The Catered Affair (1956): A Review

An overlooked example of mid-20th-century social realism, The Catered Affair (dir. Richard Brooks, 1956) has quite the kitchen-sink pedigree. The film is adapted from a teleplay by Paddy Chayefsky and features Ernest Borgnine in a leading role, both of whom had just won Academy Awards for their work on the working class love story Marty (dir. Delbert Mann, 1955). On the more sensational end, director Richard Brooks had come to prominence for writing and directing Blackboard Jungle(1955), the seminal film about conflicts at an inner-city school.

The Catered Affair marries those two strains of realism, pairing family drama with energetic blocking and dialogue, and the result is a touching, if somewhat clumsy, depiction of life. At the movie’s center is Aggie Hurley (played by Bette Davis), a middle-aged housewife in The Bronx whose husband, Tom (Borgnine), is a cab driver who’s been saving money for years to purchase his own taxi medallion. Their daughter Jane (Debbie Reynolds) has just announced her marriage to her longtime boyfriend Ralph (Rod Taylor). The young couple would like to have a small, quick wedding so they can fit their honeymoon into Ralph’s teaching schedule, but Aggie would prefer that her daughter have the big fancy reception “with all the trimmings” that Aggie never got to have. Money is tight, though, and the process of planning the wedding brings on more conflict than anyone involved had bargained for.

In a brilliant bit of casting, the filmmakers decide to place glamour icon Bette Davis at the heart of action. There’s a productive irony in seeing Davis in the role of a woman who yearns both for the finery that’s beyond her social class and for the passionate love that her marriage to Tom denies her. Not only does the casting of Davis highlight the tragedy in Aggie’s character, but also it sells the audience on the hope that, just maybe, the Hurleys will be able to pull this affair off. If Bette Davis isn’t capable of giving her daughter a ritzy blowout, well, then who exactly is?

It’s Debbie Reynolds, however, who is the real revelation of the film. Primarily known for her roles in comedic films such as Singin’ in the Rain (dir. Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen, 1952)—or, if you’re my age, as the grandmother in the Halloweentown TV movies—Reynolds shows a startling amount of dramatic range throughout the film. She’s still got that light charm about her, especially when Jane and Aggie are out dress shopping. But her facial expressions during tense family moments help sell the scenes; like the audience, she is so often caught between concern for and exasperation with everyone else on screen. And the one time she let’s her temper flare, when she decides to just call the whole shebang off, is the single most cathartic moment in the film.

The film is strongest in its first act, which counterintuitively is also the least filmic portion of the movie. There’s a real sense of commotion when Jane announces her wedding plans, not because it’s earth-shattering news, but because life in a cramped, lower middle class apartment is naturally chaotic. Characters are constantly entering and exiting the scene like they’re walking on and off stage, which means that everyone has to keep restarting their conversations to catch the newcomers up. The use of static long takes is similarly more theatrical than filmic, but those shots serve to underscore just how little breathing room is to be found in the apartment.

Unfortunately, The Catered Affair suffers from some structural problems which blunt its emotional impact. Most notable among these issues is the role of Aggie’s brother Jack (Barry Fitzgerald). Uncle Jack primarily functions as a source of conflict for the rest of the family: he’s hurt about not being invited to Jane’s original wedding ceremonies, so he’s one of the motivations for having a big affair in the first place. But he also has a subplot involving his lady friend (Dorothy Stickney) that in theory should flesh out his character, but it’s so thin that it merely pads out the run time.

Further, the editing is less than inspired, and in some places actively detracts from the picture. Scenes will sometimes cut between two differently lit shots, briefly making it difficult to track the geography of the image. The use of transition effects is uniquely at odds with the staid realism of the rest of the picture; I suspect that fading to and from black, or even straight cuts, would have served the project better. There’s also a glaring continuity error during the dinner with Ralph’s parents, where Ralph teleports to the opposite side of the table. Normally, such a slip would be inconsequential, but the filmmakers repeatedly frame him and Jane tightly together while their respective families flaunt their wedding gift ideas. Their unified powerlessness to direct their own wedding is central to the scene, so to break that visual image is uncharacteristically sloppy.

Despite that, on the whole I’d say that The Catered Affair has a great eye for detail. I love, for example, how the light bulb hanging in the Hurley’s kitchen flickers when someone shuts the door to the ice box, or how a fellow tenant just happens to be carrying groceries upstairs when the Hurleys are about to start arguing. And I appreciate how, when the family is looking for a banquet hall to rent, the filmmakers decide to have someone sweeping up paper streamers from a previous engagement. The film’s world feels lived in, and if there’s one sense any kitchen sink drama must achieve, it’s that. For all the film’s faults, I’ve seen seen few classic Hollywood pictures that manage to capture daily life so effortlessly.

