Tuesday, December 22, 2015

GYPSY 1962

Sing out, Louise!
It’s not exactly a picnic being a movie musical fan who’s also a devotee of live musical theater. These distinct yet inherently complementary art forms have made such strange bedfellows over the years, I've found it necessary to run myself through a staggering array of mental acrobatics just to feel ready to commit to even the simple act of watching a film based on a favorite Broadway show.

Sometimes this means I have to ratchet down an overeager anticipation of the sort that usually leads to disappointment (Nine, Dreamgirls). At other times this means I have to hold in check a guarded, over-protective attitude harbored toward a beloved source material (to this day, I’m not entirely sure I hate the film version of Grease so much because I genuinely think it’s a lousy movie, or because its '70s-mandated disco-ification [Spandex in the 50s!] is so at odds with the original show’s satirically nostalgic charm). Upon occasion, if the filmmaker is particularly clever, I find I can surprise myself by being flexible and willing to surrender to an ingenious reinterpretation and reinvention  (Hair, The Wiz, On a Clear Day You Can See Forever).
However, if I’m really committed to giving a movie adapted from a Broadway show the benefit of the doubt, I know my chief duty is to refrain from engaging in that time-honored, ultimately fruitless pastime of all self-appointed musical theater “purists”: stockpiling comparisons and evaluating motion pictures by live theater standards. 
When I let go of the desire for to-the-letter faithful transfers of Broadway shows to the screen and accept the fact that film and stage are two entirely different animals, I always enjoy myself so much more. In fact, of late I've come to appreciate how most of my favorite stage-to-screen musical adaptations have not always been those that have cleaved religiously to the stage production, but rather, those which have discovered a way to translate the essence and excitement of a stage show into cinematic terms (Jesus Christ Superstar, Cabaret, Oliver!).
Happily, I was spared all this with Gypsy due to having discovered the movie version long before I ever knew anything about the well-regarded Broadway show. Equally fortuitous was the fact that I fell in love with this movie while I was still too young to know I wasn’t supposed to.
Rosalind Russell as Rose Hovick
Natalie Wood as Louse Hovick / Gypsy Rose Lee
Karl  Malden as Herbie Sommers
Directed and choreographed by West Side Story’s Jerome Robbins, written by Arthur Laurents (West Side Story, Anyone Can Whistle), music by Jule Styne (Funny Girl, Bells Are Ringing) and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim (you name it), Gypsy, is the highly-fictionalized 1959 Broadway musical based on the memoirs of famed stripper Gypsy Rose Lee. On the strength of Ethel Merman’s star turn and the show’s then-novel integration of song, narrative, and character; Gypsy was already being heralded as a theatrical milestone by the time Warner Bros turned it into a critically lambasted, Top-Ten boxoffice hit motion picture in 1962.
Gypsy was adapted for the screen by Leonard Spigelgass (Pepe, of all things) and directed by The Bad Seed’s Mervyn LeRoy (can you imagine pushy Mama Rose coming across Rhoda Penmark? Gypsy would have had a 10-minute running time).

A backstage musical set in the waning, transitional days of vaudeville, Gypsy is a family drama (some would say tragedy) about Rose Hovick’s stop-at-nothing efforts to make her daughter, blonde and talented “Baby” June, a star. There’s another daughter, of course, the shy and talent-challenged Louise, but that’s a fact the thrice-married Rose makes the best of rather than rejoices in. As the family and their ragtag vaudeville act tour the country, Rose takes up with and secures the managing services of marriage-minded Herbie, a former kiddie talent show host. Meanwhile, her daughters grow restless for another kind of life: June, for a solo career on Broadway, Louise, for a stable home and family.

Four characters, four different dreams. But in Gypsy, only Rose’s dreams matter, which we come to learn is Rose’s one true talent. Mama Rose has a gift for deluding herself into believing her relentless ambition is genuinely in the interest of others. Gypsy’s humor, heart, conflict, and drama derive from the sometimes ruthless lengths Rose is willing to go to make those dreams come true.
"Some People"
In spite of its impressive showing at the boxoffice, the movie version of Gypsy is widely regarded as a disappointment...if not an out-and-out failure. Citing everything from Mervyn LeRoy’s uninspired direction to Rosalind Russell’s notoriously “manipulated” vocals, Gypsy’s reputation as a respectable misfire is so pervasive, few tend to credit it with one of the things it gets absolutely right: it’s an atypically faithful movie adaptation of a stage hit.

Me, I place myself in the opposite camp. While far from what I’d consider a classic, Gypsy is nevertheless one of my favorite movie musicals. It’s tuneful (not a clunker in the bunch!), funny, well-acted (save for that dreadful young Louise and the chorus boy with the overdone Bowery Boys shtick), and one of those rare musicals with genuine dramatic heft. And as good as I think Natalie Wood is in this, the real jewel in Gypsy’s crown is Rosalind Russell. She’s the first Mama Rose I ever saw, and although the role has been better sung and more showily performed, after all these years I’ve never seen anyone come close to Russell in giving Rose Hovick the kind of depth and humanity necessary to make me care about this somewhat monstrous creature.
Rosalind Russell IS Mama Rose to me.
"You'll Never Get Away From Me"

I couldn’t have been more than eight or nine when I saw Gypsy on TV for the first time. My older sister was a rabid Rosalind Russell fan, so watching Gypsy, a musical I knew absolutely nothing about, was not a choice, but a household edict. Viewed on the family’s living room console, Gypsy as first seen by me was in black & white, pan and scan, with commercial interruptions and edits for time. In fact, it wasn’t until many years later when Gypsy aired uncut on cable that I even KNEW the "Little Lamb" number was a part of the film, let alone had the opportunity to see it. (I can hear my partner saying that’s an opportunity he’d gladly pass up.)
But even with these limitations, I thought Gypsy was something pretty special. Being a child myself, I was enthralled, in those pre-Annie / Oliver! days, by a non-kiddie movie where kids played such an integral role in the plot, and similarly, the whole “family” thrust of the dramatic conflict was nicely within the scope of what I could understand. Although I must add, being at an age where my notions of good/bad - hero/villain were still pretty simplistic; the chilling vision of motherhood as presented by the charismatic, likable, yet overweeningly selfish Mama Rose was really quite a shock to the system.
Ann Jillian (age 11) as "Dainty" June Hovick with Caroline the Cow

I remember loving all the musical numbers (especially “You Gotta Get a Gimmick”), thinking Natalie Wood was really a knockout (something I dared not relay to my sisters, lest be teased unmercifully), and just being bowled over by Rosalind Russel’s powerhouse performance. Then, as now, she fairly eclipses everything else about the film for me.

Over the years, as my appreciation for Gypsy grew both in terms of concept and context, the film never ceased being a favorite; even if all those repeat viewings only made me more aware of the film’s many flaws and inadequacies.

When critics hail Gypsy for its seamless integration of song, story, and character; the downbeat themes masked by its cheery vaudeville visage, and the emotional complexity of its lead character, you’ll get no argument from me.
If I have any complaints, it’s that the film’s innocuously cheery, prototypically '60s roadshow approach to the material seriously undercuts what’s so special about Gypsy as a musical property. There’s something disturbingly Eugene O’Neill-ish lurking beneath all that Hovick family dysfunction that the movie only touches upon.
"If Momma Was Married"
Because we’re a country that worships success and achievement, people tend to react to Gypsy Rose Lee’s ultimate attainment of wealth and fame as some kind of happy ending. As if Rose’s cutthroat determination is finally vindicated and Louise’s lonely childhood rewarded. But I always leave the film thinking that nobody’s won a damn thing. Louise winds up with a “dream” that was never really hers; the anonymous adoration of “celebrity” a substitute for a heartbreakingly anonymous childhood. And Rose, in spite of the reconciliatory tone of the fadeout, is, in spite of all of her efforts combating a lifetime of being abandoned, still alone.  
Russell and Wood are both effective at accessing some of the darker corners of their characters (as much as the screenplay allows), but it would be years before Hollywood felt comfortable reshaping the movie musicaltraditionally a family-oriented genreto accommodate more serious themes (Sweeney Todd, Cabaret, All That Jazz, Into the Woods).

