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Saturday, March 8, 2008

The Wedding Pictures (originally published 9/02)

Like most people, I suppose, I first encountered Shakespeare's plays when I was still much too young to comprehend 99 percent of their riches. Even so, I caught on to one concept right away: the tragedies were the ones that ended with funerals and the comedies were the ones that ended with weddings. In time, of course, I would come to understand just how central an icon weddings are, not only to Shakespeare, but to all drama, and to our culture as a whole.

Movies are certainly no exception to this rule. A small but heartfelt picture called "My Big Fat Greek Wedding" is even now well on its way to joining the ranks of the most profitable films ever released. (Lots of films have made more money, but they also cost far more to make.) If you've seen this charming comedy and would like to see how earlier films have woven comedy out of matrimony, look for these titles on home video.

"Father of the Bride" (1950). The 1991 remake with Steve Martin was fine, but there's really no substitute for the original version of this granddaddy of all wedding movies. Spencer Tracy is brilliant as the exasperated father struggling to experience his daughter's wedding as the deeply meaningful event it is supposed to be. Instead, he finds himself systematically isolated from the emotional and spiritual significance that the occasion is presumed to carry. Drowning in logistical trivia, not to mention bills, he can only commiserate with us in a hilariously forlorn voice-over narration.

"The Philadelphia Story" (1940). In its original incarnation as a play, this story of high society romance rescued Katharine Hepburn's capsized career. The film version likewise erased her reputation as "box office poison." In a role written especially for her, Hepburn plays the wealthy and insufferably snooty Tracy Lord. She's about to be married to an upper crust stuffed shirt, much to the dismay of her ex-husband, C.K. Dexter Haven, played by Cary Grant. To Tracy's very great annoyance, the upcoming nuptials are being covered by a reporter and photographer from a scandal sheet called "Spy" (some things never change, it seems). James Stewart plays the reporter, Mike Connor, who has no more use for the pretensions of the upper class than Tracy has for him. Not at first, anyway. With such a high octane cast and director George Cukor at the helm, it's hardly surprising that the result became one of romantic comedy's most enduring classics.

"Royal Wedding" (1951). Fred Astaire and Jane Powell star as a brother and sister dancing team who take their act to England at the time of the wedding of Elizabeth II to Philip Mountbatten. Each pursues a romantic interest, leading to the sister's decision to break up the act. It seems that she, too, will be marrying into the British nobility. This is the film in which Astaire dances on the walls and ceiling, with the help of some deft camera trickery. Even more impressive to me, though, is a dance number in which Astaire converts a coat rack into a supple and graceful partner. No camera trickery here; just Astaire's consummate skill weaving its magic. By the way, the story line vaguely mirrors the real life career of Astaire and his sister Adele. She also broke up their act to marry a nobleman.

"A Wedding" (1978). When Robert Altman completed work on his film, "Three Women" (1977), he was asked what he planned to do next. Sarcastically, he replied that he'd like to photograph a wedding. The more he thought about it, however, the more it started to sound like a good idea. In his classic "Nashville" (1975), he had hit upon the formula of juggling many different characters with an ensemble cast. Here was a perfect way to repeat that formula, by portraying a large wedding. He created an overblown ceremony that brought together two mismatched families, one old-money and one new-money. There wasn't really room to squeeze in a plot, but if character-driven movies appeal to you, this one is not to be missed.

As entertaining as these wedding movies are, another film in current release reminds us that weddings are not always the happy endings they are meant to be. Too often there is a specter at the banquet. Next time we'll bag the rice and drop the other shoe.

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