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Father of the Bride

by Peter Bogdanovich
March 2, 2011 11:52 AM
10 Comments
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One of the most difficult things to pull off in a movie is having a character talk directly to the audience, looking into the camera lens as they do. The suspension of disbelief for the rest of the film is heavily imperiled by so blatantly breaking the fourth wall and including us, the usually unacknowledged watchers. Whereas the device has widespread and easy currency in the theatre—-from the Greek’s Chorus to the Elizabethan’s, from Feydeau’s farcical asides to Thornton Wilder’s Stage Manager in Our Town—-the movies being a far more realistic medium, I can only think of four instances when this has worked with complete success: In the very first musical comedy, Ernst Lubitsch’s The Love Parade (1929), Maurice Chevalier brilliantly, wittily, aristocratically, made the audience complicitous with his romantic indiscretions and self-justifications—-repeated similarly in the Lubitsch-Chevalier One Hour With You (1932). Michael Caine managed smoothly to make his misogynist working-class anti-hero, Alfie (1966), equally effective in his confidences to the audience. And then there’s Spencer Tracy as the amusingly long-suffering title character in Vincente Minnelli’s delightful and human 1950 comedy of the middle-class, Father of the Bride (available on DVD).

While Chevalier and Caine played their narrative moments sprightly standing, Tracy sits exhausted in an armchair, taking off his shoes, pouring confetti and rice out of them as he recalls the nightmarish events that led him here—-his beloved only daughter’s taking him through engagement and a huge wedding—-making him confront as well the terrible, implacable passage of time. Tracy was always magnificent at underplaying, throwing things away, which is how he makes believable and true so many of the slightly exaggerated though entirely typical crises in this tale of an “average family.” The veteran star’s technique was never to learn his lines absolutely cold, but to know them just well enough that he could search for the words in a spontaneous way, making his readings excitingly fresh. He always insisted on taking himself out of some scenes so that the audience wouldn’t get tired of him. (A few of today’s stars could use that kind of savvy.) Tracy got one of his nine Oscar nominations for best actor for this (he won twice), and the movie also received nominations for best picture and best screenplay (tightly constructed by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett from the bestseller by Edward Streeter).
The bride in the title is played by Elizabeth Taylor at perhaps her most breathtakingly beautiful, shot just before the first of her eight marriages. In fact, her initial wedding—-to hotel heir Nicky Hilton—-was conveniently timed to publicize the picture. Her movie husband is played by straight arrow Don Taylor, who’s likeable but innocuous enough to make Tracy’s natural antipathy to him understandable and eventually transient. And former siren-bad girl Joan Bennett is splendidly mature as the sensible mother of the bride.
Minnelli’s direction never lets the farcical aspects get out of hand—-the chaotic wedding rehearsal sequence alone is a masterpiece of staging and tone. Throughout, he walks a perfect line between comedy and sentiment that’s sometimes heartwarming without ever becoming mawkish—-a delicate balance to achieve and maintain. This is true, too, of the charming 1951 sequel, Father’s Little Dividend (also available on DVD), which has the same cast, screenwriters and director, but in which Tracy was for some reason instructed to play his on-camera narration not into the lens but just off to one side—-a very poor decision—-especially since it all worked so well the first time. Otherwise, in this entertaining installment, Tracy’s lovely daughter causes him the even greater indignity of making him a grandfather. Both pictures come from a seemingly long-ago time in America when a family could still be loving without being sappy or neurotic.

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10 Comments

  • Copyright Litigation | March 16, 2011 5:33 AMReply

    Here is a similar story

    Disney Theatrical Productions has a full plate of new musical projects rolling out toward Broadway and stages across the world, including Playbill.com's previously reported news of a musical adaptation of Tim Burton's "Alice in Wonderland."

    Broadway-aimed projects include musicals of "Father of the Bride" with Tony Award-winner Bartlett Sher (South Pacific, The Light in the Piazza, Women on the Verge…) at the helm; as well as a previously reported stage musical of "Dumbo" with Billy Elliot's Tony-winning director Stephen Daldry and choreographer Peter Darling attached. Variety reports that new Dumbo creative team members include Aida and Mary Poppins designer Bob Crowley and Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Michael Chabon ("The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay"), who is authoring the book.

  • Michael Dempsey | March 9, 2011 3:16 AMReply

    Albert Finney wittily interrupts a comic argument in "Tom Jones" with a perfectly timed quick question aimed directly at the camera and us.

  • Rich Procter | March 8, 2011 4:22 AMReply

    In "It's In The Bag," a great screwball comedy circa 1946, Fred Allen speaks the credits of the movie to the camera. In the movie itself, Fred talks to the camera, and so does Jack Benny, Sidney Toler and several other characters. (The Benny scene alone is worth a screening.)

  • PB | March 6, 2011 9:12 AMReply

    And, of course, "La Ronde"---good call---and Ophuls probably borrowed the
    "device" from Thornton Wilder's Stage Manager in "Our Town" (not a good
    movie, but the play is eternally magical theatre, and I saw Henry Fonda do it in a revival on Broadway during which he did the quintessential Stage Manager). And Thornton borrowed the idea from the Greeks' Chorus; it's all
    been done---it's just a matter of how well you do it.
    Hope-Crosby good too. Never saw O & J.
    Thanks for all the corrections and amendments.

