Lost in the Movies: A Tale of Two Martys: an essay for the Romance Countdown

A Tale of Two Martys: an essay for the Romance Countdown

Cross-posted at Wonders in the Dark, where the 1955 version placed at #54 in the Romance Countdown.

"I think of this as a great rainy afternoon movie. You're flipping through the channels on one of those great lazy Saturdays...it's summer but it's raining outdoors and you're stuck inside. You come across a classic movie channel (AMC, TCM--take your pick) and pause. What's this? Ernest Borgnine? You always like him, why not stop for a moment and watch. It looks like it's just beginning. 'Marty'? Yeah, you've heard of it, vaguely. Won the Oscar or something, but it's been kind of forgotten. So you start watching and before long you're totally enchanted, completely charmed, by the simple story and realistic characters. Who can't sympathize with Borgnine's sensitive butcher, hanging out with his Italian friends and their goofy conversations about Mickey Spillane, all the while pining away with his heart of gold for a girl that his buddies call a 'dog'? The conversations have the kind of natural humor and warmth that remind you of the old days hanging out with your pals. As you watch the movie, you find yourself enthralled and you never change the channel, watching it till the end, realizing that you've seen this plot riffed on and spoofed on various TV shows, films, and cartoons over the years. When the movie's done, you're really excited--this is one of those films you discovered on your own and nothing can beat that thrill.

"Now, this isn't the way I saw 'Marty'--I rented it and now own it on DVD--but it's the spirit I get from it. I love the conversation between Marty and his best friend, its street poetry that's entertaining without being false, in the diner as their Friday night lays out ahead of them. I love Marty and Clara's walk, their honesty and his enthusiasm; you worry is he going too far, being too gregarious for the shy Clara? Will it work? I love the preparations for Sunday Mass, the fight between the married couple, and Marty agonizing over standing up his girl while his friends have an amusingly banal and silly conversation in which they keep repeating themselves. It's really just a charming and wonderful film, joyful even in its sad moments. If you don't enjoy it, what can I say, but my recommendation comes completely honest and from the heart. This is one of those personal favorites that also happens to be an underrated classic--but just underrated enough so that the joy of discovering it on a rainy Saturday afternoon remains undiluted." - Me, April 24, 2003, my first online review (IMDb)

As you can see, Marty has been a favorite of mine for a long time. I would no longer characterize it as "kind of forgotten" (perhaps I meant that it wasn't featured on many greatest-films lists), but otherwise I can stick by what I wrote as a 19-year-old. Yet in all these years of loving the movie, sinking into its vibe and sympathizing with Borgnine's lovable butcher, I had never seen the original television play on which Marty was based. Watching that side-by-side with the Best Picture-winning feature highlights the fascinating ways the two "films" coincide and branch off in story, style, and tone, the obvious differences (and influences) between early live television and 1950s cinema, and the shared heart of both films - an unconventional take on romance which favors the subtle over the sublime, the sweet over the transcendent. Both Marty (1953) and Marty (1955) tell a simple story: Marty, a Bronx butcher, lives with his mother and suffers the indignities of badgering, nosy neighbors ("You should be ashamed of yourself," one ironically shameless old lady scolds him in the butchershop. "When you gonna get married?"). Marty is forced out the door by his classic Italian mama, and at the ballroom that Saturday evening he meets Clara, a mousy schoolteacher jilted by her date, who offers him $5 to take her home. He declines the money but, taking pity and falling a bit in love, ends up taking Clara home anyway. Alone with him in his empty apartment, an uncertain Clara declines his kiss and breaks his heart, only to tell him she'll be waiting eagerly for his phone call the next day. For the final stretch of Marty the question becomes, will Marty follow his heart or the social pressures surrounding him? Not only his callous friends ("she's a dog, Marty") but his own mother - disheartened by her own shrewish sister's ejection from a newly married household - discourage Marty's budding romance. He must come to his own decision in the story's final minutes.

The teleplay was initially conceived by writer Paddy Chayefsky as the story of the woman but he quickly decided that a bashful man would make a more compelling protagonist - perhaps because his shy, sensitive qualities contrasted with social expectations about the assertive, aggressive male suitor. In May of '53 Marty was broadcast live on NBC's The Philco Television Playhouse to rave reviews. Rod Steiger played Marty as almost touchingly meek, his sad, soft features constantly exposing themselves to disappointment and frustration. As Clara, Nancy Marchand (who memorably closed her career as The Sopranos' Livia Soprano, a nightmarish variation of Marty's aunt) has harder, more angular features than Steiger, which suggest a brittle fragility - the contrasting body types of the two are cannily used to evoke a similar vulnerability in each. As a television program, constrained not only by a low budget but the high-wire risks of live production, this early Marty emphasizes character interaction over environmental influence, cultivating an intimacy in which only the people onscreen have real existence while the world around falls into shadow. Despite - or rather because of - its modesty, the 50-minute TV movie sustains a crisp intensity.

