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.