Thursday, March 26, 2009

This Month on TCM: "Marty" (1955)

On March 31st, TCM is showing Best Picture winner Marty-- the Little Miss Sunshine of 1955. With Marty, Oscar-winning trio Paddy Chayefsky, Delbert Mann, and Ernest Borgnine offered up an uplifting piece of cinema that is forever relevant.

"I'm just a fat, little man. A fat, ugly man," blurts Marty to his mother in a desparate admission of his lifelong dating frustrations. But Marty is ever hopeful. He gets it from the ladies at the butcher shop, gets it from his mother... but he has his friends, he has his work, and life isn't so bad.

In bringing Chayefsky's "kitchen sink" drama from the Golden Age of Television to the silver screen, little is lost of the intimacy by director Delbert Mann (who also did the TV version). Perhaps the only difference is in Borgnine's performance. But maybe this more overt approach over original lead Rod Steiger's internalizations, was necessary for the big screen-- could Steiger have pulled off the joie de vive that Borgnine delivers at the bus stop (after his first meeting with Clara) with such aplomb?

The film starts off with Marty getting lectured about why he isn't married now that his younger brother has just tied the knot. There is no hint of rumors of homosexuality (that would be in today's Marty), but something has got to be wrong-- at the very least isn't he ashamed, everyone wonders? Marty has bigger issues on his mind-- like buying out the butcher shop he works at; but his nagging loneliness hangs over him.

Marty's mother, played by Esther Minciotti, gets word that Marty could get a date by going to local singles scene, the Stardust Ballroom. Although Marty says he's been there many times before, he goes this Saturday night to please his mother (or to get far away from her nagging, perhaps). There he meets "dog" Clara, a schoolteacher who's an over-the-hill 29! They talk and talk, but the film never lags. Borginine's Marty has charm. The film convinces us that he's a "catch." And Betsy Blair's Clara, although painfully shy, seems to agree. Clara calls Marty a "nice guy"-- as much the kiss of death today as it was then. Marty starts to have doubts about Clara, mostly based on how others perceive her.

In an interesting subplot, Marty's cousin Tommy (Jerry Paris) and his wife Virginia (Karen Steele) are having marital troubles due to living with Tommy's mother ("Aunt Catherine," played by Augusta Ciolli). Tommy at one point lecutures Marty. Why should Marty want to get married? He's free from the responsiblity-- why spoil it? Is geting married-- chancing marrying the wrong person, worth the trouble? It might seem to leave a smudge on Marty's rose-colored glasses, but instead it suggests that Marty, who took so long to find his match, may have been luckier than some who perhaps rushed into marriage. And yet, it also shows that everything doesn't end up as one would expect in relationships. This was a necessary shade of gray for Marty's storyline, keeping the potential treckliness of the material as a whole at bay.

And so it goes. The film meets an inevitable conclusion and there are no groundbreaking cinematic moments, but the drama is solid, and the characters are real.

Marty was one of the defining films of the 1950s-- even internationally, as it won the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival. It's a "slight" film, without a grandious sweep, an unusual winner for the Best Picture Oscar, and surely the first major success by an independent film.

Marty (1955): An eternally relatable film, done on an appropriately modest scale, which may not be the height of all that cinema has to offer, but an example of what is dramatically possible.

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