March 23rd, 2019


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Marty (1955)

Marty won the Oscar for Best Motion Picture of 1955, and picked up another three, Best Director (Delbert Mann), Best Actor (Ernest Borgnine) and Best Writing, Adapted Screenplay (Paddy Chayefsky). Betsy Blair and Joe Mantell were nominated for Best Supporting Actress and Actor respectively, and it also got nominations for Best Art Direction-Set Direction and Best Black-and-White Cinematography. The other contenders for Best Motion Picture were Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing, Mister Roberts, Picnic and The Rose Tattoo. I haven’t seen any of them.

IMDB users rank Marty 15th or 11th of the films of 1955. Six films are ahead of it on both rankings: Rebel Without A Cause, East of Eden, Lady and the Tramp, To Catch a Thief, The Night of the Hunter and The Seven Year Itch. The only one of those that I have seen is Lady and the Tramp. Others that I know include Guys and Dolls, The Ladykillers, and The Dambusters; and I have the Broadway cast album of Kismet but have not yet watched the film. That’s unusually broad for me - I think the best year since 1942 (soon to be 1943 once I get to the Retro Hugos). Here's a contemporary trailer, fronted by Burt Lancaster (who we saw two years ago) as the producer; it includes the one scene that perhaps has weathered the years least well.

It is mercifully short, at 91 minutes apparently the shortest film ever to win the Oscar for Best Picture (or equivalent) - that's less than 40% of Gone With the Wind. It's the story of the eponymous Marty, a New York butcher who thinks he will never find love, and then actually does. I found it a charming character study and portrayal of a place and time, beautifully shot; not utterly compelling, but convincing enough. I'm putting it between a third and halfway down my list, between It Happened One Night and The Life of Emile Zola (1937). (Technical note: a bit surprised to find yet another black-and-white film made this late.)

Whitewashing: To start with the usual complaint: the black population of the Bronx was not massive in the 1950s - 6.7% in the 1950 census, 11.5% in 1960 - and, sure, the story is mainly set in the Italian community, but I don't think that excuses there not being a single black person visible in the entire film. (Just for reference: we've had two black speaking parts altogether since Gone With the Wind, 16 years ago.)

Plot: Although it’s a romance, I was pleased thatCollapse )The chemistry between Ernest Borgnine and Betsy Blair as Marty and Clara is very watchable, and nicely filmed.

The two of them are also well located in their respective somewhat suffocating family backgrounds. (I note that Clara's parents sleep in separate beds, per the Code.)

It loses marks, of course, for the gender stereotypes (though both main characters are shown as trapped by their parents' and peers' expectations), and there is one rather skeevy moment between the two principals. That aside...

Borgnine: As the central character, Borgnine is hugely convincing. He does a tremendous eye-roll in his first scene, as various women customers nag him to get married; his punching a street sign in joy after his accidental date with Clara is a lovely moment; and as well as the chemistry with Betsy Blair, he is great with Joe Mantell as his friend Angie and Esther Minciotti as his mother. I didn’t get anything like as vivid an impression of him in From Here to Eternity.

Cinematography: The best aspect of the film for me was its solid portrayal of the Bronx as a place. There are a couple of key moments here - one of them is the opening street scene, set on Arthur Avenue in Belmont, the Bronx. I'm glad to report that the butcher's shop where Marty works is still extant, now Vincent's Meat Market at no. 2374.

A more recent iconic video filmed around the same location: Lady Gaga's Eh, Eh (Nothing Else I Can Say).

One scene that particularly intrigued me for its setting was the dance hall. Look at the top there - that's actually a disco ball! I ahd no idea that they were around that early, but that only shows that I haven't watched Casablanca closely enough, because there's one visible in one of the flashback scenes.

Anyway, it is charming enough. You can get it here.

The film was based on a teleplay - the first such to win an Oscar for best Picture - so there's no book to read and I don't think the original script is available (though the shooting script for the film is online).

Next up, after a run of seven films with more or less contemporary settings, it's back to the nineteenth century and Around the World in Eighty Days.

