Simple in its story and beautiful in its simplicity, Marty is the story of twenty-four hours in the life of a misfit from the Bronx who’s just looking for someone to love.
Marty Piletti (Ernest Borgnine) is a thirty four-year old single butcher from the Bronx who’s unattractive and socially awkward but possesses a warm and caring heart. Marty’s best friend is Angie (Joe Mantell) and on this Saturday night, just like all Saturday nights before, Angie and Marty sit in a diner and debate over their night time plans.
Angie: Whaddya feel like doin’ tonight?
Marty: I don’t know, Ange. Whaddya feel like doin’?
After several minutes of this back and forth exchange, Marty decides to just head home for dinner with his mother and a night in front of the TV.
Unfortunately for Marty, however, dinner with his mother doesn’t go as he planned. Mrs. Theresa Piletti (Esther Minciotti) is a devout Italian Catholic who continually nags Marty about his bachelor status. Marty insists that he really does want to marry but he knows that his chances aren’t very good. As he explains, “whatever it is that women like, I ain’t got it.” Mrs. Piletti won’t give up, however. She insists he put on his blue suit and go to the Stardust Ballroom where he can meet some fresh “tomatoes” (a term for single women that she says she learned from Marty’s cousin Tommy). Marty is resistant to his mother’s entreaties, however. “Blue suit, gray suit. I’m just a fat, little man. A fat ugly man!”, Marty replies. Mrs. Piletti is horrified at Marty’s words and insists he isn’t ugly. After finally wearing him down, Marty agrees to go. “All right, so I’ll go to the Stardust Ballroom. I’ll put on a blue suit, and I’ll go. And you know what I’m gonna get for my trouble? Heartache. A big night of heartache”, Marty says.
And just as he predicted, Marty’s foray to the Stardust Ballroom begins in heartache. After asking a girl for a dance, the girl gives him the once over and immediately says no
Just as he’s about to leave however, he spots Clara (Betsy Blair), a plain Jane school teacher who is gently weeping after being callously rejected by her blind date. Marty slowly and timidly approaches her but before he has a chance to speak, she runs outside to the balcony. Marty slowly follows Clara and softly asks her for a dance. In seconds, she collapses in his arms.
Fast forward to an hour or so later, and Marty and Clara are dancing together, talking up a storm. Clara relates how her spinster life is quite similar to Marty’s and how lonely she often feels.Marty then tells Clara that he’s having a very nice time and in his own Marty way, he pays her a compliment. “You see, you’re not such a dog as you think you are.” Clara complements Marty on how nice he is and states she can’t believe some girl hasn’t “grabbed him off long ago”. Marty then talks about his parent’s marriage and how even though his father was an ugly man just like he is, his mother adored him. As Marty says, “it doesn’t matter if you look like a gorilla. You see, dogs like us, we ain’t such dogs as we think we are.”
While Marty and Clara are getting to know each other, Mrs. Piletti is dealing with a mild family crisis at home. Caterina (Augusta Ciolli), Mrs.Piletti’s, widowed fifty-six year old sister, is being forced to move in with Mrs. Piletti and Marty as she has been asked to leave her home by her son Tommy and daughter-in-law Virginia who have deemed her too intrusive in their marriage. Caterina warns Mrs. Piletti that one day Marty will meet someone and kick her out of her home as well.
Marty and Clara meanwhile, have left the dance hall and head into a diner where they divulge more of themselves to each other. Clara confides that she’s thinking of accepting a job in a school in the suburbs as the head of the science department but she’s afraid of leaving the safety of her home. She also admits that she’s afraid of being lonely. Marty tells her that she’d be “selling herself short” if she doesn’t take the job. He also gives her a very insightful opinion stating that she can’t be a little girl her whole life. As for being lonely, Marty tells her, “…you’re a real likeable person. You’ll make friends…one, two, three. You’ll have people visitin’ ya all the time. Oh, I’ll come up and visit ya…It’ll be real nice. Don’t be so afraid.”
Marty, who now feels energized to talk about himself, divulges to Clara his dream of purchasing the butcher shop where he works. But just like Clara, he too is unsure of himself. And just like Marty, Clara supports Marty in his dreams. “I know you’re a good butcher. You’re an intelligent, decent, sensitive man – and well, I have a feeling about you”, Clara says. “…if you were one of my students, I would say to you, ‘Go ahead and buy the butcher shop. You’re a good butcher.’..I think anything you’ll do, you’ll want to do well.”
Eventually, they take their conversation outside where Marty is walking Clara back to his house where he can pick up “some dough” to take Clara home. After entering the house, Marty and Clara’s conversation soon turns into a sweet moment when they share a tender embrace and kiss. While still in the midst of their embrace however, Mrs. Piletti arrives home and is surprised to see Clara. Marty excitedly introduces Clara to his mother but still fresh from her depressing conversation with her sister, Mrs. Piletti is none too pleased to meet her. Realizing that the hour is late and noticing the look of displeasure on his mother’s face, Marty announces that it’s time for him to take Clara home.
As they walk to the bus stop, Angie appears announcing he’s been looking everywhere for him. Excitedly, Marty introduces Clara to Angie who gives her the once over then rudely asks Marty if he’d like to hang out with him. Firmly and politely, Marty declines and the couple continue their walk to the bus stop.
As they arrive at Clara’s building, Marty mentions what a wonderful time he had and promises that he will call her tomorrow afternoon after morning mass. As he walks away from Clara, Marty feels so exuberantly happy he high fives a traffic sign and as he runs to hail a taxi, he feels like he’s walking on air!
