March 12, 2012
Spencer Tracy got away with playing the same character a lot of the time, and with good reason: It worked. A case in point is his role in the 1951 comedy Father’s Little Dividend, which was a sequel to Father of the Bride.
Tracy plays Stanley Banks, a suburbanite who looks forward to forging a new kind of life with his wife, Ellie (Joan Bennett), now that their three children are grown. He’s especially thinking about travel — Europe, maybe, or the beach at Waikiki. This dream is disrupted by the announcement that the Banks’ daughter, Kay Dunstan (Elizabeth Taylor), is pregnant.
Ellie is delighted with this news, but Stanley is worried, depressed, and angry. He correctly suspects that first the pregnancy and then the baby will absorb Ellie’s attention to the exclusion of all other things. He also dislikes the prospects of being a grandfather, because he doesn’t like confronting his age.
The pregnancy, as pregnancies will, proceeds with or without Stanley’s endorsement. Meanwhile Ellie becomes increasingly irritated by Kay’s in-laws, who seem determined to take control of every aspect of the baby’s life, including its name and the decor of its nursery.
To complicate matters further, Kay leaves her husband whom she suspects of having an affair, and Ellie is distraught over the obstetrician’s theories, apparently revolutionary in 1951, about a mother being totally awake during childbirth and bonding immediately with her infant.
This film, which was shot in 22 days, was directed by Vincente Minelli. It’s typical of the style of the times, including the overdressed actors. (I was old enough in 1951 that I can testify that men did not wear suits to do everything but sleep and have sex.) It’s also thoroughly entertaining in the way of the comedies of that period, no little thanks to the irresistible Spencer Tracy. For anyone who has seen neither film, it might be fun to watch Father of the Bride first, but it’s not necessary in order to appreciate the sequel.
An image that is perhaps too typical of the time is the black maid, in this case Delilah, played by Marietta Canty. She appeared in more than 40 films — including Rebel without a Cause, The Spoilers, and Father of the Bride — mostly in this kind of role and often without receiving credit. Like her colleagues, she braved the criticism often directed at black actors who accepted such parts and conducted herself with skill and dignity. She retired from show business in the late 1950s. She was a political and social activist for the next three decades. She was also a nurse and a justice of the peace. Her home in Hartford, Connecticut, is on the National Registry of Historic Sites.