No doubt this film has one of the simpler stories from the list – Boy Meets Girl.
And that’s it. We only see their first date – the chance meeting between Marty (Ernest Borgnine) and Clara (Betsy Blair) at a New York dancehall. They’ve each been dragged there by friends, their eyes meet across a crowded room, they get to talking, they have a great time, and…the film ends with Marty calling Clara to set up their second date.
What gives this story heft is who Marty and Clara are themselves. He’s a regular-Joe Italian-American butcher, a little low on self-esteem and a little on the stocky side. He’s the only unmarried sibling now that his youngest brother has just gotten hitched, and faces constant badgering from friends, family, and even customers about his bachelorhood. He’s also tempted to try to buy out his boss’s butcher shop – but hesitant to do so, assuming he’d just screw things up. Clara, meanwhile, is a shy, somewhat cloistered spinster, a science teacher at a public school. She’s also weighing a decision about another job opportunity – but is a little afraid to take it, as she’d have to drive herself to work and driving makes her nervous. As does coming out to the ballroom the night she and Marty meet.
Much of the reviews for this film describe both Marty and Clara as “plain”, and so do many of the other characters. They also both each dismiss themselves as plain. Honestly, though, what really seems to draw the pair to each other is that they listen to each other, and encourage each other; Clara hears Marty’s plans for buying out the butcher shop and tells him that they seem sound, and that his ideas make a lot of sense. And Marty urges Clara to take the new job; she’s a science teacher, he says, she’s obviously smart, and should have no trouble figuring out how to safely drive to work.
The reactions of Marty’s friends and family seem most telling, in fact. Some of Marty’s friends who’ve seen him talking to Clara write her off as plain, and very nearly discourage him from calling her again. Marty’s mother meets her briefly during their date, but has just come from a stressful conversation with a recently-widowed sister who warns her that “someday Marty’s going to get married and throw you out”; she later trash-talks Clara to Marty as well, sniffing that “she doesn’t look like an Italian girl”. It paints a subtext that for all their nagging, the people in Marty and Clara’s lives actually want them to stay unmarried and under their own thumbs. They probably also would be more comfortable with Marty and Clara each having their own smaller careers as well; which makes it all the more telling that Marty and Clara talk about their own bigger dreams, and encourage each other in them.
Which makes this a good deal more complex than just a Boy Meets Girl story, and I was pleasantly surprised by that.