"Rose's Turn"

Movie musicals were having a hard go of it in the 1960s, and studios hedged their bets wherever they could. In Gypsy’s case, this meant turning a groundbreakingly complex, 4-character dysfunctional family musical drama into a splashy, $4 million, widescreen crowd-pleaser. It also meant ignoring the near-unanimous praise heaped on Ethel Merman’s head for what many considered to be her career-defining role and performance (vocally immortalized on the Original Broadway Cast album that seemed to be in every home, by law, when I was growing up), and going with a more skilled actress with marquee recognition. An actress whose biggest drawback was that her voice wasn’t up to the demands of the written-specifically-with-Merman-in-mind musical score. 

Bankable Rosalind Russell, adding a touch of Lavinia Mannon steeliness (Mourning Becomes Electra) to her Auntie Mame steamroller ebullience, controversially stepped into the made-to-order shoes of Ethel Merman in the iconic role of Mama Rose: stage mother to end all stage mothers.
Rosalind Russell's vocals were largely handled by Lisa Kirk
A 2003 CD release of the Gypsy soundtrack included a few outtake samples
of Russell singing unassisted. 

After having seen Ethel Merman in the movies Call Me Madam and There’s No Business Like Show Business, it’s hard for me not to appreciate the soundness of any decision designed to keep her off the screen (although I have to concede she’s pleasant and very un-Ethel Merman like in those early Eddie Cantor musicals). However, the by-product of Merman being passed over has been the fostering of an idealized “What if?” scenario regarding Merman recreating her greatest stage success onscreen, A fantasy scenario that has followed Rosalind Russell’s Gypsy around like one of Madame Rose’s trunks.

But speculating about what was missed in not granting Merman the opportunity to play onscreen the role she originated onstage, fails to take into account what a significant contribution an actress of Russell’s caliber (equally deft at playing comedy or drama) brings to a movie this stagy and set-bound. 
"Everything's Coming Up Roses"

Natalie Wood, fresh off of doing whatever she thought she was doing with that Puerto Rican accent in West Side Story (1961), was cast as late-blooming ecdysiast, Gypsy Rose Lee.
Natalie Wood has always held a lot of appeal for me, and her genuinely sweet persona is used to great effect during the film’s first half, just as her remarkable figure and stunning beauty provide a perfect contrast/payoff in the second. I’m not sure how she does it (star quality alone?) but her Louise looms larger in the film than it does in any stage production of Gypsy I’ve ever seen. That Wood naturally has the ability to make you care about her is one of the reasons I think her rather underwritten role carries so much poignancy.
Natalie Wood shines brightest in her quiet scenes. Consequently, her big, dressing room outburst moment is, for me, her weakest. But in delivering a few well-placed snarky lines to her meddlesome mom, Wood’s transformation from mouse to sardonic cat is a delight.
"Let Me Entertain You"
Gypsy afforded Natalie Wood a rare opportunity to do her own singing.
To help with her strip routines she visited a Sunset Blvd strip club where
strippers had names like Fran Sinatra and Natalie Should

In defense of "Little Lamb"

Maybe it’s because I was deprived of it for so many years. Maybe it’s because Natalie Wood’s vocals remind me of Audrey Hepburn singing “Moon River” in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Maybe it’s because all my taste is in my mouth. Whatever the reason, “Little Lamb,” a song so maudlin it would make Mother Teresa roll her eyes, is my favorite song in the film.
I love that it is the single, solitary moment afforded the pushed-to-the-sidelines Louise, and the first time we get to hear about what someone else feels besides Rose. This external internal monologue captures so perfectly a child’s loneliness (associating sadness with what should be a happy occasion) with the single lyric: “Little cat. Little cat. Oh, why do you look so blue? Did somebody paint you like that, or is it your birthday, too?” 
That just knocks me the hell out. Reduced to waterworks each and every time.

Most musicals have draggy second acts, but Act II of Gypsy has two wonderful numbers: The show-stopping “You Gotta Get a Gimmick” and that masterfully-constructed musical nervous breakdown, “Rose’s Turn.”
"You Gotta Get a Gimmick"
Roxanne Arlen as Electra, Betty Bruce as Tessie Tura, and Faith Dane as Mazeppa

The one number that's perfectly fine but that I could do without is "All I Need Is The Girl". But this likely has to do with the song being done to death on TV variety shows long before I ever saw Gypsy. But the rousing "Mr. Goldstone We Love You" is a number I could watch a hundred times.  
"Mr. Goldstone, I Love You"
That's character actor Ben Lessy as Mr. Goldstone -  dubbed Mervyn Goldstone in
inside-joke honor of director Mervyn LeRoy

It's a shame the cute "Together Wherever We Go" number was deleted from the film before its release. Karl Malden had all of his singing bits (he sang briefly in "You'll Never Get Away From Me") left on the cutting room floor. Happily, 16mm prints of both numbers appear as part of the extras on the Gypsy DVD.
"Together Wherever We Go"

One of the things I like most about Gypsy and why I think it’s so deserving of its status as one of the greatest American musicals, is that one could talk to fans and detractors of the show all day and never hear the exact same take on Mama Rose. In spite of her dominating presence in every scene of the musical, hers is a character influenced as much by a particular actress’s interpretation as by the audience’s response to her behavior.
"Don't you DARE answer that phone when I'm yelling at you!"
That's Jean Willes quaking in her boots as Mr. Grantzinger's secretary

I’m one of those who sees Mama Rose as (to quote Lewis Carroll on the topic of unicorns) a “fascinating monster.”  She’s pitiable and perhaps sympathetic in that she’s a woman clearly driven by frustration (what outlets did a woman with her brains, drive, and ambition have in the 1920s?), selfish desire, and her own childhood abandonment; but her treatment of her daughtersall in the name of lovequalifies her as a largely detestable character.
And as a look at some of my favorite films with strong female characters will reveal (Blue Jasmine, Queen Bee, Mommie DearestAngel Face, The Day of the Locust, Darling, Hedda), I have a real affinity for fabulous monsters.

Rosalind Russell, in not shying away from Rose’s unpleasant side, gives a portrait of a woman of contradiction. Contradictions so keenly felt during the “Rose’s Turn” number, that by the time mother and daughter take a hesitant stab at reconciliation at the finale, the scene resonates with melancholy. Melancholy because (if you’re as old as me and your parents are no longer around) it seems to be the inevitable legacy of the adult child to one day realize that one's parents, even at their worst and most flawed, were never more or less than simply human.
"Madame Rose and her daughter Gypsy!"

The real-life Gypsy Rose Lee appeared onscreen opposite her motion picture mother,
Rosalind Russell in the 1966 comedy, The Trouble With Angels

"Mama's Talking Soft," a song composed by Styne & Sondheim for Gypsy that failed to make it into the production (it was to be a duet sung by June & Louise following "Small World"). In 1959, pop star Petula Clark recorded a cover of the song for the B-side of her single, "Where Do I Go From Here?"

"Let Me Entertain You"

Copyright © Ken Anderson  2009 - 2015


  1. With my mini 1960s tape recorder I recorded the audio of the movie when it was first shown on TV and took it out in the field behind my house. While no one was watching I turned it up and strutted back and forth in the weeds like I was the best little stripper in all of Port Clinton, Ohio. Couldn't have been more than 12. The power of movies (and Natalie Wood) on impressionable young minds!

    Love your love for Rosalind Russell. When people argue that she "stole" the role from Ethel Merman I wonder, did they see Merman in There's No Business Like Show Business?? I love Ethel, but...

    I wish I'd seen Angela Lansbury do it in London (I think?) in the 70s and could have died happily without seeing Bette Midler in it.

    I'm so glad you finally covered this Ken. A million thanks! (more Natalie Wood, please--I know you've covered Splendor and Daisy Clover, but I can't be the only Penelope fan can I?)

    1. Max
      That delightful childhood memory is such a great testament to the magic of movies when we're young. My adult quest is to find movies that can make me surrender to their magic in ways similar to what you so amusingly described.
      I always appreciate when people have their personal preferences for certain performers in a role. For "Mame" I would have liked to see anyone but Lucille Ball; I'm one of the few who likes Betty Hutton in "Annie Get Your Gun" (those Judy Garland clips looked woeful); but for "Gypsy" Roz Russell gets my vote. Even though I love Merman on the album.
      It's just my personal taste, but outside of those Eddie Cantor movies and "It's a Mad Mad...World" I've never much liked Merman onscreen.
      And don't get me started with Bette Midler! I've seen "gysy" onstage more than any other musical, but I've never seen any of the major contenders (Lupone, Lansbury, Daly, Peters). Of the lot, I'd wish I had seen Lansbury in it, too.
      As for Natalie Wood in "Penelope", I have the theme song on my iPod, but I've never seen the movie. Some of those 60s suitable-for-Doris-Day comedies scare me. Should I take a chance?
      Thanks a heap, Max!

