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Starring: Spencer Tracy, Joan Bennett, Elizabeth Taylor
Screenplay: Francis Goodrich, Albert Hackett, from the novel by Edward Streeter
Director: Vincente Minelli
TCM has Spencer Tracy as its featured star this month, and while I’ve always liked him, I’ve only seen a handful of his films. Most people my age probably think of the 1991 Steve Martin remake, which is pretty good, but the original is better. Tracy plays Stanley Banks, an upper middle class lawyer whose daughter Kay (a lovely young Taylor) has fallen for a tall, kind of milquetoast guy named Buckley, and they announce plans to marry. The film is a series of mostly comedic scenes of Stanley dealing with the increasingly expensive, out-of-control wedding planning and reception, alternating with more serious scenes where he worries about losing his little girl.
In his day, Tracy was the most respected actor going, and so successful that he had significant power with his main studio of the late ’30s to mid-’50s, MGM. He originally turned the film down when he learned Jack Benny had been offered a screen test, though that was largely ceremonial and Tracy was the clear front-runner. The few stories I know of Tracy reveal a curmudgeon who nonetheless had some of his greatest successes from films he initially refused. While Benny would probably have been fine with the comedy, Tracy matches him for the slow burns and deadpan delivery of a put-upon father and husband, and then brings a warmth and affection that I doubt Benny could have mustered. His relationship with Taylor in the film not only feels real, there was a certain amount of truth to it, as he befriended her on the film and gave her fatherly advice on her impending marriage to hotel heir Nicky Hilton, her first husband. They remained friends until his death.
While the comedic scenes here would play as rather mild today (they hold the reception in their home and George thinks he’s prepared by making a tray of martinis, only to find every guest wants something else, forcing him to be stuck in the kitchen as bartender for the entire evening), they all work well, and there’s even a kind of humorous nightmare sequence where George dreams of not being able to make it down the aisle, his feet sinking in the spongy floor, his pants stuck and stretched until they’re pulled off, leaving him writhing on the floor in his civvies. Minelli has a sure hand throughout the film, aided immensely by the cinematography of the great John Alton.
Sure, there’s a little bit of a patronizing attitude towards women (Kay claims the wedding is off and it turns out to be a silly argument over where they’re having their honeymoon), and the financial concerns don’t hold much water when we see they can hold 200 people in their house for the reception, but it’s a sweet and consistently funny film.