22 November 2010 | Steffi_P
"With tender indulgence"
There's an old saying that the best ideas are the simplest. This is only partly true. The best ideas often stem from a basic concept, but one which yields wide-ranging and elaborate results, and then only if pulled off properly. Father of the Bride has a simple idea at its heart – a straightforward romantic comedy, told from the point of view of someone on the periphery of the romance. However that idea provides the basis for a neatly structured picture that is both funny and endearing.
The screenplay, by the fantastic but rarely lauded husband-and-wife writing duo Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett, tells a story on two levels. The actual events of the picture of chart the romance and wedding of a young couple, and this is more or less all that actually takes place on screen. However, the device of a voice-over narrative, as well as set-pieces such as the engagement party shown entirely from Spencer Tracy's position as involuntary butler, make this undoubtedly his story. The voice-over was a popular feature of thrillers around this time, but here it serves as a comical inner monologue and commentary. Telling the story through the father's eyes ultimately allows Goodrich and Hackett to make this a tale not of romantic love but of family and paternal affection, and one that is more moving than dozens of run-of-the-mill romcoms.
Director Vincente Minnelli was perhaps an odd choice for this project. Having had his biggest successes with musicals, his flowing, flamboyant style could have been a bit over-the-top for such a small-scale real-world setting. However Minnelli's tendency to lead the audience in a certain direction, and his skillful control of elements within the frame bring a lot to Father of the Bride. He is careful to always keep the wedding story going, often literally in the background, while putting Spencer Tracy in the foreground to give us his expressions and reactions. Usually the background goings-on are very busy, helping them to balance out, as well as giving a better comedy effect as Tracy grumps about before the camera. In the scene where the Bankses meet the Dunstons, Minnelli begins successive shots with a close-up of Tracy's martini glass, to give the whole scene the overtone that he is getting more and more drunk as he speaks. One of Minnelli's brightest ideas is to shoot the chaotic wedding rehearsal in one long take from a distant high angle. Not only does this allow the comedy to unfold naturally, it introduces us to the setting but in a slightly detached way. This gives all the more contrast and intensity to the following nightmare sequence, which is all done in close-ups with dozens of cuts.
In the titular role Spencer Tracy gives a typically engaging yet understated performance. This kind of thing was really Tracy's forte. He is essentially a comedy character, since it's his grouchiness and his bewilderment that underlie most of the funny bits. But he's not a wild comic – he's also very believable and very human, and more importantly someone we can like and sympathise with. Although Joan Bennett plays her role completely straight and very reserved, it makes sense for the two of them to be a screen couple. And while Katherine Hepburn had the best chemistry with Tracy and it was always nice to see them on screen together, Bennett is the more appropriate actress here, because she is more sedate and will not threaten to upstage Tracy, whose movie it is after all.
And Elizabeth Taylor, a huge star even then and arguably the female lead, ultimately has a fairly marginal role both in the script and on the screen. Some commentators bemoan this fact, and even prefer the 1991 remake to this original as a result. And yet it is all organised in such a way – the Goodrich/Hackett screen writing, Minnelli's direction, Tracy's acting – that brings a depth and poignancy to the father-daughter relationship despite Taylor's minimal participation. Take moments such as Tracy's relieved smile as the camera pulls away with him from the young lovers' reunion after their argument, or his frantic searching for his daughter so he can say goodbye before she leaves for the honeymoon. They don't distract from the general pattern of this being the father's story, and yet they reveal his true feelings, sometimes better than many a conventional scene between two people who love each other.