On June 3rd I presented the film MARTY at the beautiful Museum of Russian Icons. This is an abridged version of that presentation which was made all the more richer by the insights, comments and questions of the audience members in our discussion that followed the film.
“Whaddya feel like doin’ tonight?” “I dunno, Angie. Whaddya feel like doin?”
These lines could only be from one film, Marty (1955). The story of 34-year-old Marty Piletti (Ernest Borgnine) a lonely butcher who lives with his widowed mother (Esther Minciotti) in the Bronx.
There’ve been many films about lonely people trying to find someone to marry. Why has this film’s emotional power lasted for over 60 years? There are no big name actors; no fancy camera work; no epic musical score. It’s just a Saturday night and Marty and his friend, Angie, are trying to figure out “Whaddya feel like doin?”
Maybe it’s because it illustrates with simple, heartfelt, humanity the words of the gospel according to Mark 6:4 “A prophet is not without honor except in his native place and among his own kin and in his own house.” For if you change the prophet’s occupation from carpenter to butcher, make his native place the Bronx; the kin, his extended family and friends; and the house personified by his widowed mother, you’ve got the words of St. Mark set in a working-class Italian-American neighborhood in the 1950s. You’ve got Marty. A Bronx prophet who lives by the words of Luke 6:31 “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”
But, after years of rejection on the dating scene, Marty, who everyone agrees is a nice guy, has given up on himself, believing he’s too fat and ugly for any woman to love. His mother encourages him to the point of harassment, “You gonna die without a son!” to go to the Stardust Ballroom and try just one more to meet someone. And, under the man-made glow of the mirrored dance ball, Marty does meet someone. He meets Clara (Betsy Blair), a shy school teacher from Brooklyn who’s as lonely as he is.
The saying goes: love is blind, but isn’t just the opposite true? Doesn’t love help us to see clearly, beyond appearances and circumstances, right to the heart and soul of another? Marty and Clara see each other for the wonderful gifts they truly are.
But then native place, kin and house weigh in. A Bronx buddy meets Marty with a car full of women: “These squirrels are nurses. Money in the bank, man” and asks Marty if he wants to join them. Angie ignores Clara all together and wants Marty to come with him as: “There’s still plenty action around.” His mother asks Clara a trick question: “You don’t think my sister Caterina should live in her daughter-in-law’s house?”
But Marty remains faithful to himself and to Clara throughout the night.
He happily awakens Sunday morning, knowing he has plans to see Clara that evening. He holds his cousin’s baby, symbolizing the new life Marty feels he’s starting for himself. But, native place, kin and house don’t let up and Marty, without Clara by his side, falters.
Borgnine portrayed Marty with a physicality that revealed more about the man than words ever could. I defy anyone to watch his performance and not get a lump in their throat. At the Stardust Ballroom, he awkwardly practices a few steps before asking a woman to dance; or the hug that follows the small, tentative kiss between he and Clara. His hug is like that of a drowning man who’s just been thrown a life preserver. And, as if in prayer, Marty closes his eyes 3 times in the film, sending up a silent, simple, desperate, “Help me.” Once, when he’s rejected by a girl he’s called; again when Clara tells him she likes him and lastly when he’s back where he began, miserable and lonely with the guys, wondering: “Whaddya feel like doin’ tonight?”
Mark’s gospel continues “…And their lack of faith made it impossible for him to perform any miracles.”
But, that third time, when Marty opens his eyes, he sees his world clearly. “What am I hangin’ around with you guys for!? …I had a good time last night. I’m gonna have a good time tonight. If we have enough good times together,…I’m gonna beg that girl to marry me!” Marty rushes to the pay phone, closes the door on his past “Excuse me, Angie” and greets his future “Hello, Clara.”
And a miracle has been performed, one that with a little faith we can all experience: Love.
Please join me on July 15, at 1:30pm at the Museum of Russian Icons for the 3rd film in my Popcorn Sermons series. It’s a classic film noir with rapid fire dialogue, dames in black, and mugs with guns. It’s also the story of Cain and Abel, recast as brothers Joe (John Garfield) and Leo (Thomas Gomez) Morse caught up in the FORCE OF EVIL.