Stars: Bette Davis, Ernest Borgnine, Debbie Reynolds and Barry Fitzgerald
Sometimes the stars align and all the names come out at the same time. The Catered Affair is a film I hadn't even heard of, but it's a gem and it has a major list of names behind it. It's directed by Richard Brooks, a year after he made Blackboard Jungle. The story is by Paddy Chayefsky, a writer's writer who won his first of an eventual three Oscars for the previous year's Marty; and it was adapted by Gore Vidal, his first script for the big screen. It's glorious writing, that came from a surprising source: originally it was a play, not on stage but for television, broadcast as an entry in the Philco Television Playhouse. As I was growing up, 'TV movie' was a euphemism for second rate, a cheap reminder of the real thing with names that used to be important. That often wasn't the case in the fifties, when the only thing not to compare favourably with the big screen was the budgets. Even a film as important as 12 Angry Men started out as a live teleplay on Studio One.
The story, which uses a snap wedding to magnificently build a host of characters, is brought to life by a stellar cast. Cabby Tom Hurley is Ernest Borgnine, who had just won his own Oscar for Marty, a character not far removed from this one socially. He's a reliable but unimaginative man and while I've always got the impression that Borgnine is highly intelligent, he's always so good at playing stolid. Bette Davis is a more surprising choice as his dowdy wife Agnes, fresh from a part as Queen Elizabeth I in The Virgin Queen. I knew little about most of her fifties films before seeing them but they trump her earlier work for sheer versatility. Going from a historic queen of England to a working class Bronx housewife is rare and admirable, but before Elizabeth she was the washed up Hollywood actress Margaret Elliott trying to rekindle her career in The Star and after Aggie she would be a librarian fighting censorship in Storm Center. She was versatility.
It's Aggie that calls for the catered affair of the title, but not for a while and it isn't her wedding. It's Tom and Aggie's daughter Jane who's getting married, but she springs the news on them at breakfast and that's the first point Bette's Bronx accent slips. Up to then it doesn't even seem to be Bette Davis, more like someone trying to be Bette Davis, because she plays it so well. Jane doesn't just spring the wedding, she springs the date too: next Tuesday, because they want to take advantage of the loan of a car to go on honeymoon, one reason why Jane and her fiancé, Ralph Halloran, only want a plain, simple ceremony, no wedding reception, no nothing. Tom's on board, especially as he needs $4,000 of the $4,400 he's saved over the years to finally buy his own cab. He and a partner have been waiting for a decade for a medallion to come up because there are so few available. Aggie's on board too, but if she really was, there wouldn't be a movie.
Debbie Reynolds was surprisingly the only actor to win an award for this film, from the National Board of Review as Best Supporting Actress. It's surprising because the story drives her rather than the other way around. Perhaps it's because her character is life in a microcosm: she knows what she wants, but she quickly gives in to the pressures around her just to make everyone else happy, only to regret the decision and put her foot down in the end. Her subplot is a subtle one about growing up. Certainly Reynolds and Rod Taylor, who plays her fiancé, are overshadowed throughout. That's hardly surprising. Not only are her parents played by Borgnine and Davis, but Uncle Jack lives with them and he's played by Barry Fitzgerald, perhaps the most effortless scene stealer of them all. Yet again he gives a performance that would have stolen the show in any other company, twisting the truth outrageously, doing nothing but taking credit for everything.
Fitzgerald knew all the tricks at this point, close to the end of his career. He made two further pictures before dying of a heart attack, back home in Dublin, at the ripe old age of 73. He only made 44 films, and he was certainly stealing scenes from the best in the earliest I've seen: from Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn in 1938's Bringing Up Baby. By this point in his career, he'd stolen them from pretty much everyone else in Hollywood too, perhaps most notably from John Wayne and Maureen O'Hara in The Quiet Man and from Bing Crosby in Going My Way, so neatly that he received Oscar nominations both for Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor for the same role, a feat that prompted the Academy to change their rules to avoid a reoccurence. He's a joy here, yet another Irish rogue with a glint in his eye who equates 'wedding' with 'party' and who plays the age old game of emotional blackmail like a champion.
There's so much to praise here that it's difficult to focus, though the quality of the writing shines through above everything else. It's the ground on which everything else here is built, from the deep characterisations of all the main cast and many of the smaller roles, all the way down to Jane's friend Alice Scanlon, who can't afford to be her matron of honour. Davis is stunning, but Borgnine, Fitzgerald and Reynolds are excellent too, with nobody else being less than solid. The cinematography is subtle, doing nothing flash but doing a great job at contrasting spaces: from the vast ballroom Aggie wants to rent for Jane's wedding breakfast to their claustrophobic home that would be cosy just for two but sleeps five. Cinematographer John Alton is known primarily for his films noir, but made five varied movies for Richard Brooks late in his career. Here he's yet another of the stars who aligned to make this gem, which deserves to be better remembered.