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The Catered Affair on TCM As Part of the "Tribute to Debbie Reynolds"


On Friday January 27, 2017, Turner Classic Movies did a day of Debbie Reynolds films. I came in near the tip end to watch one movie I've never seen before, and it was hosted by TCM's Ben Mankewicz(sp?) with the aid of Debbie Reynolds' son Todd Fisher, who a few weeks ago lost his mother and his sister Carrie Fisher in one week. How I wonder what he's feeling.

Mank drew Todd out well on topics and I thought it was rather touching when son Todd said "contrary to what he wrote in his book, my dad Eddie Fisher was crazy about my mother in the beginning. I have love letters he wrote to her back then and I may well share them with the world to set the record straight."

This remark came about when host Mankewicz determined that Carrie Fisher was likely conceived just as Debbie Reynolds went to work on "The Catered Affair"(1956), which TCM had just shown. Mankewicz declared it "My favorite of your mother's movies" to son Todd Fisher. So I watched it.

Its very good, and to my mind, very powerful stuff. I'd always heard of it, never saw it. Now I'm glad I did.

Just as I massacred Mankewicz's name above, I shall now massacre Paddy Chayefsky, maybe. "The Catered Affair" came out the year after Paddy and Ernie Borgnine won Oscars for "Marty"(1955) and both are part of "Affair." Also on the screenplay credits for "Affair" is Gore Vidal so...the writing pedigree on this film is mighty fine.

I love Marty. Its in a see-saw battle for my favorite of 1955 with "To Catch a Thief," and obviously, in this case, I have the Academy on my side for once. Marty won Best Picture, Best Actor(Borgnine, reversing a few years as a fat heavy and becoming a nice guy), Best Screenplay(Paddy.) As opposed to Paddy's ultra-erudite tale of upper class TV news people in "Network"(1976), Marty was a tale "of the people"...working class Bronx residents who live far away from their Manhattan network New Yorkers.

Marty famously told the tale of a middle-aged, heavy, unattractive man(Borgnine) who can't find love until one night he does find it...with a shy, sad, unattractive woman. The film cut to the bone on the need for love in every human being, and at film's end, it said you can get it...just not necessarily with Grace Kelly or Audrey Hepburn. Or Cary Grant or William Holden.

"The Catered Affair" follows Marty by just one year, and we're in the Bronx again, I think, and now Ernest Bogrnine has a more "mature" role. He's the hard-working cabbie who supports a family consisting of burned-out but ferocious Bette Davis, daughter Debbie Reynolds, and a younger son who looks good but says very little to everybody. Borgnine's playing Irish in this movie, and it works -- and he even has Barry Fitzgerald along as his live-in-brother in law(Davis's brother.)

"The Catered Affair" founds itself on a simple premise. Daughter Debbie suddenly announces she's marrying her beau(young Rod Taylor -- more on him in a moment) and just as suddenly, Mama Bette Davis starts demanding that over half of papa Borgnine's life savings go into putting on the Best Wedding Ever, instead of into buying a taxi cab of his own.

"The Catered Affair" reminded me of my favorite movie of its year -- 1956 -- Hitchcock's The Wrong Man. Both films are brutally frank about the need for money to survive in life, and how the lack of it or constant debt can ruin the psyches of an entire family. This was the time when the man was the sole breadwinner, and the American family structure was being stretched by the costs of paying all the bills of life.

As "The Catered Affair" moves on, Bette Davis's "poor mother" takes on a near-psychotic quality in her demands that her daughter Debbie get the best wedding possible -- even as Borgnine slowly moves from saying nothing at all to protesting that this one wedding will bankrupt him...and his family. It becomes slowly clear -- especially to daughter Debbie Reynolds - that the buried resentments of decades of dirt-poor marriage are coming to a head between her mother and her father. And of course, she starts to worry about her OWN possible disappointments in marriage given the truth about her parents' marriage. Its a very uncomfortable movie.

Marty, one film earlier, had taken on the burdens of family without taking on the burdens of finances. In that one, Marty had to contemplate bringing his domineering mother in to live with him at the expense of finding love. (His married brother with a wife and new baby, just can't have the mother living with him.) In this one, the burdens expressed are those of the working man(Borgnine) to support a family, while his sacrificial wife(Davis) realizes she has given up everything to make ends meet. "We never gave (Reynolds) ANYTHING!" roars Davis at Borgnine. "We're gonna give her a wedding she'll remember for the rest of her life."

Meanwhile, Debbie Reynolds and her beau Rod Taylor chafe at how their simple wedding with immediate family only is morphing into a super-production. And there's a real-but-rough scene where Rod's somewhat well to do and successful parents come over to meet Bette and Ernie and the "cultural divide"(Ernie can barely say a sentence or two) is acute. Weddings...they can ruin families on BOTH sides.

The acting in The Catered Affair is interesting. Bette Davis' hellbent-on-a-big wedding Mother is almost a villain(perhaps this is too "pro-male" a film) and anticipates Baby Jane and other 60's Davis harridans. Borgnine's role is written so he spends much of the movie saying nothing and suffering long -- until HE explodes near the end. Debbie Reynolds is quite good, quite dramatic as she realizes that HER wedding could destroy her parent's "good enough" marriage. And Rod Taylor is, well..Rod Taylor. You can see Mitch from The Birds, and the guy from the Time Machine, and the guy from my favorite of his(Hotel)...he's just not ready yet. And Aussie Taylor trying to do a Bronx accent is pretty funny.

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The combo of Marty, The Wrong Man and now The Catered Affair reminds us that the mid-fifties gave voice in a powerful way to the economic pressures and lovelorn travails of American working class life. This was supposedly one of the most economically up periods in American history(Postwar, baby boom, jobs aplenty) and yet these three movies carry a strong sense of sadness, economic bleakness, and mental depression. All three films are heading for happy endings, but they aren't quite believable(except, I'd say, for the one that Marty got.)

I'm glad I finally saw "The Catered Affair." I'm not sure if it is my favorite Debbie Reynolds movie, but it is certainly a very good one, a very dramatic one, and she's very good in it.

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