Friday, April 8, 2011

Father of the Bride (1950)...and a reflection on mid-century Hollywood...


During World War II Hollywood churned out popular pictures both entertaining and patriotic, bolstering home front morale and earning enormous box receipts. Between 1942 and 1945, Americans were spending 23% of their recreation dollars on movies and by 1946 weekly attendance was over 90,000,000. But the boom years would soon go bust.

A decline in movie attendance began in the late '40s driven by changing audience tastes and two major events. In 1948, the Supreme Court ruled that certain film industry practices violated anti-trust laws and required studios to divest themselves of their theater chains. Without a guaranteed outlet for every film produced, filmmaking became riskier and the studios began cutting costs and making fewer films. And then, just as the 20th century reached its mid-point, the industry faced a threat unlike anything that had come before - the arrival of commercial television.

empty seats
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, headed by founder Louis B. Mayer since the 1920s, had been the dominant studio for nearly two decades. But the blow to the studio system and declining audiences affected production companies large and small.  By 1951, Mayer was forced out and MGM’s head of production, Dore Schary, took over.

Director Vincente Minnelli had been one of MGM’s top directors since his breakout film, Meet Me in St. Louis, the top-grossing film of 1944. Minnelli married the film’s star, Judy Garland, in 1945. The following year he and Garland produced Liza Minnelli, but from 1946 to 1948 the director's career was uneven, including only minor successes along with outright failures. But a 1949 effort, Madame Bovary, was successful and a point of pride with Minnelli. For the most part he'd felt sidelined from major film work by the overwhelming demands of his marriage to the emotionally volatile MGM star.

In 1950 MGM assigned Minnelli to a Robert Walker comedy, The Skipper Surprised his Wife. The director was rescued from this bland task by producer Pandro Berman who offered him a more enticing project. Also a comedy, it was an adaptation of Edward Streeter’s 1949 bestseller, Father of the Bride, for which Berman owned screen rights. Because the two stories shared similarities, Berman wanted the director of Meet Me in St. Louis on his new production.
 
Jack Benny
As the project began to develop, comedian Jack Benny heard about it and approached Dore Schary. He told the production boss he wanted the role of Stanley Banks, the father of the bride. Without consulting the film’s production team, Schary all but promised Benny the part. Berman was not pleased, nor was Minnelli who went to Benny Thau, veteran MGM executive, and told him he wanted Spencer Tracy for the part and no one else. Thau gave Minnelli the bad news that Tracy was out of the running – the actor had already flatly refused to do the picture.

1950 would mark Spencer Tracy’s 20th year in movies. The winner of back-to-back Best Actor Oscars in 1938 and 1939, he was by this time one of the most respected actors around. Laurence Olivier remarked that he learned more about acting from watching Tracy than from any technique. But away from the set Tracy wrestled with a serious problem - he was a notorious drinker. Between the efforts of MGM’s PR team and Katharine Hepburn’s care, Tracy had been able to avoid scandal and continue working. By the late '40s it appeared the actor’s drinking had tapered off somewhat, however, his hard living had aged him and he looked older than his years. Despite all this, Tracy was still much in demand and worked steadily, even as the industry went into a serious slump.

Hepburn and Tracy, Adam's Rib (1949)
In the midst of the box office downturn, Adam’s Rib (1949), one of the the best of the Tracy/Hepburn battle-of-the-sexes comedies, became a major hit. Though Tracy’s follow-up had been a less memorable potboiler called Malaya (1949), Vincente Minnelli remained convinced that he was the only actor to play Stanley Banks. Eventually, Minnelli decided to enlist Katharine Hepburn’s help. Hepburn invited him over for dinner and, during the meal, Minnelli told Tracy that with him in the lead the comedy had the potential to become a real classic.This was all it took to win Tracy over and he agreed to take the part. It came out that the actor had not refused to do the picture at all, but had known others were being considered for the part and assumed Minnelli didn't want him. To save face, Tracy had resorted to spreading a rumor that he had turned down Father of the Bride.

Joan Bennett was chosen to play the bride's mother, Ellie Banks. Bennett and Tracy had last co-starred in Raoul Walsh’s Me and My Gal (1932) eighteen years earlier. That film had ended with Tracy and Bennett’s characters marrying each other, and Tracy liked to joke that the plot of Father of the Bride indicated that his 1932 “marriage” to Bennett had worked out.  

