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MARTY: An Appreciation

by John D. Thompson

May 14, 1999

The irony of 'Marty' is that it almost didn't get made. Burt Lancaster, one of the producers, had to pressure United Artists to ante up their share of the proposed budget (a miniscule $250,000, although it went over by about $100,000). The studio didn't see it as a commercial venture, given the supposedly unattractive main characters. Were they ever proven wrong!

The low budget doesn't really show. The producers hired top cinematographer Joe LaShelle, who photographed 'Laura', and Roy Webb, Music Director at R-K-O. The night street scenes were filmed on location in the Bronx, a time-consuming and expensive process, but which added tremendously to the atmosphere of the movie. It fact, watching 'Marty" today is to feel a sad nostalgia for the New York of the mid-1950s. It was shot in a neighborhood of quality stores and movie theatres; I wonder what it looks like today?

Again, as most readers will know, 'Marty' was based on the live TV program originally broadcast on Philco Playhouse on May 24, 1953. Rod Steiger and Nancy Marchand played the leads. I saw the presentation about 15 years ago; it was, fortunately, recorded on film. I don't remember much about it, but if the TV production is available on video, it would be interesting to compare the two. By the way, Esther Minciotti and Augusta Ciolli, from the TV show, reprised their roles in the movie, as did Joe Mantell. 

The main change change in the script was making Marty Italian rather than Jewish. The rather limp reason put forward for doing so was that there were more Italian than Jewish movie goers in the U.S.   Whatever the reason, it weakened the story to a degree. I seem to recall that the Nancy Marchand character was not Jewish, which presented Steiger with the dilemma of an interfaith romance. This was a more compelling, if still wrong, reason for his mother's opposition to Clara, rather than the simple fact that she was "not Italian".

The other strength of the TV program was that Nancy Marchand, with all due respect to the lady, definitely was a somewhat plain woman; whereas Betsy Blair, although not dressed or groomed stylishly, was as pretty as a picture. Thus, when Ernest Borgnine and his cretinous buddies continually refer to her as a "dog" , one wonders if they collectively need glasses! My guess is that the producers were already so terrified of losing their investment that they were afraid to have the female lead appear as a plain, unattractive woman. 

It would be interesting to learn how Betsy Blair came to be cast as Clara, and what other actresses were considered for the part. Up to that time, she had been a relatively little-known supporting actress in movies, and had also done quite a bit of TV work. Unfortunately, her success in 'Marty' did not lead to other good roles in Hollywood. However, Betsy Blair did have her chance at the brass ring, and caught it. A fine performance in a good role, and an Academy Award nomination, are more than most actresses ever achieve.

I wonder if 'Marty' would work as well today, if remade. After all, men and women still go to dance halls to try and meet. However, people, or at least the way they're portrayed in movies, are more hard edged, more cynical and less trusting. In particular, I wonder if audiences would accept a character such as Clara, innocent and shy, in these fast-paced and sex-driven times.

Perhaps it's better to leave Marty and Clara back in the past, as two decent and likeable people who are lucky enough to get the chance at happiness that they deserve.

© 1999 John Thompson

(Send your comments on this article to the author, John Thompson, at Thanks.)

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