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DVD Review: Marty (1953)

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I recently purchased The Criterion Collection’s The Golden Age Of Television DVD set. It features eight of the classic live teleplays from the 1950s, which were labeled that title during a 1981 PBS rebroadcast of the best of the bunch, those dramas that stuck in the cultural memory over time. The reality was that live television drama was almost akin to what silent films were to film history: a unique early period where a now lost art form seems almost untouchable, or unrecreatable, for it was both unique yet accessible to later art forms in its medium. To think that live drama blended with television camera, in a sort of theater meets film experience, for One Night Only!

The era was a great proving ground for actors and actresses who would go on to later make their marks in television and film, as well as directors such as John Frankenheimer. But, in reality, the live teleplays were the medium of the writer, first and foremost, and names like Paddy Chayefsky, Rod Serling, and Horton Foote, amongst many others, put their names on the cultural map through this medium. Looking about at the shallow, simplistic offerings both television and film churn out, one wonders why, with all its funding and public ‘trust,’ PBS does not resurrect this art form, in a show akin to Masterpiece Theater, but done live, say every Sunday night. Even if just 12 or 15 new 60-90 minute dramas could emerge, supplemented with adaptations of classic teleplays and stage plays, what a boost it would be to young writers around the country. Granted, with public funding, PBS dramas might turn out to be far more preachy and PC than their Golden Age counterparts, but this is where returning to the past could also help. Almost all of the Golden Age dramas had one or two major sponsors, like The Philco-Goodyear Television Playhouse, the program that, on May 24th, 1953, brought the touching yet emotionally gritty drama Marty to screen. By having some large corporations directly sponsor the arts on television, they could do much to reduce the damage the last few years have wrought, and one could even rotate the sponsors for each play, and merely have PBS broadcast them, while keeping their claws off the actual art. Imagine a rotating play series, with individual episodes brought to you by CitiGroup, British Petroleum, Walmart, General Motors, etc. Not that it would mitigate the damage they have done, but it would be a token first step.

Now, on to the airing of Marty. Most people know the film version of this tale, from 1955, and starring Ernest Borgnine. It’s been years since I saw the film, and it was a good, solid, enjoyable film- one that did win both an Oscar and Palm D’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. But the teleplay is better, significantly so- it is less narratively padded, and with one major difference, Rod Steiger plays Marty, not Borgnine. And this makes all the difference. While Borgnine did win an Academy Award for his film portrayal, his Marty was a sweet, lovable loser of a lug. Steiger’s Marty is pathological, gentle, filled with rage and defeat. His Marty seethes with life in every scene, even those where he’s bored. Borgnine, by contrast, is passable. Rarely can one see two actors essay the same character with such stark difference, and that difference, basically, devolves down to one simple fact. Borgnine was a good character actor. Steiger was a great actor and leading man.

The tale is simple, and sketched well in bare bones scenes. We meet 36 year old Marty Pilletti, who works in a butcher shop (remember those?), and lives with his mother (Esther Minciotti). Friends, neighbors, and family all torment him by asking him when he’s planning to get married. He is one of six children, all of whom are now married (his brother got hitched the prior Sunday), and he is lonely, prone to hanging with his similarly aged bachelor pals. He seems resigned to living a life of loneliness, and never reproducing because he’s a ‘fat, ugly little man.’ His aunt Catherine (Augusta Ciolli) is also moving in, because his cousin and his wife need their privacy, and the play does a nice job of balancing out Marty’s loneliness with his 56 year old widowed aunt’s feelings of uselessness.

