Wednesday, January 23, 2013

The Catered Affair

I'm somewhat surprised to see that I haven't blogged about The Catered Affair before. It's showing up tomorrow morning at 9:45 AM as part of a salute to Ernest Borgnine, who would have turned 96 tomorrow.

Borgnine plays Tom Hurley, a working-class father of a family living in a cramped apartment in New York City. Tom is a taxi driver, and has been saving up money to get his own cab and license to run it -- something that takes a lot of money due to the limited number of cab licenses. (Don't get me started on the economics of taxi medallions.) It's taken a long time because being a cabby in a one-income family isn't exactly the road to wealth, and they've got a bachelor uncle Jack (Barry Fitzgerald) living with him, his wife Agnes (Bette Davis), and their daaughter Jane (Debbie Reynolds).

Jane's about to throw a monkey wrench into all of this, however. She approaches her parents one day and tells them that she's gotten engaged to her boyfriend Ralph (Rod Taylor). Ralph is a teacher and decidedly of a higher social class than Jane, and especially her parents. Now, this is no big deal for Jane. She's perfectly comfortable having a small wedding with a few friends, not wanting to cause problems for anybody and wanting to get on with life. Any sane groom-to-be ought to be happy with such an arrangement, too: if you can get a low-mainenance bride, take her! (OK, I apologize for the insults to any married women her who think I'm describing them as high-maintenance brides. But having seen both of my sisters get married, and having had to bury grandparents and multiple uncles and aunts, I've seen how stressful things can get when you've got a family member who wants things to be just right.)

The problem, it turns out, isn't so much Jane; it's mother Agnes. She's disappointed that she hasn't been able to provide as much in life for Jane as a mother thinks a daughter should be provided for, and dammit, she's determined to see that the last thing she does for Jane is a big thing. As Agnes keeps wanting to do more and more for Jane, Jane gets horrified. But even more than her, it's Tom who's aghast. He's the one who's going to have to pay for the wedding party, and there's only one source of money: the savings that Tom has been planning to use to get his own cab and medallion.

There's not much more to all of the plot than this, and yet The Catered Affair is a wonderful little movie. Borgnine is an underrated actor, I think. Sure, he won the Oscar for Marty, and yet in a lot of his roles he doesn't get the attention a lead actor should deserve. Indeed, The Catered Affair is much more Bette Davis' movie than it is anybody else's. And yet, Borgnine's father character here is eminently believable. The same holds true for Davis, who I think is clearly playing a woman who wants something she couldn't have when she got married. People like to mock the later careers of actresses who were big in the 1930s and had to suffer the ignominies of aging concurrent with the breakdown of the studio system in the 1950s, and point to Bette Davis' work in the 1950s and beyond as a good example of this. Whatever you can say about Davis in a movie like Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte, however, doesn't apply to The Catered Affair. Debbie Reynolds was good in those musicals she did, but in The Catered Affair, she's a surprise, as she more than capably plays the sincere daughter who doesn't want to burden her father, and can't get this point through her mother's thick skull. And even Barry Fitzgerald isn't quite as irritating as he normally is when he's playing the Lovable Irish Stereotype character.

The Catered Affair was based on a teleplay by Paddy Chayefsky, who also did Marty and Network, among others. The screenplay, however, was reworked for the movie version by Gore Vidal. I obviously don't quite know what working-class New York City was really like in the mid-1950s, but the depiction here certainly seems realistic. The Catered Affair is also available on DVD.

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