Retro Review: ‘Marty’
There are many couples we cinephiles hold a special love for and for a variety of reasons. Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall were stone cold cool and charismatic. Rock Hudson and Doris Day carried a bright energy. William Powell and Myrna Loy always had razor sharp quips to trade. But for Ernest Borgnine and Betsy Blair in the 1955 film Marty, we love them because they were so beautifully ordinary. Needless to say, the idea of two average people falling in love over the course of a Saturday night is not commonly thought of as a blockbuster. In fact Hollywood legend holds that some producers who invested in the film did so as a tax write-off believing Marty would bomb. But it was this element which turned the movie into a hit with audiences and critics alike, winning a number of Oscars and even becoming the first American film to win the Palm d’Or.
After years of rejection, 34 year old butcher Marty has resigned himself to a life of bachelorhood. That all changes on one fateful Saturday night, at the behest of his mother he heads down with his buddy Angie to the dance floor of the Stardust Ballroom. There he meets Clara, a soft spoken school teacher who has already been ditched by her intended date for the evening. In a touching scene where the two share a dance Marty and Clara hit it off. They spend the rest of the night with each other, for the first time that he can remember, the lonely butcher has found someone he enjoys being with who he feels safe opening up to about his hopes, fears and dreams. Not only does Clara understand, but she has felt that same loneliness and encourages him to go out and accomplish his goals, because she believes in him after only spending just a few hours with him. The next morning is when the trouble sets in, his mother is none too happy that some “college girl” is trying to steal her son away. Angie and the rest of the guys in their Bronx neighborhood mock her as a “dog” and urge Marty to drop her. Throughout the day, he goes through an internal struggle of whether to call this amazing woman up and set a second date or pleasing everyone else in his life even if it means remaining alone and heartbroken.
This is a movie which was a hit with audiences from the start, because this was an onscreen couple they could relate to. Ernest Borgnine and Betsy Blair were not the best looking people and Borgnine himself even says in the film on multiple occasions that he is a bit on the stocky side. These were normal blue collar people, a butcher and a teacher, who crossed paths with each other one night. This sense of realism is refreshing even by modern movie standards. The two of them do not need to conquer the world together they just need to conquer their own insecurities and the disapproval of friends and relatives, which to be honest can absolutely feel like the world. I once saw a roundtable discussion of this film with a group of casting directors who hold Marty in high esteem because the movie took an actor audiences thought they knew and presented him in an entirely new and unthinkable way to great success. Ernest Borgnine has always been viewed as an Average Joe-type character actor and few had the vision to cast him as a romantic lead. In fact, the director was reluctant to cast him, but those doubts disappeared when the actor brought him to tears during the read through of the script. While Borgnine’s co-star, Betsy Blair is not hideous by any stretch of the imagination she did not have the eye-catching looks usually associated with these movies. In fact Blair was not even supposed to be in Marty due to her status on the infamous Hollywood Blacklist. Her husband, Hollywood Heavyweight Gene Kelly had to pretty much blackmail the studio into giving her the part. The pairing proved to be a success and come Oscar time both got nominated for their performances, Blair for Best Supporting Actress and Borgnine winning Best Actor beating out Hollywood icons like; James Cagney, Frank Sinatra, James Dean, and Spencer Tracey.
Adding to the realism of the film is the setting, Delbert Mann perfectly captures the Bronx in all its glory. This community of Italian immigrants is loud and lively which immerses the audience in the city. There is no denying the New York pedigree of the supporting cast in Marty from Esther Minciotti as Marty’s mother to Joe Mantell as his best pal. Somehow Mann managed to pull everything off in only sixteen days of filming. His work behind the camera in his debut flick led to the filmmaker receiving the Oscar for Best Director. In the process he became a pioneer for the independent film industry.
This is one of those rare romantic films which does something different from the mainstream and as such has found mass appeal and is regarded as a classic. Honestly I do not even see a movie like this being made for contemporary audiences. If nothing else it would give us an ending beyond Marty calling up Clara for a second date, and gone all the way with them getting married and buying the butcher shops themselves. The fact that this simple movie from 1955 is still one of the most realistic portrayals of two people falling in love is a true testament to how good Marty is.