Elizabeth Taylor in the 1950s
 Elizabeth Taylor, as bride-to-be Kay Banks, supplied the delectable frosting on the rich cake of Father of the Bride's cast. Spencer Tracy cracked that the film's only hard-to-believe detail was that the lovely girl could possibly be his daughter. Taylor was just 17 when she made the picture, but had already begun to portray more mature characters; at 16 she’d played the wife of 38-year-old Robert Taylor in Conspirator (1949). But Elizabeth Taylor was not so mature off-screen. She was still under the thumb and eagle eye of her mother and although the young actress had begun to date, her romances consisted of girlish infatuations and arranged dates mined for publicity by MGM. She was, despite her stunning beauty and poise, quite na├»ve when it came to love.

Father of the Bride, like Meet Me in St. Louis before it, is in its way a fond glimpse into American family life. Contemporary when it was released, the film plays today as a snapshot of a bygone, fairly idyllic, era. That mid-century moment is caught as if in amber by the solid screenplay of screenwriting team Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett, Vincente Minnelli's meticulous attention to what is now period detail...a well-chosen cast, cinematographer John Alton and the minimal, mostly diegetic soundtrack of Adolph Deutsch. Father of the Bride is invariably referred to as a “sparkling comedy.” It most certainly sparkles and brims with sophisticated humor as it casts a skeptical, if bemused, eye on the incongruous goings-on at the heart of its plot, the American marriage ritual, circa 1950. The plot follows suburban lawyer Stanley Banks who is by turns besieged and put upon as he as he spends an enormous amount of money to finance every stage of a tradition that will end in his beloved daughter Kay leaving home. Adding insult to injury, Banks is (amusingly) ignored, belittled, the butt of jokes and barely tolerated while at the same time forced to pay and pay and pay. As the wedding nears he is beset by irrational fears and surreal nightmares. Given that the Stanley Banks character, a lovable and loving curmudgeon, carries the film, Minnelli's judgment was unerring when he insisted on Tracy or no one for the part.

Elizabeth Taylor and Joan Bennett
Father of the Bride was released on June 16, 1950, and was an immense hit. Contributing what can best be described as a publicist's dream, Elizabeth Taylor married her first husband, Nicky Hilton, just weeks earlier. Hilton was the son of the founder of Hilton Hotels, and though the pair had only begun dating months earlier, they succumbed to a whirlwind courtship. MGM naturally, and heartily, approved. Taylor's marriage at the very moment she starred as a virginal bride onscreen was an early indicator of something that would become a habit...her life imitating her art. Taylor's marriage to Hilton ended less than a year after it began...even before a quickie follow-up film to Father of the Bride was released in late 1951.

Father's Little Dividend (1951) is a charming, if less inspired, sequel. The dividend is Kay and her husband's first child and the plot, once again, covers the indignities Mr. Banks (Tracy) must endure...this time as grandfatherhood approaches. It, too, was a hit, but it was not on a par with Father of the Bride which had earned Oscar nominations for Best Picture, Best Screenplay and Best Actor and become an instant classic.

By the time both films had been released, Minnelli and Garland were divorced. Their final split came not long after MGM terminated Garland's contract in 1950. As she struggled to rebound and rebuild her career, Minnelli went back to work with a vengeance. He embarked on the most productive and celebrated decade of his career, a period that included An American in Paris (1951), The Bad and the Beautiful (1952), The Band Wagon (1953), Brigadoon (1954), Lust for Life (1956), Designing Woman (1957), Gigi (1958) and Some Came Running (1958). Minnelli received a Best Director Oscar nomination for An American in Paris (winner of six Oscars including Best Picture) and won for Gigi (winner of nine Oscars including Best Picture). Though Minnelli wasn't nominated, The Bad and the Beautiful won five Oscars.

Spencer Tracy went on make another 17 films and earn five more Best Actor Oscar nominations. His later years were difficult; he fell off and got back on the wagon, became withdrawn and taciturn and lost his health. He was fired from a picture for the first time with Tribute to a Bad Man (1956); it would the last time he worked for MGM. He was so ill during the making of his final film, Guess Who's Coming to Dinner (1967) that he was uninsurable and Hepburn put up her own money to help cover the costs. Spencer Tracy died a few weeks after the film was completed and received a posthumous Academy Award nomination for his performance.

