Sunday, 29 January 2017

Picture of the Week

Burt Lancaster, Ernest Borgnine and Harold Hecht holding their Academy Awards for Marty (1955). Borgnine won Best Actor, while Hecht (as the film's producer) received the coveted statuette for Best Picture.
Since Lancaster, Hecht's producing partner, was not credited as producer, he was not an official winner.

Friday, 27 January 2017

Film Friday: "Marty" (1955)

In honor of Ernest Borgnine's 100th birthday, which was on Tuesday (January 24), this week on «Film Friday» I bring you the picture for which he is best known, which also happens to be the one that gave him the Academy Award for Best Actor.

Original release poster
Directed by Delbert Mann, Marty (1955) tells the story of Marty Piletti (Ernest Borgnine), a good-natured but socially awkward Italian-American butcher who lives in The Bronx with his mother, Teresa (Esther Minciotti). Unmarried at 34, Marty faces constant badgering from family and friends to settle down, pointing out that all his brothers and sisters are already married with children. One night, he goes to the Stardom Ballroom and meets Clara Snyder (Betsy Blair), a plain-looking 29-year-old high school chemistry teacher from Brooklyn who has been abandoned by her blind date. They spend the evening together and then Marty takes Clara home by bus, promising to call her at 2:30 the next afternoon. 

Meanwhile, Marty's busybody widowed aunt, Catherine (Augusta Ciolli), moves in to live with him and his mother. She warns Theresa, who is also a widow, that if Marty marries, she will be cast aside. Fearing that her son's romance could mean her abandonment, Theresa tells Marty not to bring Clara to the house again, saying that there are plenty of nice Italian girls in the neighborhood. At the same time, Marty is disturbed to learn that his best friend Angie (Joe Mantell) has been describing Clara as «dog.» After his buddies inform him that it is bad for his reputation to go out with «dogs,» Marty gives in to peer pressure and does not call Clara, despite his earlier antecipation of seeing her again. As he and his friend face another tedious night at the local bar, however, Marty bursts out, calling them miserable, lonely and stupid. Realizing that he is giving up a woman whom he not only likes, but who also makes him happy, he rushes to a phone booth to call Clara. When Angie follows, Marty asks his pal when he is going to get married. 

Marty Piletti: You don't like her, my mother don't like her, she's a dog and I'm a fat, ugly man! Well, all I know is that 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 get down on my knees and I'm gonna beg that girl to marry me! If we make a party on New Year's, I got a date for that party. You don't like her? That's too bad!

A graduate of the City College of New York, Paddy Chayefsky began writing while recuperating from injuries sustained during World War II at the Army Hospital near Cirencester, England. The result was a musical play entitled No T.O. For Love, which was produced in 1945 by the Special Services Unit and ran for two years at Army bases throughout Europe, before starting a commercial run in London's West End. After the war, Chayefsky returned to New York and began working full-time on short stories and radio scripts, also serving as gag writer for radio personality Robert Q. Lewis. At the same time, he found steady employment as a television writer, making his debut with an adaptation of Budd Schulberg's 1941 novel What Makes Sammy Run? for The Philco Television Playhouse (1948-1955), a live anthology series produced by NBC. First broadcast on April 10, 1949, the 60-minute teledrama starred José Ferrer as a young Jewish man who climbs the Hollywood ladder of success through deception and betrayal.

While rehearsing his second script for The Philco Television Playhouse, The Reluctant Citizen, at the ballroom of the Abbey Hotel in New York, Chayefsky noticed that the staff was setting up for a lonelyhearts club meeting. He wandered around and saw a sign that read, «Girls, Dance With the Man Who Asks You. Remember, Men Have Feelings Too,» which suddenly gave him the idea for a story about a young woman in a similar kind of setting. As he discussed it with director Delbert Mann, who was running the rehearsals of The Reluctant Citizen, Chayefsky decided that such a drama would be more interesting with a man as the central character rather than a woman. Mann then told him to pitch his idea to Philco producer Fred Coe, which Chayefsky did, simply by saying, «I want to do a play about a guy who goes to a ballroom.» Coe's answer was plain and short: «Go write it, pappy.»

Ernest Borgnine as Marty Piletti
According to Chayefsky himself, he set out to write «the most ordinary love story in the world», hoping it would revise Hollywood formulas by democratizing romance: «I didn't want my hero to be handsome, and I didn't want the girl to be pretty. I wanted to write a love story the way it would literally have happened to the kind of people I know. I was, in fact, determined to shatter the shallow and destructive illusions — prospered by cheap fiction and bad movies — that love is simply a matter of physical attraction, that virility is manifested by a throbbing phallus, and that regular orgasms are all that's needed to make a woman happy.»

