Wednesday, May 11, 2016

FATHER OF THE BRIDE: Blu-ray (MGM 1950) Warner Archive Collection

It is one of comedy’s more sobering and morbid axioms that humor – good, bad or indifferent - is generally reinforced by mankind’s rather sadomasochistic ability to derive laughter – even pleasure – from someone else’s pain. Case in point: Vincente Minnelli’s Father of the Bride (1950); as it turned out, a harbinger of all the like-minded frothy entertainments foisted upon television throughout the Truman/Eisenhower eras; tales of upwardly mobile, headstrong/heart-sure, clean-cut and antiseptically wholesome Americans to whom the pile of living room shag or size of fins adorning the family automobile spelled success, prosperity, and above all else, an artificially inflated sense of solidarity within the family unit. It may be sacrilege. For damn sure, it goes against the grain of a personal mantra, but I have always preferred Charles Shyer’s 1991 remake to Minnelli’s overwrought, if urbane and uber-clever original; its’ obvious star power, Spencer Tracy (fast entering his emeritus years) as harried patriarch, Stanley Banks, and, a positively ravishing 17 year old Elizabeth Taylor as Kay – his adoring, soon to be married daughter of the title, gradually submarined by Minnelli’s darker suppositions on even as lively an event as a wedding; the nightmare challenging the fairytale and all but superseding the sheer joie de vivre in this exercise. One can debate the point, that Minnelli had no real stomach for comedy – at least, not in its undiluted form (his comedies are always about people better than the preposterous situations foisted upon them. They also generally rise above such nonsensical debacles, thus providing the rest of us with a textbook example of how best to live).
Shot with unusual thrift in just a month and a day, and grossing a whopping $4,150,000 against a budget less than a quarter this sum, Father of the Bride was something of a rarity for Minnelli; perhaps even more so for MGM as it turned out. For although the studio with ‘more stars than there are in heaven’ was no stranger to glamour or star power, they had rather deliberately shied away from making the sort of nutty screwball comedies that were bread and butter at virtually every other studio in Hollywood. In lieu of these, MGM reaped rewards from lavishly appointed costume epics and musicals, densely packed melodramas and the occasional wartime actioner. Louis B. Mayer’s edict for handsome men and beautiful ladies ensured a smug urbanity around the back lot and ethos that flew in the face of such anarchical hilarity. It positively abhorred and railed against bowdlerized farce. Stars like Jean Harlow or the Marx Brothers, having come to Metro second best from a proving ground where such un-sanitized silliness roamed free, were inevitably curtailed in their razor-backed sass and escapades; their image realigned with Mayer’s homogenized view of ‘America the beautiful’. What little experience MGM possessed in the pantheon of comedy was usually allied to a particular star; Mickey Rooney’s joyously adolescent misfires as Andy Hardy, as example, or the perennially stylish William Powell with Myrna Loy – sophisticates, pitting wits and pointed marital barbs in between scenes of heartfelt tears of pity, joy, angst and forgiveness.  MGM never entirely warmed to comedy for comedy’s sake, thus losing out on a genre that might have stemmed the tide of their steady decline throughout the mid-fifties.