    2. Ken,

      Penelope might be one of those that movies you had to have caught at the right age and let it grow on you over the decades. I caught it when it first came out. I was around 9. To a young kid I thought it was glamorous--from the sexy animated (and totally 60s) credits to the costume changes, to the New York City locations, and to a scene of NW running through the streets at night in a white satin evening gown (close ups of her tear-stained face...that Johnny Williams score swelling)--well, this little boy was sitting bolt upright in his seat, breathless. I wanted to live like that.

      I think you might appreciate a great deal of it (maybe in between cringing a little). Oh, and NW sings in her own voice in one of those "bohemian" NYC coffee shops of the 1960s. Lots of turtlenecks and sunglasses kind of thing. I'd definitely watch over The Great Race and Sex and the Single Girl.

      One sort of interesting note: it was based on a novel by the same guy who wrote Sylvia, the Carroll Baker movie. He also wrote the novels Sally, and Shirley, which were made into movies. (oh, and Spartacus!) But I guess he preferred troubled women with a single name.

      Sure! Give it a shot. Ken!

    3. Your understanding of how movies work on the young psyche is keen. You're right, certain movies seen at a certain age have a way of getting under one's skin. Especially if they reveal to us a world or vision of life that inspires our emotions and imagination.
      I might check "Penelope" out for the 60s look you describe. Wood certainly was gorgeous at that time.
      As I look over the cast list, I think the male co-stars are what give me pause (Dick Shawn? Peter Falk?)
      Thanks for the tip!
      By the way, wonderful factoid about that author- Spartacus to Penelope...I'd never guess!

  2. I'm old enough to have seen Merman in the role on Broadway. Like Andrews losing the film version My Fair Lady. It was a crime that Merman lost the film role that was written for her. For Me Russell and Lansbury were too lady like for Rose. Tyne Daly was a copycat Merman. B.Peters was the worst choice. Patti LuPone came the closes to Merman in singing and acting the part. I've lived with this show since 1959, so this is my view of it.

    1. Wow, you managed to see the original production, I envy you so much! I would like to know your opinion, as someone who remembers Ethel Merman at her best, about Imelda Staunton's Rose. You can find some bits on YouTube, and the whole show will be broadcast by BBC in a few days (so more scenes to come, I guess). Have you seen Julie Andrews in "My Fair Lady" too, by any chance?

    2. Hi Tony
      That's wonderful that you had the opportunity to see Merman! I can understand your loyalty to her performance.
      I wish I were able to compare some of the other Roses over the years, but I only have their vocal performances to go by. Of the lot, I've found only Midler and Peters to be the hardest to listen to.
      Thank you so much for commenting. Sure, you're expressing your personal viewpoint, but at least it's one born of actually having had the experience of seeing what most of us only know by reputation

    3. I talked about Imelda Staunton in one of my replys but it didn'y show up here. Anyway in short, GYPSY hadn't played the West End since the seventies. So to now have a new production of it now, it's almost like new to many young theater goers. Staunton is a fine stage actress with a singing voice. But in my thinking she lacks the power of a Merman or LuPone to sing the score as it was written.For me that is somewhat of a disappointment. But for most that won't matter much.

  3. Dear Ken: Hi! Thank you for coming to the defense of this unfairly lambasted film!

    I, too, think Russell is spectacular. It seems that all of her dramatic efforts ("The Velvet Touch," "The Guilt of Janet Ames". etc.) were ridiculed at the time of their release, and continue to be today. But I think there's something fascinating about Russell as a dramatic actress. I recently saw "Mourning Becomes Electra" again and think she gets so many things right about her role: the steely carriage, the military-type commands to others (most especially her brother), and the moments where the mask slips and her fear and vulnerability show. And I would say the same about her performance in "Gypsy." She takes an unlikable character and isn't afraid to let her be unlikable.

    (Incidentally, I have the old vinyl version of the soundtrack LP and find it curious that while Lisa Kirk's version of "Rose's Turn" is on the album, in the film itself the vocal is all Russell until the "I Had a Dream. . ." section. Russell is quite persuasive in this song, especially her suddenly clear-eyed take on the line, "Mama's gotta let go.")

    I'd also like to say a word for LeRoy's direction. One thing he gets absolutely right is making Louise the emotional center of the film. In the numbers "All I Need is the Girl" and "You Gotta Have a Gimmick" he repeatedly gives us close-ups of Wood to show us how these moments are helping Louise mature and grow, first into a young woman with romantic longings and then into a woman eager to be an adult and the center of attention for a change. I also love the opening shot of the film, right after the credits, when Leroy dolleys in slowly on that theatre marquee. Something about that shot just gives me goosebumps!

    Thanks for another enjoyable and perceptive review, Ken!

    1. Hi David
      Yes, I think of this as an unfairly lambasted film, too. During my dancing days, the general consensus among the theater geek crowd I hung out with was that the movie was an inferior adaptation of the show (mind you, this was from kids younger than myself...so what were they basing this opinion on?).
      I always see people's point when they detail for me the things that don't work in the film version for them, but it always comes down to subjective assessment.
      I'm partial to Rosalind Russell, so that helps.

      I too think Russell is a very accomplished dramatic actress. My partner is very fond of her "Mourning Becomes Electra" and his sentiments echo your own.
      All that you detail abut the way Russell is able to bring so many levels and so much shading to her performances is exactly why I think her Rose works.
      Most of the performers I've seen play Mama Rose on one note: determination. Russell always let's the desperation and vicarious thrill come through. Rose to me seems to always be living a life once-removed...through June or Louise. Determination and strong will is only part of the mix.

      And yes, Russell is awfully good during "Rose's Turn". The mixing of the vocals is excellent. Lisa Kirk was such a find. I always wished they had found someone who actually sounded like Audrey Hepburn for "My Fair Lady" I've always loathed Marni Nixon's antiseptic voice.

      A good point you make about how (seamlessly) emphasis is placed on Louise in the film version. I hadn't thought of it, but that is specifically way the role of Louise always seems larger onscreen and so surprisingly small when I see it onstage.
      I'm going to have to keep an eye out for that opening shot now that you've made me aware of it. I have a screencap of the Uncle Jocko marquee I was going to use, but I don't recall the structure of the shot.
      Thank you for commenting, David, and I'm happy you enjoyed the post!

  4. Wonderful review. I love this movie version. I know people just think it's terrible, but I love it. Roz knew how to act for the camera, her performance has alot of subtle stuff that Ethel couldn't do. You don't need much characterization to do Reno Sweeney or Annie Get your Gun. Her voice of course was unmatchable.

    Roz was great at playing those wry sardonic characters. Watch enough of her movies and you will see variations of the same schtick. Fun.

    I can always tell if it's a good Mama Rose by how they say " I was born too early and started..." Roz did it perfectly. All the others I've seen screamed that line like it was a battle cry.

    Thanks Ken for putting that review up

    1. Hi Michael, and thanks!
      Yes, I kind of think Russell was ideally suited for the role. As you note, both her acting and comedy style was better calibrated for the intimacy of a camera. Merman, for all her talent, always seemed unable to ratchet her "bigness" down to human scale.

      Like you, I also think Russell's wry way with a comedy line and throwaway delivery is impeccable. I love the the comedy timing in her exchanges with Tessie Tura.

      Lastly, that's a great moment and line of dialog you use as a test of how good a particular Mama Rose is! And you're right, i rarely have encountered anyone delivering it with so much regret, self-recrimination, and anger as Russell.
      I sometimes think if people could get past the fact that Russell was over her head vocally as Mama Rose, they might appreciate that she was firmly within her element dramatically.
      Thank you for sharing you thoughts on this film! wonderful

  5. Hi Ken,
    I see we grew up watching "Gypsy" the same way!

    I've seen this version a million times as a teen, but need to watch it again, now that I've read your post...I do that a lot ; )

    Quick take on the '62 "Gypsy":
    Roz was a fine film Mama Rose. Ethel Merman was a singing Shelley Winters! Do you remember the "Lucy" episode during this era, where Merman goes incognito where Lucy lives, who then proceeds to teach Ethel in disguise to sing just like The Merm? "Just be loud and nasal!" Hilarious and on-target...

