Catered Affair (1956): Kitchen Sink Realism, Written by Chayefsky, Starring Bette Davis

MGM

Kitchen Sink Realism Paddy Chayesfky-Bette Davis style. Sounds like a contradiction in terms, after all those 1940s glossy Davis melodramas, and in many ways it is. “A confused and wearisome account of a family squabble,” wrote the New Yorker, with Davis as a fat and slovenly housewife conveying the impression that she’s really “a dowager doing a spot of slumming in the Bronx.”

In the follow-up to his Oscar-winning turn in “Marty,” the black-and-white melodrama also written by Chayefsky, Ernest Borgnine plays cab driver Tom Hurley, a loyal husband long-time married to Agnes (Davis). When the story begins, Tom returns to his modest Bronx apartment announcing that his dream of owning a taxicab is about to materialize. But how

The next day, at breakfast, the Hurleys’ son Edie (Ray Stickling) is naturally indifferent to the news. However, daughter Jane (Debbie Reynolds) is overjoyed, making her own announcement of good news: She is about to marry her fiance Ralph Hollarn (the young Rod Taylor) sooner than expected, due to an opportunity to combine a honeymoon with a paid business trip. Their idea is to have a small, modest wedding, a simple affair, to be attended only by their parents.

Nonetheless, upon hearing about his exclusion from the family affair, Uncle Jack (Barry Fitzgerald), the Hurleys’ long-time boarder, is devastated, walking out in protest. The neighbors also react suspiciously and strangely to the news, with Mrs. Musso (Augusta Merighi) noting that the whole thing is too hasty.

In a scene that recalls the far superior Vincente Minnelli 1950 MGM satire, “Father of the Bride,” Ralph’s rich parents (Robert Simon and Madge Kennedy) visit the Hurleys, and Mrs. Halloran boasts about giving lavish wedding receptions for her daughters.

Changing her mind, Agnes, recalling her own shabby wedding, informs Jane that there will be a catered affair, and despite her daughter’s objections, she contracts a popular hotel to arrange for the reception. Jane is not the only one who objects; hubby Tom does too, knowing that his fantasy of getting a taxicab goes down the drain.

Gradually, the guest list grows and the estimated costs double. Other complications, such as Jane’s best friend unable to buy a gown for the occasion, and fears that the wedding might be postponed due to the hotel’s busy schedule, ensue, persuading Jane and Ralph to revert to their original plan.

The movie ends with a church ceremony, to which Agnes is driven by her hubby’s new taxicab, reassured that there are still happy times for them together after Jane is married and Eddie is drafted into the army.

As noted, inevitable comparisons were made with Delbert Mann’s superior, Oscar-winning “Marty,” which was made in the same Kitchen Sing Realism b/w style, but was more coherent, authentic, and honest. Philip K. Scheuer wrote in the L.A. Times: “The Catered Affair preserves many of the intuitive qualities that distinguished “Marty”the ear for hidden inflections in casual words, the blurted outburst of indignation or shame or pride, the chuckle that chokes on a tear, the incident that balloons till it bursts, in short all the small, natural confusions of life and human communication.”

However, critics had reservations over Davis’ overworked performance to project a realistic image of a beaten, downtrodden mom, claiming that such a dumpy role, which called for her display a dumpy figure and changed her speech, was alien to her.

Cast

Agnes, Mrs. Tom Hurley (Bette Davis)
Tom Hurley (Ernest Borgnine)
Jane Hurley (Debbie Reynolds)
Uncle Jack Conlon (Barry Fitzgerlad)
Ralph Halloran (Rod Taylor)
Mr. Halloran (Robert F. Simon)
Mrs. Halloran (Madge Kennedy)
Mrs. Rafferty (Dorothy Stickens)
Mrs. Casey (Carol Veazie)
Alice (Joan Camden)

Credits

Produced by Sam Zimbalist
Directed: Richard Brooks
Screenplay: Gore Vidal, based on Paddy Chayefsky’s TV play
Camera; John Alton
Editing: Gene Ruggiero, Frank Santillo
Music: Andre Previn
Art Director: Cedric Gibbons, Paul Groesse
Running time: 92 Minutes