Chayefsky explorations of the «mundane, the ordinary, the untheatrical» love eventually resulted in a 51-minute teleplay that dramatized a lonely butcher's break with neighborhood values of friends and family in order to love a lonely schoolteacher. The story's original title, «Love Story,» was for some reason deemed unacceptable by NBC, who requested a name change. It was ultimately shown on May 14, 1953 on The Philco Television Playhouse under the title Marty, with Rod Steiger in the eponymous role, Marty Piletti, and Nancy Marchand, in her television debut, as Clara Snyder, the plain-looking high school chemistry teacher with whom he falls in love.

Directed by Mann, Marty was such a critical and popular success that it immediately caught the attention of Hollywood producers. Former agent Harold Hecht and actor Burt Lancaster, who had formed an independent production company back in 1948, purchased the rights to Chayefsky's story, signing a distribution deal with United Artists in February 1954. Not trusting the Hollywood system, Chayefsky made unprecedented demands in his contract. He wanted to write the film script himself and have complete control over it, as well as casting approval and a directing job for Mann, who had never worked in motion pictures before. Surprisingly, Hecht and Lancaster agreed to all of his demands and the film was subsequently greenlighted. In order to expand his 51-minute teleplay to feature lenght, Chayefsky added scenes about Marty's job as a butcher and his relationship with his Italian-born mother and sister, in addition to making the leading lady's role somewhat larger.

Ernest Borgnine and Betsy Blair in Marty
Steiger was approached by Hecht and Lancaster to reprise his role in the film version of Marty, but he declined because he was not willing to sign the long-term contract that came attached to the offer. In need to find another Marty, Mann turned to his friend Robert Aldrich, who was then in Mexico directing Vera Cruz (1954) with Lancaster, Gary Cooper and newcomer Ernest Borgnine. After reading the script, Aldrich said to Mann, «I know only one man who could do it: Ernie Borgnine.»

A veteran of World War II, Borgnine had studied drama on the GI Bill and began his acting career on stage, making his Broadway debut in 1949 in Mary Chase's Pulitzer Prize-winning play Harvey. In the early 1950s, he transitioned to television, working with Mann in episodes of The Philco Television Playhouse and The Goodyear Television Playhouse (1951-1957). His performances on the small screen soon led to a substantial supporting role opposite Lancaster in Fred Zinnemann's Academy Award-winning film From Here to Eternity (1953), wherein he played a sadistic Army sergeant.

Lancaster immediately approved the casting of Borgnine, who was more than honored to be asked to play the title character in Marty, his first leading role. According to the actor, he «went absolutely blank» when Hecht offered him the part. «I didn't say 'thanks' or 'great, call my agent.' What came from my mouth was, 'You have faith in me?' [...] As I walked from his office with a bounce in my step, I looked up to heaven and gave a silent prayer of thanks.» Although Hecht and Lancaster were sure that Borgnine was right for the role, Mann hesitated, as the 37-year-old actor was until then primarily known for playing villainous roles. After he read for the part, however, all of Mann's initial doubts dissipated. Borgnine, an Italian-American just like Marty, recalled his audition: «I turned away because I had started to cry. [...] When I turned back to Paddy, who was playing the mother, I saw he was crying too. And out of the corner of my eye, I could see Del was also close to tears. That gave me the most wonderful feeling in my life; to think I had accomplished something that could affect people this way.»

Harold Hecht, Delbert Mann, cinematographer, Joseph
LaShelle, art  director Edward S. Haworth, Betsy Blair
and Ernest Borgnine on the set of Marty
Originally, Nancy Marchand was slated to make her motion picture debut reprising her performance as Clara, but Betsy Blair showed interest in the part and started campaigning hard for it. Hecht and Lancaster, as well as United Artists, initially refused to cast her because she had been blacklisted for her Marxist and Communist sympathies. Hearing of this, Blair's husband at the time, song-and-dance man Gene Kelly, swore he would never work for any of them if they did not give his wife the role. Moreover, Kelly got Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, his home studio, to help him exert pressure by refusing to star in It's Always Fair Weather (1955) for them. Finally, MGM head of production Dore Schary contacted the American Legion to personally vouch for Blair, effectively removing her from the blacklist and allowing her to play Clara in Marty.

With Joe Mantell, Esther Minciotti and Augusta Ciolli re-creating their roles from the original teledrama, Marty began filming in early September 1954 with location shooting in The Bronx. Among the landmarks used in the picture are the Grand Concourse thoroughfare and the IRT Third Avenue El, an elevated railway line that eventually closed down in the early 1970s. In early November, the company convened at the Samuel Goldwyn Studios on Santa Monica Boulevard in Hollywood to shoot interior scenes. Halfway through production, United Artists apparently threatened to pull the plug on Marty because other Hecht-Lancaster films were running over budget. According to Borgnine, the studio's accountants eventually saved the picture by pointing out that under the new tax laws, they had to complete Marty and screen it at least once before they could write it off as a tax loss.

