A Movie A Week: THE CATERED AFFAIR (1956) I’m accused o’ Atheism, not lovin’ my children and bein’ a ward o’ the state
Published at: May 31, 2009, 10:50 p.m. CST by quint
Ahoy, squirts! Quint here with the next installment of A Movie A Week.
[For those who new to the column, A Movie A Week is just that, a dedicated way for me explore vintage cinema every week. I’ll review a movie every Monday and each one will be connected to the one before it via a common thread, either an actor, director, writer, producer or some other crew member. Each film, pulled from my DVD shelf or recorded on the home DVR (I heart TCM) will be one I haven’t seen.]
Today we take a look at another flick that isn’t on DVD. It’s one that caught my eye as I scanned TCM’s weekly schedule. For one thing, it had Bette Davis who I’m becoming more and more a fan of the more of her work I see. I didn’t like some of her early performances, which seem very typical of the time, but by the time she hit the 1950s she seemed to be on fire. I still need to see more of her work, but ALL ABOUT EVE is the mark for me of when I started to really see the actress beneath the eyes.
I can also list off a few other reasons that made me hit the record button, like a Gore Vidal script for a Paddy Chayefsky play or the inclusion of character actors like Barry Fitzgerald and Rod Taylor or the promise of a young, heart-stopping Debbie Reynolds, but there really was only one reason I decided to record this and store it away until I could get to it: Ernest Borgnine.
I love, love, love Ernest Borgnine. It was probably John Carpenter’s fault. Cabbie was one of my favorite characters in ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK and as I’ve grown older I’ve discovered more and more of his work and the dude’s like a rock. So steady and consistent. No matter the quality of the elements around him he brings it, sets the bar.
From THE WILD BUNCH to THE DIRTY DOZEN to THE VIKINGS to THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE and one of my all time favorites THE EMPEROR OF THE NORTH POLE he’s like comfort food.
And here, in this 1956 movie he still looks like a middle-aged man. I don’t know what genes he inherited or what his diet is, but the dude spent 30 years looking the fucking same.
Borgnine plays a cab driver, but this time in a New York that isn’t an island prison. He’s a working class stiff who has been saving all his life for the opportunity to buy his own cab and badge, required by the city to own your own company. It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity as these badges are limited and can only be obtained from someone who already has one.
It’s every penny he’s saved over 15 years and his lifelong dream.
Unfortunately, the timing proves to be horrible as the very morning he comes home from the night shift his young daughter (young Debbie Reynolds, hubba-hubba) announces to the family that she’s rushing into marriage with her beau, a young Rod Taylor (THE BIRDS, DARK OF THE SUN and previous AMAD THE HIGH COMMISSIONER). Luckily she doesn’t want a big wedding, just a small ceremony before running off to California with her new hubbie.
Bette Davis (her mommy and Borgnine’s long suffering wife) takes the news well, but is troubled by the lack of pomp and circumstance, repeating over and over that marriage is a big deal. Borgnine’s over the moon that she wants a small ceremony because the $4,000 he’s saved up is now going into making his dream come true.
But as the movie continues Davis gets more and more put out that there isn’t a big ceremony and starts manipulating the situation to force one anyway. Reynolds doesn’t want a big wedding, but Davis does. Not for her daughter’s sake, of course, but for her own.
We find out that her marriage to Borgnine isn’t the best. It was an arranged union, done on the quick. She didn’t get to choose her husband and she didn’t even get a grand affair. In the 20 some years of their marriage, despite having two children together, Borgnine and Davis might as well be strangers.
Well, Davis is going to be damned if she lets her daughter follow in her footsteps. The situation is completely different… Reynolds has chosen her beau… but Davis gets to a point where she can only project herself onto her daughter. Through passive aggression and subtle manipulations here or there she orchestrates a real ceremony as Borgnine can only stand back, flustered, as he watches the costs jump from $500 to his entire savings.
I’ve watched this movie twice now, once earlier in the week and once as I began writing this up. I found I couldn’t just keep it on in the background and stopped writing to watch it through a second time, which I didn’t expect.
