The 1950s are often derided by people who weren’t alive at the time. According to contemporary enlightened social pundits, the decade was characterized by patriarchy, the corporation man, conformity, suppression of minorities and women, suburban sprawl necessitated by gas-guzzling automobiles with gaudy tail fins, and all sorts of things that are considered icky-poo today.
As time passes, fewer and fewer people who walked the earth during the 1950s are around to comment on that decade, for better or worse, but we do have cultural artifacts which testify to the temper of the times. One such artifact is Marty, a mid-decade (made in 1954, released in 1955) movie greatly honored in its day.
In an era noted for widescreen Technicolor extravaganzas, Marty definitely went against the grain. It was shot in black and white on location in the Bronx and featured characters who were anything but glamorous. Nominated for seven Oscars, it won awards for Best Picture, Best Actor (Ernest Borgnine in the title role), Best Director (Delbert Mann), and Adapted Script (Paddy Chayefsky). For good measure it won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, and a copy of the film has been placed in the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress. So its establishment bona fides are impressive.
As often happens with timely films, however, Marty seems dated today. Yet its portrayal of the manosphere of its time is not without relevance for contemporary men.
The biggest long-term beneficiary of the film’s success was stumpy Ernest Borgnine, who proved his acting range went far beyond the thuggish supporting roles he had played to that point in his career. The real force behind the film, however, was screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky. While he won an Oscar for best adapted screenplay, the original source was his Philco Television Playhouse teleplay (which featured Rod Steiger in the title role), which was produced in 1953. So Marty is definitely Chayefsky’s baby. Like Marty, Chayefsky was Bronx-born (in 1923), stocky, and burly, so we might surmise that Marty is something of an alter ego.
Chayefsky tells us all we need to know about Marty in the opening scene in a Bronx butcher shop. Being a squat, ugly guy working in the Bronx in the 1950s worked for Yogi Berra, but it’s not going so well for Marty.
We immediately know what Marty looks like (a face only a mother could love atop a beer keg of a body) and what he does for a living (he’s a butcher). Minutes later, after listening to him chat with his customers, we know all about his personal life. While he brings a regular customer up to date on the status of his brothers and sisters (all now married), the woman berates him, saying “What’s the matter with you?” The very next customer says, “You ought to be ashamed of yourself.” You see, being a law-abiding guy earning an honest living isn’t enough to make you respectable. Marty, if you ain’t married, you ain’t shit.
After work, Marty returns to the modest home where he still lives with his mother, even though he is 34 years old. Unlike today, there was less of a stigma attached to such a living arrangement back then. In ethnic households in particular, it was normal for adult children to live at home till marrying. Typically, this wasn’t long after finishing school. Single people were out there, but there was no “singles” subculture. In today’s parlance, single people were marginalized. Marty didn’t know it, but one day his generation would be characterized as the Greatest Generation by Tom Brokaw. Of course, to be a member in good standing, you had to be married, preferably with kids.
No video games in 1954, however, so Marty passes his leisure time with similarly situated guys who hang out at a local tavern, drink beer, and read girlie magazines. They are the local chapter of the not-so-great members of the Greatest Generation because they have remained bachelors. Guess we could call them the Bronx Bummers.
One of Marty’s friends (played by Frank Sutton, best known as Sgt. Carter in the Gomer Pyle, USMC TV series) is the 50s equivalent of a pickup artist, another thinks that Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer is the ultimate role model for male-female relationships. Angie, Marty’s best friend, is a ferret-faced cipher. His dialogue with Marty is like a Greek chorus. “What do you want to do tonight, Marty?” “I dunno, what do you want to do, Angie?” Blather, rinse, repeat.
Predictably, Marty’s mother wants him to settle down – more to the point, she wants him to “find a nice girl.” Actually, he’s already settled down. He just hasn’t married. “You got a bachelor on your hands,” he tells his mother. “You’re gonna die without a son!” she laments. But he knows his limitations: “I’m just a fat, little man, a fat ugly man.” Even worse, he has no game: “Sooner or later there comes a point in a man’s life when he’s got to face some facts, and one fact I got to face is that whatever it is that women like, I ain’t got it.”
Can we say that Marty was incel when incel wasn’t cool? In six years, will he be a 40-year-old virgin? Actually, we don’t know anything about his sex life, but given his age and the fact that he is a World War II vet, it is highly unlikely that he is still a virgin. At any rate, when his mother suggests he attend a mixer at the Stardust Ballroom, he reluctantly goes along just to keep peace in the family, even though he has been there and done that over and over. “All that ever happened to me there was girls made me feel like a—a—a bug.”
Miraculously, just when it looks like Marty’s in for another “big night of heartache” at the Stardust, he meets Clara Snyder, who has been abandoned by her date, so they commiserate. A high school chemistry teacher, she is 29 years old and still lives with her folks. Misery loves company, so the two of them compare notes the rest of the evening. They swap stories of going on crying jags and even thoughts of suicide. Nevertheless, the pity party ends on a high note and Marty promises to call her the next day. “Dogs like us – we ain’t such dogs as we think we are,” he proclaims.