Joe Mantell and Ernest Borgnine
The first major Hollywood film adapted from a television play, Marty premiered on April 11, 1955 at the Sutton Theatre in New York, normally a venue where art-house productions were shown. Bernie Kambler, the head of the publicity department of the Hecht-Lancaster East Coast offices, conducted a personal campaign for the film, setting up private screenings and convincing major press outlets to feature it positively. Kambler's most successful stunt was getting influential columnist and radio commentator Walter Winchell to hail the film as one of the biggest sleeper hits in Hollywood history. Reportedly, more ($400,000) was spent on advertising Marty than the film's initial production costs of a mere $343,000.

The slow build on viewership for Marty began with strong reviews from critics. Ronald Holloway of Variety called it a «warm, human, sometimes sentimental and an enjoyable experience,» while Bosley Crowther of The New York Times described it as «a warm and winning film, full of the sort of candid comment on plain, drab people that seldom reaches the screen.» The two leads were widely applauded for their performances, with Borgnine being universally singled out for praise for his versatility as an actor. Holloway wrote, «Borgnine [...] comes through with a performance that will be recalled next time thespian awards are distributed. Miss Blair is equally impressive [...].» For his part, Crowther commented, «Mr. Borgnine's performance [...] is a beautiful blend of the crude and the strangely gentle and sensitive in a monosyllabic man. [...] And Miss Blair is wonderfully revealing [...] The two make an excellent team.» In May 1955, Marty won the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival, which resulted in more press and more profits at the box-office. By the end of the year, Marty had earned $2,000,000 in domestic rentals alone, making it one of the biggest moneymakers of 1955.

Ernest Borgnine with his Academy Award, presented to him by Grace Kelly

At the 28th Academy Awards ceremony held on March 21, 1956 at the RKO Pantages Theatre in Los Angeles, Marty won the coveted statuette for Best Picture, as well as Best Director, Best Actor and Best Original Screenplay. Borgnine's fellow nominees were former Best Actor winners James Cagney and Spencer Tracy, with whom he had appeared in Bad Day at Black Rock (1953); James Dean, who had died in a car accident six months before the ceremony; and Frank Sinatra, whose acclaimed performance in From Here to Eternity had earned him an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor two years earlier. In addition, Marty received nominations for Best Supporting Actor (Joe Mantell), Best Supporting Actress (Betsy Blair), Best Art Direction (Black and White) and Best Cinematography (Black and White). Mantell lost to Jack Lemmon for Mister Roberts (1955), while Blair lost to Joe Van Fleet for East of Eden (1955). The Rose Tattoo (1955) won both Best Art Direction and Best Cinematography.

Ernest Borgnine: My Autobiography by Ernest Borgnine (Aurum Press, 2013)
Storytellers to the Nation: A History of American Television Writing by Tom Stempel (Syracuse University Press, 1996)
The Collected Works of Paddy Chayefsky: The Television Plays by Paddy Chayefsky (Applause Books, 1994)
Understanding Love: Philosophy, Film, and Fiction edited by Susan Wolf and Christopher Grau (Oxford University Press, 2014)

Tuesday, 24 January 2017

Happy 100th Birthday, Ernest Borgnine!

ERNEST BORGNINE (January 24, 1917 July 8, 2012)
Yes, I'm a hot-tempered Italian, but I don't think I am ever unfair or unjust.

More Ernest Borgnine-related articles HERE

Sunday, 22 January 2017

Picture of the Week

Lee Remick, Andy Griffith and Patricia Neal on the set of A Face in the Crowd (1957)

Friday, 20 January 2017

Film Friday: "In Name Only" (1939)

This week on "Film Friday" I have decided to honor both Carole Lombard and Cary Grant, whose 112th birthday was this Wednesday, by telling you a little bit about the most notable and well-known of three pictures in which they appeared together.

Theatrical release poster
Directed by John Cromwell, In Name Only (1939) tells the story of Alec Walker (Cary Grant), the victim of a loveless marriage to heartless social-climber Maida (Kay Francis). One day, he meets Julie Eden (Carole Lombard), a widowed commercial artist with a young daughter named Ellen (Peggy Ann Garner), and immediately falls in love. Julie is caring and uncomplicated, everything that Maida is not. Alec subsequently asks his wife for a divorce and she consents but on the condition that she sail to Paris with his parents, Richard (Charles Coburn) and Grace (Nella Walker), and inform them of the break-up once they reach Europe. Alec foolishly agrees and follows Julie to New York, where they decide to marry.