In retrospect, Father of the Bride is MGM’s response to comedy; a challenge even, to the other studios to do their particular brand of it even half as well. Assigning Minnelli the honor to direct it fit succinctly with MGM’s glacial façade of peerless gloss at the expense of practically everything else – including ‘laughs’. Father of the Bride is not a ‘funny’ comedy, per say; much less so than the 1991 remake. Our amusement from it originates in Spencer Tracy’s rare and inimitable strengths to convey careworn dissatisfaction with the foibles of life; an almost Shakespearean acquiescence to fate itself.  Interestingly, by minimizing the role of ‘the bride’ with an unknown in the remake, Charles Shyer’s movie becomes more of an ensemble piece; Steve Martin front and center as the perpetually perturbed piñata. By contrast, Minnelli’s movie is nearly derailed by the presence of Elizabeth Taylor – already very much an MGM star; affording her classical feminine beauty a barrage of close-ups to flatter. Taylor is a star – if not a talent – on par with Spencer Tracy. Behind her magnetic visage we find Tracy’s Stanley T. Banks lurking; desperate to survive Kay’s announcement, her courtship to the monumental stick in the mud, Buckley Dunstan (Don Taylor), the escalation of tensions in meeting his in-laws (scatterbrain, Billie Burke, as Doris, and Moroni Olsen as Herbert) for the first time, the inevitable merry-go-round of parties that inaugurate and lead up to the big day (at which poor Stanley is expected to forego schmoozing and simply play host), the actual wedding ceremony (complete with a truly noir-ish prelude dream sequence), and finally, the devastatingly regal reception (that accosts thrift-happy Stanley with the rape of his pocket book).  At one point even Stanley speculates, “What are people going to say when I’m in the gutter because I tried to put on a wedding like a Roman emperor?” It is a fitting line. For although no cultural historian of this period would likely have considered as much, there is little to doubt, at least in retrospect, that America’s middle class postwar evolution was fast affording the working man his day in the sun as his own master. Charmingly, Father of the Bride distorts, then completely removes the rudder from this trajectory; leaving Stanley Banks to founder and almost implode under the duress of satisfying both his wife and daughter’s visions for the perfect wedding.
Yet, Minnelli seems to deny us any chuckle-worthy warmth in this (mis)treatment of Stanley Banks as the unluckiest of rubes; financially secure, but otherwise socially inept; a ‘yes’ man to his family. They rely on his patronage for their comforts, but otherwise afford him little more than backhanded ‘respect’ with palms outstretched. Joan Bennett’s Ellie Banks adopts a Scarsdale-pukka high tone that is diametrically opposed to her husband’s practicality, perhaps in keeping with the character as written by novelist, Edward Streeter. Stanley’s boys are atypical stock teenagers of the Hollywood ilk; Tommy (Russ Tamblyn), eating him out of house and home, and, Ben (Tom Irish) – too much collegiate gone to his head to consider ‘pops’ his intellectual equal, even if he is good for the keys to the family car.  Is it any wonder Kay is Stanley’s pride and joy; the only offspring to show him kindness without first anticipating anything except as much in return? And the in-laws are not much better; more affluent, and thus, more obtuse to the financial strain this wedding is about to put on Stanley. Remember, we are in the thick of the domesticated 1950’s. The father of this bride is therefore responsible for everything from the trousseau to the reception. The parents of the groom merely show up and provide a gift to furnish the happy couple’s new home.  
Initially, Vincente Minnelli was overlooked to direct Father of the Bride; a last-minute intervention by prolific producer, Pandro S. Berman changing Minnelli’s prospects for the better.  He might have been known as the director of The Skipper Surprised His Wife; a turgid and undistinguished little programmer barely recalled today. Although Berman and Minnelli almost immediately concurred on Spencer Tracy as the representational ‘father’ of all modern brides, they were as immediately confronted by a miserable gaffe made by Production Chief, Dore Schary who had already promised comedian, Jack Benny a chance to screen test for the part. It was a role Benny desperately wanted; his film and radio work in steep decline since the mid-40’s. In the meantime Tracy, having learned of Benny’s test, refused to even consider the project second best. Ultimately, Minnelli appealed to Tracy’s paramour, Katherine Hepburn, whom Minnelli had befriended on the set of Undercurrent (1946). Leave it to Kate to iron out the rough edges and restore calm from the storm. And indeed, Tracy could have done far worse by rejecting this part; the first of his self-deprecating/slightly pontificating ole sages; this one neither as self-appointed, assured, nor as all-knowing as some later to follow it.
