Updated: Mar 6
Spring is looming and you know what that means: wedding season. There is something beautiful about the optimism and joy of a wedding, and movies on the topic are usually light as well. Let's explore some films of the golden age with weddings as a central theme.
RODNEY BOWCOCK: Based on the 1949 book of the same name by Edward Streeter, Father of the Bride is a classic film that needs no introduction. It’s arguably one of the most popular films from the studio era today, at least partially due to the wildly popular 1991 remake with Steve Martin and Diane Keaton (which has then been remade again in 2022, this time with a largely Hispanic cast), and also stands as maybe the best well known of Spencer Tracy’s roles.
SAMANTHA GLASSER: I grew up in the 90s, so the Steve Martin movie was everywhere on TV, and it was that version that I knew well before I saw this one. Although I love Steve Martin, the remake leans heavily into slapstick and outrageous comedy, whereas the original is softer and much more sentimental. New York Times writer Thomas Pryor wrote in 1950, "The customary exaggeration that is necessary in most comedies is almost completely absent in Father of the Bride. There was no need for it here because there is a vast amount of latent comedy in family life, provided one has the capacity to recognize it." I think that is why the original is better.
RB: The movie itself is so popular and well known (and yet I had never seen it before reviewing it for this post), that it seems almost futile to try to paraphrase the plot, and the plot itself is deceptively simple indeed as the film is essentially about the daughter of an upper middle-class lawyer getting married and how this act affects the family as seen through his eyes. Not much to it, right? You’d be right about that, but in this film, as in most films like this, the magic is in the performances, not in the complications that they are actually going through.
SG: This movie is brilliantly written. We have a strong understanding of each of the characters without too much exposition. Kay is breathtakingly beautiful, but instead of being entitled or stuck up, she is somewhat of a tomboy with a wide range of suitors and interests. She can be emotional and impulsive, and it seems clear to me that she and Buckley (Don Taylor) are too young and immature to be married, but people got hitched much earlier in those days than they do now. Ellie is an understanding wife and mother, a planner who makes things happen. Stanley is a practical, somewhat removed father who idealizes his family but feels helpless when reality sets in. His love for them shines spectacularly through the film, and the relationship between Ellie and Stanley is a great example for the newlyweds.
RB: Spencer Tracy was at something of a crossroads career-wise here, coming off a string of lackluster films and a failed attempt on Broadway, and it’s a real treat here to see him playing against type (and without Katherine Hepburn anywhere to be seen, even though Tracy reportedly wanted her, I might add) as a sort of everyman, or as everyman as a lawyer with a very comfortable life in post-war America can seem to be, and it’s noted right from the outset of the film, as you sympathize with him, in spite of a lack of connection with what is presented before you. But, isn’t that what well-made movies do the best? And of course, dealing with a pro like Tracy, it’s almost expected. Apparently, Jack Benny also read for the eventual Tracy part, which had initially caused Spencer Tracy to turn down the role as director Vincent Minnelli had already assured him the role was his.
SG: Producer Pan Berman told Minnelli that Jack Benny would ridicule the serious heart of the story, but that they had to give him a screen test because he wanted the part. Minnelli directed Benny to play the scene with subtlety, and he succeeded, but he felt he lacked the conviction that Tracy could bring to the role. "Spencer was an inspiration," Minnelli wrote in his book I Remember It Well, "His instincts were infallible. Hew knew how to throw the unimportant things away, and he knew how to create the illusion of throwing the important things away too, so that they were inscribed in your mind. His way of speaking made you feel you'd stumbled on great truth."
Tracy and Bennett had been paired in two pre-code films almost two decades before the release of this movie. We saw She Wanted a Millionaire at Capitolfest in 2021 and Me and My Gal at the Wexner Center pre-show in 2022.
RB: Of course, Elizabeth Taylor is wonderful here in what is likely among her best early roles. MGM capitalized on her pending nuptial to socialite, hotel heir and all-around lousy guy, Nicky Hilton, among a blitzkrieg publicity campaign, the film premiered less than two weeks after the wedding.
