By Kendra Stanton Lee
Marty – dir. Delbert Mann – (1955) – Original Theatrical Trailer
There are countless ways to reject a “dog” of a date. Today we can ditch, “dis,” or even text message it in – proper punctuation not required. In 1955, giving “the brush” was no less cruel, and may have even been enough to send Marty Piletti (Ernest Borgnine) into early retirement from the hunt. But once upon a Saturday night, his mother suggests that he go put on a suit and head to the Stardust Ballroom. Set in The Bronx, our pug-faced hero is a 34 year-old butcher, sandwiched between siblings who have all gotten married. Though he works with fine meats and successfully surrounds himself with a pack of meat-headed cronies, Marty is loathe to shop the proverbial meat market. But once upon a Saturday night…
Marty is a flash film of sorts. The plotline takes place over the course of a weekend in one man’s life, but as we come to know our beleaguered bachelor, we realize he has lived these plodding workdays with pestering patrons and these predictable weekends spent with a case of beer over and over before. Even without an epic plot, however, the film is effectively packed with enough pathos to draw an audience enslaved to our cell phones into this simple drama. Such a simple drama that could, bare bones, take place in any family with mothers and sons, in any circle of friends, in any room full of single people, at any diner table of two “dogs like us” – as Marty refers to himself and the homely schoolteacher Clara Snyder (Betsy Blair) he meets once upon a Saturday night (trivia: Blair was married to Gene Kelly at the time the film was being shot. Concurrently, Blair had been blacklisted by the House Un-American Activities Committee, who was investigating Blair on alleged left-wing extremist viewpoints. In turn, Kelly threatened to stop shooting at MGM studios if his wife was barred from working. Turns out it paid to be married to Kelly, to the tune of the Cannes Film and British Film acting awards and an Oscar nomination all for her performance as Clara in Marty. It did not eject her from the blacklist, however.)
Clara has just, unwittingly, received the brush when Marty runs some interference on her behalf. This will not be the last time he advocates for Clara. In certain scenes he may appear to be endorsing Clara to his unimpressed friends or to his mother who would prefer he find an Italian wife. But these rousing endorsements are likely the sound of Marty speaking aloud to his own fragile ego. Meanwhile, his heart has already been persuaded.
For a film that turns 53 this year, the cinematography is masterful. The use of lights and shadows, the juxtaposition of public spheres (front porches, churches, ballrooms) versus private (phone booths, living and dining rooms) brings this theme of ‘the face we put on for the world’ to glorious perfection. And on this note, pay close attention to the faces. Marty’s face before placing a phone call. Marty’s face during a phone call. Clara’s face when no phone call is received. These are the faces, courageous and crestfallen, no one can see on the other end. Technology has changed the way we deliver the message. But the faces behind them will never change.
The screenplay was originally written for the stage by Paddy Chayefksky, a Bronx native himself; the teleplay was performed and aired in 1953. Chayefsky then adapted the book for the silver screen two years later, which went on to win the Academy Award, as did Delbert Mann for best director, Borgnine for Best Actor, and the film itself for Best Picture. However, the film may not have even been on Oscar’s radar screen had it not first won the Palm d’Or (Golden Palm) at Cannes Film Festival, prompting the producers to invest heavily in its promotion. It went on to capture hearts on the home-front and abroad and in 1994, was deemed a cultural artifact by the Library of Congress and selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry.