Double Take: Marty (1955)

Paddy Chayefsky's adaptation of Marty may be a period piece, but it's a heck of a piece nonetheless.

Steve Leftridge: I came at Marty a bit backwards. I knew it was an old Best Picture Oscar winner, but I hadn’t seen it before I watched Robert Redford’s Quiz Show in 1994, in which John Turturro throws the game by purposefully missing the question about Marty. My first exposure to Ernest Borgnine was in Super Fuzz in 1980, so I haven’t quite done this in the right order. It’s like when I show The Graduate to teenagers today: when we get to the wedding scene at the end, they always shout, “Hey, Wayne’s World 2!”, an allusion I still don’t understand.

Before I ever saw the film, I had gotten ahold of Paddy Chayefsky’s delightful teleplay. While I was reading it and considering teaching it to today’s youth, I wondered how relevent it would be. It’s a question we revisit from time to time here at Double Take: does this film hold up?

Marty takes us on a visit to a particular neighborhood and era, of course, but can today’s hookup-cultured, social-media-saturated, porn-educated 2 Fast 2 Furious audience relate to this lonely middle-aged butcher from the Bronx whose mother smothers him and whose best friend attempts to keep him from getting his first real girlfriend? Moreover, how well does this film accomplish its efforts to tell this story?

Steve Pick: I knew Marty had been an early television play before it was a film, and since I knew Ernest Borgnine best from TV — McHale’s Navy was on in reruns when I was a tyke — I was expecting things to be a little funnier than they were. But that’s alright; Chayefsky’s script is rock solid, give or take a couple of moments of heavy-handedness, and one feel-good grace note thrown in to avoid the seemingly inevitable sense of tragedy. It’s extremely tense, in the manner of mid-century theater. It’s a very writerly movie; Delbert Mann does an excellent job as director, but this film belongs to Chayefsky (and Borgnine, of course).

I don’t care what year it is, there are always lonely people in this world who want to connect with somebody but who have not been able to do so. Maybe a modern version would have Marty and Clare being frequently rejected on Tinder, but the gist would be the same. It’s been a million years since I had the experience of trying to find a date, but when Marty called up the woman his friend suggested, I got all queasy in my stomach for him. What a terrible burden it is trying to find somebody, and as is shown so beautifully, what an absolute delight it is to actually do it! The specifics of the time and place of this particular story are fascinating, but the actions themselves are at least universal to Western culture.

Leftridge: I think today’s social-media culture makes some of Marty’s central themes even more relatable to contemporary audiences. Since Facebook, Instagram, etc., are so often used to brag about one’s life — vacation photos, awesome meals, attractive groups of friends out having a blast — the pressure Marty feels to do it right seems very of the moment. When the women at the butcher shop hassle him about not being married as his siblings are, he’s constantly being made to feel ashamed and a failure for not being married, and therefore not being a complete man.

The pressure extends to his conversations with his (male) friend Angie. It’s Saturday night, and the two bachelors can think of nothing better to do than go bowling again or stay home and watch Hit Parade on television. Both of those options might be fine, if the men weren’t so acutely aware that other guys their age were off doing cool, romantic things like dancing at the Stardust Ballroom — it’s loaded with tomatoes — and picking up pretty girls. Perhaps the expectations for early marriage have changed, and both men and women see more alternative paths in life than ’50s-era working class families did, but imagine if, rather than just having his mom nag at him, Marty had a thousand tweets and posts a day reminding him that his peers were leading more interesting lives than he was,

Pick: Just as it is today, though, those other people aren’t necessarily having a better time, certainly not the most confident character in the film, Ralph, played by Frank Sutton, who went on to become Sgt. Carter on Gomer Pyle. (In other TV actor news, IMDB tells us that Jerry Orbach is an uncredited extra in the ballroom scenes — now I want to watch it again to see if I can spot him). Ralph doesn’t have any money and is desperate to have sex with fling-ready women, yet has to make the most out of one woman getting really, really drunk and having to leave an apartment all of a sudden. Hit Parade is sounding pretty entertaining compared to that.

Chayefsky apparently fleshed out the sub-plots for the film version of the story, and every one of those additions enriches it. Marty is considering the decision to buy out the butcher shop where he works, and I really enjoyed the way he discussed ways around the incoming supermarket competition. This gives him reasons to talk to his cousin Tommy, the accountant who is miserable living as a young married father with his mother in the house. That story gives us insight into Marty’s mother, who wants her son to be happy. When she invites her sister to move in with her (and Marty), the sister makes her realize how useless an older woman can feel when there is nobody left to take care of at home, thus making her turn against Clara from the start. Still, my favorite addition to the film is the short time we spend with Clara when she returns home from her date with Marty. The story is Marty’s, but seeing Clara tell her parents about her evening adds so much depth to her character, and makes us hurt so much more when he doesn’t call her at 2:30 on Sunday.

Everything Chayefsky writes leads us to believe Marty will never call Clara, and they will each go on being miserable. Though there is a cultural expectation of marriage for all, within the sub-culture of working class Italian-American men Marty is expected to behave differently than he does. My question to you is this: does it ring true when Marty has his last-minute realization that he doesn’t want to be lonely?

