#351) Marty (1955)

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#351) Marty (1955)

OR “King of the Stardust Ballroom”

Directed by Delbert Mann

Written by Paddy Chayefsky. Based on his teleplay.

Class of 1994

Here’s the original trailer, introduced by the film’s producer Burt Lancaster!

The Plot: Marty Piletti (Ernest Borgnine) is a lovable Bronx butcher, a self-proclaimed “fat, ugly man”, and a 34-year-old bachelor. After encouragement from his mother (Esther Minciotti), Marty reluctantly goes to the Stardust Ballroom on a Saturday night. He has some initial difficulty meeting women, but soon hits it off with Clara (Betsy Blair) a homely schoolteacher stood up by her blind date. The two begin to bond, but is ‘50s America ready to see two regular, unconventional looking people find love?

Why It Matters: The NFR praises the “touching realism” of Mann’s direction and the “nuanced dialogue” of Chayefsky’s script.

But Does It Really?: “Marty” was the first mainstream romantic film that wasn’t glamorous. This isn’t Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn in Rome, these are two plain looking people falling in love in a neighborhood not unlike your own. It is this breakthrough that has kept “Marty” relatable to generations of filmgoers. The film still gets its annual shoutout as a Best Picture winner, but “Marty” holds up far better than its contemporaries, thanks primarily to Chayefsky, Mann, and especially Borgnine’s star turn. “Marty” isn’t a bona-fide film great, but it’s the little movie that could, and still can.

Everybody Gets One: Delbert Mann directed over 100 live teleplays throughout the ‘50s (including the original “Marty” teleplay) and Paddy Chayefsky insisted that Mann return to direct the film version. Actor Betsy Blair lobbied hard to play Clara, but United Artists was wary of casting someone on the blacklist. Her then-husband, Gene Kelly, used his Hollywood clout to get Blair the part. Not the best way to land a role, but Blair’s performance helps temper this incongruous start.

Wow, That’s Dated: Such ‘50s things as bathroom attendants, and phone booths in every bar! On a sadder note, most of Marty’s Bronx no longer exists (the RKO Chester referenced in the film was demolished in 2010).

Take a Shot: We have a title song!

Seriously, Oscars?: “Marty” opened in limited release, but reviews were strong enough that a wider release was immediately planned. Production company Hecht-Lancaster went all out on their Oscar campaign; spending more on the Oscars than the actual film ($400,000 vs. $343,000). The gambit worked, and “Marty” won four Oscars: Best Picture, Director, Actor, and Adapted Screenplay.

Other notes

  • Prior to this viewing, I screened the original 1953 teleplay of “Marty” starring Rod Steiger. The key to the film’s success (and superiority over the teleplay) is the casting of Ernest Borgnine over Rod Steiger. Steiger’s Marty is primarily a pitiable figure; sulking and mumbling his way throughout. Borgnine keeps the sadness, but also highlights the incredible person hiding underneath the pained surface. His is a Marty to root for.
  • Joe Mantell, Esther Minciotti, and Augusta Ciolli all reprise their roles from the original teleplay. Minciotti in particular does a good job of reining in her more theatrical teleplay performance for the big screen.
  • The key to any quotable line is how many times they say it during the actual movie. There’s a reason everyone remembers “Marty, when are you gonna get married?” and “What do you feel like doing tonight, Ang?”
  • The Pilettis are close to being – but aren’t quite – broad Italian stereotypes. We never cross that line, but we do approach it.
  • The ‘50s slang used in “Marty” is sparse, and used in a context that a modern audience can understand. It’s pretty easy to figure out what a “dog” and a “tomato” are.
  • Apparently a young Jerry Orbach makes his film debut as an extra at the Ballroom. Anyone know which one is Young Lennie?
  • The best thing about “Marty” is that it isn’t love at first sight for these two. They meet primarily because Marty pities Clara, but once that actually get to know one another, then the sparks fly. “Marty” takes the bold step of suggesting you should be with someone based on substance rather than purely on looks.
  • Word-vomiting on a first date: Been there.
  • Marty correctly predicts the rise of supermarkets in the near future. Between this and “Network”, Paddy Chayefsky was a modern Nostradamus.
  • Speaking of, it’s crazy to think that the man who wrote the deceivingly simple dialogue in this movie also wrote the verbose monologues of “Network”. Now that’s a guy who can…um…words…good.
  • Joe Mantell doesn’t get much to do as Angie (and I don’t understand his Oscar nod), but he would eventually achieve film immortality with five words: “Forget it Jake, it’s Chinatown.
  • Watch closely for Paddy Chayefsky’s brief appearance as Marty’s friend Leo.
  • The one rough spot is the scene where Marty tries to kiss Clara even though she clearly doesn’t want to. Chayefsky does his best to justify each character’s actions, but I’ll be curious to see if this scene gets any flak from future generations.
  • Some resources say the film is 90 minutes, others 93. The reason for this discrepancy is the exclusion of a scene in which Clara returns home and tells her parents about Marty. Luckily the print I saw had this scene restored, and it’s a lovely coda to Blair’s performance.
  • The family drama subplot with Tommy, Virginia, and Aunt Catherine felt like padding in the teleplay and definitely feels like padding here. I appreciate that Chayefsky opted to expand Marty and Clara’s scenes rather than this nonsense.
  • I gotta say this ending is a bit of a letdown. “Marty” doesn’t strike me as a movie that needs a cliffhanger, but here we are. I am choosing to believe that Marty and Clara end up together, because that’s how this should have ended!

Legacy

  • “Marty” was a launching pad for everyone involved. Ernest Borgnine spent the rest of his career as an in-demand character actor, while Delbert Mann continued directing such films as “Separate Tables” (also for Hecht-Lancaster) and the TV movie version of “Heidi”, aka “The Heidi Bowl”.
  • Paddy Chayefsky’s screenwriting career also took off, and his disappointment with what television devolved into by the early ‘70s served as the basis for “Network”.
  • Mann and Chayefsky reunited for another adaptation of a Chayefsky teleplay: “The Bachelor Party”. It treads a lot of the same ground as “Marty”.
  • Most of Hecht-Lancaster’s productions were Burt Lancaster vanity projects, but we got another NFR entry out of it: “Sweet Smell of Success”.
  • Hollywood studios, already on the decline in the mid-50s, took notice when a studio-financed independent project made a ton of money AND won all the Oscars. Studios started getting into the independent distribution game, a strategy that has continued to this day.
  • There has been no direct remake of “Marty”, but John Hughes’ “Only the Lonely” is a spiritual successor, and Jeff Garlin’s “I Want Someone to Eat Cheese With” features a remake with a miscast Aaron Carter.

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