    I always thought Natalie was like Elizabeth Taylor: When they got a role they related to, they wholeheartedly surrendered to it, even if it went to some tough emotional places. Wood had a crazy stage mother and I'm sure this attracted her to "Gypsy."

    "Gypsy" is one of those afternoon movies that brings back a lot of memories as a kid fascinated by movie stars...great read as always.

    Do you think Barbra Streisand will realize her dream of being show business' oldest Mama Rose? MeeMaw Rose?

    Happy Holidays and thanks for writing such a fine, fun blog!


    1. Hi Rick
      "Singing Shelly Winters" Ha! Now I can't dislodge the image of Ethel merman being cast as Bel in "the Poseidon Adventure" (with ex-husband Borgnine across the table).

      I totally remember that "Here's Lucy" episode you speak of! Just like when she appears as herself on "that Girl", Merman always seemed willing to poke fun at her limitations as a performer.
      With only her handful of movie and TV appearances to go by, I'm not sure anyone could ever persuade me that her screen "Gypsy" would be any better. Sometimes what's memorable onstage is best kept there.

      I kind of forgot about Natalie Wood and her own stage mother roles. I don't know much about Natalie Wood's professional training, but your comparison of her to Taylor seems apt, in that (to my eye, anyway) they both strike me as instinct actors. What they lack in technique to draw upon, they supply emotionally. And if it's a role that resonates with then, i agree, they can be very raw.

      Since it sounds as though we had a similar childhood experience of "Gypsy" I wonder, were you shocked the first time you got to see the film in widescreen or color? After so many years of those tiny pan and scan images, the first time I saw it in widescreen I remember being blown away that all three strippers were actually visible at the same time in the "Gotta Get a Gimmick" number.

      And as for Streisand doing "Gypsy", I would LOVE to see that, but I get the feeling that boat has sailed. She really is too old I think. Wasn't Cher trying to get a version of it made once?
      With the TV mania for Glee-like rendering of Broadway hits, maybe a "Gypsy-Live" is in the future with Madonna as Mama Rose (God help us).
      Happy Holidays, Rick, and a big thanks for commenting!

    2. Ken, Would you believe I have never seen Gypsy as an adult? I just put it at the top of my Netflix queue...an action you often cause me to do!

      I think Streisand would have been great as Mama Rose 25 years ago. Cher was Jerry Herman's pick for the Mame musical remake back in 2000. But Cher, who had socialized with older stars like Roz Russell and Lucille Ball, concluded one star had already played Mame perfectly...and it wasn't Lucy! Cher cut that dream loose, and I hope Babs does the same!

      By the way, I just watched "There's No Business Like Show Business" last night on Netflix streaming for free. That was another musical that was a fixture on the afternoon movies. And my sister and I would crack up over Ethel Merman's brash/grating personality and delivery. About a decade before "Gypsy," the Fox makeup and wardrobe department already had their work cut out for making the 40-something Ethel ready for her close-ups! I always wondered what The Merm thought about Marilyn at her zenith, vamping her way through "Heatwave," etc. I'm sure they were very Helen Lawson-esque!

      Look forward to your posts in 2016!

    3. Hi Rick
      I can certainly imagine “Gypsy” being one of those films one sees on TV as a child, and then never really takes the time to rewatch as an adult (that’s my experience of “Oklahoma”. I saw the film as a kid and never again). I’m glad you’ve been intrigued enough to give it another look-see. If I do inspire you to move a film or two to the top of your Netflix queue, I hope I only lead you pleasant experiences.

      And thanks for reminding me that the Cher rumors were about “Mame”. She was a smart cookie to pass on it, for although I think she would have been great (she played a very Mame like character in “Tea with Mussolini”) she was right in saying the role had been done to perfection already.

      “There’s No Business Like…” is a source of hilarity around our house, too. My partner and I crack up over Merman’s take-no-prisoner’s kind of acting, and get a kick out of the flaming Johnny Ray, and how his role (no interest in girls, stays off to himself, hiding a secret) is so codified gay.
      In all these years I don’t think I’ve ever read anything about what Merman thought of Monroe, but their scene together DOES reek of Helen Lawson!
      Thanks, Rick! Happy holidays to you!

  6. Hi Ken - Merry merry to you and yours!
    Thank you so much for covering this "film that we shouldn't love," according to the theater purists. I too think Ethel Merman is a musical genius and I love the original cast album of Gypsy, but I also happen to really, really enjoy the movie.

    I envy those like Tony Paradise who got to see Merman do it live...I have no doubt Ethel had am amazing stage presence that cast a spell over the audience. BUT, as far as I can see in the films Call Me Madam, No Business Like Show Business and Mad, Mad World (as well as those wonderful Lucy shows), Merman had a one-note persona (brassy loud dame) and limited acting range.

    Rosalind Russell is probably the bravest actress of her era. She could play either leading lady or supporting character with equal brilliance. No, she couldn't sing all that well, but she conquered Broadway in a musical after her Hollywood career started to falter. She should have won the Oscar as Auntie Mame. (And should have played the role of the musical Mame onscreen, too!!)

    As Mama Rose, Roz captures all the nuance, comedy, tragedy and psychodrama of the character that I don't think Merman would have been able to convey on film. Musically, Merman is superior, but Roz makes Rose totally her own creation. (And the Styne/Sondheim songs themselves are strong enough so that anyone who can carry a tune can't ruin them!)

    Next to Splendor in the Grass, this is my all-time favorite Natalie Wood movie. I love her vulnerability as Louise, and her angry rebellion later on. And she's sooooooo glamorous and gorgeous in the fabulously cinematic Let Me Entertain You montage.... (picture me acting it out along with her, using my blankie as a boa--to this day!)

    Let's face it, though, (in my opinion) Natalie could not sing AT ALL. (Oh Ken, I can't believe you like Little Lamb!!) But that works perfectly for her character...the real Gypsy discovered her talent and it wasn't singing. To me, Audrey Hepburn is a much much better singer than Wood--I recently watched Funny Face and Breakfast at Tiffany's and thought she had a very pleasant voice. Natalie's is like chalk on a blackboard to me...but God, I love her!!

    What a wonderful Christmas treat to find Gypsy on your amazing blog this morning!!! What a delight!!! Best to you in 2016

    1. Hi Chris
      It’s somewhat surprising to me to read of so many people having fond feelings for this film. Most of my life I’ve only encountered people expressing their disappointment in it. Had it not been for the strong reaction I had to Bette Midler’s version (abject horror) I likely would have always held to the belief that Russell was substandard, but I liked her anyway. Now I’m convinced Mama Rose is one of those roles (like Stanley Kowalski and Hamlet) for which everyone has a personal preference, those differences in tastes not easily compared.

      I too think Rosalind Russell was a brave kind of actress, tackling roles and types that went against expectations. My favorite “That Girl” episodes are two in which Ethel Merman plays herself. She’s delightful as her brassy self, but I’ve found her ill-equipped to do much else.

      And of course, I concur with everything you say about Natalie Wood. Her glam transformation is one of the most effective makeovers of all time. Her stripper montage has always been the big second act payoff for me. The gal can work a runway.
      Some of Natalie Wood’s films I can’t really make it through (Sex and the Single Girl is pure hell) but when she’s good, I think she can be awfully good. I even have to laughingly agree about her not being able to sing…well. What she lacks in technique she makes up for in expressiveness. (By the way, I’m writing this on Christmas Day after watching Natalie in Miracle on 34th St…oh my god…what a cute kid!)

      My partner can barely make it through “Little Lamb” without heading for the hills, but we’ve seen sooo many stage productions of Gypsy and I keep waiting to come across an actress who does this song better. Not a one. In fact, I think I fairly hate the song based on most recordings (one actress –to paraphrase a fave quote I believe was said about Katy Perry – sounds like a cat and a baby in a sack being swung over someone’s head).
      Natalie Wood just nails it, perfectly. (says the majority of one)

      Thanks Chris, always fun to share thoughts on a movie with such a devoted film fan.
      Happy holidays to you!