Recommended Author: Álvaro Enrigue

Álvaro Enrigue first came to my attention while I was assembling materials for my sports literature course. I was looking for a strong piece of fiction to round out the week on tennis, and came across Pooja Makhijani’s list of recommended tennis books at Electric Literature. Both the brief plot description and the strikingly simple cover of Enrique’s novel Sudden Death (trans. Natasha Wimmers, Riverhead, 2016) immediately caught my eye, and as luck would have it the JHU library had a copy in its collection. I checked it out, and was soon transfixed.

Sudden DeathSudden Death is, by design, a difficult novel. The central action of Sudden Death is a fictional tennis match between the Spanish poet Quevedo and the Italian painter Caravaggio. Although, when I say “tennis,” I don’t mean the modern form of the game, the sort we associate with Roger Federer and Serena Williams, but rather the much older game of real tennis, which only passingly resembles the current version of the sport. A major challenge of the novel is figuring out the rules of real tennis; for example, serves had to bound off the roof of the spectator’s gallery to be valid. This fact makes the match itself difficult to follow, but also gives the proceedings the manic energy of a duel—which, we learn as the novel progresses, is exactly what this tennis match is.

But the duel between Quevedo and Caravaggio is really a mechanism for framing various digressions into history and politics, from the execution of Anne Boleyn to Spanish colonial administration in the Americas. It’s a novel that deliberately blurs the boundary between fact and fiction: presenting actual contemporary documents alongside fabricated ones, slowly stretching historical anecdotes before one starts questioning their veracity. For instance, it is true that Jean Rombaud was the executioner summoned from France to behead Anne Boleyn, but it is not true that he had tennis balls made from Anne Boleyn’s hair.

I will admit that, while I admire Sudden Death greatly, it’s a difficult novel to love. The research (and the “research”) can overwhelm the book at points, and the narration tends to distance the reader from the characters. It’s the sort of novel that will inspire you to write a thesis, but it’s not as likely to give you an emotionally transcendent experience. Fortunately, for those wanting a smidgen of sentiment with their stories, a new essay by Enrique will have you covered.

Recently published on ESPN’s website, Enrique’s latest piece explores his ever-changing relationship with baseball, from his childhood in Mexico, when he roots for the Cafeteros de Córdoba but can never see them play at their home park, to his adulthood in the United States, where he takes his son to as many Baltimore Orioles games as possible. While Enrique’s love of baseball never leaves him, what the game means to him evolves as he goes through life. It’s a wonderfully thoughtful exploration of sports fandom.

Though certainly not to the extent as in Sudden Death, history and politics play a role in his newest essay as well. His family’s support of the Cafeteros mark them as provincials in the more cosmopolitan Mexico City, and economic crises compel him to leave Mexico, and Mexican baseball, behind. But in this piece, personal reflections reign supreme, even when they take on some philosophical significance. Consider this passage on the sports fan’s greatest virtue, loyalty:

I think it’s impossible to change teams once one has made a decision: You can admire some generation of players or develop a deep respect or even some care for a franchise, but your team is your team because it becomes fixed in your brain at an age when small things are huge. Once, talking about soccer, the late Argentine writer Ricardo Piglia—an unbiased, philosophical, and quiet man—told me in an unexpected rapture of passion: “Only perverts change teams.”

Or take the essay’s conclusion, after Enrique and his son go to their last O’s game before the latter goes off to college:

Childhood is a planet with a population of one person, but on a very few lucky days, our memories and those of our children cross paths, like in an eclipse. That day I came out of Camden Yards understanding something that took me years to grasp: that loyalty to a team can be a two-direction road. We inherit objects of devotion from our parents, but sons and daughters leave a legacy for us too. The Coffee Drinkers stand untouched in the crystal box of my memory, but the Baltimore Orioles are my team. They are the unexpected bequest of my son.

Erudite and perceptive, bold and direct, Enrigue is a writer I’m glad to have found, and I eagerly await more of his work. I hope this short piece will encourage you to check him out, too.

If, after looking up Enrigue, you want more reading recommendations, I recently discussed Stephen King’s 1990 essay “Head Down,” which, coincidentally, is also about children and baseball.

The Power of Constraints: “In the Body of the Sturgeon” by Mary Reid Kelley and Patrick Kelley

Recently while at the Baltimore Museum of Art, I saw a new film by the artistic duo of Mary Reid Kelley and Patrick Kelley, called In the Body of the Sturgeon. Set on a doomed submarine stationed in the Pacific on the day President Harry S Truman announces the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, In the Body of the Sturgeon is by turns solemn and bizarre. Truman’s grave message and the ghosts of the sunken sailor share screen time with ecstatic odes to urination and pratfalls about drinking torpedo fuel. And yet it all fits together, thanks in no small part to the Kelleys’ visual aesthetic, which renders their human forms as disturbing, monochrome muppets.