The 1955 feature shares the teleplay's short timeframe (essentially Saturday afternoon through Sunday evening) and humble setting but at 90 minutes, it feels a bit looser. Other factors contribute to the easygoing mood: a gregarious Ernest Borgnine replaces the reticent Steiger (who did not want to sign an extended contract with producer Burt Lancaster's company), Marty's and Clara's courtship is extended with several late-night conversations exploring their characters' lives and personalities, and the location shooting in those and other scenes allows room for an atmosphere in which the actors and director can luxuriate for a time, creating that relaxed rainy-day feeling I referenced above. On the other hand, Chayefsky has more room for subplots which crank up the stakes (the teleplay had just one, in which Marty's cousin moves his mother to Marty's house, distressing Marty's own mother in the process - does a similar fate await her if Marty finds a bride?). Marty must decide whether or not to purchase his boss' butchershop, Clara is worrying about a promotion distracting her from caring for her father, and Marty's cousin becomes a more developed character, bickering guiltily with his wife and encouraging Marty to remain single (Chayefsky uses the opportunity to paint a portrait of nervous ethnic ascension; the cousin worries not just about abandoning his mother but his Italian heritage). In the teleplay, Marty's mother disparages Clara on the way to Sunday Mass but backs off when she realizes how overbearing she's become; in the film, the scene ends more negatively with the mother unrepentant and Marty more disgruntled. Perhaps Chayefsky is generating more suspense through plot development, a wise move because otherwise the film's outcome seems less uncertain than the teleplay's.

Although much of the dialogue is identical, Steiger's Marty and Borgnine's Marty are simply not the same character - a fascinating revelation of the difference a casting change can make. In The Encyclopedia of Movie Awards, Michael Gebert notes that "by casting Borgnine instead of Rod Steiger, whose plain, colorless Marty really did seem like the guy no one would look twice at, Hollywood was hedging its bets with a little hidden star appeal in this supposed ultrarealistic drama - Borgnine is a meatball Barry Fitzgerald, a warthog with a twinkle in his eye." Gebert has a point (although, as noted, Steiger himself turned down the big-screen reprisal); while Borgnine's pathos are real and poignant, his Marty is like an uncorked bottle ready to burst. When Clara releases his energy, Marty transforms into a busybody motormouth, lovably laughing about World War II exploits, scolding himself for previous suicidal tendencies, and offering enthusiastic advice to Clara herself as she reveals her own predicaments. Steiger's Marty on the other hand is pathetic in the least pejorative sense possible (if such a sense exists): his is not a boisterous personality concealed by years of humiliation but a deep and entirely genuine sense of self-effacing goodness. Meanwhile Betsy Blair, Marchand's replacement (due to the lobbying of husband Gene Kelly, who went to bat against the blacklist for his Communist-sympathizing wife), is both plainer and a bit prettier than the more sharply-featured Marchand and like Borgnine's Marty, her Clara is rather warmer than the TV version.

On television (where it has been honored as one of the most important broadcasts in history) and especially in cinemas, the modest Marty made quite a splash. One of the few films to win both the Palme d'Or and Best Picture Academy Award, it also marked a moment of relaxed tension in the Cold War (not only was Blair one of the few film artists to overcome the blacklist, but the film itself was screened in the Soviet Union in 1959, the first Hollywood production to show up there since World War II). Marty also represented a turning point in postwar American cinema thanks to the growing influence of both television and European cinema (particularly neorealism, although its moment had already passed in Italy). Indeed, scanning the Best Picture winners of the 1950s shows Hollywood's schizophrenic response to changing times and depleting audiences; on the one hand, lavish big-screen spectacles like The Greatest Show on Earth, Around the World in 80 Days, and Ben-Hur remind viewers what they're missing by staying at home with the small screen - while on the other hand more intimate, realistic dramas like From Here to Eternity, On the Waterfront, and especially the low-stakes, warmly textured Marty co-opt the values of stage, art house, and small screen, recognizing that audiences aren't simply looking for romantic escapism anymore.

And yet Marty is very much a movie-movie. Delbert Mann, who directed both TV and cinema versions (this was his Oscar-winning feature debut), sticks with sustained shots and expressive close-ups but also fills in details impossible to depict on a TV set. Shooting on location was one of the best ways for Hollywood to both match live TV's penchant for homely realism and outmatch its stagebound aesthetic, and Mann makes full use of the Bronx locations to evoke an atmosphere that envelops the characters as the televised version never could. Meanwhile in the film's studio-shot interiors, the lighting is more dramatic, the sets more decorative, and the crowds more crowded (compare the nightclub sequences for the greatest contrast). There's something moving and inspiring in this approach. By taking this humble story and fleshing it out on a big canvas - while keeping its roots firmly planted in everyday reality - Marty is able to lend the warm, lively rhythms of ordinary life a bit of Hollywood glamour. It stands as one of the great romances precisely because it can invest its slice-of-life humanism with a dash of grandeur; modesty has seldom been so alluring. Still, TV's Marty remains unforgettable as well, lingering at the outskirts and just barely finding its redemption in the end. I applaud the achievement of both Martys, Steiger's baleful survivor and Borgnine's scrappy underdog, but only in the former case do I sigh with real relief when he leaps into that phone booth: it all came so close to never happening.

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