Father’s Little Dividend: Making of Minnelli’s Sequel

The MGM studio execs realized that Father of the Bride was going to be a surefire hit as soon as they watched the first dailies.  Halfway through production, Metro announced the making of a sequel, Now I’m a Grandfather, later renamed Father’s Little Dividend, to be directed as a quickie by Minnelli.

Released in May, Father of the Bride became a smash hit, earning $4,150,000 in domestic grosses, thus becoming the year’s sixth top-grossing film.   At Oscar time, the film was nominated for Best Picture, Best Actor, and Best Screenplay, but Minnelli was denied a directing nomination from his colleagues at the Directors Branch.    Did the movie’s charm look too easy for them to appreciate?  It would take another year, before Minnelli would get an Oscar nomination, for An American in Paris.  Even so, after the failure of The Pirate and the moderate appeal of Madame Bovary, Father of the Bride was a much-needed proof of Minneli’s commercial viability as well as a boost to his ego.

By any standards, Father’s Little Dividend was a quickie.   Minnelli spent three weeks preparing the movie, which began shooting on October 9, 1950 and ended 23 days later.

A pale imitation (emphasis on both words) of the original, Father’s Little Dividend open the same way as the first picture, with Stanley Banks (Spencer Tracy again) sitting in his armchair and tying his shoelace, while confiding to the public his adventures ever since favorite daughter Kay (Liz Taylor) got married.  Stanley’s new worry is becoming a grandfather, an unpleasant reminder of his advancing age and declining faculties.  While Stanley fumes, his wife Ellie is jubilantly preparing for the baby; with her maternal instincts reawakened, she feels the baby makes her useful again as a family member.

Minnelli repeats other devices of the 1950s film, some successfully, others less so.  In lieu of a montage of gentlemen courting Kay, we get here, through a photo album a montage of grandfathers Stanley had met in his life.  There’s also a display of conspicuous consumption, depicting in the baby shower sequence of the mother-to-be.   Of course, the Dunstans again try to upstage the Bankses for their grandchild’s attention.

Stanley confronts his worst fear of humiliation, here reflected in living a nightmare rather than just imagining a dark dream.  It takes the form of losing the baby during a walk in the park.  His anxiety is alleviated, when he finds out during christening that his name has been bestowed on his grandchild.

Scenes of Kay and Buckley fighting invariably end with predictable apologies and embraces.  There are also solemn speeches in the manner of Sunday school preaching, as, for example, when Stanley says: “When the time comes, you mothers seem to have a courage and a strength you never knew you had.”

Despite narrative shortcomings, the film is appealing and there’s still rapport among the cast members.  Unlike the 1950 film, which ultimately belonged to Tracy, the sequel belongs to the mother and daughter, thus restoring the gender balance that was eschewed toward the father in the first picture.

Bored by the routine text and formulaic situations, Tracy mugs more than he acts, falling on established mannerisms.  In later years, companion Kate Hepburn said that Tracy basically phoned in his performance.   Displaying her specialty, a brittle kind of chic and matronly elegance, Joan Bennett makes the most of her reveries on the pleasures of having large families with man grandchildren.

Liz Taylor’s Kay is more fragile, contemplative, and mature than she was in the first film.  Taylor is kind, gentle foil for Tracy as he reminisces on the early months of parenthood, when he feared that his wife’s affections would be squandered on Kay.

Taylor’s delivery of her obstetrician’s ideas is boring, but she is better in extolling the fortitude of primitive women, who keep their babies “slung on their backs for the first tow years of their lives.”  Kay says: “You would carry them around on your back, while you were doing your housework, and then when it got hungry, you’d swing it around and feed it and then swing it back again.  It

gives the baby a wonderful sense of security.”

Minnelli’s professionalism is evident, but his imagination flags, reflecting the hastiness with which the picture was made and his genuine lack of interest.  Though getting the same budget, the sequel feels cheaply produced, with underwhelming art direction and other production values.  Minnelli directs with minimum visual fuss.

There are more long medium shots than the usual norm in a Minnelli’s movie, again a function of functionalism and laziness rather than style.  Camera action is saved for Stanley’s agitation as he wonders in panic in the neighborhood, searching for the missing baby carriage, retrieved by a local cop while he refereed a kids’ soccer game.   In place of the wistful elegance of the first picture, Minnelli fades to credits with a more facile and economical style.  Minnelli accords to the baby, Stanley Banks Dunstan in christening clothes, a likable star-like close-up.

As expected, this movie lacks the ideas, energy, and snap of the original.  There’s no novelty or dramatic urgency, and the only reason it was made was to make money, as is the basis of most Hollywood sequels.

The three public previews yielded the expected results.  Lawrence Weingarten, one of MGM’s top executives, wrote to MGM head Dore Schary after the first preview: “Looks like this one will pay the rent.”  Indeed, the comedy grossed $3.1 million against a production cost of $941,437.

The film opened at Radio City Music Hall in April 1951, less than 11 months after the premiere of Father of the Bride.  It was a pleasant surprise when the Directors Guild honored Minnelli with its quarterly award in that spring.