But rather than talk about the filmmaking, I’d like to talk about the script. What drew my attention to the Kelleys’ film was not the lightbox pictures which served as previews, but rather the placard’s account of the writing process. The text of In the Body of the Sturgeon is draw entirely from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s 1855 poem The Song of Hiawatha. Every word in the script is either a word or a phrase repurposed from Longfellow’s work, and on top of that, the script maintains the original poem’s (in)famous use of trochaic tetrameter (i.e., eight syllables, alternating between stressed and unstressed syllables: By the | shores of | Gitche | Gumee).

Now, I don’t think I’d go so far as the placard does and call those rules “absurdly strict parameters.” The Song of Hiawatha is an epic poem, and as such it presents the found poet with an extensive lexicon to play with. And while trochaic tetrameter is an unnatural rhythm for English poetry, writing a poem in the same meter as the source material may be easier than expected. After all, Longfellow did a lot of the grunt work, finding words that fit the meter. Mining a good poem out of The Song of Hiawatha may still be a challenge, but it’s not an inconceivable one.

No, the real “absurdly strict parameter” is using Longfellow’s poem to write about this particular subject: a submarine crew during World War II. A lot of the vocabulary that one would think vital to such a story (“torpedo,” “bomb,” “submarine,” even “sailor”) is not present in the source material, and so cannot be used while still keeping with the form. That ninety-year gap between the Kelleys’ subject and their lexicon makes the whole script into a game of Taboo. So how do they work around those forbidden words?

Most obviously, the Kelleys have the advantage of working in film. Even if they do not permit themselves to say “tank of torpedo fuel,” for example, they can still depict the tank of torpedo fuel on-screen as itself. They just use a somewhat-related, metaphorical name in that phrase’s place, in this case, “kettle.” But that’s not quite satisfying to me as a writer; I want to see something beyond a one-to-one substitution.

Perhaps the Kelleys can simply write around the restricted vocabulary. Consider the following excerpt from Part I of the film:

Now he stirred that sluggish water,

And the food had been transfigured,

Changed into a weak, old whiteness,

Bitter so that none could drink it.

Take a moment, if you need to, to figure out what they’re describing in this excerpt.

If you guessed “powdered milk,” you’d be correct. That second line, “And the food had been transfigured,” is perhaps the most direct clue that the speaker is discussing instant food of some sort, and “that sluggish water” and “weak, old whiteness” would point towards milk in particular (“milk” being another word not found in The Song of Hiawatha). This is of course a long-winded means of describing a simple action, but that only enhances the grand sweep the Kelleys are going for here.

Yet my favorite moment of the Kelleys’ indirect description is perhaps the plainest. It comes during Truman’s speech following the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. Truman notes that many countries had “Chased the fearful, great achievement,” i.e., the production of nuclear weapons. That’s a wonderfully euphemistic way of framing an arms race: maybe acknowledging the dangers and the vices involved (“fearful”), but at the same time affirming the value and goodness of the mission (“great achievement”). Indeed, he later lists of the qualities of this “fearful, great achievement,” as though it were the hero in an Old English epic: “Smooth and polished, keen and costly.”

It’s no secret that I think constraints, especially self-imposed ones, are a boon for creativity. The past two semesters I’ve sent students a video series on the philosophy of creativity just to drive that point home. But what In the Body of the Sturgeon shows is that working within such constraints doesn’t require the flashiest metaphors, or the most virtuosic command of meter. Sometimes, restraints compel us toward understatement, toward plain language. And there is plenty of poetry to find therein.

If you’d like to see In the Body of the Sturgeon for yourself, you can do so at the Baltimore Museum of Art through August 19, 2018, alongside another of the Kelleys’ works, This Is Offal, as part of their exhibition We Are Ghosts. More information about the exhibition is available here.

A Journey Through Tudor England: A Brief Review

A Journey Through Tudor EnglandWritten by Tudor historian Suzannah Lipscomb and published by Pegasus in 2013, A Journey Through Tudor England positions itself as part general-audience history, part travel guide. Covering fifty sites of interest from West Sussex to West Yorkshire, Lipscomb uses each site as jumping-off point to discuss various people and events of the Tudor era.

A Journey Through Tudor England is a book with multiple audiences in mind. In the introduction, Lipscomb says her book “is designed to be a companion both to the visitor to these fifty sites, and to the historical visitor to the Tudor period” (p. 3). The back cover, meanwhile, declares this a work for “the armchair traveler or for those looking to take a trip back to the colorful time of Henry VIII and Thomas More.” Based on these descriptions, I can see three intended readerships:

  1. People with a general interest in Tudor history
  2. People planning a visit to various Tudor sites
  3. People who would like to visit those sites but are unable to do so

Each group will want different things from the text. The history buffs will want to hear about the significance of each site, the stories of the people who were there, etc. The vacation planners will want to know what to look for when they make their trip. And the “armchair travelers” will want some sense of what experiencing these sites is like. (These groups are not mutually exclusive, of course; people hoping to see historical sites presumably have some interest in history.)

