Charles Shyer’s remake of Father of the Bride is one of my “safe space” films, so it was quite uncanny to go back and rewatch the Vincente Minnelli original – all the more so in that the remake draws quite heavily from the original, which features Spencer Tracy, Joan Bennett and Elizabeth Taylor in the roles that would be reprised by Steve Martin, Diane Keaton and Kimberly Williams. Minnelli’s version follows much the same plot – Tracy plays Stanley T. Banks, a suburban lawyer who is astonished when his daughter Kay, played by Elizabeth Taylor, announces that she is getting married at the ripe old age of nineteen. With the help of his considerably more level-headed wife Ellie, played by Joan Bennett, Stanley gradually comes around to the wedding, and to Kay’s fiancée Buckley Dunstan, played by Don Taylor.
Like the 1991 remake, this is a fairly gentle comedy of manners, more interested in the rhythms of suburban life than getting bogged down in angst. Yet Minnelli’s version arguably treads a finer line between comedy and drama too, with more anxiety about lower middle status, and the future of fathers in American culture. Set in 1950, the story depicts a father coming to term with the first generation of teenagers, glimpsing a world where parental authority (and paternal authority) no longer holds total sway. In response, Tracy often plays the “female” role here as he did in his romances with Katherine Hepburn, exuding an emotive and even hysterical energy that sits quite comically with his downbeat, understated delivery.
To be fair, the film flirts with incipient teenage subcultures rather than fully engaging with them. We’re given a brief montage sequence of Kay’s previous suitors – a glimpse of greasers and mods – but Kay has chosen a pretty strait-laced man for her fiancée. In fact, her form of rebellion is to marry even younger than her parents, reproaching her father for waiting until his mid-twenties to tie the knot. Even though teenage angst is displaced from Stanley and Kay’s relationship, it’s critical to the ambience of the film – and to Tracy’s performance, which is droll more than comic, anchored (like Steve Martin’s) by great reaction shots. He’s all discomforted pauses, mild angst, as if he’s wincing in slow motion, to the point where mildness is the point – this is fatherly authority caricatured into a clownish kind of mildness. Fathers, the film suggests, are destined to be merely inoffensive purveyors of Dad humour, rather than the stern and stentorian regulators of the family structure they were in the past.
In other words, Tracy perfects a kind of minoritized everyman status here. He’s seated for most of the dramatic exchanges, and he’s sedentary generally, nearly always planted in one spot while people talk or move rapidly around him. Perpetually sidelined from conversations, he’s usually the last person to leave a room, or a scene, which means he’s even more housebound than Steve Martin’s rendition, arriving home from work in the opening sequence and barely leaving the house after that. Even then, he’s identified with the rooms in the house that aren’t in regular use, or that are peripheral to the action – listening at doors, peeking out windows, skulking around corners and hiding in the dark spots where he can get some quiet.
While there are three sustained scenes that take place away from the house, the first two see Stanley entering another man’s domain – the ritzy home of his new in-laws, and the equally ritzy offices of the wedding planner. The third scene is the church itself, both in the wedding rehearsal and the actual wedding, when Stanley finally cedes his role as the most important man in Kay’s life. As the film proceeds, Stanley is also displaced within his own home, especially by the wedding planner: “an experienced caterer can make you ashamed of your house in fifteen minutes.” Buckley also tends to command the entrance to the Banks house, whether by telling Kay to get a coat after she refuses to take the same advice from her father (a joke that carries over to the 1991 remake) or by making out with Kay in the lobby after a lover’s tiff, as Stanley edges past them awkwardly and then makes his way up the staircase. Even his pride of place at the wedding rehearsal is curtailed by the cacophony of the bridal part and an over-zealous priest, giving way to a lurid nightmare in which he is unable to move.
As the film proceeds, then, Stanley has literally nowhere to be – he’s over-identified with his house, but also displaced from his house by a series of other paternal surrogates. As a result, he is never quite able to articulate himself in a stable way either – his voice is always a little too quiet, or else spills over into long tipsy monologues that bore and embarrass everyone around him. He’s so nervous about having “the talk” with his son-in-law that he ends up giving a potted history of his own life – justifying his own choices, outlining his own financial situation – until Ellie calls them for dinner. There’s a stark contrast, in this scene, between Stanley, who doesn’t even fully own his house, and Buckley, who is already managing his own company. It’s as if Stanley has to prove himself to Buckley, rather than vice versa – as if being a middle-class father, at this moment in time, is a form of downward mobility in and of itself.
No surprise, then, that Stanley is displaced from every event in the wedding too. During the engagement party, he’s relegated to the kitchen, where he has to service a swathe of taller, fitter, better dressed and more assertive men, who crowd in on all sides with requests for exotic drinks. He can only make a martini, so the final indignity comes when a teenage friend of Kay’s asks for a couple of Cokes, and watches amused as Stanley sprays himself in the eye while trying to open the bottle on his window ledge. So preoccupied is he with this domestic duty that all the guests leave before he can give his speech, and announce Kay’s engagement formally, as her father. Instead, the last drunken guest recites the speech to an empty living room, including Stanley’s comic directions to himself: “Wait for the partygoers to all laugh.”
These scenes clarify just how acutely the 1991 version draws on the anxieties of the 1950 version – and the profound synergy between the two parental generations depicted in the respective films. In the 1991 version, Steve Martin and Diane Keaton embodied Boomers who had grown up, faced with translating their edginess into middle age. Similarly, Spencer Tracy and Joan Bennett embody a screwball generation who have grown up, also faced with figuring out what edginess means in their forties. To that end, Minnelli, and screenwriters Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett, take one of the iconic screwball tropes – the comedy of remarriage – and use it to map out the waning of screwball as a Hollywood mode. In the comedy of remarriage, a couple would marry formally, separate, and then rediscover marriage as a personal connection, rather than an institution. Here, however, the opposite happens – Kay’s wedding makes Ellie regret that she never had a traditional wedding herself. When Stanley offers to remarry her, this time as a formality, she responds that a traditional marriage for Kay will suffice to make up for their own more screwball and idiosyncratic union.
Like the 1991 film, then, Father of the Bride charts a once radical generation (Boomer in that case, screwball in this case) partly repudiating their heritage of challenging gender norms. Yet screwball isn’t entirely absent here – instead, it operates as a return of the repressed that ramifies in abrupt, staccato and extreme ways, puncturing the mildness of the film with moments of cacophony and cross-purpose that wouldn’t be out of place in Preston Sturges. You could say that Minnelli emphasises silence only to rupture it during these screwball ejections, much as Tracy’s voice is only quietened to make his rambling, drunken, inane monologues even more humorous. And this brings us to possibly the biggest difference from the 1991 remake – there is no non-diegetic music. As critical as Alan Silvestri’s score became to the Shyer version, there’s no real precedent here, since every scene is unaccompanied, turning the house into a vast silence that textures Tracy’s shifts in tone, makes them even more subliminally comic, while wrapping them in a bathos that dwarfs grand pronouncement.
Even the voiceover is soft and mild, a reminder that what we’re witnessing is small life, a narrow slice of life, the family as minoritized institution. Sure, the action expands with the wedding, as Minnelli finally brings in mobile tracking-shots, culminating with the dramatic pan back through the house in the closing scene, which concludes with the first and last music that we hear in the film, in the form of a record that Stanley puts on the turntable as he dances with Ellie. Yet this music is ultimately as banal as Stanley’s final comment (“My daughter’s my daughter all her life”) and unable to fill, process or respond to the film’s great silences, which instead convey a kind of negative screwball space – the space once occupied by screwball, which continues to texture the action in haunted, muted and more mildly comic ways here.