In anticipation of Father’s Day tomorrow I thought I might post some observations on good pictures about fathers. Movies about mothers, e.g. Stella Dallas, Mildred Pierce, The Sin of Madelon Claudet, are numerous and have even become cult classics. Good pictures about fathers are, I think, harder to come by.
The Kid (1921)
Perhaps it’s ironic that the first picture on my list isn’t about a father at all but about a surrogate father. I think The Kid is one of Chaplin’s best and certainly his most heartfelt. Watch The Kid and you’ll never look at The Addams Family, a TV show in which Jackie Coogan played Uncle Fester, the same way again.
The Champ (1931)
Jackie Cooper, fresh out of the “Our Gang” comedies, became a star in The Champ. The Champ repeats one of the characteristic formulae of movies about fathers: the relationship between father and child doesn’t necessarily hinge on how good a man or even how good a father he is. I admit it: I’m corny. I can’t watch the end of the The Champ without tears in my eyes.
Captains Courageous (1937)
Captains Courageous which won Spencer Tracy an Academy Award for his potrayal of Manuel, the Portuguese fisherman, is nearly a seafaring Fathers and Sons, hinging as it does on different father-son relationships: the absent or distant father, the surrogate father, the deceased father. And then there’s the practically perfect father-son relationship between Lionel Barrymore and Mickey Rooney. Rooney’s performance here isn’t the brash Mick of the Rooney-Garland musicals or the Cagney-influenced Mickey Rooney of Boy’s Town. It’s a much more subdued, better performance and the chemistry between Barrymore and Rooney is wonderful. The repeat pairing came hard on the heels of a casting which spawned the Andy Hardy series (albeit with Lewis Stone, a vastly inferior actor, as Judge Hardy in the remainder of the series).
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1945)
This movie pivots on the scenes between father Johnny and daughter Francie Nolan. They won Jimmy Dunn an Academy Award. My mom used to tell me that this relationship reminded her of her relationship with her dad.
Life With Father (1947)
Excellent acting and gorgeous art direction bring sparkle to this movie about a well-to-do turn of the 20th century family. It’s capped by William Powell’s Academy Award-nominated performance.
Father of the Bride (1950)
Spencer Tracy plays a dad determined to give his daughter the wedding of her (and her mother’s) dreams as he comes to realize that he’s become just a bit player. Tracy’s performance ranges from broad comedy to poignancy.
Friendly Persuasion (1956)
Although this picture is more of an ensemble piece than one about a father, Gary Cooper’s performance as Jess Bidwell, a devout Quaker father, is solid and the picture is so great I just had to mention it.
To Kill a Mockingbird (1962)
That this is a movie about a father and a child’s view of her father can be encapsulated in a single quote: “Jean Louise, stand up. Your father’s passing.”
This picture is about a father’s determination to remain independent and keep his family safe from a war he regarded as none of their business. It also features the best (although not most devout) grace ever said over a meal in a motion picture:
Lord, we cleared this land. We plowed it, sowed it, and harvested it. We cooked the harvest. It wouldn’t be here and we wouldn’t be eating it if we hadn’t done it all ourselves. We worked dog-bone hard for every crumb and morsel, but we thank you Lord just the same for the food we’re about to eat, amen.
Kramer vs. Kramer (1979)
Dustin Hoffman’s portrayal of a father’s education in learning to care for his son fight to retain custody of his son garnered an Academy Award. Meryl Streep won an Academy Award as Best Actress in a Supporting Role as his divorced wife and the picture captured awards for its director, Robert Benton and as Best Picture.
I could add a few honorable mentions that aren’t included above in my list of movies: The Yearling, Hole in the Head, The Courtship of Eddie’s Father, and, maybe, John Q.
I’m embarrassed to realize that I’ve left out yet another notable Spencer Tracy portrayal of a father in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?. The difficulty of portraying someone who faces internal conflict and comes around to support a decision which, while not problem-free, is the most satisfying, integral, and courageous one for himself and his family is enormous but Tracy handles it, even in his terminal decline, with ease. Even on his deathbed we can never catch him acting.
More candidates: Shane, The Patriot. I’ve also begun to think that I need an entire category for movies about bad fathers.