The pièce de résistance in Father of the Bride, that is to say the entire reason for Minnelli agreeing to do it, apart from his appreciation for screenwriters, Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett, is the nightmare sequence; Stanley’s last anxious gasp, subconsciously released as a hallucinogenic night terror on the eve before the big day. In this scene, Stanley envisions his late arrival to the church, Minnelli indulging in an almost Dali-esque interpretation of the religious ceremony as its own purgatory. Ominously lit by cinematographer extraordinaire, John Alton, the chapel becomes a gallery of ghouls; heavily pancaked faces, grotesquely leering, oozing repulsion from every pour, unable to speak their disapproval as the checkered floor beneath Stanley’s feet bows, gives way, and then devours him up to his waist, his trousers and cutaway reduced to tatters as he valiantly assails his way to the altar on hands and knees. Even for Minnelli, no stranger to experimental flights into fancy, this absurd delirium is way over the top. The Gothic Guignol and cold-sweated perversity of Minnelli’s obbligato resists integration into the rest of the movie. It is a standalone piece, punctuated by Kay’s penultimate look of sheer embarrassment and a blood-curdling shriek to awaken the fallen from his slumber, but also cruelly to suggest a daughter’s love can only be stretched so far.     
Father of the Bride begins with an epilogue to the great event; a beleaguered Stanley T. Banks and his wife, Ellie quietly surveying the cluttered wreckage after the reception; their living room strewn in streamers, confetti and rice. It ought to have been joy galore, except Stanley is about to regale us directly with his cynical sentiments on the art and craft of ‘getting married’; generally a downright monotonous affair until it happens to involve him personally. From here, Minnelli regresses into the not so distant past, three months to the day: the family Banks gathered around the dinner table…well, father, mother and daughter at least; unanticipated, learning of Kay’s intentions to marry Buckley Dunstan.  Kay is in love. That much is obvious. Oh, a father’s woes. Which one of the many suitors has conquered her heart? Of course, the one he fears the most – the muscle-bound ham with the tennis racket – is the one he must reconcile with and eventually accept. Actually, it is not all that difficult to do; Don Taylor’s wooden performance presents everybody’s all-American as an uninspired lump of blind devotion – a lost puppy made whole by the love of a good woman. Okay, so marriage to Buckley Dunstan is hardly an earth-shattering revelation; if only Stanley, despite being a successful lawyer, could set his mind at ease, or on anything except how much this wedding is going to cost him. Buckley’s arrival is met with indifference bordering on open hostility. In the 1991 remake, Steve Martin’s George Banks refines this animosity to a finite level of wounded jealousy. But Tracy’s portrait of it teeters between two/thirds distraction and one/third disappointment in Kay’s choice of beau. In both movies, it is the wife who is immediately enamored with her future son-in-law; instantly consumed with visions of the perfect wedding and falling asleep with happy thoughts. Stanley lies awake, terrified by the uncertainty of what the next three months have in store. He does not have long to wait to find out for himself.
After insisting on a ‘serious meeting’ to establish Buckley’s financial situation, Stanley instead nervously regales his future son-in-law with a history of his own financial standing. Unlike Martin’s George Banks, Tracy’s Stanley forgoes learning anything more about Buckley when Ellie announces dinner is ready. While Martin’s patriarch is insistent to prove his son-in-law a fraud unworthy of his daughter’s love, Tracy’s harried dad is merely ashamed he cannot come up with anything better than speculation to buoy his argument. From Ellie, Stanley learns Buckley owns his own company and is presently showing a $5000 profit – a sizable sum in 1950. So far/so good. However, a cordial get-together at the Dunstan’s stately home gets uncomfortable when Stanley has a wee too much to drink; dominating the conversation with a recitation of Kay’s formative years, confusing names in the process and slurring his words. Mercifully, Stanley’s waggling tongue does not land him in too much hot water, though Ellie is mildly embarrassed by his gregarious talk while under the influence. A short while later, the Banks play host to the Dunstans; Stanley all but confined to the kitchen, mixing drinks while everyone has a gay ole time in his front parlor at his expense. Stanley even misses out on the opportunity to officially welcome the in-laws with a prepared speech. Chagrined yet again, Stanley and Ellie engage Buckley and Kay to finalize plans for the big day. Distracted, the young couple instead takes off on their prearranged date while Stanley begins to lament the cost of throwing such a grand affair. In private, Ellie makes it known to her husband of twenty-some odd years that like Kay she would have preferred a church wedding to the modest ‘justice of the peace’ ceremony that marked their nuptials. While she harbors no regrets, Ellie views Kay’s marriage as a chance to live out that dream vicariously.
