LIVE: The Golden Age of TV Drama (I)

Welcome to another Wildcard Wednesday and the start of our series on notable episodes of live anthology dramas of the ’50s. Over these next five weeks, we’ll be highlighting seven original teleplays written by some of the medium’s most talented writers. A handful of these are available on DVD, and some of them have even been adapted for feature films.


This is the case with the first play at which we’re looking, Marty, which aired on The Philco-Goodyear Television Playhouse on May 24, 1953 and was written by Paddy Chayefsky, TV drama’s first wonderkid. This production has been released on DVD and is available for screening online (search for it on YouTube). The text was published in a ’50s anthology of Chayefsky’s television plays. Directed by Delbert Mann, the production starred Rod Steiger as the titular Marty, an unmarried (and unattractive) butcher in his mid-30s who lives with his aged Italian mother (Esther Minciotti). Sparks fly for Marty when he meets wallflower Clara, played by the incredibly talented Nancy Marchand, at a dance. Meanwhile, a conversation with Marty’s aunt, whose new daughter-in-law seeks to have her moved out of their house, leads our protagonist’s mother to fear that her son’s inevitable marriage will eventually bring about her loneliness as well. With both Marty’s mom and and his friends (who think Clara’s nothing more than a “dog”)  discouraging him from seeing the woman again, he has a choice to make: continued loneliness or potential happiness. (SPOILER ALERT: He chooses the latter.)


With only 50 minutes of allowed time, Chayefsky’s story is forced to unfold in a mere eight scenes, confining the action to a two-day period. As with all live television of TV’s first national decade, coming from New York and featuring a cast and crew trained primarily on the stage, the medium’s theatricality is to be expected (as are the accompanying limitations). Not surprisingly, this connection to the theatre is what makes Marty so raw, and at the same time, so artificial. (This is why live TV is such a precious art form and as I’ve written here in the past, this is what television was designed to bring us — warts and all.) Viewing this TV play today is a lot like looking at the subliminal schism forming in the American theatre at the time: Method realism vs. technical magic. While Chayefsky’s teleplay obviously tailors itself to the former, giving truthful man-on-the street sounding dialogue to simple (but richly explorable) characters, both the technical difficulties that plague live television and the performances of some of the older members of the cast conspire to remind us that Marty is only a theatrical presentation.


The most guilty participant is Minciotti, whose shocking confrontation with her widowed sister leads her into a melodramatic mode that she dons for all of her remaining scenes. As an Italian mother, it could be argued that her histrionics are believable, but to audiences accustomed to uber-natural (which, in itself, is as phony as any melodrama could ever be), she’s a major distraction. But the real reason her performance seems out of place is that it doesn’t seem to jibe with, as mentioned above, Chayefsky’s nuanced script, and also the performances of Steiger and his love interest. Their scenes, full of bashful first date neuroses, are electric in their unfiltered humanity. Marchand is particularly commendable as the “dog” whom Marty allows to cry on his shoulder after her date leaves with another, more conventionally attractive woman. Their scene on the dance floor, written especially for this medium, in which brightly lit faces are brought — for the first time — into individual living rooms, is live ’50s television at its best: intimate and honest. Furthermore, the playing gives us a glimpse of what great New York theatre looked like at the time, and that, for all it’s naturalism, is a magical sight.


TV audiences and critics of the time seemed to have felt the same, for Chayefsky became the decade’s most preeminent tele-playwright and the play was quickly snapped up by Hollywood. The 1955 film version of Marty is the incarnation with which most are familiar. Showing just how much tastes have changed over the time, one of the three cast members to appear in both versions is the scenery-chewing Minciotti. (To be fair, however, her performance in the motion picture is removed of its hysteria and works in a more organic, well-rounded fashion. In fact, her work in the film is commendable.) Instead of going with Steiger, the producers cast Ernest Borgnine, a schlubbier actor whose appearance is nevertheless smoother than his awkward predecessor. But the biggest mistake was the jettisoning of Marchand in favor of Betsy Blair, who is way too pretty for the plain Clara, no much how much they try to dress her down. Thus, the original thrust of the story — two ordinary people meeting and forming a connection — is lost in both the more familiar (and perhaps digestible) performances and the now only half-appropriate dialogue.


But the 89-minute film (which won an Academy Award and the top award at Cannes) expands the story, giving us more of Marty and Clara’s marathon first date, more of Marty’s interactions with his friends, and more of Marty’s relationship with his family, particularly Jerry Paris as the cousin whose mother plants seeds of worry in her sister’s mind. Thus, Chayefsky’s screenplay improves upon the initial narrative, yielding a more a satisfying viewing experience. So Marty ends up being a better film than television play, but there’s no doubting that Steiger and Marchand’s proximal connection, only made possible by the live TV format, is an unrivaled boon to the latter, and a factor that renders United Artists’ big screen effort as something less truthful, and thus, with a weakened evocativeness. And ultimately, the TV play’s honesty makes the characters, regardless of their expanded and more logical arcs in the film, more remarkably explored on television. So both versions of Chayefsky’s classic are worth seeking out; one for when you want Marty, the other for when you want Marty.




Come back next Wednesday for more live TV drama! And tune in tomorrow for more Xena!