Since it’s a Saturday night, and to mollify his mother, he heeds his cousin’s advice, and heads toward a dance hall (remember those?). While there, he asks a cute girl to dance, and is rejected. Then he is approached by another guy, who has met a gal he likes, but needs to dump the blind date he was set up with off on another guy. He offers Marty $5 to take ‘the dog’ off his hands, by pretending to be an old war buddy. Marty refuses, and is offended. The other guy then talks up a third fellow to do the deed. Marty watches this go down, but the third fellow is either rejected by ‘the dog,’ or rejects her, then keeps the $5, as the guy who wanted to dump ‘the dog’ demands it back. Marty then sees her step out on to a fire escape and he goes and asks her to dance. Her name is Clara (Nancy Marchand, who later starred in Lou Grant and The Sopranos), and she is a 29-year-old school teacher. They talk, and afterwards head back to his home, where his mother is out, having left to go talk her sister into moving in with her and Marty. The two exchange pleasantries, and Marty attempts to kiss Clara, who refuses. This sends Marty into a spiral, and Clara admits she wants to see him again, claiming he’s the nicest man she ever met. He says he will call her to go to the movies tomorrow night.

Marty’s mother returns, chats briefly with both of them, and the next day Catherine move sin, warning her sister that if Marty hits it off with Clara, she will be brushed off, just as she feels her son has brushed her off on her and Marty. Marty accidentally reinforces this notion by noticing how their old home is falling apart. After going to church, Marty’s mother, sensing her sister may be right, tries to dissuade Marty from seeing Clara again. Then, we see Marty’s pals hanging out at the local bar, and ragging about ‘the dog’ that Marty left the dance with. He heads to the payphone to call Clara, but the guys talk him out of it, then lay bare their dreary plans to just hang out. Marty finally wises up, calls Clara, and he taunts his friend Angie (Joe Mantell, who earlier he had drearily talked of his plans with, gone to the dance hall with, and was now getting ragged on by) by asking when he’s going to get married. When Clara answers he closes the telephone booth door to his past and all argument.

The DVD is the first one in the three-disk set, and is a black and white kinescope (16 mm film recording off a television monitor) of the original broadcast, shown in a 1.33:1 aspect ratio, that runs for 53 minutes. There are several scenes where major video and audio problems exist, and the overall quality is very much like that of the earliest silent films. There are only two extra features for this play. The first is the 1981 PBS Introduction from Eva Marie Saint, and the other is an audio commentary by director Delbert Mann, who directed both versions of Marty. Mann is very thorough, and seems to have excellent recall. His discussion of the differences between the two versions of Marty is quite illustrative of the different demands and rewards of each medium.  He details how the play’s original title, Love Story, was replaced

Aside from Steiger, all the rest of the acting is quite good, especially Marchand, who not only looks, but acts, the part of the wallflower. There is a scene, where Steiger is on the telephone at the bar, calling out this gal he had met a month or so earlier, at Angie’s behest, only to be rejected. We only hear Marty’s end of the conversation, but it strongly reminded me of a similar scene in Martin Scorse’s film, Taxi Driver, made almost a quarter century later, wherein Travis Bickle, played by Robert De Niro, is similarly rejected over the phone by a woman he went out with. In that scene, Scorsese’s camera turns away from his main character, and we only hear the rejection, as the camera looks down the filthy, empty hallway of a tenement. Scorsese claimed it was just to painful to have the lens focus on Bickle. One has to believe this so, and wonder how much this scene in Marty influenced Scorsese, for Mann’s camera remains relentlessly focused on Steiger, and it is almost excruciating to watch Steiger’s lonely and desperate Marty deal with being rejected, and rejected with a lie.

And, of course, this was one of Paddy Chayefsky’s golden moments- a brilliant script made of the simplest idea. In watching this teleplay, one is sucked in to the moment, by the little things that ring true. That these were done live, warts and errors and all, only makes how well the television version of Marty was made that more impressive. It’s a great piece of television, television history, and art, for it takes the little pains that accumulate by the thousands, over a lifetime, and shows how devastating they can be; to the point of equaling a gunshot wound or worse. Marty is one of those rarities in the film and television medium: a ‘must see,’ especially if one appreciates those things only great art can do and bring.

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