The following article is MovieFanFare’s contribution to February’s 31 Days of Oscar Blogathon, co-hosted by Kellee of Outspoken and Freckled, Paula of Paula’s Cinema Club and Aurora of Once Upon a Screen. You can find a complete list of participating sites here.
By most standard rules of logic–even the labyrinthine thought processes inside the minds of most Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences voters–there’s no way that it even should have been nominated for Best Picture, let alone won. With the Studio System still going, it was an independent production, albeit one backed by one of the period’s top stars (Burt Lancaster). In the wake of recent top Academy Awards going to colorful panoramas about Americans in Paris and Greatest Shows on Earth or sweeping dramas of the days before Pearl Harbor, it was a simple romance that followed two days in the lives of a lonely Bronx butcher and the plain schoolteacher he meets in a dancehall one Saturday night. Rather than being based on a best-selling novel or a successful Broadway show like its fellow Oscar Night nominees, it was a story that people saw two years earlier thanks to Hollywood’s arch-enemy…no, not Communism, television. What’s more, it had a rookie director, no notable stars, and asked the audience to root for a leading man best known as the guy who killed Frank Sinatra (see the above Pearl Harbor drama).
And yet, in spite of these rather formidable obstacles, 1955’s Marty managed to take home four major awards: Best Screenplay (Paddy Chayefsky), Best Director (Delbert Mann), Best Actor and Best Picture. Actually, when one stops to think about it, it may well have been the film’s simplicity and no-frills look–as well as a career-making star turn by Ernest Borgnine–that helped it, like the title character, defy the odds.
Whatever the reason, Marty has for decades been one of my three all-time favorite movies (Casablanca and the 1939 Hunchback of Notre Dame, thanks for asking). And while I once attempted to show my ongoing fascination with Casablanca by listing 10 quibbles and picayune details I had problems with, I thought this time I’d salute “the little Best Picture that could” with a roll call of 10 small moments or pertinent facts that to me help make Marty so memorable:
1. The Opening Credits — The picture opens on a shot of a busy Bronx street (Arthur Avenue near 187th Street, I’ve been told), and as the credits roll and the jaunty theme song plays over the scene you’re treated to a one-minute commercial for the now-defunct Knickerbocker Beer. Who says product placement is a recent phenomenon? I get thirsty for it now just looking at the picture, and I don’t even like beer.
2. Marty’s Looks of Resignation — Early in the film Marty is seen listening to a customer who–after he describes his kid brother’s recent wedding to her–asks why he isn’t married yet when all of his younger siblings are, a question he’s clearly heard umpteen times before. Later that afternoon he’s pushed into calling up and asking out a girl, only to get the polite “brush-off” that he’s been hearing his entire adult life but still hasn’t managed to become inured to. In each case, Marty’s expression wears that pained and weary look of a person who knows something unpleasant is heading his way. It’s a look that a lot of actors might have trouble with, yet Borgnine (literally) manages to pull it off with his eyes closed.
3. The Arm Pat — It’s the most dramatic scene of the film’s first half: Marty’s mother (the wonderful Esther Minciotti), not wanting her son to stay home on a Saturday night, suggests that he put on his blue suit and go to the Stardust Ballroom, which is–in the words of her nephew–“loaded with tomatoes.” Marty has no interest in any more rejections, and as she pleads to him he jumps up from the dinner table and cries out, “Ma, waddaya want from me!? Whadaya want from me!? I’m miserable enough as it is! All right, so I’ll go to the Stardust Ballroom! I’ll put on the blue suit and I’ll go! And you know what I’m gonna get for my trouble? Heartache! A big night of heartache!” Marty then sits back down to his plate of spaghetti and, just before starting to eat again, he reaches out of gives his mother a reassuring pat on the arm. It’s such a typical Italian-American gesture that says “It’s all right,” “I’m sorry” and “I love you” all at once, and it apparently was Borgnine’s idea.
By the way, at this point I feel I should mention that, thanks to the advent of home video, I was finally able in the early 1980s to see the original 1953 TV version of Marty, with Rod Steiger in the title role. It was indeed a good performance, but when it comes to the above scene Borgnine blows Steiger away with the waves of compounded anguish and frustration he lets loose. And I am grateful that, when producers Burt Lancaster and Harold Hecht approached Steiger about reprising the role on the big screen, he turned them down (apparently because it would have meant signing a long-term contract with their company).
4. Mrs. Gene Kelly — Speaking of the ’53 TV play, the role of Clara, the shy schoolteacher from Brooklyn whose blind date is about to end very badly, was played by Nancy Marchand, who you may remember from her TV turns on Lou Grant and The Sopranos. She was considered for the movie, but another actress who wanted the part and got it was Betsy Blair. Because of her affiliation with left-wing and Marxist groups, however, Blair had been investigated by HUAC and was on Hollywood’s infamous blacklist. But at this time she was also married to Gene Kelly. The star of many an MGM musical went to bat for his wife and, according to some sources, threatened to pull out of his latest project, It’s Always Fair Weather, if Blair wasn’t kept on as Clara. She was, of course, and her very touching performance earned her a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination. The Kelly/Blair marriage, sad to say, would end in divorce two years later.
