Ernest Borgnine and Betsy Blair in Marty (1955)


(director: Delbert Mann; screenwriter: Paddy Chayefsky/based on Mr. Chayefsky’s play; cinematographer: Joseph La Shelle; editor: Alan Crosland Jr.; music: Roy Webb; cast: Ernest Borgnine (Marty Piletti), Betsy Blair (Clara Snyder), Frank Sutton (Ralph), Esther Minciotti (Widowed Ma, Theresa Piletti), Karen Steele (Virginia), Jerry Paris (Cousin Tommy), Augusta Ciolli (Aunt Catherine), Joe Mantell (Angie), Alan Wells (Jerry), Marvin Bryan (Herbie); Runtime: 91; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Harold Hecht; United Artists; 1955)
“A solidly crafted work that still pleases.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

This is the first of the filmed teleplays that started a trend in the mid-1950s because they were cheap to produce and the material was of a high quality. The independent production company of Harold Hecht and Burt Lancaster brought the sentimental tale of a lonely and good-hearted 34-year-old Bronx bachelor butcher who suffers because he is too unattractive to find a wife and finds at a Saturday night dance a plain jane he connects with. Its virtue was in the crisp dialogue that was natural and the heart-warming tale that found an audience all over the world. Delbert Mann also directed the 1953 “Philco-Goodyear Playhouse” television version. Rod Steiger played the role of Marty on the successful live TV production, but turned down the chance to do the movie because he didn’t want to sign a long term contract with the studio. This gave Ernest Borgnine his big break to be cast outside of villain roles in westerns and the film’s surprising success propelled him into future starring roles. Marty won four Oscars: Best Film. Borgnine as Best Actor. Delbert Mann for Best Director. Paddy Chayefsky, the author of the teleplay the film is based on, for Best Screenplay. It even won the Golden Palm at the Cannes Film Festival, something that just doesn’t ordinarily happen for an Oscar winner. Betsy Blair who plays the role of the ugly duckling was married to Gene Kelly at the time, and though she was portrayed as being ugly on the contrary she wasn’t a bad looker (it would have been interesting if they really cast an ugly co-star). It is ironical that this intelligent and compassionate human interest drama was made at a time period, known as the golden age of television, when there were fewer college grads than today, yet today it’s rare that such a subtle and straight-forward well-written tale about relationships is ever made. If made, it’s usually dumbed down for a teen audience.

The film covers a 36 hour time period from Saturday afternoon until early Sunday evening in the life of Marty. In that short time frame such a complete and compelling picture of him is painted, that we feel like we know him so well. Credit must go to the fine script and the pleasing performance, and the universality of the story.

Marty Piletti is a heavyset man, who lives in a West Farms private house with his widowed old-fashioned Italian mother Theresa Piletti. He’s the oldest of six children, but everyone married and moved out and the last of them, his kid brother, just got married a week ago. Marty is told by his well-intentioned but harsh sounding lady customers, that it’s about time he got married. After work he meets in the local cafe where his bachelor friends hang out and plans for Saturday night, the big night of the week to do social things. His best friend Angie asks: “What do you feel like doing tonight?” Marty responds “I don’t know, Ange. What do you feel like doing?” These became the most famous lines in the film and set the mood for how desperate, lonely and unhappy were these not married friends. When Marty returns home after his mother calls at the cafe to tell him his cousin Tommy and his wife Virginia have come over, and want to talk about something important. Tommy has already received permission to relocate his argumentative mother, Catherine, to move out of his small apartment and to live in the spacious house with Theresa and Marty, in order to satisfy his wife who can’t stand the old hag and wants to raise her baby without her interference. Catherine, who is Theresa’s 56-year-old sister, upsets Virginia with her nagging and despotic ways. Marty is agreeable to the move, as his nature is to try and please others. Marty looks forward to talking with Tommy about something pressing. But Tommy, who is Marty’s accountant, is too busy to answer his question about buying the business from his boss, who plans to retire. When alone mom, who learned from Tommy that the Stardust Ballroom on 72nd Street is good place to meet plenty of tomatoes, urges him to go there and meet a nice Italian Catholic girl, rather than sit home and watch the Hit Parade. Marty blows off steam as he’s hurt enough by his failure to meet a wife, and tells his nagging mom he can’t take being hurt any more–that he was just rejected by a girl he called up whom he doesn’t even like. But he agrees to put on his best blue suit and go with Angie to the dance to please his mom, even though he doesn’t believe anything good will happen.

At the dance, Marty receives further humiliation when a girl refuses to dance with him. Standing around as a wallflower he’s approached by a smooth operator named Herbie that he’ll get $5 for transportation money to escort his blind date home, if he pretends he’s an old army buddy and takes over the date with this dog he’s stuck with so he can chase after this other girl. Marty refuses, and sadly watches as Herbie gets another to replace him. But the girl, Clara Snyder, rejects this substitute and starts to cry. Marty is moved by this and asks her to dance. He discovers she’s a 29-year-old spinster chemistry high school teacher, who lives with her parents and is equally as lonely. The two hit it off, and Marty feels exuberant for the first time when out with a girl and talks his head off. During the course of the evening Marty introduces her to his mother, Angie and his womanizing loser friend Ralph, and no one likes her. Mother has been brainwashed by Catherine that if Marty marries, she’ll be left alone and miserable, and changes her tune about pushing Marty to marry. She also complains that Clara’s plain looking and not Italian. Angie is upset that he’ll lose his best friend, and Marty who really liked Clara and took her home making tentative plans for a Sunday night movie, now has second thoughts after all those negative comments from his inner circle.

Marty was supposed to call Clara after Sunday Mass in the afternoon, but instead goes out with the boys. But when he hears the same conversation of what shall we do, he defiantly leaves his crew and calls Clara. She’s watching the Ed Sullivan show with her parents, and the film ends as they start talking.

The film doesn’t seem to be dated in its wise perceptions about looking beyond appearances in a relationship, the travails over peer pressure, being a mama’s boy and romance being the only solution for finding happiness for the conventional types. It also remains full of charm, and its characters have true qualities of endearment. Perhaps overrated as one of the great classics but, nevertheless, a solidly crafted work that still pleases. I especially was amused by Borgnine’s ‘it’s not so bad to be a dog speech to Blair.’ But the best line was said by Aunt Catherine and repeated by Marty’s mom: “These college girls are one step from the street.” There was also the cheesy line to dis Mickey Spillane as only appealing to loser macho men: as one of Marty’s friends comments: “This Mickey Spillane, he sure could write.” Well, this Paddy Chayefsky sure can lay it on thick about being lonely and single and making the dating scene, but he has their number from that time frame and the nostalgic location shots featuring those old movie theaters, like the RKO Chester, were fun to see again.