From a young age, we as people are subject to peer and societal pressure. Being social creatures, we often organize into complex and sometimes stratified societies. These societal expectations affect everyone in that society, regardless of the expectations being good or bad.
Societies differ the world over, of course, but one of the most common threads from social structure to social structure is the institution of marriage. Now, there are many, MANY anthropological reasons why marriage has developed over the centuries of human existence, but I won’t get into them here. Starting at a particular age, many societies expect marriages and families to occur. Granted, marriage has changed significantly over time, for the better, too, but the singular traditional role of marriage dominated even just a few decades ago. It’s still very prevalent today, in fact.
Following the allied victory in World War II, the US experienced a “baby boom” between the end of the war and the moon landing in 1969. More Americans moved to the suburbs and the population exploded with the influx of young and single GIs returning from war. Caught in the middle of this shifting America is the 1955 film Marty. Following a 34-year old butcher in New York, Marty (Ernest Borgnine) struggles to deal with the expectations placed upon him to find a wife and get in on the baby boom. Directed by Delbert Mann, Marty is full of all the 1950s tropes about love, sure, but is still charming and uplifting until the final credits roll.
Now, for the rest of the film.
In 1955, Marty Piletti is a single butcher from an Italian family. Continually hounded about his lack of marriage, Marty continues to go about his dating life, but not without cynicism. One night, he’s convinced to visit a dance club in Manhattan, hoping to meet the future wife of his dreams. At the club, Marty continually strikes out until a stranger offers Marty money to take his date off his hands. The man explains that he’s seen a woman he’s talked to before, and prefers, and is ditching his current date. Marty refuses but pursues the woman, Clara (Betsy Blair) anyway. The two hit it off. Throughout the night, the pair are nearly perfect for each other and they make plans to have a follow-up date the next evening.
Marty, though, falls into the trap of believing that he’s not good enough for Clara and that Clara doesn’t even like him. He feels he doomed to be the eternal bachelor, and blows Clara off before coming to his senses by the end of the film.
Checking in at just 93 minutes, Marty’s plot not only moves quickly but, strangely, seems to also take its time to develop. It’s a simple story and a simple premise, but it buildings from this seed of an idea, adding layers as the film wears on. In making a movie about a man’s struggle to find a wife, the marriage theme is very heavy-handed throughout the film and it feels like Marty can’t be a man without a wife. He puts great pressure on himself. I didn’t mind this, though and it helps to sell the pressure that Marty deals with each day. 1.
Winning an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay was Paddy Chayefsky, who also wrote the 1953 teleplay.
Again, marriage is a heavy theme in the film and it normally comes up within the first 30 seconds of most character’s interactions with Marty. He must not only deal with this pressure, but he must also do it with a sense of humor and a smile on his face.
Beyond that, Marty is very plainly written. This is a direct contrast to All About Eve from 1950. In that film, the dialogue featured a great many metaphors and pretty language. Not in Marty, but the plain writing is not a bad thing. The film focuses on working class people in the mid-1950s, and that’s the dialogue you get, right down to calling plain-looking women “dogs.” I’ll admit, the way that the men talk about the women is quite vain and focuses only on their looks and bust sizes. It’s infuriating to watch it with 2019 lenses on. However, Marty does not look at women in that way and chooses to get to the heart of who Clara is, even though she’s very plain-looking on the surface. Right away, this sets Marty apart from his peers and makes him likeable. 1.
Composing the score for Marty was Roy Webb. He received no Oscar nominations for the work and that’s okay. The music was generally unremarkable, with filler coming during transitions. It was not overdone, like Shakespeare in Love, but rather was just right. My inner Little Red Riding Hood was satisfied. The film is a romance, it doesn’t need anything special. 1.
Interestingly, the entire film takes place over the course of about 36 hours, which is probably the shortest time frame of any film in this project. Therefore, there isn’t much time to have a lot of costume or scenery changes. Most of the film takes place indoors and various living rooms, bars, and clubs throughout New York.
The sets themselves are very boxy, the classic soundstage setup with few personal touches. But, again, the film is a romance, it doesn’t need anything special. 1.
Joseph LaShelle was the director of photography for Marty and he was nominated for Best Cinematography, Black and White for his work.
Like so many other elements in this film, the cinematography was nothing special. No unusual angles or beautiful scenes take up the screen here, but rather just useful shots to help tell a story.
Since most of the film is on a soundstage, the intimacy of the set commands an intimate look at the actors. Marty is filled with close ups, letting us see the charmed looks on the faces of Marty and Clara. 1.
