Father of the Bride, The (1950): Minnelli’s Hit Comedy Starring Tracy and Elizabeth Taylor

Producer Pandro Berman owned the screen rights to Edward Streeter’s 1948 best-selling novel. Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett, who’d written The Pirate, worked on the script. The idea of doing a comedy based on a more realistic and contemporary setting appealed to Vincente Minnelli.

Minnelli knew instinctively that Spencer Tracy was ideal for playing the disgruntled father, and that casting Jack Benny would turn the comedy into a showcase of the usual Benny jokes. He persuaded Tracy that only he could give the role the necessary distinction and resonance.

Once Tracy was on board, the rest of the cast fell into place. Minnelli chose the young Liz Taylor as the young bride, and Joan Bennett as her chic mother. The two actresses looked alike physically, having similar coloring and complexion. Joan Bennett and Tracy had showed chemistry onscreen in earlier teamings, such as the melodrama “Me and My Gal.”

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. Berman hoped that Minnelli would bring to “Father of the Bride” the same charm and resonance that had marked “Meet Me in St. Louis.”  “Like Meet Me,” “Father of the Bride” was a basically plotless film, but one with strong premise and several poignant vignettes. Delighted with the cast and script, Minnelli began shooting on January 16, 1950, and finished exactly a month and a day later. This was an extremely efficient shoot for a major MGM production. Minnelli credited John Alton, a veteran of B-pictures who used to work fast, for getting the texture right and doing it quickly.

There are significant similarities between “Meet Me” and “Father of the Bride.”  In both, 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 society’s 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 family’s favorite is clearly Kay, nicknamed Kitten. Kay wishes to replicate her mother’s life, as if no changes occurred in women’s 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 Kay’s 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.

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; they’ve got a white (rather than black) servant. And Ellie’s 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 comedy’s most vulnerable character is Stanley Banks, the benevolent patriarch, who’s 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 She’s 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. Tracy’s 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 Kay’s groom and their the in-laws, and arguments over just about any topic. 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 impressive. 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.

Released in May, Father of the Bride became a smash hit, earning $4,150,000, thus becoming the years sixth top-grossing film. At Oscar time, the film was nominated for Best Picture, Best Actor, and Best Screenplay, but Minnelli was denied directing nomination. Even so, after the failure of The Pirate, Father of the Bride was much needed proof of Minneli’s commercial viability at Metro and a boost to his ego.

Cast:

 

Stanley T. Banks (Spencer Tracy)

Ellie Banks (Joan Bennett)

Kay Dunstan (Elizabeth Taylor)

Buckley Dunstan (Don Taylor)

Doris Dunstan (Billie Burke)

Herbert Dunstan (Moroni Olsen)

Mr. Massoula (Leo G. Carroll)

Delilah (Marietta Canty)

Melville Cooper (Mr. Tringle)

Warner (Taylor Holmes)

Tommy Banks (Rusty Tamblyn)

Ben Banks (Tom Irish)

Reverend Galsworthy (Paul Harvey)

Joe (Frank Orth)

 

Credits

 

Produced by Pandro S. Berman

Screenplay: Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich, based on the book by Edward Streeter

Cinematography: John Alton

Art Direction: Cedric Gibson, Leonid Vasian

Set Decoration: Edwin B. Willis, associate Keogh Gleason

Music: Adolph Deutsch

Editing: Ferris Webster

Costumes: Helen Rose (women), Walter Plunkett (men)

Recording engineer: Douglas Shearer

Makeup: Jack Dawn

Hair stylist: Sydney Guilaroff

 

Running Time: 93 Minutes

 

 

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