Friday Film Review: Father of the Bride (1950)
I’ll be up front and admit that I prefer the original of this to the remake. The 1991 version isn’t bad and I actually think that it was updated very nicely but the original is what I saw first years ago and it’s hard to beat Spencer Tracy and Elizabeth Taylor in their prime. This version was released days after Taylor’s first marriage – for which MGM had paid all the expenses – and that hoopla plus the lovely performances the cast delivered have put this in the American Film Institute’s list of Top 100 Comedies. As well, it was nominated for Academy Awards in the Best Picture and Best Actor categories for 1950.
The movie opens with long, panning shots of a chaotic mess that is obviously the aftermath of one hell of a party. And so it was, as we learn when the camera focuses on Stanley Banks and he begins to tell the story of his only daughter’s engagement and wedding…
Life is going along as normal for suburbanite lawyer Stanley Banks (Spencer Tracy) until one evening when he comes home from work and his world is upended. As he and his wife Ellie (Joan Bennett) and daughter Kay (Elizabeth Taylor) sit having dinner, Kay casually drops the bombshell that she’s engaged. Stanley frantically tries to remember who this Buckley Dunstan (Don Taylor) is from among the many boyfriends Kay has brought home over the years – each not nearly worthy of marrying his daughter. When Buckley arrives, Stanley still isn’t thrilled but caves into Kay’s insistence on how wonderful a man Buckley is and Ellie’s excitement at the thought of planning a wedding.
From that point on, the wedding takes over as it spirals almost out of control and Stanley learns just how expensive and emotional it is for a doting father of the bride to watch his little girl get married.
I’ve reviewed romances and bromances and womances (did we ever determine exactly what to call these?) but I don’t think I’ve done a movie review that focuses on the love between a father and daughter. As Stanley says, he knows he shouldn’t have favorites but he can’t help that for him Kay is his “Kitten,” his little girl who is his pride and joy. He might bluster and attempt to take a stand over things such as the number of guests invited to the reception (at what was no doubt an eye popping amount per head in 1950 dollars) but as we see time and again, if Kay wants it, it will happen. Not that she comes off as a totally spoiled Bridezilla but Kay is obviously the apple of Stanley’s eye just as he is her hero, her beloved father, her “Pops.” There couldn’t be a movie without lots of other actors but this one definitely centers on Stanley and Kay.
Who, Stanley wonders, is this Buckley Dunstan? What does he do and can he provide for Kay? I don’t suppose that most fathers today demand that a future SIL provide his bona fides anymore but in 1950 that was part of the whole wedding protocol and it’s here Spencer Tracy kicks off his title role. The meeting with the in-laws, including Billie Burke as Mrs. Dunstan – and I couldn’t get the image of Glenda out of my mind once I’d heard her voice again, is another set piece for Stanley to set out being in charge only to lose control under the influence of a few martinis as he babbles about Kay from childhood on. Poor Ellie has to verbally nudge and haul Stanley back to center then huff at him after he gets trapped in their kitchen mixing drinks at the party where he was supposed to “announce” the wedding. The wide-grinned delight other men – who’ve already married off a daughter or two – take in informing him of the coming avalanche of expenses is comical.
I don’t know about everyone else but I don’t think I’ve been involved in a wedding that the principles haven’t at one point or another – and sometimes at multiple points or other – wished they could ditch the whole headache and just run off and elope. By the time Kay walks down the aisle, Stanley certainly wishes they would and he even offers to pony up a sizable chunk o’ change for them to do so. First he’s got to foot the bill for the trousseau (and having read a period edition of Emily Post’s book on etiquette I can attest to the list that a horrified Stanley reads off as to what they were supposed to supply for Kay). Then comes the costs of the ceremony. After which he’s got to spring for the reception with its marquee tent and flowing rivers of champagne. For one brief, glorious moment he hears the word “free” only to discover that in this case it merely means the church is available. It’s with glee that he realizes that once he digs out from under this wedding, when his sons get married, some other poor schmuck “father of the bride” will be the one writing the endless checks instead.
Yet there are also some tender moments that Tracy beautifully underplays such as when he does little but listen to Kay cry about the dust up she and Buckley have over the honeymoon location or the quiet midnight snack they share the night before the wedding where he promises to Kay that she needn’t worry about walking down the aisle as he’ll be to support her (literally, if required) as he’s always been. Then there’s his hilarious attempt to squeeze into his old cutaway which prompts Ellie to warn him if a button pops off, it just might put someone’s eye out. The scene when he discovers how much Ellie wanted a church wedding when they got married also shows how much he loves her and gives another reason for his, and her, willingness to splurge on their only daughter.
Elizabeth Taylor had reached her full blown beauty by this point and is radiant in the 1950s styles that showed it off. TBH the role doesn’t give her much to work with and never taxes her acting skills but she’s amazing just to look at. If this had been real life, poor sappy looking Don Taylor would really have married out of his league. Of all the secondary characters Leo G. Carroll probably has the best lines as the snooty caterer who eye rolls his way through the Banks’ modest reception meal plans and shudders at the teensy house where he’ll be expected to work miracles to squeeze in 250 guests.
But really and truly, the movie belongs to Spencer Tracy. His is the narration that tells the whole tale and ties it all together. It’s from his POV that the film is told. And it’s his wry, comical, outraged and heartfelt emotions that concern us most as he experiences what most fathers dread – the day their little girl switches her allegiances, leaves her old life behind and becomes a wife. B