Spencer Tracy is the eponymous father in Father of the Bride, and like many of these head-of-household figures he has very firm notions on what is and what isn't a marriage. This bull-headed character archetype stems from an age-old paternal instinct that has existed long before there were cameras to capture it, and I suppose it will continue for a little while longer. 1991 brought us the remake with more or less the same relationship dynamics, but a meaner, leaner Steve Martin whose Banks is determined to give us a full stand-up comedy routine, with flashier and more outrageous embarrassments (audiences would have snored like Tracy did at the 'scandal' of him falling asleep on the couch). That routine would in turn pave the way for more outlandish cringe comedy in the vein of films like Meet the Parents and 40 Year Old Virgin, which take physical slapstick to the max. But you have to admire the simplicity of the original.
Watching Martin allows us to appreciate Tracy for what he is. Martin's rendition is more the 'jerk' and less 'father'; in almost every encounter he's halfway towards that famous sneer, and that dismissive tone. He talks down to people. Tracy is dryer, deadpan, with the tiniest sardonic trace here and there. Watch how he reads the never-ending list of the trousseau, seeing nothing but dollar signs, and how he gradually builds from curiosity into a spluttering farce. When he arranges to have a quick 'talk' with the husband-to-be, which is just an excuse to flaunt his feathers like a strutting peacock and scare Buckley a little, he approaches it with glee. This is his domain. He'll smile and shake hands all day, and underline each of his stories with a little warning: don't even think about hurting my kitten. Then there are times when he can barely keep what is truly important under that grumpy facade; Kay goes from wishing hell upon her fiancé to embracing dramatically and apologising over and over, all in the span of an afternoon, but watch Tracy. He looks up and down and left and right, as if he is almost embarrassed to be in their presence, but he can barely keep that silly smirk off his face.
The women are characters by extension of Banks, and looking at it from a modern perspective they seem shallow, but offer some sweet moments. Tracy can barely contain him delight suited up with top hat and all, dancing and giggling like a child, but that is nothing compared to his amazement at seeing Ellie all dressed up, and seeing their age-old love spring to life again (imagine what Hepburn could have done with that moment). Taylor was cast at just the right moment; she was making the transition from child actor into beauty icon, and even someone like Banks couldn't deny that she had the look of a grown woman walking down the aisle.
The humour too, not unlike Tracy himself, is slyer than most of the contemporary sources that have conditioned us. He doesn't need to go over a whole routine of stumbling and sneaking before ending up in the pool; the shot blurs in and out, he gets progressively drunker, and truths most fathers have voiced suddenly come tumbling out. When he's racking his brains to figure out which of the previous laundry list of boyfriends she's finally settled on, they're codenamed by Banks' least favourite feature of theirs. The one with the weird porcupine hair, or the teeth, or the muscle-bound ham. It wouldn't be too silly to suggest that Banks remembers them a great deal more than Kay herself. The film doesn't have anything groundbreaking to say, but it's playful and comparably lighter than some of Minnelli's lurid melodramas (Some Came Running comes to mind), and at the end you can't help but smile and hope for the best.