Stanley decides to remain silent about the escalating costs – for now. Still, he cannot help but feel the bottom line on his balance sheet sinking incrementally deeper into the red when he discovers Kay’s invitation list has topped out at a staggering 572 guests; 282 asked to the reception too! Behind Ellie’s back, Stanley pitches a solution to Kay. What if she and Buckley eloped? He almost has her convinced when Ellie barges in; Kay attempting to inform her mother, but quietly shut up by Stanley, who realizes his damage control is futile. There will be a wedding – oh, how there will be a wedding, even if Stanley cannot fit into his old cutaway. So, it’s a new tux for Stanley, to go with Ellie’s new dress. The Banks also hire wedding coordinator extraordinaire, Mr. Massoula (Leo G. Carroll) to cater the reception. After surveying the Banks’ modest property, Massoula politely informs his clients they will have to hire a moving company to take out all of the furniture and have a makeshift marquee set up adjacent the house to accommodate everyone for dinner. More confusion. More money. More headache. But now the heady preparations reach a tipping point when Kay suddenly informs her parents the wedding is off because she has since unearthed a devastating secret about her fiancée. 
No, not another woman, but Buckley’s plans to take her to a fishing shack in Nova Scotia for their honeymoon. Alas, Stanley finds the absurdity of this latest crisis rather amusing; shoring up the damage without much effort and allowing Kay and Buckley their reconciliation.  The rehearsals at the church serve as a prelude to the chaos yet to come. Stanley suffers a debilitating nightmare in which he fancies himself late to the church, falling through the floor and winding up in tatters and patches crouched upon the floor next to the altar, much to Kay’s utter horror. Awakening in a cold sweat, Stanley finds Kay also unable to sleep, eating in the kitchen. Father and daughter share a heartfelt tête-à-tête that puts them both at ease. Unlike Stanley’s terrible dream, the actual ceremony goes off without a hitch as does the reception; the one regret, Stanley is unable to find a moment to share privately with Kay his infinite joy and pride at seeing her happily wed and on her way to begin a new life as Mrs. Dunstan. Not to worry. After witnessing the limousine cortege pull away from the curb, pursued by an entourage of well-wishers, Stanley and Ellie retire to their parlor; alone at last and suffering the letdown of realizing the big day is at an end. Kay telephones to thank ‘pops’ for everything, and Ellie reminds her husband he has met and surpassed all expectations as ‘the father of this bride’. Husband and wife share a slow dance together, the camera pulling back to reveal the lazy wreckage of strewn decorations and half-wilted flower arrangements.
Half way through production MGM knew, or perhaps, merely suspected it had a winner; quickly registering the title ‘Now I Am A Grandfather’ – later, to become Father’s Little Dividend, the sequel to Father of the Bride. Shot on an even tighter budget, the sequel reunited virtually the entire cast for another go-around. In less than a year, MGM had two hit movies. Now, under serious consideration to be spun off as a franchise, the way they had earlier done with the Andy Hardy series, plans for a Part III were quashed when a sex scandal involving Joan Bennett broke in the tabloids; her husband, producer/director, Walter Wanger, shooting her lover, agent, Jennings Lang in the genitals; a crime of passion for which Wanger served a paltry eighteen months in prison.   Nevertheless, Father of the Bride could lay claim as the ‘granddaddy’ or precursor to a certain type of fifties TV sitcom, devoted to extolling the humorous virtues and vices of the all-American postwar upper middle class family. MGM ought to have jumped on this bandwagon to reap the whirlwind, except that L.B. Mayer – soon to be ousted from his ceremonial post - utterly loathed ‘that little black box’ in everyone’s living room, if for no other reason, than it had stolen nearly 40% of his theater-paying audience – and thus, profits – seemingly overnight. Even after Mayer was no longer dictating the company agenda, MGM continued to avoid any direct involvement in the new-fangled medium; the studio’s holdout filled by other ambitious companies in the interim and forcing MGM to play a woefully subpar game of ‘catch-up’ throughout the 1960’s to partake; a game they would never win.  