Three readerships can be difficult to balance, and some of Lipscomb’s descriptions do a better job of it than others. On the positive side, the beginning of her section on Broad Street in Oxford is exemplary:

In the centre of Broad Street in Oxford, outside Balliol College, an unceremonious small cross of cobblestones set in the middle of the tarmac road marks the site of the 1555 and 1556 burnings of the ‘Oxford martyrs’: Hugh Latimer, Nicholas Ridley and Thomas Cranmer, formerly the bishops of Worcester and London, and the Archbishop of Canterbury. This inconspicuous reminder, together with the doors of Balliol College that were scorched by the fire and that now hang between the front and garden quadrangles, testify to the ugly side of the revival of Roman Catholicism in England when Mary I came to the throne. (p. 113)

This brief passage serves the needs of all three intended readerships. It establishes the historical significance of the site, which the rest of the section elaborates on: the executions of three prominent Protestant clergymen. It also draws attention to the particular items of interest: the cobblestone cross and the flame-licked doors. A visitor to Broad Street, after reading this paragraph, would know what to look for and why it matters.

As for the armchair traveler, Lipscomb manages to give the reader the sense of experiencing the site. Her prose emphasizes movement through the location. It begins with a general location, situating the reader in space: on Broad Street, outside Balliol College. The author then directs the reader’s gaze further into the site, down to the cobblestone cross. This is the exact manner in which one would experience such a simple memorial, coming across it while walking by. Then, once the mind has taken in the cross (and absorbed its import), it moves up and away from the street, to the scorched doors. It’s not quite a virtual tour, but it’s still an effective description.

What I most admire in the above passage is its efficiency. Lipscomb hits all her marks (history, handbook, and description) in just over 100 words, and both sentences serve multiple purposes. Even the listing of the martyrs, which is purely historical information, finishes the sentence introducing the cobblestone cross. The whole paragraph is a whirlwind to read, with all three elements swirling at once. Other than a brief mention of the Victorian-era monument to the martyrs nearby, the rest of the section is entirely devoted to history. But that first paragraph is so dense, every kind of reader can leave satisfied.

Alas, not every section is so successful. More typical is the section on the City of London’s Guildhall, which begins thusly:

Guildhall, which is situated at the centre of the City’s square mile on the site of an old Roman amphitheatre, is one of London’s great survivors. It was the only secular building to escape the Great Fire of London in 1666 and it survived the Blitz in 1940, though in both instances it lost its roof and windows. In the fifteenth century, it was the second largest edifice in London, after the Old St Paul’s Cathedral, and the formidable Great Hall and undercroft date from that period. It is now on its fifth roof designed by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott to recreate what the medieval roof may have looked like, but everything beneath window-height is to the design of the original master mason, John Croxton, who built the Great Hall between 1411 and 1430. It is Gothic perpendicular in style, and an impressive 151 feet long, 48 feet wide and 89 feet high. The five-foot-thick walls may partially explain its durability. (p. 39)

This opening paragraph is longer than the one introducing Oxford’s Broad Street, yet it doesn’t accomplish as much. The history of the building comes through, albeit in a somewhat scattered fashioned, and the text does mention the highlights of the building. But as for giving the reader a sense of experiencing the building, it falls short. For one thing, the spatial movement implied here is odd, going from exterior (“lost its roof and windows”) to interior (“Great Hall and undercroft”), then back to exterior (the restored roof) and then back to interior (the Great Hall, again). For another, the details are either too general (“Gothic perpendicular” describes rather many buildings) or just not evocative (the Great Hall’s dimensions, which are difficult to scale in the mind).

Further, this first paragraph doesn’t even mention the main piece of history Lipscomb wishes to discuss: the life of Lady Jane Grey. Guildhall has clear significance in her life, as it was the site of her trial (as well as, by coincidence, Thomas Cranmer’s trial). But whereas Broad Street was central to the Oxford martyr’s story, with Lipscomb devoting many paragraphs to the events at that site, Guildhall feels tangential to Lady Jane’s ordeal. It reads as though the author just needed to discuss Lady Jane somewhere in book, rather than needing to tell the reader about Guildhall.

So where does all this leave a potential reader? Well, it goes back to the three intended audiences. A Journey Through Tudor England does an adequate job addressing the needs of the history buff and the vacation planner, but I think drops the ball as far as the armchair traveler is concerned. So ask yourself: “Which audience am I a part of?”

N.B. This book was originally published in the UK under the title A Visitor’s Companion to Tudor England.