Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Father of the Bride (1950) "El padre de la novia"

Director: Vincente Minnelli
Spencer Tracy, Elizabeth Taylor, Joan Bennett, Leo G. Carroll, Don Taylor, Billie Burke


What a cute movie. What separates it from all the TV sitcoms that were to follow is the care, time, and expense that went into all aspects of the production. (Except that it was shot on the MGM lot, which would have made more money as a theme park than a shopping mall.) Followers of the more popular TV sitcoms become familiar with the various characters over the course of episodes, sometimes over the course of years. But Minnelli and his cast and crew had to squeeze everything we learn about the characters into an hour and a half so they had a lot more work to do. The audience couldn't take the characters' traits for granted, like Jack Benny's stinginess, Ralph Kramden's bluster, Lucy's mishchievousness, Ted Baxter's vanity, or Archie Bunker's ethnocentricity. In a feature film it all had to be shown first, and then developed in the course of one long episode, so to speak. This was one of a series of what might be called upper-middle-class comedies, which included "Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House." "Father of the Bride" crafts and executes the jokes almost flawlessly. Want to see a great example of intuitive acting, one that probably took more than a few takes? Watch the bedroom scene before the wedding in which Spencer Tracy wakes his wife and tells her how worried he is that their daughter's, Elizabeth Taylor's, fiancĂ© is basically an unknown in their lives. "He's a charming boy," replies Bennet, the wife. "Charm, eh?" Tracy shoots back and unleashes his anxiety. "That's just what these guys have got. Oh, lots of charm. Probably got a criminal record," and so on until he winds up with, "Just the kind of guy who'll probably put a bullet in the back of her neck." Then he rolls over and goes to sleep. What a performance. Tracy rolls around frantically while talking, fluffing his pillows, settling back and then sitting up again, shaking the blankets, scowling at his wife. In TV, there simply isn't enough TIME to devote to a single scene like that, nor are the performers usually up to Tracy's standards. The same goes for the direction. Watch the scene of the wedding rehearsal at the church. It is, as Tracy despondently describes it afterwards, "utter and complete chaos." The scene lasts a good four minutes and involves at least a dozen characters who must learn how to walk in a particular way and recite their lines appropriately. It's both maddening and hilarious. And it's all done with no more than one or two cuts. Minelli's camera simply sits there and captures the insanity in long takes. How many were required, we'll never know, but certainly there were more tries than "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" could afford. Not much is required of the rest of the cast. Tracy is the main show and he provides the narration. But Elizabeth Taylor is drop-dead gorgeous. Russ Tamblyn doesn't have many lines as her younger brother but he has one of the best. Tracy and Taylor have a minor row and Taylor huffs off. "Well, what's the matter with HER?" asks Tracy. And Tamblyn gets to say in his whiny adolescent voice, suggesting knowledge beyond his years, "She's nervous. ALL women are nervous." If you haven't seen this yet, don't miss your next chance.

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