Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (May 18, 2016)
Like many of my generation, my introduction to Father of the Bride came via the abysmal 1991 remake with Steve Martin. As much as I loathed that version, I didn’t think I should hold this attitude against the original. Indeed, my disdain for the “modern-day” film made me more interested in the 1950 take – it couldn’t be as awful, could it?
When Kay Banks (Elizabeth Taylor) gets engaged to Buckley Dunstan (Don Taylor), a virtual nightmare ensues for her father Stanley (Spencer Tracy). First he’s upset that his little girl has grown up, and then matters get worse as he realizes how involved and expensive the wedding will be. Stanley gets more and more worked up as the complexity – and costs – escalate.
Readers may notice that the synopsis above duplicates the blurb I wrote for the 1991 film. That’s partly because I kept my overview simple, but it’s also because the two films do stick pretty close to each other in terms of story and character areas.
When it comes to how the movies approach those elements, though, the 1950 and 1991 versions differ substantially. The 1991 flick offered lowest common denominator material, as it focused on cheap sentiment and lazy slapstick.
While the 1950 edition features emotion and comedy as well, it does so in a much more subdued manner – arguably too subdued, perhaps. The 1950 Bride takes such a dry approach to the subject matter that at threatens to feel inert at times.
That said, it does gather steam as it goes. The first act seems too restrained, but the film allows itself to develop greater intrigue – and comedy – along the way. The movie becomes looser and freer with the passing minutes.
Not that anyone should expect a rip-snorting comedic romp, as Bride stays pretty low-key – which seems like a positive, especially after the idiotic shenanigans of the 1991 version. While it plays situations for laughs, at least the 1950 film gives the characters dignity and doesn’t turn them into cartoons.
Unlike the 1991 flick’s Annie, Kay presents as a reasonable person. Level-headed and practical, she doesn’t even want a big wedding, whereas Annie comes across as a petulant child who demands to be celebrated on her “big day” and to get her every whim granted.
This makes a huge difference, as it allows us to connect better with Kay and the rest of the characters. Though the wedding balloons semi-out of control, it never becomes the consumerist obscenity of the 1991 film, a tale in which George – that version’s patriarch – is looked at as evil incarnate because he doesn’t think a wedding should cost more than a home.
With a more likable bride-to-be, the 1950 movie allows us to better embrace its characters and circumstances. As I watched the 1991 edition, I got genuinely angry at how superficial and status-obsessed the characters were, especially because we were supposed to be on their side. That factor plays no role in the 1950 flick, and it benefits from it.
A greater focus on nuance and reality also allows for a lot of charm to escape. Tracy demonstrates Stanley’s frustrations but doesn’t make him a cartoon complainer. He shows concern for the rising budget but still has a soft side, and we like him for this.
I also appreciate the film’s essential lack of mawkishness. Movies like Bride easily turn gooey and sugary, but the 1950 version avoids those traps. Instead, it maintains a nearly clinical tone, one that allows comedy and emotion to emerge naturally and without the relentless prodding I might expect.
I will say I think Bride could use a little more energy, but that’s a minor complaint. The movie offers a largely charming little comedy that gives us a timeless look at the “business” of weddings.