February 9, 2010

This Week's Classic Cinema Obsession: GYPSY (Mervyn LeRoy, 1962)

The Siren has a great post going on her blog about uncool cinema opinions (she defines "uncool" as "courting hoots of derision from critical colleagues") and while I offered a few of my own in the comments section, here on my own blog I'm going to offer up my big one:

I absolutely love the movie version of GYPSY (Mervyn LeRoy, 1962).

And everyone can bask in the glorious uncoolness (i.e.: awesomeness) of this movie on Wednesday, February 10th when GYPSY plays on TCM at 5:30 PM EST.

I often tell people that my favorite musical is GYPSY. That sounds like a pretty cool opinion, since GYPSY the Broadway musical is often considered one of, if not the best American musical. BUT (and this is my greatest shame) -- I've never seen it on stage. I've never seen the Broadway version of GYPSY. I've only ever seen the movie version and the 1993 TV production with Bette Midler. I don't even own the 1959 cast recording with Ethel Merman. For most fans of the musical, these words that you are now reading from me are considered heretical. Everyone knows that Rosalind Russell -- and Lisa Kirk's voice (she dubbed the singing) -- were wrong for the part of Mama Rose. And everyone knows that Ethel Merman should have played the part and that she was devastated when she didn't get it.

And, of course, all the cool kids know that this is later-day Mervyn LeRoy so it's not nearly as vital as his work from the early 30s, like LITTLE CAESAR or GOLD DIGGERS OF 1933 or I WAS A FUGITIVE FROM A CHAIN GANG.

Basically, everyone knows that the 1962 film version of GYPSY is sub-par stuff, not worthy to bear the name of that great Broadway masterpiece.

Whatevs. Everyone is wrong. Is GYPSY a great film? I can't really say that it is. But it's gotten way too much flak for everything it's not instead of the praise it deserves for everything that it is.

And what is it? It's a film anchored by three exceptionally strong acting performances from Roz Russell, Karl Malden, and Natalie Wood. It's a film directed by an underrated director -- Mervyn LeRoy -- that belongs in the same category as his early 30s Warner Brothers classics. In fact, GYPSY fits right in with the Depression-era tales that were Le Roy's bread and butter at Warners. It's the story of working class people trying to hit the big time in America; people struggling to achieve fortune and fame through talent and sheer force of will. The chorus gals in GOLD DIGGERS, Rico in LITTLE CAESAR, Mama Rose in GYPSY -- all are trying to achieve a version of the American Dream, all trying to "make it."

And finally, even though the singing isn't a strong as it could be, the score and the book and the screenplay by Leonard Spigelgass are strong enough to carry the drama and the emotion of the story so that the film version of GYPSY is still an affecting and powerful piece of work.

What I love about GYPSY is that it's complex, with characters who feel like real people, and a story that doesn't offer easy comfort or pat answers to the questions these characters are facing. Mama Rose is monstrous, yes, but she's also tragic, a woman filled with talent who was, in her own words, "born too soon and started too late."

Louise, the mousy daughter with "no talent," turns into the world famous stripper Gypsy Rose Lee -- she's famous and rich and best of all, a success -- but her triumph is bittersweet. She's achieved everything her mother wanted for her, but at what cost? By the end of the film, Gypsy says she loves her life, she loves what she's become, but what happened to the young girl who dreamed of nothing more than to live in a house, "just Mama, three ducks, five canaries, a mouse, two monkeys, one father, six turtles, and me"? What happened to the young woman who wanted nothing more than a quiet home and a family? Her mother turned her into a star. And mama and daughter both seem to pay for it a little at the end; both seem to reconcile, sure, but can Gypsy ever let go of the bitterness she feels towards her mother, and can Rose ever truly give up her ambitions for recognition and fame and the jealousy she must feel toward Louise, her greatest creation?

GYPSY is the story of American ambition, of the lust for celebrity and fame, of the particular American yearning to travel and keep moving and never stay in one place and go, go, go until you've seen it all and done it all, of the great lost world of vaudeville and everything it promised to a generation of performers who just wanted to be noticed.