The next morning before mass, Marty runs into his cousin Tommy (Jerry Paris). After telling Tommy about Clara and the prospect of buying the butcher shop, Tommy immediately cuts Marty down telling him that he envies Marty for being single and having no responsibilities.
At the end of mass, Mrs. Piletti then gives her opinion of Clara saying that she thinks Clara looks old, that she’s not particularly attractive and worst of all, that she’s not Italian.
Marty then has to defend Clara to Angie who stops by for dinner and tells Marty he thinks Clara looks like a dog.
With all the important people in Marty’s life expressing their disapproval of Clara, it doesn’t take long for Marty to question his feelings for her.
And while Marty is doubting his feelings for her, Clara is at home, sitting on the sofa with her parents watching The Ed Sullivan Show. She is desperately trying to hide her tears of disappointment.
As it is now way past the time when he was supposed to call Clara, Marty is back where he began, at the diner with his pals, back to their old routine. ‘What do you feel like doing, Marty?’, Angie asks. ‘I dunno. What do you feel like doing?’, Marty softly replies. Suddenly however, feeling angry and disgusted with himself and his friends, Marty mimics their ridiculous conversation “What are you doing tonight?’ ‘I dunno. What are you doing tonight?’ The Burlesque. Loew’s Paradise. Miserable and lonely. Miserable and lonely and stupid! What am I, crazy or something? I got something good here. What am I hanging around with you guys for?”
Running to the phone booth, Marty announces that he found himself a good thing in Clara and that if she’ll still have him, he’s going ask her to marry him and spend the rest of his life with her.
The film ends on a note of hope and love when Marty closes the phone booth door behind him and he speaks: “Hello…Hello, Clara.
Written by Paddy Chayefsky, Marty was originally filmed in 1953 as a teleplay starring Rod Steiger. It was eventually optioned by actor Burt Lancaster and his producing partner Harold Hecht after the teleplay’s wildly unexpected success. So what started out as a fifty-one minute teleplay shot in a TV studio had to now be fleshed out into a full length feature film. Though he was hesitant at first at the idea of turning his little play into a full-fleldged movie, Chayefsky’s mind was eventually changed when director Delbert Mann (who also directed the TV version), gave Chayefsky complete control over the film. And as anyone who has seen the film can attest, Chayefsky paid great attention to every detail (particularly the location shots). The credit for this goes to Chayefsky and Hecht who were both boys from the Bronx and had a personal hand in choosing locations that gave the film its distinct look.
Our emergence into the world of Marty begins in the film’s opening scene –the streets of Webster Avenue and 187th Street in the Bronx.
Here’s how the street looked in the film:
The same street today:
Getting a true sense of Marty’s world would not be complete without a glimpse into the butcher shop where he worked. The interior scenes where Marty was working was filmed in Oteri’s Butcher Shop located on Arthur Avenue. Its heritage dates back to the early 1900s when Albino Oteri first opened its doors. It was Oteri’s son John who trained Borgnine how to cut sausage so that his scenes would look realistic. Oteri was also able to convince the producers to change the name of Marty’s boss from Mr. Gazzara (which is how it was in the original teleplay), to Mr. Oteri.
Ernest Borgnine in Oteri’s Butcher Shop
In 1980, Oteri’s was sold and is now called Vincent’s Meat Market.
Here’s how it looks today:
The RKO Chester Theater, a long gone Bronx relic can be seen when Marty and Clara walk out of the Stardust Ballroom.
Located on 1938 Boston Road, the 2,473 seat theater opened in December 1927 as a vaudeville house. When vaudeville became passe, the theater was converted into a movie house. Ironically, Marty did not play here.
After the movie theater closed in the 1970s, it led several different lives–a “hot sheet” motel, a Howard Johnson hotel and an auto repair shop. Sadly, the theater was demolished in 2010.
This is how the theater looked shortly before it was demolished:
Featured prominently in the film is the area known as the Grand Concourse. Designed by Alsation immigrant Louis Aloys Risse, the Grand Concourse was opened to traffic in 1909 and was modeled after the Champs Elysee in Paris.The area really came alive in 1917 when the IRT Jerome Avenue line of the NYC Subway system started rolling through.The area was known for its six story high apartment buildings that featured examples of what many art critics of the time believed were the finest examples of Art Deco and Art Moderne. The area was also advertised as “the Park Avenue of the Bronx.”
Here’s a glimpse of the Grand Concourse on Fordham Road when Angie is looking for Marty:
Marty and Clara on Fordham Road and the Grand Concourse:
176th Street and the Grand Concourse is the site of the classic scene where Marty high-fives the bus stop sign after he has dropped off Clara.
Here’s an idea of the how the area looks today:
Though we don’t get to see it on screen and it’s only mentioned in passing at the end of the film, no examination of the Bronx would be complete without a look at the Loew’s Paradise Theater. Designed by architect John Eberson, the baroque style theater opened in 1929 as a vaudeville house where acts such as George Burns, Bob Hope and Cab Calloway would often perform. Known for its spectacularly grand interior, the theater fell into hard times during the Depression and like many other theaters of this type, it was turned into a movie theater in the late 1940’s. Sadly however, the theater was left in disarray just to be closed and reopened many times over the years. (I have a personal connection to the theater myself as it was the site of my junior high school graduation!)
Currently the theater is being leased by the World Changers Church of New York. The theater was designated a NYC Landmark in 1997.
Here’s a look at the theater’s exterior from its early days:
Here’s a look at the grand interior:
Here’s the grand lobby:
Here’s how the theater looks today:
Here’s how the interior looks today:
Released in 1955, Marty went on to win four Academy Awards for Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Director and Best Writing-Adapted Screenplay.