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Saturday, April 5, 2014

THE CATERED AFFAIR (1956)

Lionized for his first & penultimate scripts (MARTY/’55; NETWORK/’76), Paddy Cheyefsky’s best writing came on the projects he wrote just before (HOSPITAL/’71) and just after those two calling cards. This largely ignored kitchen-sink drama was obviously designed as follow up to the enormous (and enormously unexpected) success of MARTY. Ernest Borgnine again stars, now living in the Bronx, a hack driver saving up to buy a long coveted taxi medallion. But his plans run headlong into his wife’s simmering passive resentment which find outlet in giving daughter Debbie Reynolds the formal wedding & reception she never had. In theory, nothing in this film should work. Yet as the dowdy wife, Bette Davis, a decade older than Borgnine and hardly salt-of-the-earth Bronx, gives an astonishingly naturalistic, vanity-free perf; Borgnine shows a rare restraint with hardly a yell; and Reynolds douses the twinkle & her typical ingratiation tricks. The whole cast ups their game, playing ‘ordinary little people’ without grandstanding or condescension. Even the apartment looks just right, with its tiny eat-in kitchen (Davis proves a whiz at the stove) or showing how a single bed can take over a room. The original Cheyefsky teleplay (which had Thelma Ritter in the mother role) was gently ‘opened up’ by Gore Vidal (of all people), given grimy atmospheric lensing from John Alton and, most surprising of all, fluid, intensely compacted megging from Richard Brooks.* Dumped by the studio as M-G-M was going thru regime change (not even a decent poster), naturally, no one went to see it.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *The biggest surprise here isn’t Bette Davis toning things down, as anyone who’s seen her late tv pic STRANGERS/’79 should know. (Just watch as she acknowledges Borgnine getting in from a night shift by not acknowledging him.) No, the real surprise, even more than Reynolds’ warmth & directness, is in Richard Brooks’ helming. He’d just switched over to the CinemaScope format and was struggling with the extra wide frame. Then again, even his earlier work in the old squarish Academy ratio (1.35:1) and then in the so-called flat compromise of 1.85:1 would often turn compositionally dead. He was always more of a writer. Compare, for example, his own stagy staging of BLACKBOARD JUNGLE/’55 with the professional snap and consistent style Jules Dassin found in Brooks’ script for BRUTE FORCE/’47. What made the diff here? Best guess is that AFFAIR, put into production largely on the commercial strength of MARTY, was shot using the same Academy Ratio framing of MARTY (1.35:1). Who wants to argue with success? But then cropped for projection at 1.85:1 after production for a more modern look, losing about 15% of the composition Brooks thought he was shooting. You can check out the increase in emotional intensity & claustrophobia that was gained by watching a few uncropped shots as they appear in film’s trailer on the DVD. What was unusual wasn’t cropping down the picture, but that Brooks didn’t know they would do it and didn’t compensate for it. Just a lucky bit of blindsiding via studio executive fiat.

DOUBLE-BILL: Follow the link below for a snapshot of A CATERED AFFAIR/’07, a near-miss B’way Musicalization that had its heart in the right place. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZPHRj9cs2X0

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