I first saw this movie when I was about twelve years old. It was a school night and the movie was on late, but I stayed up to watch it. It must have ended well past 1:00 AM, but I didn't care. I was enthralled by this glorious creature -- Mama Rose -- who wanted the same things I wanted as a young, shy, Midwestern girl: to be noticed, to matter, to make a mark on the world, to achieve success, to be a star. I wasn't sure what I wanted to be the star of, but I knew I wanted to "be somebody." And I knew I wanted to travel and see places and go to the big cities. Mama Rose was a force, and even though I thought she was close to insane, I couldn't help but be attracted to that force. I wanted that self-confidence, that daring, that gumption, that ability through sheer will to achieve one's dreams.

And yet, I identified with Louise as well. The moment when she emerges from the dressing room before her first strip and sees herself in the mirror -- "I'm pretty, Mama. I'm a pretty girl" -- that was me. I think nearly every teenage girl can see herself in scene. The insecurity, the lack of confidence in one's appearance, and then to see it all melt away as Louise sees herself for the first time as a pretty girl -- that scene went straight to my soul when I first saw it. It still does.

It's not an easy story to digest. It's too ambiguous, too fraught with complexities to make it an easy experience for an audience. There are musical comedies and musical tragedies, but GYPSY is both. It's the success story of Gypsy Rose Lee, but it is also the tragedy of Mama Rose. It's the story of a woman who achieves great fame and fortune -- by taking her clothes off in front of men. And her mother makes her do it. That's not the kind of ending that makes you stand up and cheer. And yet Gypsy Rose Lee was a fascinating and talented woman in real life. She was a performer, an actor, a writer, a talk show host, and an artist. So we should cheer, right, when she ends the film as a success and seems to patch things up pretty well with her mother? But why does this "happy ending" feel so false? Why do we grieve a little for the lost little girl who never knew how old she was and just wanted a home and a family? These tensions are what give the musical -- and yes, the film -- it's power.

The film has great set design with a lived-in feeling and fine attention to detail (dig all the ripped and faded and torn theater posters crowding up the backgrounds), as well as sumptuous costuming (Oscar-nominated costumes, in fact); thoughtful direction that has a lot more going for it than many critics are willing to admit (pay particular attention to the color schemes of the movie and how LeRoy reinforces Rose's power over characters and events by the use of color and costuming, particularly the color red -- "red" for "Rose"); and finally, excellent performances from the principal players.

If it must be said that the songs are the weak part, they're still entirely adequate and I'm willing to argue that they are better than adequate -- Lisa Kirk and Roz Russell's work on the two signature Rose songs ("Everything's Coming Up Roses" and "Rose's Turn") are both fine and I think valid interpretations of the songs. Yes, they aren't the Merman back row belters, but they work for the intimacy of film. And Natalie Wood's untrained voice is perfect for the "no talent" Louise. The "All I Need is the Girl" number is wonderful (with my favorite lyric: "So I took a vow, said this bum'll be Beau Brummell").

I don't expect to sway too many opinions with my defense of the film GYPSY. I know my love for this movie is "uncool." But it doesn't matter. This movie is important to me. It's a movie that worked its magic on me when I was young and impressionable and so therefore it has a special place in my heart. It's a movie and story that I can't quite shake out of my consciousness, even these many years later. Every time I watch it, I'm still that twelve year old girl on the carpet floor, staying up way past her bedtime, and lost in the forgotten world of vaudeville, dreaming of all the sights that she's gotta see and all the things that she's gotta be. "Here she is boys! Here she is world! Here's Rose!"

It's GYPSY and it's my classic cinema obsession of the week.


  1. I saw this for the first time yesterday and really enjoyed myself. Naturally, I got the biggest kick out of the Jack Benny cameo--I was completely unaware he was in this film.

  2. Yay! Awesome! I'm glad you liked it.

    Isn't the Jack Benny cameo a hoot?! I love the irony of Rose's line about how he'll never be a big star, heh.