Tom Hurley (Ernest Borgnine) is a New York cab driver hoping to strike out on his own and buy a cab. Ending a shift at his current job, he returns to his apartment in the Bronx, where his family’s day is just beginning.
Daughter Jane (Debbie Reynolds) announces to the family that she and her fiance, Ralph (Rod Taylor), have decided to get married in a hurry so they can have a cross-country honeymoon roadtrip. He’s been asked to drive a car to California, so they may as well take advantage and see the sights.
But for Tom’s wife Aggie (Bette Davis), a quick wedding with no reception just won’t do. She decides to take it upon herself to plan a bigger wedding, digging into the family’s savings to put on a fine party.
Richard Brooks directs 1956’s The Catered Affair. The film was written by Gore Vidal, based on a teleplay by Paddy Chayefsky.
A few days after the news broke that Debbie Reynolds had passed away, I read an interview in which she said she had loved working with Bette Davis on this film. It had been sitting on my DVR for a long time, so I decided to finally give it a watch. In his TCM introduction, Ben Mankiewicz noted that Davis also enjoyed making the film, and formed a lasting friendship with Ernest Borgnine.
Davis does great work in this film. Aggie is not necessarily unhappy with or severely disappointed in her life, just disillusioned by living such mundane days, over and over. It’s an average life, quiet, with not much excitement. It’s an unglamorous role, a working class, worn out Bronx housewife, and she does a great job with it.
As Davis wrote in her commentary to Whitney Stine’s book Mother Goddam, Aggie was “without a doubt one of the most against-type characters I ever attempted. When I saw the finished film, I believed myself as Mrs. Tom Hurley.” She, along with director Richard Brooks and producer Sam Zimbalist, fought in favor of Aggie’s frumpy look, which she was asked to change after one day of shooting. “Aggie Hurley should look the way I did,” Davis writes in Mother Goddam. The team stood their ground, and Davis’ performance is all the more convincing as a result.
Borgnine and Reynolds turn out fine work, too, making for an all-star cast of well-executed performances.
Beyond those performances worthy of tuning in for, the story of The Catered Affair held my interest pretty well. Admittedly, I’ll watch anything and everything starring either Bette or Debbie, and this stars them both, contributing greatly to my enjoyment. But while it is a minor drama, lacking many punchy, gripping, high-tension moments, it’s still a good watch.
An interesting commentary exists in the film, Davis’ character getting caught up in the wedding planning for several reasons. She wants a nice wedding for her daughter, as any mother would, but it also offers her an opportunity to have something new and different to focus her attention on. In a way, it’s a re-do for her own wedding, which (like the rest of her life) was wholly unglamorous.
The film deals with issues of marriage, class, money, status, and expectations. It aims for realism and feels quite a bit like a stage play, with frank portrayals of things like wedding costs (and how unaffordable “nice” weddings can be for all involved, like the bridesmaids), and the challenge of supporting a family while working a job like Borgnine’s cab driving gig.
Davis’ character seeks contentment through providing her daughter with something better than she had; Borgnine seeks it through a dream to buy his own cab. The Catered Affair is a simple story of people who want to improve their lives. But it’s a simple story told well, with top-notch performances churned out by its stars.
If anyone had told me there was a film directed by Richard Brooks, starring such an eclectic group as Bette Davis, Barry Fitzgerald, Ernest Borgnine and Debbie Reynolds, I probably would not have believed them. So I was thrilled to find out the collaboration produced a wonderful film. It was such a great surprise for me.
This is definitely an emotional journey with strong performances. A true “kitchen sink” picture.
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I adore this movie, and I don’t know why it’s not more well-known these days. Like you said, it’s not fraught with tension, but it’s a great story and Bette Davis is marvelous in it. I didn’t know there had been an issue with her wardrobe, and I’m glad she stuck to what is true to the character. (Which was always Bette’s way, no?)
You’ve made me want to see this again. Terrific review. :)
I’m surprised it doesn’t get more attention either, with such a fantastic cast! I hope I’ve convinced at least a few more people to see it, haha. Enjoy your rewatch! :)