  7. I had the extremely good fortune to catch GYPSY on a 35mm print at the Astor Theatre several years ago--I'd not seen it previously, and was quite entertained, and returned to the theatre to see it again some time later. I do hope that you, Ken, one day have the same opportunity!

    As for the word "ecdysiast", I had to look up that one. I never knew there was such a fancy word for one who makes their living taking off their clothes in front of others. And if you want a good laugh, search the word at Google and click the button to hear the voice say "ecdysiast"--not sure why, but it sounds hilarious. Also, one of my goals for next year is to use the word "ecdysiast" in an unforced manner in conversation. Or maybe when someone asks me what I do for work, I'll say "ecdysiast" and see if the person just nods casually, pretends to know what it means and moves on.

    It was great to read your review of GYPSY, and thanks for reminding me of "Little Lamb"--also my favourite song from the film! And yes, I did weep during this rather touching song. Of course, I heard someone (a woman) have a bit of a giggle at Natalie Wood's expense during said number. And they say men are the insensitive ones.

    I agree with so much of what you've said about this wonderfully entertaining film, Ken, so I'll just say the following: there's something rather surreal about watching the wholesome Natalie Wood, who looked as if butter wouldn't have melted in her mouth, perform her striptease routine on stage (and all this after singing "Little Lamb"). In this sense, it was a rather effective casting choice. Oh, and Rosalind Russell and Karl Malden were both outstanding--growing up in the 1980s, Malden, to me, was for many years simply that fellow on the American Express commercials!

    1. Hi Mark
      I’m glad you got to see this on the big screen, too! Back in the 80s I saw “Gypsy” at a revival theater that paired it with “Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice”. I loved it. The color and big sound of the orchestrations, especially.

      In real life, Gypsy Rose Lee was known and satirized for her artistic pretensions (the song “Zip” in Pal Joey is an affectionate jab at her), and her referring to herself as an ecdysiast is referenced in the Broadway show but not the film (re: her being the highest paid stripper in the business- “I’m not a stripper. At these prices, I’m an ecdysiast!”).
      I like the idea of your working it into conversation or claiming it as a profession.

      At last, someone besides me and the composers who likes “Little Lamb”! It was almost cut from the play, and, had it not been the only solo of the star, likely cut from the film, too. On stage it served the practical purpose of giving Dainty June and her newsboys time to change from their pajamas into their costumes, but it’s a marvelous character song for Louise.
      When I saw Gypsy on the big screen, you can kind of feel people grow restless, and by the time she gets to “little fish” somebody’s bound to be unable to suppress a giggle or two. The song is just asking for it.
      I’m sure I was the only one there just two notes away from bawling aloud.

      Ah yes, those American Express commercials! Having grown up in San Francisco, I can never see Karl Malden without thinking Michael Douglas is going to show up soon (Streets of San Francisco), so it’s nice to see him opposite Rosalind Russell, who I agree, is outstanding.
      Glad to hear from you Mark, as someone who got to enjoy this film in the presence of an audience, you represent a group arguably as small as those who got to see Merman onstage. Thanks for commenting!

  8. This comment has been removed by the author.

    1. Hi Gregory
      I too think the 60s were a difficult time for musicals, and I think “Gypsy” in being an entertaining film that pleases while never quite reaching the heights of being one of those “goosebunp” movies I’d call a classic, falls short in many of the ways that plagued 60s musicals. I’m always grateful that it was made before it had time to get the over-reverential treatment that turns some movie into bloated monuments (Hello Dolly!), but I’ve always wished the film had more visual style. Also, the musical arrangements are kind of standard-issue

      I too happened upon “Mourning Becomes Electra” on TCM one afternoon. I really was impressed (in spite of falling asleep and never seeing the middle), but my partner ranks it among his favorite films. Russell dramatic or comedic- she could be impressive either way.
      I like how you describe Natalie Wood’s appeal. She really does seem a better actress to me as I’ve grown older. There was a certain kind of 60s bubblehead sexpot role almost every young light comedienne was cast in during the 60s– say Jane Fonda in “Any Wednesday” – that’s my least favorite Natalie Wood role. But when allowed to be somewhat natural, I liked her a lot.
      And another “Penelope” fan! Well, well…I may have to give it a lot after all.

      I’m not a huge fan of Patti Lupone (although I’ve only seen he in “The Baker’s Wife” and that was before she officially BECAME Patti Lupone), but she must be thrilling to see onstage. I saw her at a benefit once and she yell/sang a lot, but she also told a lot of deliciously bitchy anecdotes about Andrew Lloyd Webber, so she can’t be all bad.
      I’d forgotten about that LBJ TV movie (or was it a miniseries?).

      It seems like there are at least enough Mama Rose’s out there by now to please all tastes. Of course, for me, I’m glad Rosalind Russell is the film one.

      Thanks for weighing in on the Mama Rose discussion, Gregory. As always, you have such a vast exposure to the arts to draw upon and contribute. Happy Holidays to you, too!

  9. This comment has been removed by the author.

    1. I agree. Garland would have been fascinating. Some book (perhaps the Russel bio, "Forever Mame"?) claims that Garland was approached, but said she'd only do it if daughter Liza was cast as Gypsy. Warner Bros said NO!

    2. This comment has been removed by the author.

    3. That Judy Davis TV movie is one of my faves! How remarkable to "do" one of the most imitated/parodied performers in the world without ever falling into "Mommie Dearest" -like camp! She amazed me.
      It would have been fascinating to see Garland in this, and certainly young Liza was gangly and ostrich-like enough to make a more realistic Gypsy Rose Lee than the stunning Natalie Wood.

      And i agree with you about the widescreen thing with "Gypsy"> I love it in the vaudeville/stage scenes, but it's such a domestic drama in backstage musical clothes, that the scale of it sometimes throws it off.

      Oh, and thanks for the link to that trailer!

  10. Dear Ken: Hi! I forgot to ask in my comments above--have you ever seen Roz Russell's 1955 screen musical "The Girl Rush"? There's a curious history behind it. Russell starred in "Wonderful Town" on Broadway in 1953 and had an immense personal success. Her husband, producer Fredrick Brisson, decided then that her return to the screen should be in a musical, which he would produce himself. (I wonder if maybe he had to produce it because Roz had no other screen offers--by the mid-1950s she was no longer considered a big movie name, and she was over 40, so probably the studios were not breaking down her door.)

    Anyway, unfortunately, "Girl Rush" is not very good. The songs are nothing special, and the best one--"An Occasional Man"--goes to the delightful Gloria DeHaven as the second female lead. But Russell does all her own singing and dancing and even appears in tights in a few scenes. Even though her material is nothing to shout about, it's obvious that she "gets" musical comedy; she is able to project that slightly heightened sense of reality and movement that allows her to sing and dance without looking silly.

    If you haven't seen it and are interested, I noticed "Girl Rush" is available for streaming through the major on-line retail site (I don't feel like I need to give it a plug by name!). I saw the movie years ago on AMC when they still showed old films. I went through a period in my teens and young adulthood where for my favorite film performers (Doris Day, Merle Oberon, Russell, Margaret Sullavan, etc.), I wanted to see every film they made, which meant I was exposed to a lot of less-than-spectacular cinema along with the occasional gems. (Susan Hayward is another one of my favorites, but with her filmography even I had to draw a line--I couldn't make myself sit through things like "White Witch Doctor" and "The Conqueror.")

    1. Hey David
      I know of the film "Girl Rush" but I've never seen it. I could be mis-remembering this so perhaps you can tell me if I'm wrong.
      I think I tried to settle in to watch "Girl Rush" on TCM or AMC one afternoon (that's a great, campy title, how could I resist?) but in my memory the film opens with a very lame musical number by some fellow, and it so completely turned me off I never bothered with it again.
      I could be thinking of another film entirely, but that's what comes to mind when I think of why I never watched "Girl Rush".
      I looked at a clip of Russell in a number from it on YouTube and I totally see what you mean. She has that musicality and theatricality I frankly find so difficult to teach my own dance students. And as you note so perceptively, it's that "heightened reality" that allows a performer to be big and bright without coming off silly. Sounds like you really understand musical theater!
      I like your youthful desire to see all the films of a favorite star. That's really a way to test your loyalty. I tried that with Glenda Jackson and have largely enjoyed her entire output but even my love for her hasn't proved enough to make me put up with "The Class of Miss MacMichael". Thanks, David!

