Father of the Bride and a Reflection on Mid-Century Hollywood

Guest blogger The Lady Eve writes:

During World War II Hollywood churned out popular pictures both entertaining and patriotic, bolstering home front morale and earning enormous box office 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.

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.  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 veteran MGM executive Benny Thau 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. 

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 18 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, 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 naïve when it came to love.

Father of the Bride starring Elizabeth Taylor

Elizabeth Taylor in the 1950s

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 successful banker 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.

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 took home five Oscars.

Father of the Bride starring Spencer TracySpencer Tracy went on to 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 cover the cost. 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 who portrayed the father, Alonzo Smith, in Minnelli’s Meet Me in St. Louis, took the role of Stanley Banks.

The Lady Eve is a bureaucrat by day, blogger by night…and a lover of classic film night and day. She lives in Northern California and works in TV. She also won a 2010 CiMBA Award from the Classic Movie Blog Association. For more information, visit http://eves-reel-life.blogspot.com.