Hello, everybody. Your classic movie guys, Joe Morella and Frank Segers, here today to introduce our friend and guest blogger Lewis Barton, who has some things of interest to say about how Marty relates to Italian-American family life in the Fifties.
As we pointed out in our yesterday’s blog about television’s “golden age” of the 1950s, Marty is based on the Paddy Cheyefsky teleplay about a Bronx butcher, who finds love with a plane-Jane schoolteacher. In the movie version, Ernest Borgine (above) was Marty and Betsy Blair portrayed the teacher.
The picture is many things: a touching human drama, a first-class vehicle for a superb cast of actors (directed by Delbert Mann) and, most important, a powerful love story. At 1956’s Academy Award ceremonies, the picture won six Oscars including a Best Picture citation and a best-actor nod for Borgnine.
Lew knows a bit about the character of Marty and his family setting since he is of Italian-American heritage (his surname was Anglicized), grew up in New York City, and spent his life as a successful entrepreneur-turned-tyro-novelist (his latest manuscript, The Iceman, tracks the upward rise in America of a wily Italian immigrant). He and we have a special reverence for Marty, one of our all-time favorite movies.
So, here’s Lew:
Paddy Chayefsky was raised in the Bronx and when he wrote Marty in the “”slice of life” style, he used his experience of life in the Bronx as a platform for the story. He shot the film on location, in the streets of the Bronx and the realism of the production pours out of the celluloid all over the audience like sweat off a pig.
Marty is the quintessential Bronx Italian-American young man, except in his case he didn’t marry young, which was the exception in that community. He was a conflicted fellow, single and living home with his widowed mother (portrayed by Esther Minciotti) who spent her time and expressed her love in taking care of her son, yet she constantly goaded him about finding a nice young woman to marry.
Marty was not comfortable around girls, and had suffered rejection many times making him even more reluctant to put himself in the position of more rejection. On the other hand he was tired of the loneliness of his life, and frustrated enough to the point of finally visiting the Starlight Ballroom one night in hopes of finding a nice girl to dance with.
After being rejected he finally sees a girl who, herself, was rejected and they make a pair. They dance and laugh and have a good time and Marty brings Clara home to get some cigarettes on the way to taking her home…that’s where she meets mama!
Be careful what you wish for… Mama sees her future in this plain young woman. Worse than that, her bitchy widowed sister (Augusta Ciolli) tells her what to expect. Her son will marry and leave her and her daughter-in-law will not give her the attention, love, respect and honor she deserves. She will have nothing! She will have no one to cook for or to keep house for and she will live a life of a lonely old woman.
Interesting to note, this being 1955, these two “old ladies” are in their mid-fifties. Today they would be club hopping and not sitting around knitting and waiting for grandchildren. Also typical of productions of this era there are no nuances here; everything is delivered with the subtlety of a jackhammer.
Being an Italo-American I recognize many of these characters. They could have been plucked from the Sunday dining room table at my nonna’s. They are my aunts, uncles and cousins.
The next morning, after she meets Clara, mama decides she has no choice except to attempt to subvert this attempt to disrupt her life. She reaches into her arsenal and launches the powerful weapon, the “Is she an Italian girl? She doesn’t look like an Italian girl,” torpedo. It hits its target and the ship starts listing. Marty doesn’t call Clara at 3:00 as he promised he would.
Then his friends begin attacking with the “isn’t life as a single guy great” bombshells and the ship is going down fast. But, suddenly, the sun breaks through the clouds and Marty sees the future for what it is and what it should be. He calls Clara.
Now, the only piece of subtlety in the entire production. Marty calls Clara at 8:00. How do we know it’s 8:00? No simple clock on a wall here. It’s 1955 and the most popular TV show is Ed Sullivan. Clara is home watching Sullivan, weeping silently, when the phone rings and she answers it. Everybody knows what time it is. Sullivan was on.
Marty says, “Hello…Clara…”