The issue I want to explore in The Catered Affair is whether the film works as a social critique or simply as a morality tale. The film’s drama is tightly centered around Aggie Hurley, who is the one that insists on having a big wedding for her daughter and who responds to both the Halloran family and to the gossip of neighborhood friends. It seems that she is the vehicle through which a lesson is ultimately learned. But what exactly is that lesson? What does she represent and what do the different characters – namely her husband Tom, her daughter Jane, and the Hallorans – represent?
The first obvious distinction between the two families is that of class. The Hurleys are poor, lower-class, city people who barely scrape by on Tom’s job as a cab driver. The Hallorans, on the other hand, are well-to-do who live comfortably. We see this in the brief glimpse of their home in which they sit comfortably on a large couch watching television, a symbol of comfortable, modern living. We also learn more through the conversation the Hallorans have with the Hurleys during dinner in which they tell of their expenses on the weddings of their other children and their travels. It is clear that they could easily afford a big wedding for their son, but from the old-fashioned ideas that the Hallorans seem to be attached to, Mrs. Halloran insists that the bride’s family must pay for the wedding.
Another distinction between characters in the film is a generational gap between parents and children. Jane and Rod intend to have a simple wedding without a big celebration and want to rush off to a honeymoon because it is convenient. This idea of a simple wedding causes gossip among the housewives who think that there must be something wrong. I am not sure if the idea of a simple wedding is necessarily a radical idea in the 1950s, but it certainly represents an ideological split between the generations. The children can thus be said to represent a new generation free from the baggage and restrictions of the values and conventions of their parents’ generation.
In the center of these two gaps between class and generation is Aggie, who wants to cater to the expectations of the Hallorans and her society, insisting that it is also what the children should really want. Her ultimate decision to forgo the big ceremony ultimately leads to the happiness of the children and to her husband Tom, who gets the cab he’s been working hard to get and to whom she becomes closer in the symbolic gesture of his arm around her shoulders.
To me it seems that Aggie’s decision is a moral lesson in which she learns to think of others before herself and to let go of the societal expectations which suffocate her. Though she insists that the wedding would be good for Jane, it is ultimately for herself. Her abandoning that idea and accepting her daughter’s plea for a simple wedding can be seen as a symbolic surrender to the new generation and a new progressive age which allows her and her family to live freely.
Alternately, Aggie’s decision to forgo the big wedding ceremony can be seen as a submission not only to her daughter’s pleas, but to the pleas of her husband Tom. It is Tom, after all, that has a confrontational scene with Aggie in the bedroom in which he insists that she never appreciated the hard work he did for the sake of the family. In fact, when Jane tries to come into that scene she is told to leave, possibly signifying that the real confrontation and resolution of the film comes not between Aggie and Jane but Aggie and Tom. This is reinforced through the final scene in which we see Tom’s big smile in having his new cab pull up and in which he embraces Aggie. If this is the case, then what does Tom represent? As a blue-collar working man just scraping by in the city, he could certainly represent the proletariat, to whom the ultimate recognition and respect should ultimately be given. The film could be suggesting that in recognizing and appreciating Tom and allowing him to earn the fruit of his labors as a working man while simultaneously rejecting bourgeois values, Aggie makes the right choice – the working man should be the one valued and not the bourgeois.
Ultimately, I think the lesson of the film could swing either way, though I’m partial to the latter. That is not to say, however, that it has to be so black and white or so much one displacing the other. Indeed, Aggie’s decision can be a lesson in both morality and in socialist ideals, both of which can go very much arm in arm. Though the children seem to be out of the picture in the second hypothesis, I would argue that ultimately the film is not really about the bridging of the generational gap, but the bridging of an emotional gap between Aggie and Tom, which bring about the multi-faceted realizations and lessons.