  • Christopher Stilley | March 6, 2011 8:20 AMReply

    Hope and Crosby talk about real hollywood situations,drop real names and address the audience more than ever in Road to Bali...Then theres the Olsen and Johnson pictures who gave the Marx Bros' a real run for their money in the lunacy dept.So much name calling and back and forth from film to reality you are never sure when the insanity might spill out into your living room at any moment.

  • Blake Lucas | March 6, 2011 7:28 AMReply

    I guess if we're branching out a little here, I'll remind of someone you may or may not see as a "character" but in terms of the artificial context of the film, I consider him so--this would be Anton Walbrook, who walks through and guides us through Ophuls' LA RONDE (1950, same year as FATHER OF THE BRIDE). This charming figure, observer, commentator and yet so human too, has such a interesting relationship to all of the action, seemingly aloof and dispassionate but with just the aura of world-weary melancholy that you can't help feeling he has experienced all of this himself. Well, a lot more to say about him than I have, but for me this was a wonderful character who does so much to make a great film what it is (and if I'm correct, he does not derive from Schnitzler's play), and he certainly is speaking directly to the audience most of the time, while also from time to time stepping into various roles or fixing a broken merry-go-round.

  • PB | March 6, 2011 6:24 AMReply

    Thank you, guys, for reminding me about Woody and the Fellini picture, but
    I also forgot Laurel and Hardy, who used to look at the camera lens all the
    time, especially Ollie: ashamed, or part of a slow burn. I'm sure there's
    probably way more, and that's not to even begin including narration, which
    is usually addressed to us in the audience, as in "How Green Was My Valley", or "The Magnificent Ambersons", or "Sunset Blvd."---from a dead man no less!

  • Christopher Stilley | March 5, 2011 7:55 AMReply

    Giulietta Masina's effective little"its gonna be alright" nod to the camera at the end of Nights of Cabiria is one of my favorite audience addresses. ..I thought about that look a long time after I saw it.
    I've been watching some of George Arliss' films lately.I notice hes want to do this little stage aside type thing where he looks blankly out to the audience to express a thought..I haven't seen it in quite awhile,but in Queen Christina, I seem to remember John Gilbert in the habit of turning his head and delivering his lines as if hes talking to an unseen crowd out of camera range,a dramatic bit of business that only endears me more to his character.

  • Chase Handley | March 5, 2011 3:01 AMReply

    PB, how could you forget "Annie Hall"???!!! Surely that's a more impressive instance of breaking the fourth wall than these four listed? And one where it is not simply endearing or funny (though it is that too), but one of the many devices Woody Allen uses to comment on narrative construction itself...

    And I think Richard Lester deserves an honorable mention for a couple of mid-sixties works, The Knack (1965) and How I Won the War (1967)...

  • Arnon Z. Shorr | March 3, 2011 2:57 AMReply

    I'm not sure it's film's "more realistic" nature that makes it so much harder for filmmakers and actors to successfully pull off a direct-to-audience performance. In fact, film is capable of causing us to believe far less realistic things than theater (as an example, consider all of the science fiction films out there. Have you seen much sci-fi theater lately?)

    But I digress. The difference between film and theater that is highlighted by the power and commonness of theatrical "asides" as compared to cinematic ones is a difference of interaction.

    We interact with films very differently than with theatrical productions. In a theater, there is always the threat of being seen or heard by the performers. We have an unnerving power to interrupt, to intervene, to become a part of the play. In many plays, we are invited to participate, to place ourselves in the midst of the performance, to cheer or shout.

    Film invites us to observe, to spy in some cases. The comforting thing about films is that we can not, ourselves, be sensed by those we're watching. It's like Jimmy Stewart's character in "Rear Window", sitting in the dark, comfortable in his voyeurism, as long as he believes the neighbors can't look back at him.

    That is one of the fascinating power of movies. In real-life (and theater takes place in real-life), we get uncomfortable if we stare at someone for too long. It feels intrusive, impolite. Films allow us to stare all we want. We know we won't get caught!

    When a character looks in to the lens, it's not the violation of the fourth wall that unnerves us, but the fact that suddenly the rules that govern our relationship with the screen lose their center of gravity. We are expected to feel as though we are being addressed directly, but at the same time, we must maintain that sense of voyeuristic safety that allows us to continue to stare. In so many cases, an actor looking through the camera at the audience denies the audience the permission to stare without consequence.

    I would suggest that Hitchcock drew on this at the very end of "Psycho", when Norman Bates stares at us, speaking through the disembodied voice of his "mother". We can stare and gawk and lose ourselves in the film all we want, but the thing that makes "Psycho" linger with us once we leave the theater is this startling suggestion that we are not safe. We've been staring at Norman for an hour, thinking ourselves safe. Suddenly, he stares back at us. He can see us! Now, we're really in trouble.

    -Arnon Z. Shorr

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