On the first viewing I despised the Davis character. I related to Borgnine. The dude has slaved away in a shitty, thankless job, lived just above poverty his whole life trying to attain his dream and Davis seems to viciously and stubbornly force him into a position where he’s a bad husband and father if he tries to protect his life’s ambition. Towards the end of the movie Davis sees sense and there’s some hope, but the movie asks for us to sympathize with her long before that. I just wasn’t connecting to it.
But on the second run-through I paid closer attention to Davis’ performance and was blown away. I don’t know if you’ve ever had a movie experience like that, where you revisit it and almost smack yourself on the forehead going, “How the hell did I miss that the first time around?”
I didn’t exactly miss it, but the whole clicked together on the second viewing. I suddenly didn’t just relate to Borgnine, but also Davis. Chayevsky’s characters are all flawed, but basically good people and what I realized was that Davis wasn’t coming from a place of jealousy and selfishness… her character really believes this is the best thing for her daughter, no matter how much she resists, and feels that if she can’t deliver a real wedding then she has failed as a mother, the only thing she has to hold on to in life.
There’s also a level of shame involved for Davis’ character. No matter how she words it people hear about a fast, small wedding and assume there’s a cover-up, that Reynolds is pregnant.
Speaking of, there’s some quite frank discussions about pre-marital sex in the movie, shocking for this time period. Reynolds all but says she’s fucked the shit out of Rod Taylor and loved it. She’s not pregnant, but it really underlines the Grand Canyon wide generation gap. Davis can’t fathom that… not necessarily disapproving, it just doesn’t register for her, beyond her capacity to understand.
Borgnine spends most of the movie flustered, trying to be a good man, but also trying to hold on to his dream. There’s a point where he has to give up on it and he crumples. You can see the small light of hope for a better future dying in his eyes. Borgnine’s known for being a sweaty badass, a hard as nails dude, but I don’t think he’s been given the credit he deserves as an actor. You can question his range, but just watch this flick to see the kind of subtlety and depth he can bring to a character.
Barry Fitzgerald plays Davis’ live-in old bachelor brother who plays an integral role in Davis’ plans to plan a giant, last minute wedding. Fitzgerald is about as Irish as you can get, with his temper and drinking, but has one of the most sincere and heart-warming throughlines in the whole movie in a blooming romance with an old widower played by Dorothy Stickney. We will be following Fitzgerald actually to Ireland with John Wayne, John Ford and Maureen O’Hara in next week’s THE QUIET MAN.
Director Richard Brooks (BLACKBOARD JUNGLE, CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF, THE PROFESSIONALS) puts the focus squarely on the performances and when you have two forces of nature like Borgnine and Davis spouting words from Paddy Chayefsky and Gore Vidal that’s the smart move. The flick feels a little stage-bound at times, most of the action taking place in a small apartment, but the black and white photography is nice.
Final Thoughts: I liked it first time around, but it was the second viewing that really hit me dead center. THE CATERED AFFAIR is not a flashy movie, but the complexity and depth to the characters negates the need for lots of moving camera and director trickery. The main family unit all deliver fantastic performances, but the show-stopper is Davis. She’s not afraid to show her age and disappear in the character. Maybe we’ll see this flick in a DVD box set of some sort. There have already been 4 Bette Davis box sets without an appearance by this flick, which is some of the best work of hers I have seen. Maybe in the next one…
Upcoming A Movie A Week Titles:
Monday, June 8th: THE QUIET MAN (1952)
Monday, June 15th: RIO GRANDE (1950)
Monday, June 22nd: THE GETAWAY (1972)
Monday, June 29th: THE MACKINTOSH MAN (1973)
Today begins a week-long excursion to Los Angeles where I’m up to all sorts of tomfoolery and debauchery. It’s going to be a crazy week, getting me home late Sunday night. As such I’ve already watched next week’s THE QUIET MAN. I’ll post up my review a week from today, but the short, short version is: I loved it.
Can’t wait to dig into that review! See you folks next week for that one! Saint’s preserve us!
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