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Monday, February 05, 2018

A Deepest Of 50's Sleepers

Marty (1955) The Small One That Went Big

The littlest engine that could, Marty was seen and liked as rebuke to colossals that a public, and certainly critics, had gotten bored with. Cinemascope was by 1955 gone as novelty, films done in the process judged by content rather than width, thus flops-a-poppin' that began with first anniversary of scope's The Egyptian. Wasn't it time we went back to basics of good drama? 1954 Best Picture winner On The Waterfront indicated appetite for it on standard screens plus black-and-white, sole protection a glamour name in Marlon Brando. Marty would now strip even that, Brando at first considered for the title part, but wiser heads holding out for plain folk we'd easier identify with, those apparent losers at life much like many paying admission to watch them. Done for amount south of $350K (specific amounts vary), Marty went on with help of brilliant marketing (more spent on exploitation than the pic itself) to roll up profits ($4.4 million in worldwide rentals) not dreamed of in oft-strapped 50's when comfort of home and TV bade so sweetly. Independent firebrand Burt Lancaster and partners did Marty in concert with eager-to-please-the-team United Artists, latter basking in distribution fees Lancaster vehicles brought back. This star seemed a surest bet in pictures during the mid-50's. Burt said years later, and not a little wistfully, that everything he touched back then turned to gold, Heaven's apparent reward for Lancaster simply being Lancaster.

We can watch on You Tube a lot of what home viewers saw in stone-age 50's when box flicker was something you'd beat back with a right to the set, or twist of rabbit ears. It was worth the guff for entertainment had for free, that you could look at in pajamas, or eat sardines out of a can with. Theatres had none of that, and was distance to get to besides. Car park and baby-sitters had to be factored in along with too many of movies being tired formula applied over and again. It was no secret that a greater public had wearied of sameness after the war. To rescue of that came television with, among obvious advantages, a spin of drama to offer something more intimate, real people navigating true-life issues. Nay-sayers might call it illustrated radio, but the best of teleplays could put us in dens and kitchens where good writing depicted troubles more troubled than our own, not on overblown basis like Hollywood, but close-to-homes we knew or lived in.

TV also brought drama back east, so much of it Gotham set as to make New York seem a most agonized spot on earth. Dialogue-driven situations played best on early tubes, action and vistas much less so. Actors were again shrunk as if viewed from back rows and so had to emote harder. Intense and "interior" performing as taught by the Actor's Studio saw new technique of the art which television displayed nightly. Much of vid drama went out live, so flubs were common, no worry because errors were expected and viewers were forgiving. TV had a tent show quality that warmed audiences toward those trying so valiant to get things right. Exciting also was discovery of talent that movies might not give a chance to. James Dean and Rod Steiger got starts this way, along with countless others. Steiger in fact was the first Marty, a story well enough written and received to be vanguard of Hollywood adaptation. Here would be a crack in the door for many artists bred by television to come through. They'd shape, or better re-shape, the industry over a next several decades.

The movie of Marty acknowledges the power of TV. Rather than go out for a show, Betsy Blair and her parents stay home on Sunday night to watch Ed Sullivan. Ernest Borginine and his dateless pals talk about going to the Loew's Paradise or whatever RKO house is nearest, but they never actually do. Marty lets life play out on gritty streets that people used to visit picture palaces to get away from. There had been foreign films to show us what the human condition was really about, but here finally was one that did it close to home. All of Hollywood hugged the result as if to assure us that this was direction they'd like to have gone if only tinsel-tyrants would let them. Few small pictures racked such endorsements: Charlton Heston, Jane Russell, Martin and Lewis, Milton Berle, Danny Kaye, Irving Berlin, Phil Silvers. Note preponderance of comedians --- did they see Marty in themselves? Such plaudits weren't bought with money or influence. In fact, it would be a badge of honor to laud Marty and say loudly that an industry needed lots more like it.