Now it is worth pausing to note that while Clara is a wallflower, and during the movie she is repeatedly called “a dog,” she doesn’t look that bad compared to today’s crop of obese, foul-mouthed, purple-haired harridans. She’s not hideous, she’s just plain.
Marty’s mom, though she wants him to get married, is suspicious of Clara. After all, the girl is a graduate of New York University. Uh oh, isn’t that in Greenwich Village? In other words: beatniks and bolshies and fags…oh, my! She’s probably out there canvassing for Adlai Stevenson and carrying signs at Ban-the-Bomb demonstrations. Can a girl like that – and a non-Italian girl at that – make a proper wife for her son? Will she be willing to move into mama’s house after marriage, or will she insist on having her own place? Sure, mama wants Marty to get married, but she wants him to bring his wife home to share the household. She wants to gain a daughter, not lose a son.
While Marty has been wallowing in his loneliness and yearning for a soul mate (“Don’t you think I want to get married? I want to get married!”), he seems oblivious to the drawbacks of the institution. His cousin Tommy (played by Jerry Paris, later better known as the next-door neighbor on The Dick Van Dyke Show) has repeated spats with his wife. Notably, there is no mention of divorce or family law courts.
Divorce, of course, was not as common in the mid-1950s as it is today, but it was a clear and present danger. During Marty’s lifetime, the emancipation of women has been an ongoing narrative, from female suffrage to Rosie the Riveter. Sure, the divorce rate spiked after World War II, but the remedy is re-marriage. If at first you don’t succeed…remember, true love is out there. And Marty sees Clara as the embodiment of true love. She is the answer to his prayers…what could go wrong?
Well, Clara is a college grad and Marty isn’t. She is a “sophisticate” and Marty isn’t. Both are Catholic but she isn’t Italian and Marty is. These are the foreseeable problems. In retrospect, they are trivial.
The introduction of the birth control pill, the sexual revolution, and women’s liberation, as feminism was popularly known in the 1960s, are just around the corner. Given Clara’s background, she will probably read Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique (published in 1963), and good-hearted, nice guy Marty may be transformed into a tyrant in her eyes.
These phenomena will appear on the radar screen as the 50s give way to the 60s, but Marty has no way of foreseeing them. It may not seem like it, but he has a lot at stake.
Marty’s modest ambition is to buy the butcher shop where he works. If his mother dies, he will likely own the house outright. So his economic future looks pretty good so long as he remains single. If he gets married, however, he could be taken to the cleaners in divorce court. If he fathers kids, he could be hit up for child support. Clara, starting childbearing late in life, is more likely to give birth to a child with birth defects. In other words, a human money pit.
After a heated argument with his wife, Marty’s cousin tells him that he has “a good job, no wife, and no responsibilities. Stay that way!” But Marty isn’t paying attention. Bachelorhood may be a fact of life for him, but it is a default position, hopefully only temporary, and certainly not a status to celebrate. One day after meeting Clara, Marty is already thinking of tying the knot.
Marty isn’t stupid (he was accepted at City College of New York, Paddy Chayefsky’s alma mater, but didn’t enroll), but he lives in a cocoon as stifling as it is comforting. He just can’t imagine life beyond his neighborhood. New York City is chock full of entertainment and cultural amenities from the highest to the lowest with all levels in-between. Considering that Marty is just a subway ride away from Manhattan, it’s hard to see how he and his pal Angie could ever be at a loss for things to do. As a bachelor, he’s in a much better position to take advantage of the city than his married peers. But Marty has bought into the notion that as long as he remains single his life is incomplete. Smarter guys than Marty have been waylaid by that notion.
Despite the naturalistic trappings of Marty, Chayefsky’s script is ultimately a boy-meets-girl fairy tale. Presumably love will conquer all and Marty and Clara, albeit ugly ducklings, will live happily ever after. In the final scene of the movie, when Marty is calling up Clara for a follow-up date, he berates Angie just as the old women shamed him in the beginning of the movie. “Hey, Angie, when are you going to get married?” So the marriage-go-round has come full circle.
Chayefsky’s sentimental side is also on display in his script for The Bachelor Party (1957), which covers a lot of the same ground, dealing with a group of men who reluctantly admit that despite its drawbacks, marriage is the ideal state for a man. But somewhere along the line, Chayefsky changed his mind.
In 1971 he won an Oscar for The Hospital, a tale about a doctor (George C. Scott) whose family and hospital have both become dysfunctional. Five years later he won an Oscar for Network, in which a TV network is an allegory for a dystopian society, and a ruthless career woman (Faye Dunaway) is at the heart of it. By this time, Marty the Bronx butcher, appears quaint indeed.
If Marty felt sorry for himself in the mid-50s, just imagine what the erstwhile mama’s boy would be like in subsequent decades. He’d probably flip out, don a bloody apron, take up his meat cleaver, and become the protagonist of a slasher film franchise.
So who do you wanna kill tonight, Marty?
I dunno, Angie, who do you wanna kill tonight?