Just as cab driver Tom Hurley (Ernest Borgnine) finally saves enough money to fulfill his longtime dream to own taxi cab, his daughter Jane (Debbie Reynolds) is engaged to her boyfriend Ralph Halloran (Rod Taylor). Since Jane and Ralph don’t have a lot of money, they decided to get married after Ralph was presented with the opportunity to drive a car across the country so the trip could be their honeymoon. Since they plan on being married a week later, Jane insists the wedding will be a small, simple affair with the guest list very strictly immediate family only.
Tom and his wife Aggie (Bette Davis) try to fulfill her wishes for a small wedding, but Aggie’s brother Jack (Barry Fitzgerald) lives with them and if they invited Jack, they’d have to invite a slew of other people. Jack is very upset when he finds out he isn’t invited, and as word of Jane’s impending nuptials spreads to friends and neighbors, everyone questions what the rush is and why they aren’t having a bigger wedding. While Jane comes from a working-class background, Ralph’s family is more well-off and wants them to have a more elaborate wedding. Between all the pressure from others and Aggie’s own regrets over her own rushed wedding, Aggie insists on a bigger wedding, even though it would cost everything in Tom and Aggie everything, including Tom’s opportunity to own that cab.
As they start planning the lavish wedding, unexpected expenses start popping up left and right. First Jane’s matron-of-honor’s husband loses his job and can’t afford a dress. Then Ralph’s mother invites far more many people than she was supposed to. Everything costs way more than Tom expected it to. As the expenses mount, so does the tension between family members. Eventually things get bad enough for Jane to call the whole thing off and go for the small affair she and Ralph had originally envisioned. In the wake of Jane’s decision, Aggie is faced with the realization that for the first time since they were married, their household will soon just be her and Tom.
The Catered Affair is like the more dramatic counterpoint to Father of the Bride. Wedding plans spiraling out of control isn’t exactly fresh material for movies, television, and plays, but The Catered Affair is still a rock solid, nuanced drama; a real career highlight for Bette Davis, Ernest Borgnine, and Debbie Reynolds. Despite the done-before premise, the writing is strong enough to easily stand out from the crowd. The cast is phenomenal; Bette Davis is particularly great with her sensitive, restrained performance. With Aggie’s insistence on having a big wedding, it would be really easy for her character to turn into an over-the-top tyrant. Instead, Aggie has a lot of complexities and extremely sympathetic moments. Debbie Reynolds’ performance impressed me since at the time, she was mostly doing more fluffy, lighthearted material, but she held her own quite nicely with the likes of Bette Davis and Ernest Borgnine.