As though even further to blur the fine line of distinction between art and reality, Elizabeth Taylor announced to the press she would wed Nicky Hilton, heir apparent to the Hilton Hotel dynasty in May of 1950; MGM rushing like mad to make the premiere of Father of the Bride just two days before Taylor’s actual wedding; Taylor appearing in newsreels, wearing the bridal gown costumer, Helen Rose had designed for Kay in the movie to her own wedding. Alas, Kay’s celluloid marriage would outlast Taylor’s; the couple divorcing just eight months later when it became apparent Hilton’s erratic and abusive behavior, coupled with his gambling addiction had made for a very bad first union.  For the moment at least, Vincent Minnelli could breathe a sigh of relief, the success of Father of the Bride offsetting the failure of The Pirate (1948); a passion project he had championed but that had sunk like a stone at the box office and badly strained his reputation with Dore Schary who had little to zero interest in making musicals – and this, working at a studio renown, even revered, for making some of the greatest musicals of all time.
Viewing Father of the Bride today, one cannot help but find it quaint at best and downright archaic at its worst; its stereotypical sexual politics having dated rather badly. Kay’s greatest ambition is to marry; hardly the goal of most young women today. She neither desires a career or any prospects to further her education. What does a woman need smarts when the man can manage everything? Wife and motherhood – though still noble institutions – are presented in Father of the Bride as the Holy Grail yearned for by all women of considerable breeding and social standing; nice girls from the suburbs who would likely wither and die, or turn spinsterish if the right man never comes along to sweep them off their bare and soon to be pregnant feet like a fairy tale princess. The last act of Father of the Bride does, in fact, possess a fairy tale quality; the Emily Post-ness of its fabulous uber-sophistication, offset by Minnelli’s verve to stage a thoroughly claustrophobic reception; the alleviation of everyone’s ‘needless’ worrying, capped off by a flawless farewell as rosy as pink champagne; Minnelli sounding the call with a flourish before retiring his merriment like a master illusionist putting away his magic tricks.
Charles Shyer’s 1991 remake offers a less attenuated balancing act; more earnestly devoted to the comedy, less direness and drear; trading Leo G. Carroll’s inordinately stuffy wedding coordinator for effete comic relief, brilliantly conceived and executed by Martin Short. Perhaps it is a mistake to compare and contrast these two movies as though they were companion pieces. For although they share the same title, premise and virtually most – if not all – of their best vignettes, with slight, though nevertheless important variations to mark the update, Vincente Minnelli’s Father of the Bride remains a time capsule of fifties chic good taste; imbued with fine performances, some more satisfactorily enduring than others. Like so many of MGM’s postwar movies, it’s the craftsmanship in the exercise that is admirable herein; Minnelli’s proficiency, the swiftness with which he amiably shoots this artifice of life as though it were genuine, yet somehow manages to retain that patina of art for art’s sake in spite of itself. In the final analysis, this Father of the Bride is ‘Taylor’-made for its leading lady or, as Metro’s astute marketing campaign pointed out “the bride gets the thrills…her father…the bills!”
Another predictably flawless Blu-ray transfer from the Warner Archive (WAC) awaits you. Father of the Bride looks absolutely gorgeous in 1080p; superior grain structure, exceptional image clarity, virtually free of age-related artifacts, and sporting perfect contrast and image detail. In short, you will be hard pressed to find another company – any company – doing work of this caliber on 70+ year old deep catalog titles. It warms my heart to know WAC is in charge of not only the old Warner catalog, but also the MGM and RKO gemstones yet to be polished and receive this kind of treatment. The audio herein is mono with quiescent moments sporting no hiss or pop.  I continue to be enamored with Warner’s commitment to deep catalog and applaud their efforts profusely in the sincere hopes we are in for more goodies this year and onward as the primary market for this stuff – the ole brick-n’-mortar locales continue to wither and die out.  Father of the Bride on Blu-ray should be a top-tier title of choice for every collector out there and fans – both casual and ardent – need to continue to support WAC by flooding them with their orders. We get a few newsreel extras, including footage of the ill-fated Taylor/Hilton wedding and a slightly worn theatrical trailer. The time has come to pitch a little rice on the side. Bottom line: very highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)


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