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Fanfare for the Common Man: 'The Catered Affair'

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Friday, Sep 9, 2011
The Golden Age of Television delivers yet another well meaning melodrama.
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The Catered Affair

Director: Richard Brooks
Cast: Bette Davis, Ernest Borgnine, Debbie Reynolds

(USDVD release date: )

Hollywood had two reactions to the growing threat of television in the 1950s. The negative reaction was to emphasize stuff you couldn’t see at home, including color, widescreen, and 3-D—all of which made movies look more like movies. The positive reaction was to co-opt the actors, writers and directors of TV, thus making movies look more and more like TV. (The final stage of this process was for the studios to start producing TV themselves and shift the center of production from New York to Hollywood, as they’d done with radio a generation earlier.)

The Catered Affair is an example of the positive reaction. The trailer even emphasizes the fact that Oscar-winning Ernest Borgnine had just become a star in Marty, adapted from a TV play. Borgnine proudly informs us that this new project is written by the same guy. That’s Paddy Chayefsky, who first wrote this play for a 1955 broadcast on Philco Television Playhouse. Gore Vidal, another TV scribe making the jump, adapted it for the big screen. (In 2007, it was turned into a Broadway musical.)
This is a small-scale, dressed-down, New York comedy-drama about a tempest in a tenement teapot: mom Bette Davis wants to throw an expensive wedding party for daughter Debbie Reynolds (about to marry teacher Rod Taylor), but cabbie Borgnine can’t afford it. Barry Fitzgerald is around as the blarney-spouting Irish uncle. It’s an observational story in well-chiseled little black and white scenes. Glimpses of the abyss are smoothed over by a story arc of acceptance and reconciliation. There’s a lot of star power applied to this low-wattage project. John Alton’s sharp-eyed, gliding camerawork and Richard Brooks’ direction in cramped quarters is very well done.


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