There’s never been a stage mother quite like Rose Hovick, the domineering, sassy gargoyle of Mervyn LeRoy’s Gypsy (1962). Based on the 1959 Stephen Sondheim/Jules Stein Broadway smash, irrevocably linked to the personal memoir of world famous striptease artist, Gypsy Rose Lee, Gypsy typifies LeRoy’s master craftsmanship for high drama within the musical genre’s mélange of light comedy. Indeed, despite its impeccable pedigree as a stage ‘musical’ the cinematic Gypsy plays more like a straight drama with musical sequences infrequently augmenting its backstage bitter-sweetness. And the show is even more off kilter with Rosalind Russell’s scene-stealing standard bearer for the rest of the performances including Natalie Wood’s that cannot help but pale by direct comparison.
Yet Gypsy, in its uncharacteristic idiom, exemplifies the big and splashy movie musical of the 1960s – designed to enthrall with its acidic jocularity, complimented more often by the complexities of a great character study that exercises the actors’ emotional range apart from their telescopic ability to deliver on a classically written song. In this respect, Gypsy is given immeasurable service by the peerless comedic timing and impassioned dramatic intensity of Rosalind Russell. For several years, Russell and her husband had championed the cause of doing a straight film based on Gypsy Rose Lee’s memoir. But when the rights to this material proved copyrighted to the Broadway show Russell relented to do the musical instead, immediately sharing her concern over the score with LeRoy.
Though marvelous, the songs are decidedly beyond the capabilities of Russell’s graveled voice. In hiring contralto Lisa Kirk for the more ambitious notes Mervyn LeRoy has cleverly blend Kirk’s divine mimicry of Russell, and Russell’s own vocalizations into a seamless extension of her dramatic performance. Hence, the break – so often obviously observed in other dub jobs in Hollywood musicals – is imperceptible in Gypsy. One believes in Russell’s performance with Kirk’s invisible assist, her inspired evolution of the character gritty and genuine, yet strangely pleasing to the ear in song at the same time.
Of course, Gypsy is really about two conflicted women – the latter our reluctant title character forced to become a burlesque super star by her overbearing stage mother. And in Natalie Wood we are privy to one of the most remarkable transformations; her involuntary conversion from sad-eyed introvert to elegant strip queen made utterly believable. Dubbed in her vocals for West Side Story by Marni Nixon, Wood gives it her absolute all in Gypsy and in her own voice too – exhibiting a range of emotional dexterity as thought-provoking as her opposing desires to be loved for who she is by her own mother, yet endure such savage maternal manipulation so as to almost lose herself in the process. If life and art complement one another then from this true life conflict has emerged a great and uniquely American artiste, and in a profession hardly revered for its artistic integrity.
With exception paid to George Cukor’s masterful A Star Is Born (1954) I know of no other musical – then or now – that so effectively captures the meteoric heights and spiraling lows of show biz. Gyspy Rose Lee’s joys and misfortunes are indivisible to her achieving maternal approval. The film’s penultimate moment does, in fact, allow for reconciliation, or at least a détente between mother and daughter. At its core Gypsy is a robust drama with no completely happy endings in sight. Consider that in selfish pursuit of her dream Rose Hovick has become estranged from her youngest child who wants absolutely nothing to do with her. She has sacrificed her only chance at a truly adult romance that might have worked out for this three time divorcee, and she has all but alienated her eldest child with that flourish of success she alone has spent a lifetime desperately craving, cruelly bypassed by fate and handed down to her offspring instead.
Using Arthur Laurent’s original story as its springboard, screenwriter Leonard Spigelgass begins our tale at Vaudeville tryouts for Uncle Jocko’s Kiddie Kapers. Jocko is really Herbie Sommers (Karl Malden) a sympathetic old ham who oversees a gaggle of pushy stage mom’s promoting their darling moppets. The most demonstrative of these is Rose Hovick (Russell); a maniacal control freak who manages to run over virtually everyone to promote her youngest daughter, Dainty June (Suzanne Cupito). Powdered and preened to be a standout June, like her elder, less talented – and arguably, less attractive sister, Louise (Diane Pace) is unhappy with the prospect of becoming a star. Indeed, June is the product of a promise Rose has made to herself; to make good on her own failed dreams and become a star. The level of expectation set upon these tiny shoulders would be enough to cripple or even break most adult’s self-esteem. But June is persistent, perhaps out of some embattled loyalty towards her mother. And she is lovingly attended to by Louise who appreciates the potentially disastrous and impossibly flawed financial situation the family currently occupies.
Herbie refuses to hire the child his manager, George (George Petrie) has already ‘fixed’ for the audition. Sometime later Herbie becomes infatuated with Rose; a genuine – if slightly naughty – attraction that leads him to retire from the Vaudeville circuit and act as June’s agent. Both June (now played by Ann Jillian) and Louise (now played by Natalie Wood) like Herbie very much. Moreover, their hope is that he will eventually marry their mother, thus giving Rose a legitimate reason to abandon her own tireless – destructive – ambitions. Through Herbie’s vast connections June attains bookings on the prestigious Orpheum circuit. And although these engagements help to pay the bills they also add fuel to Rose’s insatiable desire to live vicariously through her child’s accomplishments.
