In director Delbert Mann’s 1955 drama Marty, the title character (played by Ernest Borgnine) is an overweight 34 year-old Bronx butcher, unpopular with women, who lives with his mother. One night at the Stardust Ballroom, he meets plain, shy schoolteacher Clara (Betsy Blair), and hits it off with her. The budding relationship faces opposition from his mother (who is afraid of living alone) and his peers (who consider Clara a “dog”). It’s up to Marty to resist the social pressure and follow his heart.
Marty is a modest, intimate film that wound up a box-office hit and Best Picture winner. Dramas like this need strong performances to carry them through, and Borgnine anchors it all with his star turn as the romantic underdog, facing choices in love, employment, and family life. Paddy Chayefsky’s script (based on his earlier teleplay) fleshes out this character study of a lonely man dealing with middle-class problems (his aunt moving in, his boss offering to sell the butcher shop to him), and his relations with friends and family–making this story of more universal interest, appealing to more viewers than just men who have troubles with women. There are no villains in Marty, just flawed people (Marty’s crude friends, his mother who dislikes Clara because “she’s not Italian”) so everyone gets a fair shot at impressing their individuality and humanity upon the viewer.
The central romance is handled quite believably, not glamorized, just coming across as a logical extension of the two individual characters. Marty is afraid of being hurt as he has in the past, but finds himself easily opening up to Clara, who is pleasantly surprised at finding a man who isn’t turned off by a shy schoolteacher, and they wind up having a wonderful time together. (They have a better time of it than Marty’s cousin and his wife, a more conventionally attractive couple who fight all the time.) Of course, it’s debatable whether in real life anyone ever lands a soulmate this quickly, but the relationship and the obstacles it faces still come off as more realistic than is typical for Hollywood.
The realism continues in Marty’s relationship with his friends. They don’t lead lives of adventure—they find themselves confronted with boredom and indecision, hence the lines that have infiltrated pop culture: “Whaddya feel like doin’ tonight, Marty?” “I dunno, what do you feel like doin’ tonight?” Friends can hinder your dreams as well as encourage them; the theme of following one’s own way despite peer pressure is one many viewers can relate to. Marty’s family drama, involving finding a happy place to live for aging relations, as well as his mother’s disparagement of Clara, again gives us relatable problems rather than high adventure and intrigue. (The Italian accents of the older women do seem a tad exaggerated, if not in Chico Marx-land.)
A quiet but involving film, Marty is one of the highlights of 1950s cinema, with unforgettable characters and a subtly handled rise-of-the-underdog plot that earns its happy ending with little inauthenticity.
James Garfield, a graduate of Claremont College’s Master of Arts in Flim Studies, serves Perelandra College as an administrator.