Returning home on Christmas Eve, Maida informs Julie that she will never grant Alec a divorce. Moreover, if he files for one, she will sue Julie for alienation of affections and drag her daughter into court to testify. Apparently defeated, Julie ends her relationship with Alec, arguing that she cannot see a future with him. A distraught Alec then gets drunk, falls asleep in front of an open window and contracts a severe case of life threatening pneumonia as a result. At the hospital, Dr. Muller (Maurice Moscovich) tells Julie and Mr. Walker that Alec will only recover if he has the will to live. Hearing this, Julie bravely approaches Alec's sickbed and lies that Maida has finally granted him a divorce. Soon after, Maida shows up at the hospital and attacks Julie, admitting that she married Alec only for his social position and his father's wealth. Alec's parents enter the room in the meantime and overhear her cold-blooded admission. Exposed by her own duplicity, Maida is banished from Alec's life, thus clearing the way for his union with Julie.

Julie Eden: What's wrong with romance and what's wrong with illusions as far as that goes, if you can keep them?

While her new husband, Clark Gable, was filming the epic Gone with the Wind (1939), the restless Carole Lombard looked for a new project to fill her time. She read in a magazine that RKO was planning a screen adaptation of Bessie Breuer's debut novel Memory of Love (1935) and she became interested. Originally purchased as a vehicle for popular duo Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant, the property had been shelved after the Academy Award-winning actress severed her ties with the studio and moved to New York to appear on Broadway in The Philadelphia Story. When Lombard heard that RKO wanted the picture to be directed by John Cromwell, with whom she had just worked on Made For Each Other (1939), she determined to make it happen. She telephoned Cromwell, who had not yet agreed to the assignment, and said, "If I play the girl, would you direct?" His reply was, "Oh my, yes [...] then I'm sure we could also get Cary."

With Lombard and Cromwell on board, RKO was able to secure Grant, who had appeared with the actress in Sinners in the Sun (1932) and The Eagle and the Hawk (1933). Now at the peak of her popularity, Lombard successfully negotiated the terms of her contract for the film with RKO herself, dispensing the services of her agent, Myron Selznick. She managed to secure a four-picture deal over two years at the then-astonishing fee of $150,000 per movie, plus profit percentages, as well as top billing in the film's credits and advertising. When Grant, hired at half of Lombard's salary, heard about this, he was so angry that he vowed not to appear in the film. Finally, RKO's head of production Pandro S. Berman agreed to raise Grant's fee to $100,000 based on his recent success in Gunga Din (1939) and Only Angels Have Wings (1939).

Cary Grant, Carole Lombard and Kay Francis
To adapt Breuer's novel to the screen, RKO hired Richard Sherman, whose previous credits included the musicals Alexander's Ragtime Band (1938) and The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle (1939). The Production Code Administration (PCA), Hollywood's self-imposed censorship board, rejected the first script that RKO sent them for approval. In that script, still titled Memory of Love, Alec learns that Julie is pregnant and that he has only six months to live. Rather than let her suffer the pain of his death, he accuses her blackmail and send her away. Joseph I. Breen, head of the PCA, deemed that version unacceptable because their illicit relationship "undermines the sanctity of the home and the institution of marriage." The sexual affair between the two characters was consequently toned down by the removal of Julie's pregnancy and the addition of a happy ending in which she and Alec plan to marry.

For the role of Grant's heartless wife in In Name Only, as the film was ultimately titled, Lombard recommended her friend Kay Francis, who had been directed by Cromwell in four other films, including Street of Chance (1930) and For the Defense (1930). A star at Warner Bros. in the early 1930s, Francis' stardom had considerably dimmed after the studio began promoting their newest find, Bette Davis. When Davis became more popular than Francis, Warners tried to make Francis break her contract, but she held on to the very last, enduring two years of mediocre films. At Warners, she had been reduced to being a clothes horse. "I want to be an actress," she said, "not just a woman who dresses up and speaks noble lines." Her friends advised her against playing such an unsympathetic role, but Francis was determined to expand her horizons as an actress. "When I played the heavy in In Name Only," she recalled, "my friends told me I was crazy. I said I had to do something other than the mush I'd been playing.

In Name Only was filmed between April and June 1939, with location shooting taking place in San Marino, California. The film opened at the Capitol Theatre in New York on August 18 to generally positive reviews from critics. TIME magazine called it a "mature, meaty picture," while Variety described it as a "wholly capable production," praising Grant and Lombard as "highly impressive." In turn, Edwin Schallert of the Los Angeles Times observed, "When the wife gets the hisses from a preview audience and the other woman wins applause, you can wager that the scenarist, director and cast have done right by a picture. [...] In Name Only is the kind of picture that goes miles and miles in finding popular favor." The film was also successful at the box-office, grossing $1,321,000 in domestic rentals.

Cary Grant: A Biography by Marc Eliot (2009) | Cary Grant: Dark Angel by Geoffrey Wansell (2011) | Majestic Hollywood: The Greatest Films of 1939 by Mark A. Vieira (2013) | TCMDb (Articles) | TCMDb (Notes) | Variety review