Trouble was getting more genies out of such a delicate bottle. Crowds loved Marty because it was one lonely man's search for love, which Ernest Borginine played to utter conviction and sympathy. I enjoy it every time I watch, even as some scenes are purest agony. Who hasn't had dose of rejection like Marty gets? Few pictures of the time were so honest about seemingly small pains of life. Anyway, this one still touches the isolated in all of us, relieved by humor still guffaw-worthy (the guy rhapsodizing over Mickey Spillane). Hecht-Hill-Lancaster tried again with a same creative team, minus Ernie. That was The Bachelor Party, which failed to re-light the Marty fuse, despite strikingly similar backdrop and approach. Rivals eyed easy gain from street topics and lives lived down and near-out, but a mass crowd perhaps had its fill from Marty, thus red ink bins filled by Edge Of The City, A Hatful Of Rain, Monkey On My Back, even ones Lancaster applied his screen self to and came back bloodied. Would there have been a Sweet Smell Of Success had he not been emboldened by grosses off Marty? At least Lancaster took continuing benefit of talent trained by television, John Frankenheimer most noteworthy of these. Marty shows up at TCM in HD and is available on Kino Blu-Ray, full-frame where it shouldn't be. In fact, this title could use an all-round preservation facelift.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I suspect a lot of what fueled MARTY's box office was the tremendous impact of the TV version. Since that 1953 performance was one-and-done, there was undoubtedly a desire among original viewers to experience it again, and for others to see what they'd missed.

One of the best parts of Jeff Kisselhoff's oral history of TV, THE BOX, is Rod Steiger's recollection of the morning after MARTY aired:

"I got out of my little room and went to my coffee shop. A garbage truck is going by. The guy who drives the truck says to me just like the play, 'What are we goin' to do tonight, Marty?' I said, 'I don't know, what do you wanna do tonight?'

"Then I get to the store and a woman said, 'What are you gonna do tonight, Marty?' I said, 'I don't know, what are you gonna do tonight?'

"In the coffee shop, I get my corn muffin and coffee, and the guy says, 'What are you gonna do tonight, Marty?' Then I knew something special had happened This play touched the core of loneliness in the average man and swept across the country."

9:05 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

That is a great Rod Serling anecdote, Michael, and thanks for your mention of THE BOX, by Jeff Kisselhoff, which I was not familiar with, but have just ordered. This looks like a great book.

9:39 AM  
Blogger DBenson said...

It's worth remembering that MARTY sends you home with a happy ending. Marty is not only going to call the girl, but he tells off the guys in what must have played like fantasy fulfilled for a lot of Marty types -- more satisfying for being more attainable than the usual happy ending, and for being close to a surprise.

I found myself thinking of THE APARTMENT, but Jack Lemmon's character is definitely higher on the social latter. Bottom rung within the corporation, perhaps. But at that he's moving in a white-collar world with at least theoretical shots at advancement; he's not caring for a parent in close quarters; and he may well be a college grad. Yet for suburban audiences, Lemmon was the poor schlep. Borgnine's romantic frustrations may have been universal, but wondering how his world played to those slightly better-off audiences across the country who generally saw it as a drab backdrop for crime and comedy.

5:06 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

MIA since the original theatrical release is the intended aspect ratio, planned and composed for during principal photography.

Eureka Entertainment is currently planning a Blu-ray release. Let's hope they give us this gem in 1.85:1, as it was meant to be seen.

7:08 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

I've been following the comments at since the Eureka was announced in hopes that a 1.85 transfer would be forthcoming. Signs indicate that they are at least trying to arrange for the proper ratio. Some nice extras are planned for the Eureka release, including the Rod Steiger television version of MARTY.

8:20 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

There has been an ongoing discussion at Eureka's Facebook page. Michael Brooke, the producer that used my documents to present THE KILLERS in widescreen, has passed along the MARTY documentation to the producers at Eureka.

The biggest obstacle might be the existing scan. It appears to have been zoomed-in during transfer (not uncommon with the early non-anamorphic widescreen films) and if so, will not matte properly to 1.85:1.

When we restored Paramount's 3-D widescreen THOSE REDHEADS FROM SEATTLE, we found the existing SD scan (circa 1998) had been heavily zoomed-in to eliminate excess headroom. If someone had tried cropping that scan to 1.66 (the intended ratio during production) they would have been unsuccessful.

This is a classic example of the need to go back to 35mm elements and scan accordingly, using the full image width with the correct aspect ratio in mind.

12:16 PM  
Blogger rnigma said...

"The Box" is indeed a great book. Check out Greg Garrison's reminiscences - of an incontinent elephant on "Super Circus," of Keefe Brasselle asking his mob buddies to "hit" Garrison.

7:04 PM  
Blogger Beowulf said...

Just placed my order for the book at SmileAmazon.

Looks like fun. The Wolf, man.

10:05 AM  
Blogger Brother Herbert said...

Echo the high recommendations for THE BOX. I'd heard about it many years ago from reading Curt Alliaume's old game show page but only recently pulled the trigger on buying a copy. And yes, Greg Garrison was someone who wasn't easily messed with.

What surprised me (or maybe it shouldn't) was reading about how shabbily many top comedians of the day treated their writers.

1:44 PM  

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