Leftridge: Well, much of Marty falls short of ringing true in terms of capturing an authentic verisimilitude, if that’s what you’re asking. I’m not much taken in during this film as far as believing that these characters would actually say these things at the time they say them. I (nearly) forgot I was watching a movie during One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, the last film we discussed here at Double Take. Even though that kind of immersion is rare, Marty strikes me as scripted for efficiency rather than for strict reality. So no, I don’t think that Marty would suddenly leap up at the end and yell at his friends and announce his intentions to beg Clara to marry him. I don’t hear authentic dialogue when Marty first meets Clara at the ballroom (“You see, dogs like us, we ain’t such dogs as we think we are”); I don’t buy the premise that Clara’s date is trying to pay other guys five bucks to take her off his hands nor that Clara would collapse in tears onto the first guy who asks her to dance after she’s humiliated by her blind date.

However, none of that bugs me. I find the film warm enough, Borgnine endearing enough, and the themes resonant enough to trump my concerns over Chayefsky’s tendency to get a bit schmaltzy. I’m a softie in that way. What’s more, and I hate to use a trite term, but the emotional truth in the film does hold up. In other words, Marty’s need for love and connection and dignity are universal, as are his suspicions that he’s a nice enough and smart enough guy to deserve a date for New Year’s Eve. He’s a burly Bronx butcher who cries a lot. He admires his father’s kindness and treatment of his mother, despite the fact that his father wasn’t a handsome man. He fights his meddling mother, the malaise of mundane routines, and the jealous misery-loves-company manipulations of his single friends. So, yeah, there’s emotional truth to Marty. I’m assuming the ending bothered you, or you wouldn’t have asked…

Pick: It’s a rare thing for me to root for a character as hard as I root for Marty in this movie. Normally, I’m more or less resigned to tragedy, and feel all the catharsis that form provides without actually getting choked up about the final fate of the individuals involved. But, dangit, Borgnine is so engaging in this role that I was feeling a bigger and bigger pit in my stomach as it becomes more and more likely he’s going to stick with those knuckleheads rather than go out with somebody so obviously perfectly attuned to him. And it didn’t help that we saw how much Clara was looking forward to the call. Oh, I was ready to curl up and die with frustration, but I was believing it. Marty was just capable of absorbing the jealousy and misogyny of his friends, and that seemed like an inevitable ending. Then it wasn’t, and instead, Marty had absorbed the insensitive comments of his customers, ready to shame his friend for not being married as he so obviously would now be in the near future. I felt a strange combination of emotional satisfaction and artistic legerdemain.

Now, I agree that some of Chayefsky’s dialogue works better on the printed page, though Borgnine sells the hell out of that line about “dogs like us”. I was actually more annoyed at the on-the-nose way Marty talked about moving out of his mother’s house just after her sister said he would soon say those very things. Even when things were a little less than subtle, though, the gist of what was happening was believable all the way through, and the way every character was living his or her own life, only intersecting with the others at key points, was really well done. I was in the world that Marty, his friends, and his family inhabited. Chayefsky and Mann are squarely in a pattern common to much ’50s fiction, a realistic storytelling mode with obvious symbols to reflect the position of the individual inside a larger cultural role. This was something I absorbed unconsciously growing up in the ’60s and ’70s, probably because I saw a lot of ’50s movies on TV, and because some of that fiction started getting into classes in school. So naturally, I think, I was groomed to be absorbed by this story even if I wasn’t the type of guy who took way too long to figure out how to talk to women.

Do you think our age difference sets us up to view this film differently?

Leftridge: That’s an interesting question, one that I suppose we could ask about any film. I haven’t thought about that too much with regard to the other films we’ve covered, some of which were released when we were both alive but at different ages. I suspect that we might be talking about nostalgia to some degree here. I know that I get a special feeling for late ’70s and early ’80s films, even those that aren’t very good, because I was a kid then and subsequently have a romantic sentimentality for the cultural vibe those films radiate.

On the other hand, I didn’t mean to reveal any kind of hardened cynicism with regard to the dialogue or the happy ending or the fact that Clara’s parents sleep in separate twin beds in the same room. I loved Marty; I think the dialogue is stage-y but terrific, that Borgnine’s performance is first-rate (and I really like Joe Mantell as Angie), and I rooted for Marty with the same gut-squeezing emotion that you did. And I’m not entirely sure I fully accept your premise that this kind of storytelling is especially ‘55ish or that it ever died out really. We’ll have to explore this topic further somewhere in the next 485 films we cover.

But since you bring up generational shifts, let me ask you one more thing about Marty. This film is, in large part, about mothers. What did you learn from Chaysefky’s depiction of mothers in this film, and do these roles feel outdated to you?

Pick: Well, for one thing, as I’m 56, it was hard to accept Marty’s aunt complaining about being ancient and used up at 56. And presumably Marty’s mother is a couple years younger than that. Ridiculous, but I assumed it might have had something to do with the particular culture of Italian-Americans in New York in the ’50s.

I think Chayefsky makes us feel sorry for mothers in this film. Tommy’s wife is a new mother, and she is trying hard to establish herself in this role, but can’t as long as she is competing with another mother. This, along with the conversations between Aunt Catherine and Marty’s mom, indicates that for this time and place, women were expected in many ways to mother their husbands as well as their children. The role Catherine has lost, and which she convinces Marty’s mother to fear losing, is that of taking care of someone. I’m sure that in some circles in America today, there are still women stuck in this particular role, but from our modern perspective, this does seem long past. Perhaps that, more than any example of dating or hook-up methods, may make Marty something of a period piece. If so, it’s still one heck of a piece.