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Catered Affair, The (DVD Review)

5 Sep, 2011 By: Mike Clark

Available via WBshop.com’s Warner Archive
$19.95 DVD
Not rated.
Stars Bette Davis, Ernest Borgnine, Debbie Reynolds, Barry Fitzgerald, Rod Taylor.

Though you do have to wonder about the degree to which the plight of a Bronx Irish-Catholic cab driver and family were in the blood of Gore Vidal, I’ve always had a soft spot for his screen adaptation of Paddy Chayefsky’s teleplay, first presented the previous year as a Thelma Ritter starrer for “Philco-Goodyear Television Playhouse.” Ritter was then recently off a streak that had seen her get five supporting actress Oscar nominations in five years, a run rather amazingly broken when she somehow failed to get nominated for 1954’s Rear Window. But the movie version didn’t do badly by landing Bette Davis — who, no, doesn’t play the cab driver.

This would be Ernest Borgnine, back in the Bronx with Chayefsky following 1955’s Marty, an Oscar winner somewhat maligned today though a movie I will always love. (A guy walking into a Bronx neighborhood bar that year and kudo-ing a Yankees double-header win will always understand what real guys are all about). But whereas Marty dealt with a universal problem — the striving of even plain-looking folks for love — Affair is more specific in dealing with a daughter’s intended simple wedding that gets out of hand, due to societal, in-law and familial pressures.

In support of Davis and Borgnine (among the career highs for him), Debbie Reynolds plays the daughter in a performance that eventually led to another of those eccentric but not necessarily insane acting picks by the National Board of Review in their annual year’s-best voting. Making one wonder how someone this cute could be the fruit of this particular union parental reunion, the Reynolds character also has a practical head on her shoulders. Grabbing the opportunity for an immediately available cross-country honeymoon on wheels — it has to do with the car owner’s wife being pregnant — she and her honey (Rod Taylor in glasses, but still in his early hunk-period) want to get married on a dime so they can take off in less than week. But the Bronx biddies at the local fishery hear the word “pregnant” and get suspicious about this nuptials rush job. Result: Mom Bette starts opting for a much more lavish break-the-bank ceremony — precisely at a time when her husband is hoping to put the family’s life saving toward his own cab.

Talk about an interesting contrast to An American Family: If you analyze Affair only a little, you discover one sick, twisted movie about a mother living her life through — and against the needs of — a child (to say nothing of dad and a bridesmaid who is now priced out of the ceremony). But the performances are persuasive, including one of those dependable turns by Barry Fitzgerald (as a live-in uncle who enjoys his snorts at the “Green Grass Grill”) and future Hollywood agent Ray Stricklyn as a younger brother who, like so many males in the ‘50s, knows the peacetime draft is about to get him.

The lovely score is by Andre Previn and the cinematography is by Mr. Film Noir himself, John Alton — more indication of the talent budget MGM coffers blew for a film that (lightning-from-a-blue-sky Marty notwithstanding) was never likely to be much of a hit. The director is Richard Brooks, a filmmaker I never liked — but working here on an agreeably modest level from the period before that long period where (paraphrasing critic Andrew Sarris) he kept choosing projects he knew he’d have to compromise (e.g. The Brothers Karamazov, sexually frank Tennessee Williams plays, Elmer Gantry, Lord Jim). I don’t know why he shoots so many discomforting close-ups here, but the movie is easy to take and apparently beloved by quite a few, judging from the volume of reader huzzahs for it on IMDb.com.

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