Saturday 11 June 2011

The Catered Affair (1956)

Director: Richard Brooks
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.
What's so great here is that the film really isn't about Jane and Ralph, as they're just the trigger for Aggie to realise through her daughter just what she's done with her life. It doesn't take much gentle pressure, from Ralph's parents or her brother Jack, to bring into prominence a whole host of regrets, and so she decides to give Jane what she didn't give herself: the catered affair of the title, a big wedding with all the trimmings that she can remember when the bad days come. That phrase is repeated like a mantra: 'when the bad days come', suggesting that that's where Aggie is at this point in time and she's only just acknowledged it. The picture is really about Tom and Aggie coming to some strong realisations and acting on them, taking their marriage off pause and defining their future together. You know, the sort of thing that newlyweds should but rarely do, because at that point it's all love and roses and blissful improvisation.

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.
It took Bette Davis to successfully counter Fitzgerald's scene stealing, though it took work. Aggie is perhaps the busiest character I've ever seen Bette play. She's busy all the time, as befits the sort of character that doesn't often get covered in classic Hollywood. The Hurleys aren't rich, but they're not mired in poverty either. We're used to seeing the perfect wife manage the house with a maid and a housekeeper and we're used to seeing the working class wife struggle and fail to get by without enough to manage. Aggie is closer to the latter than the former but she does fine through strength of character and hard work. Her husband works, her daughter works and her son is about to join the army. She works as hard as any of them, without even thinking about it, so hard that the scene where she has to sit still and listen to Ralph's parents is uncomfortable and somehow unnatural. It's like watching a kid with ADHD try not to move.

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.


Anonymous said...

Just finished watching this movie for the first time. Wonderful everything from the first scene on through to the last moments as Ernest puts his arm around Betty's shoulders in the back seat of his cab.So glad Turner movie classics aired this timeless story.

Anonymous said...

Excellent actors who are very enjoyable to watch in a good story. No great shakes about the storyline itself but it is solid. What stands out in this movie is Hollywood's finest doing what they do best. Really enjoyed the movie.

Unknown said...

Watching it's just great!!! ("The Catered Affair")

Tellitlikeitis said...

What a cast & what acting, should have been promoted more & perhaps it would have made more money, but in 1956 1.5 million dollars gross @ .25 a ticket is 6 million or more theatre tickets sold! Which was considered a hit then! Bette Davis was great as all of supporting cast was too, especially Barry Fitzgerald, old scene stealer, but, Earnest Borgnine was great in an understated role too! Loved it, really did, don't make them like this anymore, lovely Debbie Reynolds held her own with these scene stealers! Lovely, just very lovely & very poignant, with Debbie Reynolds passing lately!

Unknown said...

I would like to comment on a very recent movie...(just saw it today) "MOONLIGHT" I couldn't wait for it to awful!! And to THINK they had the audacity to give it such high ratings at the recent award show!! (Acting was good.....the theme and storyline were so awful!!!) Thumbs down, on this one!!

Tuesday, January 31, 20017

Anonymous said...

Haven't seen this one yet, but will do. However I wanted to add to the comment about "Moonlight". I saw it last week and I agree. It was awful! The acting was lousy as well. Everyone I know who saw it hated it. The dialogue was impossible to understand, the story was weak, the point was lost, it didn't move me or anyone in the theater either. Everyone in the theater was happy when it ended and couldn't believe it had won an Oscar for best picture. Hollywood buckled under pressure that was unwarranted.
Besides there were other films with Black cast etc. that were far superior to this garbage. Someone I spoke to even said it portrayed Black people in a very bad manner and he was insulted by it.