Film Friday: Mervyn LeRoy's 'Gypsy' with Rosalind Russell & Natalie Wood

By Daniel S Levine,
“I thought you did it for me mama.”

Once upon a time, every successful Broadway show got a movie. That included the smash hit Gypsy, which came to the screen just a year after the original Broadway production closed in 1961. The original production, based on the memoirs of Gypsy Rose Lee, was a smash hit, with critics loving the music and lyrics by Jule Styne and Stephen Sondheim. Arthur Laerents wrote the book, which was notably more dramatic than other musicals. That all came together for one of the most beloved shows in Broadway history.

Of course, great Broadway shows don't always make for great films. While most of the good Broadway-based musicals are well remembered today, mostly thanks to the lavish praise and heaps of awards that went to them, Mervyn LeRoy's Gypsy seems relatively forgotten, despite how astounding it is. It's actually far more modern than you may expect from an early '60s musical. By that time, musicals were bloated, three-hour affairs with overtures, exit music and intermissions. But Gypsy has none of that and yet it still embraces the full theatricality of Broadway.

At the heart of Gypsy is the mother-daughter relationship, with Rose (Rosalind Russell) dreaming big for her two daughters, June (Ann Jillian) and Louise (Natalie Wood). She gets some help from agent Herbie (Karl Malden), who falls head over heels for Rose and can book gigs for their act. Things run smoothly until Vaudeville dies and June decides she doesn't want to be “Dainty June” forever. That leaves Rose with the talent-less Louise, who she still insists must be in an act. But Louise has grown up by now and Rose refuses to see that until it's too late.

Gypsy is held together by incredible music, but it's strength also lies in the lyrics. Sonheim's lyrics are constantly pushing the story, integrated seamlessly. It's truly wonderful to see Rosalind Russell go from delivering dialogue to belting out a song in one breath, like the jump to “Mr. Goldstone, I Love You” or when she sings to her father “Some People.” We know these songs, but in the film, they don't stick out like set-pieces. You can't pull out some of them and expect them to make sense without understanding the story. Even “Everything's Coming Up Roses” and “Small World” are parts of the Gypsy puzzle – they can't exist without the musical and the musical can't exist without them.

The acting in Gypsy is also notably better than other musicals at the time, mostly because they were still stuck with traditional, often cardboard performances. Had West Side Story (1961) not had a brilliant creative team behind it and an amazing supporting cast, it probably wouldn't have been as good as it is. For Gypsy, it all rests on the shoulders of three incredibly talented stars who had plenty of experience outside of musicals to carry the more dramatic sequences in between.

Natalie Wood, of course, put her West Side Story experience to good use with the music (and yes, she actually gets to sing this time), but she got to show off her fiery talents as an actress. Russell (who didn't sing all of her songs – she couldn't quite reach those notes) is perfectly boisterous as Rose, showing that she hadn't lost an ounce of the comic timing she developed 20 years prior in His Girl Friday (1940) and other films. Then there's Karl Malden, who one might never have expected to be in a musical, but here he is, giving one of the great unconventional male lead performances.

Credit must go to LeRoy for ensuring that Gypsy turned out as a tight, 143-minute film instead of a lumbering 180-minute musical epic like My Fair Lady (1964) or The Sound of Music (1965). LeRoy isn't a name many are familiar with, but he'd been producing and directing films since the late 1920s and even produced The Wizard of Oz (1939). So, it may seem surprising that someone so entrenched in Hollywood would decide to go against the grain in the 1960s with his chance at directing a Broadway-based film. He trimmed out the fat – even chopping out “Together Wherever We Go” – to keep the action moving.

He isn't a showy director either, and stages the action perfectly. One of the most heartbreaking scenes in the film comes at midpoint, when Rose belts out “Everything's Coming Up Roses” at the train station. Everything about that moment should seem exciting, but the image is defined by Louise and Herbie staring blankly at Rose. That's an example of how film is all about the image. There's unease as she sings the song, because you see how disappointed the two are that Rose is still dreaming.

At the end, though, Rose really does get to fulfill her dream. She takes that turn in front of those empty seats, but the only person left that's important saw it – Louise. After all, Louise really knew what the dream was, even if Rose herself couldn't figure it out.

On Home Video: Despite the musical's stature, Gypsy's Blu-Ray release is only available online and was released under the Warner archive label. It's a gorgeous release and includes two cut numbers (including “Together Wherever We Go”). Sure, a little documentary on the making of the film would have been nice, but the film does speak (or sing) for itself.

If Gypsy is one of the greatest Broadway musicals ever staged, than the film did justice to it. It's lack of awards success should invalidate gold statues for everyone. Let it entertain you, because there never was and never will be anything like Gypsy.

You can talk about this film and others at the Film Friday Facebook page. You can check out past Film Friday columns here.

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