    2. Ken: I think you are remembering "Girl Rush" correctly. The film opens with Russell's character as a child tagging along with her gambler father through carnivals and side shows. And I think the first musical number is a carnival barker singing "Take a Chance." (Even though I generally like the composers who wrote the score--Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane of "Meet Me in St. Louis" and other films and stage shows--the songs in "Girl Rush" generally don't get any better than the opener.)

  11. GYPSY is good, but not great. Its straight-forward presentation is a good thing. It could have been hacked to bits for film.' I might welcome a re-imagined GYPSY as good as CABARET, but not one as poor as NINE.

    What's the name of the movie? Exactly. And Natalie Wood's performance makes this film exceptional. More specifically, her star power. This is the ONLY Louise who makes me believe that she is going to become a star.

    There is a short close up of Natalie Wood near the end of 'Gimmick' in which her face lights up as she watches the dance. She is young and radiant. Like a star. The insurmountable problem with a stage production of GYPSY is that you never have a star to play Gypsy. The movie gave us that. When Natalie Wood puts on that royal blue gown and looks at herself in the mirror, she steals the picture and Russell never gets it back. Gypsy's success is inevitable. Rose no longer matters. We see how it is going to end.

    Natalie Wood's star power allows her to adroitly handle Russell in the dressing room scene. "Mama, look at me. I'm a star!" And she is. Her strength gives Russell the chance to be credibly bested and gives her something to play in her final speech. Natalie Wood sets up "Rose's Turn" beautifully. Most actresses playing Rose don't get that much to play against. The story benefits mightily from it.

    Karl Malden's contribution is huge. He is a Herbie who has some middle-aged sex in him. He's entirely credible as a consort to Roz Russell. No small accomplishment. While I don't want to imagine their coitus, I like a Herbie who could bed Rose. Malden fills the bill. He projects a lot of strength that Russell plays off beautifully. She would have been lost without a strong Herbie.

    There is much not to like about GYPSY. It is so cheaply produced. Almost everything is shot in a studio and looks it. The desert set for "Everything's Coming Up Roses" looks awful. The desert set for "Together Wherever We Go" looks much worse. Once I finally saw the number on DVD, I knew why it was cut from the film. The set is embarassing. In long shots, it looks NOTHING like a desert. It serves, barely, in more tightly focused dialogue scenes. When they arrive at the burlesque theater, the alley is obviously a painted set. However, Roz Russell always looks terrific in Orry-Kelly designs, despite the fact that they are broke and living in tents. That drives me nuts about this movie.

    Russell had to have been behind that. She was a star and undoubtedly wanted to look like one. But it really undermines her character, as well as the story. They never look to be struggling to get by, as Roz is always so damned polished. Her performance suffers throughout because of this indulgence. She gives a lot as Rose and hits many of the marks. But it's all so damned actressy. She uses the role to give a bravura star performance, but she doesn't try to inhabit the character. Malden and Wood were fresh from working with Elia Kazan, but Russell was from a much earlier era. She is dynamic and can nail a joke with the best of them, but she indicates left and right. She is badly cast and really out of place in this role. I don't hate her Rose. I appreciate her prowess and skill. But she performs Rose, never acts it.

    My favorite part of the film is the scene with the three strippers, culminating in "Ya Gotta Have a Gimmick." The three strippers are perfection.

    Thanks for writing about GYPSY. It really should be appreciated for all that it really does get right about the play.

    1. Hi George
      A lot of great points! I feel the same in regard to how the film benefits from Wood's star quality,Malden's solidness, and the cheap-looking production values - in particular that Hitchcockian desert set.
      I'd never thought about how snazzily Rose is dressed before and how inappropriate it is for her circumstances. That's quite a frock she has at Dainty June's audition at Grantzinger's.
      I particularly liked reading your thoughts about Russell's performance. They differ from mine, but it's refreshing to read specifically where and why her performance comes up short for you. Most people just say she's no Merman and leave it at that. (I never know what to make of that sentiment since it is a BIG reason why I DO like Russell).
      Before the three strippers arrive, almost all the film's comedy falls on Russell's shoulders. It comes as such a relief to hear their not-so-crude backstage patter.
      Thank you so much for expounding so concisely on your feelings about the film. A very nice, thoughtful read!

    2. One can ruminate for hours on GYPSY, and Ms. Staunton has had me ruminating. The director's use of the text in Staunton's production was almost surgical and things in the text that I had never noticed before were identified and used effectively. Even in the first scene with Uncle Jocko, Rose interacts with each daughter in different ways. She's harsh to Louise in the kinds of things she says to her in front of a crowd of people, but coddles June. Staunton didn't shy from it. She's focused on June and what she can get from June. Louise is often more of an annoyance than a child loved and treasured. And that's the crux of the play, isn't it? It continues right through to the last moment. And Lara Pulver's Louise didn't abandon her character at the final moment. She walked off the stage first and walked out alone, leaving her mother to follow. So much better than having them giggle like best girlfriends, as if the previous two decades had not happened at all.

      This director highlighted something crucially important that I had never grasped. In the dressing room scene, Louise says, "Mama, you have got to let go of me!" The director allowed Rose to be a real C**T in that scene, which allowed Louise to get very angry and really tell her mother off, instead of just politely hold ground as many Louises seem to do. And then, in Rose's Turn, we get... "Mama's letting go... Mama's gotta go... Mama's got to let go." There it was, all this time. Sondheim and Laurents built it and Staunton really made something of it, and it was clearly in response to the fight she had just had with her daughter. I've never seen it capitalized on so effectively. Never. And I once got to see Joyce Dewitt in the role!

      One more thought. I always thought Debbie Reynolds would have been a terrific Rose, if she could be persuaded to act more and perform less. She had all the necessary hardness and the propensity to use charm to advance her cause. I can't imagine Carrie Fisher would disagree.

    3. Hi George
      Debbie Reynolds (who showed her hard side to great effect in "What's The Matter With Helen?") is a fascinating choice for Mama Rose! I think she would great.

      I too really got a lot out of the BBC "Gypsy"...it's just so refreshing to see someone play Rose so unsympathetically. I know an actor has to find the human within the monster, but so many Roses I've seen appear to be trying to get the audience to like them.
      A very lively production that gave a very familiar show a great deal of zest.
      Thanks for weighing in on the "latest" version!

  12. Hi Ken,

    Like you I fell hard for this film before I knew I wasn’t supposed to and by then it was too late! I also saw it on TV when I was just a young’un, in color but in the dreaded Pan & Scan, still it quickly became a favorite and I would watch it whenever I happened to run across it. Of course now I own the deluxe version with the excised numbers in the extras.

    As you pointed out it’s a movie with an odd trade-off. I adore every loud clarion trumpet inch of The Merm, Call Me Madam can be a bit much but I’m crazy for every overblown, garish second of There’s No Business Like Show Business, it’s a pity that her knockout stage performance wasn't captured on film and her vocal renditions are inimitable but I’ll admit she was never the most subtle of actresses able to convey delicate emotions. Therein lays the trade-off. Rosalind Russell may not have been an accomplished singer but she’s a far superior actress infusing the overbearing Mama Rose with emotional resonance. While she will never be a sympathetic character Roz is able to provide some insight and offers a little understanding into her mad drive.

    I do love Rosalind Russell and think that of all the possible actresses at the time she was the absolutely right choice when they decided not to go with Merman. I’ve read that the producers wanted Judy Garland, and were promised her when signing the rights over, but that an initial meeting with her went badly when she showed up three hours late. The kicker to that was that the meeting was at her house!! I could see Judy handling the songs brilliantly but I’m not so sure about her suitability for the role. No matter what she did on screen there was just something about her persona that read nice. Even in her final film “I Could Go On Singing” where many of the things she did were selfish and self-serving because of that innate vulnerability you couldn’t hold it against her. That’s a great asset but one that would work against a characterization of Mama Rose, you might understand and even sympathize at times with what Rose does but you don’t really like her.

    Roz on the other hand while still being likable was a tough nut and was unafraid of appearing so and was expert at both comedy and drama. I’ve seen her “Mourning Becomes Electra” which doesn’t thrill me. I think part of that has to do with the fact that I saw the PBS version with Roberta Maxwell and Joan Hackett first, which was a complete rendering of the play, and there’s just so much missing from the 40’s version. Plus the fact that Katina Paxinou is awful as Christine, they offered it to Garbo who at 42 thought it would be ridiculous to play 39 year old Rosalind’s mother. I’ve also seen “The Guilt of Janet Ames” which is so much psychobabble but adore “The Velvet Touch”. Claire Trevor, Sydney Greenstreet and Roz all slay in that one! Anyway she has the requisite balance of silk and sandpaper to make Mama Rose work.

