A camera points to the ground, gliding along to show the chaos of a recent event, the ground littered in detritus. Has the house been looted? Is this the scene of a raucous party? The camera stops on a pair of shoes, panning up to introduce the audience to the exhausted Stanley Banks (Spencer Tracy). What’s happened in his home wasn’t a brawl, but a wedding. His daughter’s wedding, to be precise. And thus we begin Vincente Minnelli’s charming tale of family and matrimony, 1950’s Father of the Bride. Newly released on Blu-ray via Warner Archive, Father of the Bride is the heartfelt story of one father attempt to understand his child’s desire….on a budget and maintaining his sanity.
Stanley Banks’ only daughter Kay (Elizabeth Taylor) is getting married. But what starts as an intimate affair puts the entire Banks family into upheaval as costs and guests are negotiated, suits need to be fitted, and the bride and groom are at each other’s throats. With Stanley intent on saying “I won’t,” will anyone say, “I do?”
Stanley prophetically tells the audience what they’ll be saying by the end, using his opening monologue to espouse his assumptions about marriage. Sure, boy meets girl and the two get married, but no one ever talks about how the wedding puts a wrench in the transition from A to B.
By the 1950s America was changing, and Minnelli gives us the perfect union between Hollywood’s old and new to examine the generation gap that would widen as “Rock Around the Clock” and bobbysoxers grew to prominence. Much of Stanley’s hesitation about losing Kay isn’t just coming to accept he’s not the only man in his daughter’s life, but he mimics all American parents’ fear at the time who saw their children consumed by rock music and consumerism.
With society on a precipice it makes sense that the film casts the personification of the old guard: Spencer Tracy as Stanley Banks. By the beginning of the 1950s, Tracy had moved away from the tough-guy roles of his youth and into wizened old men looking into the world’s inner workings and being unprepared (like his mysterious Macready in Bad Day at Black Rock) while continuing to propel the studio era of filmmaking into the next decade, like his pairings with Katharine Hepburn, Adam’s Rib and Desk Set attested to. Tracy is utterly perfect — like Steve Martin in the remake — as the befuddled father. He doesn’t understand any of his children, but the saddest loss for him is his beloved daughter. And Kay is beloved, despite Stanley’s admission that parents shouldn’t play favorites – he does.
Incredibly high strung, Stanley questions everything with the level of the Spanish Inquisition. When Kay reveals her intentions to marry, Stanley is genuinely shocked despite the fact Kay’s been dating the boy awhile, evidence to the contrary that he’s an inactive presence in his daughter’s personal life. It’s apparent that, like all parents, his daughter lives in a bubble to him and once set out upon the world, he’d rather remain blissfully ignorant.
The bubble cracks, though, when the “M” word is bandied about and from there George is intent on spreading his anxiety to everyone, particularly his wife, Ellie (Joan Bennett). Bennett, wonderfully level-headed in a Myrna Loy way, indulges Tracy’s Stanley for so long, but that’s not to say chinks in the armor don’t develop. After being awoken in the middle of the night, Stanley goes on a rant about Buckley (Don Taylor), Kay’s intended, being a confidence man or a thug, frightening Ellie so much she stays awake the entire night. Ironically and hilariously cruel is the fact that, once Stanley’s worry is passed to Ellie, he relaxs!
The audience sees the wedding through Stanley’s eyes, but Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett’s script gives everyone’s viewpoints. It’s surprising, and makes for dated comedy, to hear Stanley tell Kay he was only 25 when he married Ellie, while Kay says boys get married at 19. As the 1950s cult of domesticity developed, marriage ages would descend. Even America’s teenager, Elizabeth Taylor, found herself getting married at just 18 during this very production (with a bungled publicity campaign accompanying it). Taylor’s Kay has a tendency to come off as immature — and I’m saying that as a 27-year-old! — and though the wedding is beautiful, the audience still has a fair bit of skepticism about this young couple’s longevity…until the sequel a few years later.
Stanley’s recounting every father’s worst nightmare and Father of the Bride recounts that with family at the forefront. Warner Archive’s latest Blu-ray looks gorgeous and you’ll hear wedding bells ringing by the time you’re finished!
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A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.