5. Dancing at the Stardust Ballroom — When Marty and Clara are seen dancing together and swapping stories of rejection, the ballroom band actually starts playing a “slow dance” version of the movie’s theme song. It’s one of those little things that I noticed quite some time ago and always thought was a clever touch. One of the only other times I can recall this use of theme as “local music” (where the characters and the audience both hear it) was a dance scene in the 1939 version of Wuthering Heights.
6. The Irish Ladies in the Bar — When Marty exits the Stardust Ballroom to get a bite to eat with Clara, he leaves behind his best friend Angie (Joe Mantell), who starts wandering the neighborhood looking for Marty. One of the places he stops at is a local bar where two elderly Irish-American women are sharing a tale about an acquaintance who was told by the doctors that she can’t have any more children without endangering her health. It’s “a sad story,” as one as the women says, so why is it so entertaining the way they tell it?
Incidentally, Mantell (who received a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination), Minciotti and Augusta Ciolli, who played Marty’s aunt, were the only three cast members from the 1953 small-screen drama to appear in this film.
7. Seeing The Bronx Nightlife, Circa 1955 — One of the things that makes Marty so intertesting to watch now is the location shooting along the Grand Concourse and other Bronx locales. But this attention to detail also caused some problems for Ernest Borgnine, who was often recognized by the locals as the sadistic Sgt. “Fatso” Jusdon in From Here to Eternity. More than one group of residents didn’t take kindly to the guy that killed Frank Sinatra showing up in their neighborhood, and Borgnine (himself an Italian-American) got several threats before he finally called out to them in fluent Italian and told them that Sinatra and he were paisans. After that it was smooth sailing.
8. Lt. Commander McHale, Meet Sgt. Carter — The first time I saw Marty was as a teen in the mid-1970s, and as such my main recollections of Ernest Borgnine came courtsey of reruns of McHale’s Navy. You can imagine my surprise, then, when I saw that an old-school Navy man like McHale would pal around with a leatherneck, namely one Sgt. Vince Carter. Yes, it’s Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C.’s own Frank Sutton in an unbilled role as Ralph, another of Marty’s friends.
Speaking of TV actors, Law & Order co-star Jerry Orbach made his film debut at 20 as an extra in the ballroom scene. Just thought you’d like to know.
9. “Y’know, the way I figure, a guy oughta marry a girl 20 years younger than he is, so that when he’s 40 she’s still a real pretty doll of 21.” “That means he’d have to marry the girl when she was one year old!” “You know you’re right? I never thought of that!” — Some of the sound philosophy that two more of Marty’s pals, Joe (Robin Morse) and The Kid (Walter Kelley), share with him and Angie while lounging around the Piletti household on Sunday afternoon. The trio tries to talk Marty out of calling up Clara like he told her he would (” Marty, you don’t wanna hang around with dogs,” Joe counsels him. “It gives you a bad reputation.”), and this, combined with his mother’s sudden fear of being alone if Marty should ever marry, threatens to derail his nascent relationship.
10. Movie Fans Owe Thanks to United Artists’ Accountants — Had it not been for changes in tax laws, Marty could have easily wound up on the UA shelf as an unreleased project. The studio was unhappy with other Hecht-Lancaster projects going over budget and threatened to write off the film as a tax loss, but the accounting department said to do so would now require finishing the picture and showing it at least once. Screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky convinced UA to open the film in a New York art house theater in April of 1955, and positive reviews (including a rave from columnist Walter Winchell) were followed by a Cannes Film Festival screening and an awarding of the Palm d’Or. By the time the Academy Awards rolled around the following year, Marty had earned an impressive $3 million box office against a production budget of about $340,000 (its advertising budget actually wound up surpassing the cost of making the movie). Oh, and one of the films that Marty beat for Best Picture in March of 1956 was Parmount’s The Rose Tattoo, which just happened to co-star…Burt Lancaster.
And, finally, I have to mention…
10 1/2. Meeting Marty –As I said earlier, Casablanca, The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Marty are an interchangeable one-two-three in my favorite movie roster. But, while I never got the chance to shake hands with Humphrey Bogart or Charles Laughton, I was fortunate enough to attend a free meet-and-greet with Ernest Borgnine back in 2008 (or was it 2009?) at the QVC TV studios in West Chester, Pa. Borgnine was either 91 or 92 at the time, but looked, sounded and acted about 25 years younger. He was downright gregarious as he welcomed everyone in line, and when I got up to him with my original Marty half-sheet poster I told him how much I enjoyed the film and how, unlike Casablanca and Hunchback, it was the only one of the three where the hero gets the girl at the end. “Hey, how about that?,” he said to me as he signed the poster. “I may not be Bogart, but I’m no Quasimodo, either!” No, Ernie, you were a simple and good-hearted butcher from the Bronx who found love when he least expected to, and it was a sincere pleasure to tell you how much your performance meant to me.