    There’s no question the real Gypsy Rose Lee was more calculating and tough than she is presented here but that's an author's prerogative. I’m glad you mentioned how on stage and in other versions Louise seems a recessive character, necessary in the beginning but she should pop once she become Gypsy. Of the productions I’ve seen the actresses playing her have done good work but none have dominated and claimed the spotlight away from Mama Rose except Natalie Wood. She makes her beautiful, vulnerable and shimmering with star quality and while the character is really secondary until the great showdown scene once she takes over the role your eye is drawn to her.

    1. Hi Joel
      Wonderful thoughts presented on this movie. So many here came across the film in similar ways (TV)- it's nice that young people nowadays can see all of these films (should they care to) in such pristine condition, letterboxed and no commercials.

      Love the story about Garland being late for a meeting held at her own home!
      I too think that Garland's niceness always shines through in her film roles. One of the reasons it has always intrigued me to imagine what kind of Helen Lawson she would have made. it really would have been her first "meanie" role.

      I think I spent so many years thinking that Rosalind Russell was sub-par simply because I thought it was a given, nowadays I can watch "Gypsy" without feeling I am being deprived of anything. Russell's Rose feels very strong for me. Like different actors playing King Lear, I can now appreciate that each interpretation of Mama Rose can be different without necessarily being "better" than another. there are so many out now (the BBC one is now on YouTube), there's probably a Rose to fit every taste!
      And of course, we are lucky to have Natalie Wood as Gypsy. She really is effective in a role that rarely draws much
      I enjoyed reading your comments very much, Joel. I know visitors to the site must feel the same. Thanks!

  13. I really like Karl Malden’s Herbie, he plays him with terrific sensitivity, but knowing that Jack Klugman played him on stage I can picture him doing an equally marvelous job with the role.

    So much sensational music but the highlight of the film for me is always You Gotta Have a Gimmick. It’s specifically these three performers who make so much out of the number, in all the other productions I’ve seen it never has the same sock. I love all the other numbers but as with your fondness for Little Lamb I’ve always had a soft spot for Small World since it provides a quieter moment for the larger than life Mama Rose.

    I really liked the Bette Midler TV version from years ago, she and Patti Lupone are the only actresses I’ve seen perform the role, and I’ve only seen snippets of Lupone on TV that had the vocal chops to sing the material with anything approaching Merman’s ability. I thought Bette did well in the part even if she was occasionally broad, she sang the hell out of Everything’s Coming Up Roses though, and she was close to the proper age for it. I’ve always found it odd that Mama Rose is inevitably played by a woman who has hit at least the 50 mark, probably because of Merman’s precedent, but while it makes sense for the latter part of the film they seem like they started having children awfully late to be believable as the mother of youngsters at the beginning. I don’t think her version is going to ever happen but the thought of the now over 70 Barbra Streisand trying to pull off that trick now is sad. There’s not enough soft focus and Vaseline in the world to make it happen!! And if they use CGI how true can the performance really be? She was actually offered a stage revival of it in the 70’s but since she hated the repetition of the stage she turned it down which is a shame. She would have been the perfect age for it then and heaven knows she would have handled the score beautifully.

    I have however heard nothing but the most lavish praise for the recent London production with Imelda Staunton, love her and she’s supposed to be riveting-not just nailing the acting but the songs as well. Sadly the producers decided not to bring it to the States but it purportedly was filmed and will be showing on PBS sometime next year. I’m waiting with bated breath!

    Be that as it may and despite its being reviled this Russell/Wood high quality production from the last days when the studios still knew how to effortlessly manufacture this type of musical is the gold standard as far as I’m concerned.

    Have you ever seen the two sisters, Gypsy and June Havoc that is, appearances on What’s My Line? A fascinating study in contrasts and similarities. June’s is actually one of the most enjoyable Mystery Guest segments I’ve ever seen, ironically one of the other bests is Rosalind Russell’s when Dorothy Kilgallen thought she was a man! Considering how they are presented in the play and film June comes across as relaxed and natural while Gypsy, fun and funny though she may be seems more regal and grand. Another cool thing which is mentioned in Gypsy’s appearance is that it took place only four days after the original production debuted on Broadway and they all wish her a long run!

    Here’s the links just in case you haven’t seen them. Each is the whole episode but of course you can jump right to them.



    1. Let's hear it for someone liking the Midler version! The first I think. I largely credit Midler with making me appreciate Russell more.
      And you got to see Patti Lupone as well! As I think I've said, my partner and I have seen this show more often than any, but never with a "name" Mama Rose.

      And as a fan of "You Gotta get a Gimmick" you'd appreciate that my partner designed the costumes for a production of Gypsy here in LA, and when the three strippers came on, the show almost stopped for the applause given the costumes. Most people rarely see productions where the costumes deviate significantly from the original designs, but in this instance he designed Miss Electra an electric outfit that had a flashing electronic RKO tower (complete with working lightening bolts and lit buildings) for a headdress. Mazeppa and Tessie were great as well. my favorite costumes EVER for this show.

      I laughed at your musings on Streisand taking up the role, but you do bring up a good point about the middle aged Rose thing. I've only seen it performed by someone who'd be the right age for a grown set of daughters, not kids.

      By the way, thank you so much for the links to the What's My Line? episodes. I've never seen them but I'll take a look after I get a gander at the PBS production you spoke about. if you don't already have it, here's the YouTube link for the complete show. I hope it doesn't get taken down too soon!


      Again, thanks very much, Joel. Your contributions are always so informative and personal. Much obliged!

    2. Holy Moley!

      And here's Tyne Daly: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MtmZ-QHxiEc

    3. Whoa! What's going on? We're up to our hips in Gypsys!
      Thanks for passing this on!

    4. I watched Staunton's production. She's magnificent. She started building her Rose with "For ME. For ME. For ME. For ME. For ME. FORRRRRR MEEEEEEE. And then worked backward to create the awful person who is so blindly narcissistic that she abuses and neglects everyone she encounters, even her own children. Which is, after all, what Laurents wrote. Brava, Ms. Staunton!

    5. This comment has been removed by the author.

    6. Wow! Watched the BBC "Gypsy" on New Year's Eve, and today it's gone! Perfect timing.
      What an outstanding production. I agree with you, George about the power of Stauton’s performance. Probably one the best staged and performed "If Mama Was Married" I've seen. And although no one can touch Natalie Wood's "Little Lamb", yes Gregory, it was so beautifully and sensitively performed. I just loved this production, it made it all feel so fresh. A very powerful Herbie for a change. His scenes with Rose were so touching. If it comes out on DVD I'd recommend it as a must-see.

  14. Ken, just watched the '62 Gypsy and have to say it's much better than the reputation that hangs over it.

    The biggest debit for the film version, I think, is the director--Mervyn LeRoy. The movie's style is solid but kinda stodgy, and looking at LeRoy's credits is not exactly scintillating. Wasn't Stanley Donen or Vincente Minnelli available?

    On other blogs, FB, IMDB, and YouTube, people love to argue about who was a better/or should have played Mama Rose, Maggie the Cat, or Mame, etc. I always wonder why one or the other just can't be different, not better or worse?

    Just watched some YouTube clips of Imelda Staunton, a most ferocious Mama Rose!

    Bit of Gypsy trivia. Do you remember that the first song that Cher sang on her solo variety show was "Let Me Entertain You?" She later admitted that her legs were shaking so bad, she had to hold her knees together. That said, Cher still took off more than Gypsy Rose Lee ever did!

    1. Hi Rick
      I have to agree with you about the choice of LeRoy as director. He really doesn't bring more than competence to the table. My memory is terrible these days, but there was some mention in that Roz Russell bio as to why he was the choice. I believe it had more to do with some kind of professional connection to Russell and her husband than his being particularity right for the job.

      And your observation regarding FB, IMDB, etc. is one of the main reasons their comment sections have felt so valueless to me. Everyone is so invested in defending points of view as either right or wrong; the concept of "different" or personal preference means nothing to the contentious.

