his wife into his arms for a waltz, while the music plays “Goodnight, Sweetheart.”

The last shot is particularly relevant in terms of noir. Stanley and Ellie dance, while the fluid camera retreats from them in endless reverse dolly shots. The couple is framed from a distance, just as the couple at the ending of The Clock. The camera pulls back through the length of the house and out the French windows into the dark garden, indicating that Stanley and Ellie have joined the anonymous crowd.