Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Spencer Tracy's Finest Hour?

"I would like to say a few words about weddings. I've just been through one. Not my own. My daughter's. Someday in the far future I may be able to remember it with tender indulgence but not now. I always used to think that marriages were a simple affair. Boy meets girl. Fall in love. They get married. Have babies. Eventually the babies grow up and meet other babies. They fall in love. Get married. Have babies. And so on and on and on. Looked at that way, it's not only simple, it's downright monotonous. But I was wrong. I figured without the wedding."

Stanley Banks (Spencer Tracy)

I like Steve Martin and Diane Keaton, and I thought their remake of "Father of the Bride" in 1991 had some creative and imaginative elements that the original did not have, but, if given a choice, I would rather watch the original version, starring Spencer Tracy, Joan Bennett and Elizabeth Taylor, that made its debut on this date in 1950.

I'm not sure there is a logical reason for this preference. Martin is really a professional funny man. You'd think a professional funny man would be perfect for the male lead in a comedy. Tracy wasn't a professional funny man. He could do comedy, but he could do so many other things, too. That may be what worked in his favor. Being the butt of jokes was so out of character for him. As the father of the bride, he was playing against type.

Anyway, it worked well enough for him to earn an Oscar nomination for Best Actor. It was one of three nominations "Father of the Bride"
received. Three nominations, no wins.

In fact, it worked well enough that I am almost tempted to call it his finest acting achievement. Almost.

It wasn't surprising that he lost, though. Tracy was facing some long odds. He was competing with Jimmy Stewart and Bill Holden — and the winner was José Ferrer. Actors in comedies don't usually win Oscars, anyway. It's pretty rare for them even to be nominated.

It wasn't rare for Tracy to be nominated for Oscars. He was nominated for Best Actor nine times in his career and won twice. But, even for him, it was rare to be nominated for his roles in comedies. He could do them — pretty well, in fact — but he was quite versatile. He could shine in any genre.

And I suppose labeling this movie a comedy would be a matter of perspective. For any man who has ever been the father of the bride, many of the scenes that were played out on the silver screen must have rung painfully true. Even if they can laugh about it now, those fathers must have found the experience, at some times and at the very least, awkward.

Of course, Tracy was confronted with just about every conceivable pitfall that can plague a father of the bride. Most only have to contend with one or two; Tracy got the whole ball of wax.

"You fathers will understand," Tracy's character told the fathers of the bride in the audience, past and potential. "You have a little girl. She looks up to you. You're her oracle. You're her hero. And then the day comes when she gets her first permanent wave and goes to her first real party, and from that day on, you're in a constant state of panic."

If "Father of the Bride" was an accurate reflection of a, more or less, typical wedding in 1950, then I suppose it must have been a lucrative business for anyone who contributed anything to a typical wedding — flowers, wedding cakes, bridal gowns, bridesmaids' dresses, groomsmen's attire — and there are lots of rituals that go into a traditional wedding.

By modern standards, though, this certainly wouldn't be a middle–class wedding. Only an upper–class family could afford all the trimmings, and it may not have been that typical after all. It was mostly done at the insistence of the mother of the bride, played by Joan Bennett, who wanted the kind of wedding she and Tracy didn't have. Tracy had to foot the bill for the lavish proceedings plus he had to meet the groom's parents, have a man–to–man conversation with the groom, host the engagement party — as well as put out any other fires he encountered along the way.

And, of course, then — as now — the father of the bride was really only a supporting player in a wedding. Just like the groom. They were there to perform certain functions, but a wedding is really about the bride — and, by extension, the bride's mother.

Tracy and the audience had to be certain that it would all be worth it when the big day arrived. But when the big day actually did arrive, Tracy barely got to see his daughter and appeared to have missed his chance when things began to wind down and he realized the couple had left on their honeymoon.

But just before they were to board their train, Liz Taylor called her parents — and it really was all worth it for the father of the bride.

Now Martin and Keaton did a reasonably good job in the remake, but Tracy and Bennett gave it all a very human touch that elevated this version far above the remake.