Elizabeth Taylor made a permanent transition to adult roles with Father of the Bride. Her stardom was cemented a year later with the haunting George Stevens drama A Place in the Sun (1951). Taylor went on to become one of the biggest film stars of the 1950s and 1960s and remained a celebrity for the rest of her life.

The studios of Hollywood met a less cheerful fate. By 1951, TV had made significant inroads into the movie audience. Cities with TV stations showed a decrease in movie attendance and wherever TV appeared, theaters closed. The age of the studio system came to an end by 1954. In 1956, Dore Schary, who had tried in vain to restore MGM's glory, was fired and in 1957 Louis B. Mayer, who had never recovered from his ouster, died at age 73. Television, of course, continued to flourish. By the end of 1952 there were 19,000,000 TV sets in homes across America and by 1955 there were 31,000,000...

Some have called Father of the Bride prototypical of the family-oriented TV sitcoms of the '50s and early '60s. In fact, in 1961 a series version of Father of the Bride debuted on CBS; it was shot at MGM studios. Ruth Warrick (Citizen Kane) played Ellie Banks, Myrna Fahey starred as Kay...and Leon Ames, who had portrayed the father, Alonzo Smith, in Minnelli's Meet Me in St. Louis, took the role of Stanley Banks.

17 comments:

  1. What a fantastic essay, Eve! You not only describe how the film came together but also its context in American pop culture history and what makes it important, as well as its place in each principal player's career. Really informative and entertaining!

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  2. great post, eve...1950..great year for films (almost as good as 1939) and the year of my birth...I think the studios were anticipating that momentous event...hahaha!!!

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  3. Eve,
    Thanks so much for letting me know this was posted! I'm almost speechless right now and as you know thats pretty hard to achieve! : )

    WOW! This is such a well researched and interesting post on the film. I love the fact that you included interesting trivia on each star and the movie.

    As we discussed, I've always adored this film because it was Tracy at his best and his comedic timing stole the film, Taylor was beyond adorable then Bennett was perfectly cast as the approachable wife, mother we can all relate to.

    Posts like this make me very proud to be included in such an amazing group of writers!

    Thanks for linking back to my Tracy post.
    Page

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  4. First let me say, that your background information is thoroughly fascinating. I was totally unaware that Jack Benny sought the role of the father. I love Benny's persona, and think he would have been terrific in the role, though it is hard to imagine anyone but Tracy as the cranky put out Dad. Taylor was such a beauty in those days, what guy would not have wanted to marry her. Admittedly, I have not seen the film in quite a few years but your mesmerizing article has whet my appetite to check it out again.

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  5. Eve, you did a tremendous amount of research for this article. What a great read--informative and entertaining at the same time. Tracy was such a great actor and he does a wonderful job playing Stanley in this film. Somewhat off topic, I always wondered how Hepburn put up with his drinking. She always seemed like the type of person who could not tolerate human weakness.

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  6. Eve, this was a fantastic read! I love the way you incorporate the effect the film had on each cast member's career. Very informative!

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  7. I’ve always loved Father of the Bride, it’s beautifully made and, I think, reflects so well America’s post-war aspirations…

    I was reading Irene Mayer Selznick’s autobiography - was curious about the woman who was L.B. Mayer’s daughter, David Selznick’s 1st wife and who produced Tennessee Williams’ “A Streetcar Named Desire” on Broadway. That book led me to a bio of her father…which is essentially a history of movies from pre-Hollywood to the demise of the studio system. When I decided to write about Father of the Bride, everything I’d been reading about MGM and the film industry began to seep through. But for this piece specifically, I referenced bios on Minnelli, Tracy and Taylor, David Halberstam’s The Fifties, etc. So, yes, there was research, but I enjoy the process and I’m glad those who’ve read this piece like the result.

    Why did Katharine Hepburn put up with Spencer Tracy’s drinking? Good question – because she put up with it for a long time. When Spencer Tracy died, according to one bio, “His will was a puzzle.” He left everything to his wife and children except his clothes, paintings and cars - they went to his brother. “Katharine Hepburn was not mentioned. She kept his old hat.”

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  8. Brilliant post! As you point out, this is an interesting film to consider in the broader context of what was happening in the film industry (particularly MGM) at the time. On a side note, it bears mentioning that the original version is so highly superior to the tepid 1990s remake--poor Steve Martin tries his best, but no one can step into Tracy's formidable shoes.

