The Bette Davis Project: The Catered Affair (1956)

Synopsis:

A young woman (Debbie Reynolds, Singin’ in the Rain) tells her working-class parents (Bette Davis and Ernest Borgnine, The Wild Bunch) that she’s getting married and the mother begins preparing a huge wedding that no one seems to want.

Reaction & Thoughts:

This Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer production was directed by Richard Brooks (Elmer Gantry) from a screenplay by playwright Gore Vidal (The Best Man), based on a TV play by Paddy Chayefsky (Marty and Network).

The Catered Affair touches upon many timeless “kitchen-table” issues. It has the same endearing unpretentiousness of Chayefsky’s 1955 classic Marty. Both movies are about the big problems of very simple folks.

The dialogue is sharp and funny. Like Vincente Minnelli’s Father of the Bride (1950), and more recently Paul Feig’s Bridesmaids (2011), The Catered Affair pokes fun at USA’s obsession with weddings. Looking at the film from today’s perspective, it seems to me that the whole wedding thing hasn’t changed much in 60 plus years (well, the prices have gone up! 😀 ). The movie also explores incisively yet with delicacy the idea of parents living vicariously through their kids.

From a technical standpoint, the film does an outstanding job. The staging and blocking in the movie is unexpectedly imaginative. Director Brooks and cameraman John Alton’s (An American in Paris) play a visual chess game with the actors. The movie takes place mostly in small spaces, but it never becomes stagnant or boring.

Debbie Reynolds gives a surprisingly naturalistic performance. It was her first dramatic role and she holds her own against some stiff competition. Ernest Borgnine is perfection as the taxi driver father. Barry Fitzgerald (Going My Way), in one of his last screen roles, provides fine comic relief as Davis’s brother. Rod Taylor (The Time Machine) plays Reynolds’s soon-to-be-husband.

And then there is Bette Davis, who fights like a titan to make viewers believe that she’s a blue-collar housewife. Although she’s actressy in places, it is a stunning change-of-pace — she has one “breakdown scene” that’s a beauty. I watched this right after sitting through The Virgin Queen and I was very impressed — Davis went from the Buckingham palace to an overcrowded apartment in New York with apparent ease.

Conclusions & Final Thoughts:

Amazingly, The Catered Affair hasn’t dated one bit. Chayefsky’s family drama gets the essence of human aspirations and delusions. The Catered Affair was one of Davis’s favorite roles (she called it “one of my proudest efforts as an actress”) —  it’s a little black and white movie with a big heart that mergers keen observations about life with pathos and humor. B&W, 95 minutes, Not Rated.

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5 responses to “The Bette Davis Project: The Catered Affair (1956)

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