      I really enjoyed the Imelda Staunton version a great deal. Hope you get a chance to catch it sometime.

      And no, I don't know that bit about Cher. Or rather, I should say I didn't remember it, I watched all those old variety shows religiously. And I can only imagine what Gypsy Rose Lee would thing of Cher's revealing outfits (she certainly knew how to work that runway each week).
      Thanks for the update, Rick. Interesting to know that the film didn't seem particularly weak to you after having not seen it since you were a kid.

  15. Ken! I’ve been waiting for you to blog about this!

    I *love love* the film of GYPSY. It truly has been unfairly maligned, mostly because of Roz (Arthur Laurents hated it, and so does Sondheim).

    I first saw it in NYC in January 1982 at a theater called the Regency, which showed revivals of older films. Until then, I’d seen snippets of it at various times on TV on local stations, and had of course heard about it since I was a little one. I was knocked out of my seat, I was so electrified.

    Roz is perfect. I agree with everything you mentioned about her powerful performance. She brings out every facet, and makes you even feel sympathetic for her – ironically, one reviewer of the home video back in 1984 said that making Rose a bit sympathetic was a BAD thing. As you said, “determination” alone does not make a fully rounded Rose. The singing was one of the best dub jobs I’ve ever heard.

    Natalie and Karl were also perfect. How well did Miss Wood show two completely different sides of Louise – and how beautiful she was!

    Thank you for writing this piece. I enjoy it so much when lambasted movies that I love get praise. Other film versions of stage musicals that I feel are treated harshly are HALF A SIXPENCE and HELLO, DOLLY! – they are both beautiful films that deserve more recognition (but I know that’s another thread!)

    Happy New Year, God bless!

    1. Hi Michael
      Wow! I envy you for having seen "Gypsy" for the first time on the big screen. No wonder it made such a big impression!
      I tend not to really mind when a favorite film is widely lambasted (any fan of "Xanadu" can't afford to be thin-skinned) but too often a single point of view is taken to be the ONLY point of view.
      For certain folks, "Gypsy" has a lot to recommend it, not the least being the points you bring up: Russell's performance and Natalie Wood portraying so well the subdued and later self-assured Louise.
      And yes, the dubbing job on Russell is remarkable. I remember being very surprised when I discovered she wasn't doing all of her own vocals.
      I have never seen "Half a Sixpence" but I have the soundtrack, which I enjoy.
      I'm glad you enjoyed this post and I know what it means to read a positive or supportive review of a maligned film. It's gratifying because it feels like a more balanced representation. Glad if my post on "Gypsy" provided that for you. Happy New Year, Michael! Thanks for stopping by!

  16. Thanks Ken! - BTW do you have the blu-ray of GYPSY? It's gorgeous! And if you're interested, HALF A SIXPENCE is available on Amazon and the WBShop.com - I'd be curious to see what your take on it would be. It was sadly written off by most critics as just another overproduced late 60s movie musical. It didn't do well in the US at all, but it was a huge hit in the UK. It's really quite lovely, but it does take some stamina to face Tommy Steele's energy (and I mean that in a good way!)

    Thanks again my friend!! :)

    1. I didn't know "Gypsy" was on blu-ray! I can well imagine it looks spectacular.And thanks for the tip about "Sixpence." I've only seen a small bit of it on YouTube but I liked it. You can never tell from just 4 minutes or so, but it's what inspired me to get the soundtrack.
      And maybe the overreaching Tommy Steele won't prove a problem, I'm one of the few who actually likes "Finian's Rainbow".
      Thanks very much, Michael!

  17. Hi Ken, adore your review and I love that Little Lamb song too, Natalie is fantastic and I adored Rosalind Russell in this film. You described her perfectly with that quote. This film was captivating at all levels and beautifully cast.

    1. I know I already said so on twitter, but thanks so much for the kind comments.GYPSY isn't perfect, but it's a perfectly delightful musical with much to recommend it. Not the least being the charm of Natalie Wood, and Rosalind Russell's powerhouse performance. And thanks for showing a bit of "Little Lamb" love here! I catch so much grief for it at home!

  18. Overlong and unpleasant with a strident, overbearing Rosalind Russell playing an overbearing woman is unlikable unlike the wonderful Bernadette Peters who essayed the role on Broadway and was wonderful both overbearing and likable. Donna Butterworth!?
    Beneath comment. Natalie is good enough.

    1. Would love to have seen Peters on stage! And Donna "The Family Jewels" Butterworth?

  19. make that Diane Pace in her only film; sorry Donna Butterworth!

  20. Hi Ken.

    On a Natalie Wood kick here. I'm not sure I can recall another example of the songs in a Broadway musical adaptation being lowered several octaves for the vocally-challenged leading lady, and then have the actress dubbed by somebody else, anyway. A Merman or Patti Lupone-type voice coming out of Rosalind Russell would have sounded ridiculous, so I guess they knew what they were doing.
    I must say the second half of this movie is vastly more enjoyable than the first half. Karl Malden is great throughout. Nobody's idea of a romantic leading man, he always had interesting chemistry with eccentric leading ladies: Russell here, Vivien Leigh in A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE and Carroll Baker in the glorious BABY DOLL. I found Paul Wallace as "Tulsa" kind of depressing. This was obviously his big break and he dances beautifully, but he seems to be pushing every line so hard, like he's desperate to steal the show. A better director would have reigned him in a little.
    Finally, it occurred to me that working on the original stage version of GYPSY and watching Ethel Merman steamroll her way through every song the exact same way (listening to SMALL WORLD is especially exhausting) must have informed Stephen Sondheim's career ever after: he cast actors first, then wrote songs to fit their vocal abilities/limitations. Without Elaine Stritch there would have been no "Ladies Who Lunch", no "Send in the Clowns" without Glynis Johns and no "I'm Still Here" without Yvonne DeCarlo. Even if he hated the movie, I wonder what he thought of Russell's totally in-character performance. Hopefully, he liked it.

    1. Hello, Kip -
      I love that you've been absorbed with Natalie Wood. I often have moments (usually after I've read a memoir or bio) when I watch several films by a particular actor. The most gratifying is when I go off a Glenda Jackson or Julie Christie kick. Most recently, I went on a Parker Posey mini-binge.
      Your observations on the various requirements, compromises, and curiosities attached to adapting a successful broadway musical to the screen are thought-provoking.
      With GYPSY, I know I never really appreciated the dubbing of Russell and Wood so much as when they released that special CD soundtrack album with the bonus cuts of the actors and their real voices. Good Lord!
      And it made me appreciate how effective it is when the dubbing is done sympathetically to the actor's speaking voice (the work with Russell is stellar. I’ve always hated Marni Nixon’s voice in nearly every context. And one of my strongest shock dislikes I can recall is from the first time I saw HELLO, DOLLY! and they had that awful, sugary voice coming out of Marianne McAndrew. The same terrible voice they gave to Liv Ullmann in LOST HORIZON.

      I don’t know about you, but I’ve come to prefer a good “acting” singing performance in a musical over a “pretty” voice. Lucille Ball in MAME being a huge exception: hers was hard on the ears and not even well-performed from an Elaine Strich acting point.
      I too, think Karl Malden (not one of my favorites) is good in GYPSY. And your take on the actor playing Tulsa is very interesting. I’m never heard anyone really comment on the role, and I think your points are fascinating. I don’t know that he ever registered very strongly with me, save that I’ve never been able to see him in this and not think of how I first knew Paul Wallace, as Bud’s friend in “Father Knows Best.”

      And I think you’re spot-on about the influence his early days on Broadway had on him. Last year I read his two memoirs and the fact that he learned his craft at a time when Broadway stars approached every role and every song in their trademark style…independent of the individual requirements of the song or the show…really seem to have inspired his character-driven music.
      (I never heard him say much on the movie version of GYPSY. It seems he reserves his strongest opinions for the songs he supplied both the words and music for. Not overly fond of contributing lyrics to the music of others, Sondheim strikes me as having been refreshingly detached from those songs and what were done to them in the process of adaptation.)
      I’ve seen perhaps three stage productions of GYPSY over the years, and one of them was truly outstanding, but Rosalind Russell hasn’t been topped for me, and Natalie Wood makes the most appealingly vulnerable and sexy Louise of all.
      Thank you for sharing your thoughts again, Kip. Always good to hear from you!