    On another side note: it always tickles my nerdy, movie-loving heart that Father of the Bride features two cinematic Amy Marches: Bennett from the '33 version of Little Women, and Taylor fresh off the '49!

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  9. trueclassics - how did that escape me with my own nerdy, movie-loving heart?!? Yes, the two classic Amys as mother and daughter. Great observation.

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  10. I left a long, well-thought out comment, Eve, and Blogger threw it out! I'm so mad! Well, this was a really marvelous review of not just a movie, but its background, the interesting facts about getting it made, the effect of the 50's on the studios (which I always thought was a huge mistake, as far as destroying the system that had created such fine movies), and the impact of what my Dad used to call the "idiot box", TV. I can't remember who said it, but one far-seeing writer at the advent of TV said it would turn out to be "a vast wasteland." I have to agree. Kudos for a fabulous piece of writing Eve.

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  11. Dear Jack Benny, bless his heart, I simply can’t see him in the role that Spencer Tracy made his own. He created a character that was the calm, stable center of an American family experiencing confusion and growing pains. Your description of “that mid-century moment” . . . “caught as if in amber” is lovely and lyrical, and places the film in the moment of many of the country’s transitions. The shift from entertainment supplied outside the home, to entertainment that appeared in the home, was both bittersweet and groundbreaking. Unlike my parents’ generation, I grew up in the flickering shadows of a television screen, and often wish for a time when the shadows flickered only on a movie screen.

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  12. Becky...the other day I lost a comment twice and on the third try decided to write it in Word & cut & paste to the blog (sigh)! Btw, it was Newton Minnow who, I think, was chairman of the FCC at the time who was concerned that TV would become a "vast wasteland" (he was as prescient as Paddy Chayefsky was in writing "Network").

    'Gypsy...apparently Jack Benny agreed to doing a screen test for the part. It didn't convince...Pandro Berman and Minnelli were concerned that Benny's performance would consist mostly of his "schtick," endearing as it was, and that was not what they wanted.

    I sometimes feel blessed that I was part of a generation that grew up with TV - but also with seeing movies in theaters (Sat. matinees, drive-in theaters, the gamut)...I was just talking with a friend about how large flat-screen HD TV has supplanted the theater experience. Theaters seem only to screen micro-targeted mainstream fare these days - and, even less appealing, in a thin-walled multiplex environment. The times they are a-changing (again)...

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  13. Eve, this thoroughly enjoyable blog post is good enough to be a chapter in a great book! I was fascinated by the treasure trove of information about the making of FATHER OF THE BRIDE and its effect on everyone involved. I've always wondered why Katharine Hepburn put up with the often-ornery Spencer Tracy (there was even a wry gag about him in HOLLYWOODLAND), but I guess, as Woody Allen once said, "The heart wants what it wants." :-) While I thought the casting was perfect all around, I must admit it would have been fun to see how Jack Benny would have tackled the role.

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  14. Ladyeve, Please forgive me for dropping by so late. All I have to say is WOW!! What a great article and that I really love the classic film, Father of the Bride. I thought one of the cutest scenes is when, Spencer Tracy wakes his wife and tells her how worried he is that their daughter's, fiance, is basically a stranger to the family.

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  15. Great post, Eve. So much wonderful history about a movie that I really love. Also, in one of your comments, you said you had read Irene Mayer Selznick's autobiography, which I read last year. Don't you wish you could have met her? I do. I think her take on Hollywood during the 1930s and 1940s was unvarnished and honest. I'm also wondering if you've read "Boom and Bust," a great history of the business of moviemaking during the 1940s.

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  16. Hello Dawn and Filmboy, so glad you both had a chance to read my opus on "Father of the Bride" and that you're both fans of this great film. Irene Mayer Selznick's memoirs are fascinating. Would love to have met her. What an intelligent, perceptive and strong woman she was. To expand on a comment she made: she survived Louis B. Mayer and David O. Selznick...and lived to tell about it. I haven't read "Boom and Bust" but will see if I can find it - thanks for the recommendation.

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  17. I love Jack Benny and I had no idea he was originally thought of for the part of Stanley Banks! Benny, the most famous tightwad, would have made an interesting Banks. But, Tracy is another favorite and his characterization is classic. The scene where Tracy gets stuck making cocktails for everyone at the party is hysterical.

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