Playing Marty Piletti is Ernest Borgnine and he won Best Actor for this role.
From the start, Marty is very concerned about the image he shows to the world. With a receding hairline and a pot belly, Marty isn’t exactly your suave cinematic hero come to life. But Marty is also the everyman, all those guys who aren’t the perfect hunks.
Marty isn’t perfect, though; he comes with all the self-doubt and anxiety of a man who has seen more rejections than Hakeem Olajuwon. He calls himself a professor of pain, thinking negatively about his appearance. This a trap that Marty falls into time and again with self-doubt clogging up his positive vibes.
A smitten Marty is different, though: his words vomit forward as he goes into “impress-the-woman-mode.” He lovingly dives head-first into the pool of affection, hoping to be baptized in its waters. Marty has to slay the beasts of self-doubt and heartache to win in the end. It’s not an easy journey to watch at times. Marty charmed us along the way and it’s very hard to see him fail.
Opposite of Borgnine is Betsy Blair, playing the shy and plain Clara. Blair was nominated for Best Supporting Actress for this role.
Clara is a 29-year old school teacher who is very much like Marty deep down: self-conscious but also very sweet. Clara is a woman of few words at the start, playing her secrets close to the vest. As the film goes on, though, Clara is shown to be an exceedingly intelligent woman with a passion for life and her career. But she, like Marty, struggles to find her place in the world. There’s a Marty-shaped hole in her heart that is wonderfully filled by this well-meaning, but a socially awkward butcher. The same can be said for Marty, too. But the two help each other out by the end of their first date, previewing a hopeful and happy life ahead. 1.
Taking the directors chair for Marty is Delbert Mann, who won his only Best Director for this film. Perhaps the most impressive part of Mann’s job is that the film was shot in a mere 16 days, a blink of an eye in movie time.
I’ve often written that the films thus far from the 1950s have a lot to do with delivering an anti-communist agenda, none more so than All About Eve, On the Waterfront, and even The Greatest Show on Earth. I was pleased that Marty was not one of those films, giving us a reprieve from the “America good, USSR bad” tropes that are present in many films from this decade. I’m sure I’ll continue to write about it going forward, though.
The only thing I could find that related to communism related to Betsy Blair who was married to Gene Kelly at the time of this film. Blair wanted the role of Clara, but she had been blacklisted due to her known communist sympathies. Mann was strong-armed by Kelly and the suits at United Artist to cast Blair in the role.
That doesn’t mean, however, that the film is completely void of messaging. Mann’s heavy-handed approach to marriage makes it as if Marty fails at being a man if he’s not able to provide for a wife and children. This only enforces conformity with social norms. Marty himself only propagates this idea, believing that he is a failure because he hasn’t found a wife. Additionally, the film suffers from that great Hollywood scourge: white washing and the lack of diversity. The film is about white dating with the intent of a white man marrying a white woman. It assumes that the life for white Americans is the life for all Americans as they’re swept up into the baby boom.
As a piece of cinema, Marty just works. The simplicity of nearly every part of the story and the production helps to make the whole thing good. The “simple” approach to this film makes Marty a great film for a lazy Saturday afternoon. I didn’t have to think too hard to watch it. Marty certainly isn’t the best film I’ve seen on this list, but it’s also not the worst. It does its job well and that’s fine. 1.
Final Score: 7/10
Marty won the 28th Academy Award for Best Picture on March 21, 1956, at the RKO Pantages Theatre in Los Angeles and the NBC Century Theatre in New York. It beat out Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing, Mister Roberts, Picnic, and The Rose Tattoo for Best Picture. The award was presented by Audrey Hepburn and accepted by producer Harold Hecht. Marty is the shortest film ever to win Best Picture, and it was the second, and last, film to win both Best Picture and the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. In total, Marty was nominated for eight awards and won four.
Other notable winners that night included Anna Magnani winning Best Actress, Jack Lemmon winning Best Supporting Actor, and Jo Van Fleet winning Best Supporting Actress. The show was hosted by Jerry Lewis in Los Angeles and Claudette Colbert and Joseph L. Mankiewicz in New York.
This has been a rough spring for this blog as I have been very busy. It continues for the next couple of weeks as I’ve got some work stuff to attend to. I’ll be back on April 29 with my review of Chicago. After that, it’s Going My Way, Spotlight, 12 Years A Slave, American Beauty, All Quiet on the Western Front, and The English Patient.