The Courtship of Eddie’s Father gives off all the signs of a light and frothy romantic comedy. You might envision it already: a widower-about-town with his son playing matchmaker as he tries to navigate the plethora of pretty girls who just happen to orbit around him.
But we must make some distinctions. This is also a film about a little boy and his father after the death of someone very precious to both of them. A wife and a mother. You cannot easily laugh this plot point away, and the movie never does.
It’s equally important to note who our director is. No one would wager this is the artistic height of Vicente Minnelli, but it’s not a throwaway rom-com either; no matter what contemporary audiences might have been led to believe. I’m thinking most specifically of the scene early on where Ron Howard erupts, bawling over his pet goldfish now floating upside down in the tank. His father storms out of the room to go find his bottle and glass as his little boy is comforted by their neighbor from across the hall (Shirley Jones).
Does Minnelli dare include this scene? It risks feeling overwrought, and it absolutely kills any of the convivial feelings the movie looked to engender. But there are plenty more of those to come, and here we get something actually grasping for some kind of meaning; it’s an attempt to make sense of real-life issues, albeit through the Hollywood guise of gorgeous Panavision Metrocolor. This is Minnelli at his best with substance breaking through his usual lavish photography and expert set dressing.
And yet here is some of the quintessential essence of the picture, daring to be more than meets the eye. We are reminded grief is okay and it is natural — they will both miss “Mommy” — and instead of holding in their feelings, they must be open with one another. It’s the only way they can hope to cope. The whole film is a progression along this theme. Lest anyone get the wrong idea, this is really a father and son picture.
While I won’t say Glenn Ford is as obvious a father figure as Andy Griffith, he still manages the necessary rapport with Ron Howard, and I always do marvel at Howard’s poise for such a young actor. They often tell the stories of child actors who had an expiration date because once their cuteness wore off they didn’t have the acting chops to make it.
Although Howard has transitioned to the director’s chair, I watch him in individual episodes of Andy Griffith or a movie like this, and it does feel like he was capable of range beyond his years. Yes, he’s cute. That’s the easy part, but he also navigates his way through the more labored scenes where there are other emotions. The picture’s always able to fall back on that core relationship.
However, before I overcompensate, The Courtship of Eddie’s Father has plenty of the kind of goofy, at times cringe-worthy, rom-com moments of a certain era. It allows the movie to remain innocent at heart even as it courts other issues.
Take one evening where the two bachelors stop off at an arcade only to make the acquaintance of bodacious Dollye Daly (Stella Stevens). They meet when she asks to borrow Tom’s son for a couple of minutes to ward off the local mashers as she tries to build up her self-confidence. Then, there’s Ford’s colleague at work. Jerry Van Dyke’s flirty radio personality has a habit of proposing dinner dates on the air.
Dina Merrill is a career woman who knows what she wants, and her brand of quiet and mature sophistication is rightfully attractive to Tom. She’s looking for a man to love her on equal terms and despite what her aloof elegance might say against her, she’s another deeply sympathetic figure.
A movie that looks to be about a man and three women actually is at the same time simplified and made vastly more complicated. Dollye and Norman fall in together over bowling. So Eddie’s first choice of partners for his dad falls through. Now to the nitty-gritty. The main tension is between a boy’s feelings and his father’s.
Elizabeth is familiar and comfortable; both a good friend to their deceased mother/wife and an ever-present figure across the hall. She’s a cinematic creation and the kind of person brimming with well-meaning affection. Tom’s feelings for her are complicated. Eddie’s are simple. He feels safe in her presence. There’s a kind of maternal understanding and trust between them already.
Although it’s never stated explicitly, Rita, on the other hand, is attractive because she is so different. When Tom looks at her and spends time with her, he’s rarely reminded of his wife. With Elizabeth, he can’t help but see her. For his boy this is security and for him, it’s a kind of crippling torture. He cannot bear it.
Like any bright kid, Eddie’s extremely observant and precocious in many ways. He asks all the innocently probing questions about how babies are made etc. For him, differentiating cartoon villains from the good guys is a matter of round eyes and thin eyes (along with other salient features).
In one scene, he gives a comical appraisal of Ride the High Country. Meanwhile, for a few brief moments, his father falls asleep to Mogambo‘s screen passion playing out between Clark Gable and the much younger Grace Kelly. I’m not sure if it’s a subconscious reflection of Tom’s own yearning to have the love and affection back in his life. If anything, it’s a striking portent.
His jovial housekeeper (Roberta Sherwood) warns him of such a woman looking to take advantage of what he has to offer. Graciously, there aren’t any such women found in the frames of this picture. A New Years’ party with Rita is lovely, and he comes home late at night in a mild euphoria only to bump into Elizabeth. She had a night out with the same old successful doctor; it’s hardly love.
Later, they hold a frenzied birthday party for Eddie that’s chaos personified with all the little kiddies running around. Elizabeth is right in the middle of the adolescent maelstrom and Rita is absent. Then, as his father grows more serious and Eddie has his heartbroken at summer camp, he makes an irrevocable decision. He runs away and seeks refuge with the one person who makes him feel safe — his maternal rock of Gibraltar. If you follow the dramatic arc, there’s only one place the romance can lead.
Yes, it’s rom-com wish-fulfillment, but I’d like to think there’s also a sense of clarity with the movie resorting back to where we needed it to go. What a lovely admission it is that the women are not the easily caricatured heroes and villains of Eddie’s comic book imagination, nor are they completely trivialized down to their appearance. If anything, we get past the superficiality promoted by marketing campaigns.
It’s a father and son movie, first and foremost, and yet we end up admiring all of them. What a lovely person Shirley Jones is. Stella Stevens brims with unparalleled intelligence, and Dina Merill is blessed with poise. Jerry Van Dyke’s not completely repulsive. If he’s the weakest link, then there are worse prices to pay.