When Jane Hurley (Debbie Reynolds) announces that she’s engaged to Ralph Halloran (Rod Taylor), her boyfriend of three years, at the beginning of the 1956 Richard Brooks-directed film The Catered Affair, her parents’ reactions are decidedly restrained. “Well, Jane, that’s very nice,” replies her mother, Aggie (Bette Davis), in the midst of making breakfast. Her father, Tom (Ernest Borgnine), who’s just come home after driving a taxi all night, doesn’t respond at all until prodded by his wife, and then he merely echoes her words: “Jane, that’s very nice.” To be fair, Jane herself is rather subdued in delivering the news, and as she explains, their reasons for getting married now are largely practical: “Well, what finally decided us was Ralph’s got this friend, you know, in California, but his wife’s pregnant, so he asked Ralph if he knew somebody who could drive his car out for him ’cause he can’t drive it out himself, you know, ’cause his wife’s pregnant, so Ralph thought quickly and decided we could make a nice honeymoon out of a nice trip to California like that.” For them to take advantage of this opportunity, the wedding will have to take place in only a few days’ time, a no-frills, ten-minute affair, without a reception or any guests beyond the bride and groom’s immediate families. That’s how Jane wants it, and her parents are fine with the idea — at least at first.
Things start to change as the news spreads around their Bronx neighborhood. Jane’s hasty, highly economical wedding plans immediately become a source of gossip and speculation, and when Aggie goes out to the fish market later that day, various acquaintances whom she encounters there suggest that Jane might be “in trouble” or that Aggie and Tom can’t afford a bigger ceremony. The latter suggestion is especially galling to her, and she suffers further humiliation that evening when Ralph and his parents (Robert F. Simon, Madge Kennedy) come over for dinner. The Hallorans are more affluent than the Hurleys, and Mr. Halloran not only offers the young couple an apartment and a year’s rent as a wedding present but also reminisces (or boasts) about the lavish weddings he gave his own daughters. It’s too much for Aggie to bear. (The fact that her brother Jack [Barry Fitzgerald] comes home drunk while the Hallorans are there and complains that he isn’t on the guest list for his niece’s nuptials doesn’t help matters.) Before the night is over, she’s come to a decision. “You’re gonna have a big wedding whether you like it or not,” she informs her daughter, “and if you don’t like it, you don’t have to come!”
Unfortunately for Aggie — unfortunately for everyone involved, in fact — the Hurleys are in no position to pay for the kind of event she has in mind, not without putting a major strain on their limited financial resources. Tom’s life savings total $4400, and he had been planning to put most of that money toward a longtime dream: buying a licensed cab with a fellow taxi driver, Sam (Jay Adler), so that they can be their own bosses. To him, it’s bad enough when Aggie suddenly declares (in front of the Hallorans) that they’re going to give the newlyweds a check for $1000 instead of the agreed-upon $500, and when she starts talking about a wedding that may run to $2000, he’s horrified.
Jane, too, is opposed to this radical change of plans. She’s a very practical, levelheaded young woman; maybe it’s just her nature, or maybe it’s the result of growing up in a household where money has always been tight, where she’s learned not to expect too much. It takes the story of her mother’s own sad nothing of a wedding to change her mind. “I was married all in a rush one Saturday morning, and me in this old cotton dress not fit to be seen on the street with, let alone be married in,” Aggie tells her. “Oh, I said I didn’t mind. But I did — to this day.” And so Jane agrees to the big wedding, not so much out of a desire to create a special memory for herself as to make her mother happy, salvaging Aggie’s wounded pride and allowing her to live vicariously through her daughter.
As soon as the preparations are in motion, problems begin cropping up everywhere, nearly all of them revolving around money. Jane’s best friend, Alice (Joan Camden), whom she wants to be her matron of honor, is forced to say no because she and her out-of-work husband (Paul Denton) are unable to afford the necessary clothing and accessories — a painful, even shameful admission for her. Sam, Tom’s would-be business partner, is another outsider negatively impacted by the upgraded wedding: because Tom no longer has the $4000 he needs to pay for his half of the licensed cab, Sam has to give up on his dream as well. To be sure, the down payment is a more manageable $1000, but even that starts slipping out of reach as the expenses pile up. There’s the gown, for a start, and the ballroom, and the flowers, and the food, and the alcohol, and the limousines — and that’s before the Hurleys learn that Ralph’s mother has invited some hundred and sixty guests instead of the expected hundred. With all of this going on, it’s no wonder that tensions should arise in many relationships, and most particularly in the relationship between Aggie and Tom.
Like the wedding expenses, details about the Hurley family’s life accumulate throughout The Catered Affair, and what starts out as a film about a daughter’s wedding gradually evolves into a film about her parents’ marriage. The advice Aggie gives Jane early on is revealing. She goes on and on about how marriage “isn’t all roses,” how it involves sacrifices, how she’ll have to put her children first, how she shouldn’t throw money around… “And then one day you’ll find out a lot of time’s gone by, and you’ll wake up knowing this is the way it’s always gonna be, just like this, day after day, year after year. Just the same.” As this overwhelmingly negative speech suggests (“Well, Ma, those are all the things you don’t do, but what do you do?” Jane asks, without receiving a real answer), Aggie’s disappointing wedding was a fitting prelude to a disappointing marriage, a disappointing life. Along with at least one real tragedy — the death of her favorite son in the Korean War — she’s had to work hard and get by on limited resources, with little in the way of luxuries or pleasures or money in general.
These financial struggles might be more tolerable if she had a warm, intimate relationship with her husband to offset them, but that’s not the case. Their wedding, as she eventually reveals to Jane, resulted from a business transaction of a mortifying sort: her father met Tom at their union hall one day (both were house painters at the time) and offered him $300 to marry Aggie. (Again, money and marriage are entangled. To make matters worse for Aggie, she regards Tom as stingy, whether or not that’s really the case.) Even now, after decades together, it seems as if they’re still strangers to each other in some fundamental way.
Jane’s wedding forces Aggie to acknowledge the fact that she’s never been very close to her daughter, has never paid much attention to her or been able to give her anything nice. (While picking out the gown, for instance, she notes that they’ve never gone shopping together before.) Perhaps she’s never realized it, or perhaps she has been aware of it but hasn’t had the time, energy or motivation to do anything about it up until this point. Along the same lines, the wedding compels Aggie and Tom to confront their own longstanding marital issues, at last. With Jane marrying, Jack moving out and son Eddie (Ray Stricklyn) going off to Fort Dix in about a month, the two of them will be alone together for the first time in their entire wedded life — and if they don’t want to feel that they’re each entirely alone, they have to do something about it. “That’s the whole trick: make it start good,” Aggie says. Maybe, even after so many dissatisfying years of marriage, it’s not too late to start again.
This post is part of The Fourth Annual Bette Davis Blogathon, hosted by In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood. Click the banner above to see all of the other great posts.