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Filmed Locally - The Model and the Marriage Broker

Written By The Mountain Eagle on 4/5/24 | 4/5/24

By Bradley Towle

SHARON SPRINGS — “The Model and The Marriage Broker” is a 1951 romantic comedy starring two of Hollywood’s best midcentury character actors, Thelma Ritter and Zero Mostel. Mostel has only a small part, which is unfortunate given that it would be the last time filmgoers would see him on the big screen for over a decade (more on that in a bit). Thelma Ritter plays Mae Swasey, the titular “Marriage Broker” who runs a business as a matchmaker for those searching for love— a midcentury flesh-and-blood dating app, if you will. She remains at the film’s center throughout, imbuing it with her trademark wit and presence as various characters come in and out of her world. Her cynical approach to matchmaking runs into challenges as some who had unknowingly fallen prey to her schemes feel betrayed. When she meets model Kitty Bennett (played by Jeanne Crain), “and can’t resist meddling in her life by disentangling her from a married man and fixing her up with a nice radiologist.” Cue the hijinx. 

Shot in June and July 1951, characters in the film reference Sharon Springs as if it needs no further explanation, an indicator of the village’s notoriety during the heyday of its bathhouse era. Most of the exterior shots in the film are of New York City (the Flat Iron building features prominently throughout), and most interiors are constructed sets. The brief sojourn to Sharon Springs that the characters take toward the film’s end may be of local interest. It is unclear if the shots are Hollywood facsimiles of the resorts and springs or if they are documented relics of the village’s past. 

Released in January of 1952, the movie arrived just as a new, somewhat unfortunate era had begun to unfold in American cinema. As it became more common for American households to own a television, the film industry scrambled for ways to get people, primarily a growing population of suburbanites, to the theaters. Lobbyists from Hollywood even met with President Eisenhower to request assistance, citing a dramatic loss in revenue due to the convenience and proliferation of home television sets (their pleas did not move Eisenhower). Color was not a new option for films, but it began to emerge as a leg up on black-and-white television. Additionally, the early 1950s saw Hollywood invest heavily in Cinemascope (which widened the aspect ratio and provided a more dramatic and cinematic look) and experiments in 3-D to challenge television’s appeal. “The Model and The Marriage Broker” screenwriter Walter Reisch suggested that 20th Century Fox production head Daryll Zanuck had become so consumed with developing CinemaScope that he lost interest in promoting the film, leading to an underwhelming box office release. “Zanuck was so involved in CinemaScope and had put so much money and publicity into CinemaScope that he simply treated this picture as a stepchild,” claimed Reisch. As Robert Phillip Kolker identified in “A Cinema of Loneliness,” studios “squandered their efforts on technical experiments…and on overblown biblical and Roman epics.” Of course, there were far more nefarious outcomes than goofy films and technical experiments.

But it wasn’t just suburbanites with televisions that unsettled the film industry in the early 1950s. Senator Joseph McCarthy’s hearings of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) had begun to reach its zenith. The insecurity established by McCarthy’s despicable political stunt disguised as a patriotic ousting of Communists drove Hollywood to play it safe for most of the ensuing decade. Screenwriters, actors, and more found themselves targets for McCarthy’s interrogations, leading to the infamous blacklist that ruined (and claimed) many lives. At issue was anyone’s involvement in the Communist Party, which had grown in number in the Depression-era 30s (with capitalism’s failure, many were open to other ideas). Screenwriters, actors, and more within the Hollywood ranks who may have dabbled in Communism, attended parties, meetings, or even donated to the party soon found themselves without a career. One did not have to have been a member of the Communist Party to end up in McCarthy’s crosshairs. Recently, Christopher Nolan’s “Oppenheimer” depicted how J. Robert Oppenheimer’s “intellectual curiosity” in Communism and an affair with a party member led to the unnecessary revocation of his security clearance. Some were threatened and ordered to name names as the trials went on. On January 29, 1952, Martin Berkely identified Zero Mostel as a Communist, leading to his resultant blacklisting. “The Model and The Marriage Broker,” released only weeks earlier, would be Mostel’s last Hollywood film until 1966 (Mostel did begin to work again in theater and television in 1957 and 1959, respectively). When subpoenaed to testify before the HUAC in 1954, Mostel refused to name names and taunted HUAC members. Mostel had only recently returned to acting in film after his contract with MGM had been terminated for protesting the 1942 film “Tennessee Johnson,” joining others in decrying the film’s portrayal of President Andrew Johnson. The protestors rightly claimed the film downplayed the racism of Lincoln’s unfortunate successor. It was not until Elia Kazan cast him in 1950’s “Panic in The Streets” that Mostel returned to the big screen, only to be blacklisted two years later. “I thought him an extraordinary artist and a delightful companion,” said Kazan. “One of the funniest and most original men I’d ever met. He was one of the three people whom I rescued from the “industry’s” blacklist. For a long time, Zero had not been able to get work in films, but I got him in my film.” Ironically, Kazan provided the HUAC with eight names in April 1952. 

In a broader context, “The Model and The Marriage Broker” offers a reference point for a moment in time when the film industry entered somewhat of an identity crisis resulting from the wider availability of home television sets, a moment easy enough to liken to the recent threat to theaters from streaming services, and the decrease in attendance as a result. The dark cloud and lives ruined resulting from the despicable McCarthy hearings altered not only the kinds of risks studios would take but also stole away a decade of output from such talents as Zero Mostel. Locally, the film illuminates just how well-known the spas of Sharon Springs were in the early to mid-20th century. However, a mystery remains! Were the scenes in Sharon Springs filmed here in Schoharie County, or were they the invention of talented Hollywood set designers? Was another town used as a stand-in? See the accompanying photos with this article. If you have any thoughts, please email me at mountaineaglebradley@gmail.com


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