As the years pass Rose becomes more possessive of June’s modest success. Recognizing the demonstrative effects in this, Herbie makes several woeful attempts to woo Rose with the prospect of marriage. But it’s no use. Rose wants fame. Nothing modest or matronly will do in its place. Unable to say no to Rose, Herbie arranges another audition that all but guarantees a contract with Mr. Granzinger’s theater through his representative, Mervyn Goldstone (Ben Lessy). But Rose is pigheaded. When it is revealed that Granzinger’s only interest in the act is to usher Dainty June away from her, Rose thwarts this last chance June will have at becoming a real star simply to maintain control over her.
Having grown up enough to decide for herself what she wants out of life, June rebels against Rose by eloping with a boy from the chorus. In the meantime, Louise has her own heart broken when Tulsa (Paul Wallace) a brilliant hoofer who has backed their act for many seasons, informs Rose and Herbie that he and the rest of the boys are leaving the act too. Rose is stupefied at learning of June’s betrayal. But Herbie is both elated and relieved by it, erroneously believing that Rose will finally re-channel her energies into their relationship. Instead, Rose seizes the opportunity to work her Svengali-esque magic on Louise. Despite Louise’s seeming inability to either sing or dance without the most crippling anxiety and lack of talent, Rose and Herbie attempt to rebuild the act – this time with a chorus of underage girls.
After some brutally bad auditions, Rose, Louise and Herbie become stranded in Wichita where Herbie has inadvertently arranged for the act to debut at the Opera House: actually a very seedy burlesque. Louise willingly resigns herself to this commitment, telling Rose that they need the money desperately. Rose concurs, but later asks Herbie if he is still interested in marrying her. Elated, Herbie believes that the end of their run at the Opera House will mean permanent retirement for the family and a happy quiet life for all concerned. But then Louise is taken under the wing of Tessie Tura (Betty Bruce): a headliner who, learning Louise can sew, hires her to make some new costumes.
On the eve that Herbie and Rose are to wed, Rose discovers that the new act has landed itself in jail and pushes Louise into the spotlight in its place. The lack of compunction Louise exhibits at this final assault on her own dreams is disheartening to Herbie who begs Rose not to let Louise make a spectacle before an audience of oversexed men. But Rose has rooted through the mire of that same tired old dream once too often, seemingly without care for her daughter. Louise will be a star, even if it’s only in third rate burlesque. Appalled by Rose’s effrontery to the time honored precepts of motherhood that he once admired, Herbie renounces his commitment to Rose. He will never marry her. As luck would have it, Louise becomes an overnight sensation as the stripper who takes precious little off during her act. Rechristened Gypsy Rose Lee, Louise begins a steady climb to the top of her profession.
But Rose is still dissatisfied. Recognizing that her intervention has at last created the groundswell of notoriety she would have preferred for herself, Rose is now resentful of Louise’s success in its place. Thus, in confronting her daughter in her dressing room with “What did I do it for?” Louise dolefully replies, “I thought you did it for me, mama.” The resounding sense of dejection on both ends leads into the film’s penultimate moment. Alone on the blackened empty stage, Rose performs an impromptu striptease of her own, at long last reimagining the spotlight for herself.
Quietly observing from the wings, and suddenly able to comprehend what the specters of fame and success would have meant to her mother, Louise embraces Rose while encouraging her to attend a party being given expressly in her honor. Rose feigns dejection and a polite refusal, then slyly acquiesces to her daughter’s invitation after being offered her mink to wear. We leave the theater with Mama Rose and her daughter Gypsy, satisfied by their half-heartedly mutual appreciation in this affecting dénouement.
Gypsy was a resounding success for Warner Brothers, but that did not stop the front offices from excising several key scenes and musical numbers to prune its 143 min. runtime. Today, such practices are widely abhorred but during Hollywood’s heyday movies were frequently reedited to accommodate double features or simply to squeeze in more daily viewings. Thankfully, Gypsy’s excised footage was kept and has since been reinstated into the film. Harry Strandling’s sumptuous cinematography, John Beckman’s art direction and Orry Kelly’s costumes yield an evocative pastiche to the bygone era that was Vaudeville; strangely theatrical and stage bound in its execution, yet utterly plausible for the story being told. In the final analysis and at its heart, Gypsy is about attaining approval from our parents. Who among us has not aspired to as much?
Gypsy is one of the first blu-rays to emerge from the Warner Archive. I’m not entirely certain this is a good thing. While I have to applaud the results on this title, like DVD-R, BD-R discs do not contain the same storage capacity for higher bitrates that properly stamped blu-ray discs provide. It appears that Gypsy has been transferred to hi-def on BD-50 – the best of all possible formats, employing a master from 2009, single layered, but with some restoration work done to get the print ready for its 1080p debut. The image is often exceptional and quite frequently stunning. Colors are robust. The image tightens up with a startling amount of clarity and fine details evident in skin, hair and costuming in particular. Occasionally things can look a bit soft, but I suspect this transfer was at the mercy of its original elements. No undue DNR applied. Contrast – excellent. Overall this disc is about as impressive as on expects from the format. Wow! The DTS 5.1 audio is bombastic – particularly in its lush orchestrations. Extras are limited to two deleted numbers and a theatrical trailer. Bottom line: highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)