1920s: Wings (1927-28) | The Broadway Melody (1928-29)
1930s: All Quiet on the Western Front (1929-30) | Cimarron (1930-31) | Grand Hotel (1931-32) | Cavalcade (1932-33) | It Happened One Night (1934) | Mutiny on the Bounty (1935, and books) | The Great Ziegfeld (1936) | The Life of Emile Zola (1937) | You Can't Take It with You (1938) | Gone with the Wind (1939, and book)
1940s: Rebecca (1940) | How Green Was My Valley (1941) | Mrs. Miniver (1942) | Casablanca (1943) | Going My Way (1944) | The Lost Weekend (1945) | The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) | Gentleman's Agreement (1947) | Hamlet (1948) | All the King's Men (1949)
1950s: All About Eve (1950) | An American in Paris (1951) | The Greatest Show on Earth (1952) | From Here to Eternity (1953) | On The Waterfront (1954, and book) | Marty (1955) | Around the World in Eighty Days (1956) | The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) | Gigi (1958) | Ben-Hur (1959)
1960s: The Apartment (1960) | West Side Story (1961) | Lawrence of Arabia (1962) | Tom Jones (1963) | My Fair Lady (1964) | The Sound of Music (1965) | A Man for All Seasons (1966) | In the Heat of the Night (1967) | Oliver! (1968) | Midnight Cowboy (1969)
1970s: Patton (1970) | The French Connection (1971) | The Godfather (1972) | The Sting (1973) | The Godfather, Part II (1974) | One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975) | Rocky (1976) | Annie Hall (1977) | The Deer Hunter (1978) | Kramer vs. Kramer (1979)
1980s: Ordinary People (1980) | Chariots of Fire (1981) | Gandhi (1982) | Terms of Endearment (1983) | Amadeus (1984) | Out of Africa (1985) | Platoon (1986) | The Last Emperor (1987) | Rain Man (1988) | Driving Miss Daisy (1989)
1990s: Dances With Wolves (1990) | The Silence of the Lambs (1991) | Unforgiven (1992) | Schindler's List (1993) | Forrest Gump (1994) | Braveheart (1995) | The English Patient (1996) | Titanic (1997) | Shakespeare in Love (1998) | American Beauty (1999)
21st century: The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003)

A visit to Nashville, Tennessee

I spent most of Saturday in Nashville last weekend, the first time I had ever been there. I was there in order to speak on Brexit to a professional conference, but applying the Woodrow Wilson principle meant that I had some time to look around town, though not to take in any of its musical heritage. My old friend H had briefed me about one of the most extraordinary things I have seen in America: a full-scale replica of the Parthenon as it would have been in its prime (or as that was imagined in the 1890s).

It doesn't quite have the same dramatic setting as the original, but it's a striking effort. The Nashvillians of 1897 went to the trouble of getting plaster casts of the Elgin Marbles and filling in the bits that they thought were missing as best they could. It's a really striking piece of work.

But then you get inside. And, good lord, the statue of Pallas Athena, reputedly the largest indoor statue in the Western world, which dates not from 1897 but from 1990, well,

It's difficult for a mere photograph to convey quite how disturbing arresting Alan LeQuire has made it.

The detail on, for instance, the goddess's shield is incredible.
That's pretty mind-blowing. The rest of Nashville's monuments are more normal stuff. There is a nice women's suffrage monument (Tennessee's ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920 was crucial to getting women the right to vote), again by Alan LeQuire, though the position of the sun made it difficult to get good shots:

Over at the Tennessee State Capitol, I was surprised to discover a dead president. Tennessee was the home state of three nineteenth-century presidents, though in fact all three were probably born in North Carolina. The most obscure of the three (despite the Mexican-American War) is the one buried in the Capitol grounds, James Knox Polk; he had also been governor of Tennessee from 1839 to 1841 before becoming president from 1845 to 1849. He died only three months after leaving office; his wife lived on another 42 years in their family home where he was buried in the garden. After she died, their house was demolished and they were both moved here. Apparently there are plans afoot to move them on again to the Polks' country place, in Columbia TN, 75 km south of Nashville.

The two other local-ish presidents are both commemorated with statues on the eastern side of the capitol grounds. Again, the angle of the March sun gave me some difficulty in capturing them, but here's Andrew Johnson (president from Linconln's assassination in 1865 until 1869), by Jim Gray, hidden in the trees on the southeastern corner:

And there's not much doubt about who Tennesseeans' favourite local president is; Andrew Jackson has a splendid equestrian statue outside the capitol, between the one of Johnson and Polk's tomb. It's a replica of the one by Clark Mills in Lafayette Park in DC (though the plaque at the base suggests inaccurately that it's the other way round), so I wasn't too worried about catching the detail. The capitol itself is rather nice.

So that's Nashville. I don't know if I will ever be there again, but at least I can say I've been.

The trip ended on what I thought was a flattering note: when I requested a glass of wine in the airport bar, I was asked to prove my age! Readers, I turn 52 next month. Alas, my friend Natalie (who actually lives in Tennessee, though at the other end) informs me that all customers are carded by law, so the question was not as complimentary as I thought.