SG: Unfortunately for Taylor, the studio pushed for her to get married to help boost ticket sales for this film. In her autobiography, Taylor said, "I really did think that being married would be like living in a little white cottage with a little picket fence and little roses and little me in an organdy apron." It sounds like a scene out of the movies, out of the movie she was making at the time. The marriage did not last long.
Carleton Carpenter wrote in his memoir, "I have to confess, the most beautiful thing I ever saw during my time at MGM was the young Ms. Taylor early in the AM, before makeup or hair. Those lavender eyes and that flawless skin could make one ache... She loved dancing, and we spent the time between setups jitterbugging around some corner of the stage."
RB: It speaks volumes to her abilities that she plays so against type here and does it so convincingly. I also have to give credit to Moroni Olsen and Billie Burke who play Buckley’s parents in a particularly delightful way.
SG: Yes, they have a wonderful way of cutting through the awkwardness of their first meeting with the Bankses. I wish I were as skillful in such situations.
RB: The cast is enormous which always makes for a good time spotting character actors in uncredited parts. I was excited to see Willard Waterman (radio’s "The Great Gildersleeve") pop up for a line or two and Bess Flowers slip by at one point. I was holding out for a Byron Foulger appearance, but that was not to be.
As noted already, the film was wildly successful and praised upon the initial release, becoming MGM’s second highest grossing film of the year, and causing a sequel Father’s Little Dividend to be rushed into production. A decade later, a TV sitcom version ran for a season starring Leon Ames, Ruth Warrick, and Myrna Fahey in the lead roles. Some favorites of mine like Lurene Tuttle, Joe Besser and Grady Sutton also appear, so I’m pretty curious to see what this show is like.
SG: I love the set decoration in the movie. The home feels lavish in some ways, big enough to be transformed into a reception venue, but cozy enough to feel like a real home. I spotted Harrison Fisher's yard-long print of "The Greatest Moments in a Girl's Life," which was very popular from the turn of the century on, and which I spot all the time in movies, probably because I see it every day. I have one in my dining room. It is an incredibly sexist but gorgeous art piece depicting the moments from the proposal to the birth of the first child, after which it is implied a woman's life only goes downhill.
Screenland's Rahna Maughan reviewed Father of the Bride, saying, "In short, Tracy is terrific, Bennett is beautific and Liz couldn't have had a nicer preview to her own marriage." The movie made more than $4 million. Less than a year later, this romance spawned a sequel titled Father's Little Dividend all about the baby that made Stanley and Ellie grandparents.
RB: Father of the Bride is a film that threatens to by overshadowed by its reputation, but by and large it does live up to it. I’m glad to have finally caught up with this canonical classic, and happily bestow four stars upon it.
SG: I have a lot of love for this movie, and some of the reasons are deeply personal. Weddings are a very important milestone in a girl's life. Although I was never one to dream about mine and plan the details as a kid, it was a momentous event when it came to pass. I watched this movie over and over when I was planning my wedding. I was doing a lot of it alone, not having a great relationship with my mother, my sister was highly distracted at the time, and most of my friends are male and not interested in the girly details. My dad told me I would be smartest if I had a courthouse wedding and saved my money. In a way, I was able to live out a fantasy scenario through this movie. The one vintage detail I insisted on having was a waterfall style bouquet with the rosebuds on the end of ribbons trailing down. (My husband refused to wear a cutaway.) I also internalized a line that I wanted to be true, even if it wasn't. Stanley says, "I know a father's not supposed to play favorites, but when it's Kay..." My middle name is Kay. The depiction of the relationship between father and daughter is perfectly rendered. There is a devotion between them that time can never sever, but the nature of the relationship changes as they age. Though life sometimes keeps them physically away from each other, they are always thinking of the other, or feeling kindred emotions, as shown in the scene where they can't sleep and sneak into the kitchen for a midnight snack.
Beyond the relationships with the immediate family, the film shows the way a community comes together to celebrate a new couple. Family friends are on hand to attend and participate in the parties; even one of Kay's former boyfriends is in the wedding party. There is an enthusiasm and exuberance around a wedding that is intoxicating. At my wedding, when the photographer and I were taking pictures outside, passersby would honk and cheer; it was a once-in-a-lifetime thrilling day.
I give this film five stars. It is a timeless classic that I am happy to watch again and again.