Saturday, October 15, 2016

I'm Telling My Girls to Elope

Film: Father of the Bride
Format: Turner Classic Movies on rockin’ flatscreen.

I like Spencer Tracy pretty well, so I’m always at least interested when I encounter one of his movies that I haven’t seen. It feels like I’ve seen a ton of them, but I’m sure I haven’t hit half, or even a quarter of everything he was in. Father of the Bride is one that was at least well enough thought of that it was remade not that long ago. In fact, even the sequel got remade. With a name like Father of the Bride, there’s not a great deal of shock or surprise where this one is going to go. If you don’t know what you’re going to get here, go back to that title and read it one word at a time.

Father of the Bride is one of those movies that starts at the end, with Stanley Banks (Tracy) sitting in the aftermath of his daughter’s wedding reception, trying his best to come to terms with the fact that his daughter Kay (Elizabeth Taylor) has gotten married and is off on her honeymoon. While Banks speaks to us in voiceover, we flash back to a few months before when Stanley and his wife Ellie (Joan Bennett) discovered the existence of one Buckley Dunstan (Don Taylor), the latest young man in Kay’s life. After Kay speaks gushingly of Buckley, Stanley asks her (almost joking) if she’s planning on marrying the guy, and she says that she supposes she is—they’ve talked about it, evidently.

What follows is, depending on your mood, whimsical and heartwarming or ridiculously predictable. This comes from a time when the expenses of a wedding were mainly handled by the bride’s family. The Bankses are “movie middle class” meaning that they have a sizable house, Stanley has a high-paying professional job (he’s a lawyer), and the family has a servant (possibly live-in; it’s not clear), but he’s ready to balk at pretty much every possible expense. And, of course, the expenses start a-rolling in.

There’s also the required meeting between the Bankses and Buckley’s parents (Moroni Olsen and Billie Burke) during which Stanley gets sloshed and eventually falls asleep on their couch. There is the plea for Kay and Buckley to forego the wedding and run off and elope—complete with the offer of a $1,500 bribe (close to $15,000 today). There’s the moment when Kay and Buckley have a huge fight and she wants to call off the wedding…for about 30 minutes until the two patch everything up. There are suits that don’t fit, a caterer who seems much more concerned with making everyone feel terrible about everything than with doing his job, and Stanley’s inability to get a moment with his wife, daughter, or either of his sons (Tom Irish and Russ Tamblyn) or even catch his breath.

So, it’s predictable. The jokes are predictable, the lines are predictable, and the situations are predictable. And I think that’s kind of okay because Father of the Bride is made with a particular humor that makes the film less about the events and more about Stanley’s experience and his relationship with both his wife and with his daughter. So, while it’s easy to see what is coming in a lot of respects, there is also a real sense of there being something rather special in those relationships, and that’s worth the running time.

I can see people being less than impressed here, because there isn’t a damn thing that won’t be expected after the first few minutes. While certain lines or the details of some situations might be difficult to get exactly, none of them will be surprising. For instance, when the Bankses hold a party to announce the engagement, Stanley writes a speech for the occasion. However, he ends up being trapped in the kitchen mixing drinks for the dozens of guests and never manages to get a chance to make the speech. And, because he never got out of the kitchen, Ellie is convinced that he didn’t do anything at all and was just hiding. So, you might not get that exactly, but when it happens, the moment it starts happening, you’re not surprised by it. When the caterer tries to push a $400 cake (about $4,000 today) on the family, it’s no surprise when they suggest they don’t want a cake, or that the caterer’s reaction to their chosen menu is that what they have chosen is more appropriate for children’s parties.

Even with its predictability problems, it’s difficult not to like this a little. Spencer Tracy was almost always likable on screen, and here he’s playing someone immediately sympathetic. Tracy managed to have good chemistry with just about everyone, so he’s naturally good with both Joan Bennett and Elizabeth Taylor.

Father of the Bride isn’t going to go down as one of the best films of any of its stars, but it’s also one that none of them need be embarrassed of. It’s cute, a little saccharine, but entertaining, and it doesn’t overstay its welcome.

Why to watch Father of the Bride: It’s cute, especially if you have a daughter
Why not to watch: It goes to some very obvious places.


  1. I remember being very annoyed by the scene where Spencer Tracy is asking a few reasonable questions and Elizabeth Taylor isn't answering them, and Spencer Tracy is supposed to look like a stupid jerk. But I thought Elizabeth Taylor was being kind of a stuck-up smug little BITCH! Just show some respect to your father and answer the questions, Liz!

    A lot of the writing was like that. I like the movie OK, but this is not Best Picture material! I don't think I would have remembered it but the whole time I was watching it, I was thinking "This was nominated for Best Picture?"

    1. Yep. This was nominated for Best Picture in a year when it competed against All About Eve, Sunset Boulevard, and Born Yesterday. It was nominated over The Third Man, Asphalt Jungle, Cyrano de Bergerac and Harvey.


  2. It's absolutely not Best Picture material but I think anyone watching it today would be checking it out either to compare it to the Steve Martin/Diane Keaton remake or who is a fan of one of the stars. On those two levels it's a pleasurable view.

    Tracy could have played this in his sleep and his slow burning frustration is wonderful to watch. Though in a year as rich as this with lead performances his inclusion at the expense of Bogart for In a Lonely Place, Garfield for The Breaking Point, Edmond O'Brien in D.O.A. or Richard Widmark for No Way Out is somewhat unbelievable.

    He does have a wonderful rapport with Elizabeth Taylor, in her charming young miss phase and who is breathtaking in her beauty, and Joan Bennett, somewhat wasted but she plays her part with a nice wryness. Tracy had wanted Kate Hepburn cast as his wife but I think their dynamic would have thrown the balance of the picture off and in this case Bennett was a better match.

    Minnelli directs smoothly but if he hadn't had these stars, or ones of comparable skill-say Clifton Webb, Ruth Hussey and Jean Simmons-this would be a puff piece long forgotten.

    I think part of why this did so well nomination wise was its high profile-MGM tied the picture's release to coincide with Liz Taylor's first marriage to Nicky Hilton (a short-lived disaster but who was to know that at the time). The film's premiere and her wedding happened in the same week.

    1. Oh, I agree. This is lightweight fluff and doesn't have the sort of heft I expect in a Best Picture nominee, especially in a year with films like The Third Man, but it's pretty harmless and an easy film to spend time with. In terms of Best Actor nominations, I obviously haven't gotten here on a Friday yet, but Joseph Cotten never got a nomination for anything, and he damn well could have for The Third Man. He and Bogart seem to be the biggest misses for me in that category, although Widmark is a hell of an interesting mention.

      But yes, this is pretty unobjectionable and everyone works well together. I would watch it again if asked, although I don't know that it's got enough value that I'd actively seek it out.