Nov 12, 2010

[Movies] Gypsy (1962)

Gypsy (1962)These days, when I hear about the possibility of another major Broadway musical being turned into a movie, I tend to cringe. As much as I hope for the best, it's never easy to translate the grandeur of a full musical into a usually 90-minute cut-up version on the silver screen. And my love for the original musical does not always translate into an automatic love for the movie (take THAT evil Hollywood producers!) since they're still completely different mediums. There are some things that just don't work quite as well in a movie, especially given the way movies are made today.

Granted, once upon a time a heck of a lot of movies were based on musicals and many of them are now timeless classics that we'll never forget. But in those days a lot of movies were speaking bits interspersed with big dance numbers that still followed the same sensibilities (and limitations) of the theater. As you watch those old movie musicals again you'll notice the need for extra large sound stages, attention to the spotlights and of course costumes, costumes and costumes. It may be a limitation to some, but it's definitely part of the charm.

So how did we get from there to here? Why do movie musicals have to seem like a potential train wreck unless they target the Disney demographic for more reliable numbers? Beats me, but perhaps movies like this one might lead to a potential explanation in time.

Gypsy is the 1962 adaptation of the Broadway musical Gypsy: A Musical Fable, by Arthur Laurents. The movie was produced and directed by Mervyn LeRoy.

Cropped screenshot of Natalie Wood from the tr...Image via WikipediaRose Hovick (Rosalind Russell) is your classic stage mother determined to see her children succeed. Well, at least her daughter June (Suzanne Cupito), whom she tries to put in the spotlight of her home-grown vaudeville musical revue. The older sister, Louise (Diane Pace), is pretty much relegated to the background, just another way to highlight Louise and make her more and more the center of attention. Together with her agent Herbie (Karl Malden), Rose and the girls tour the country performing.

As the years go by, naturally the girls age and soon it becomes harder and harder to have them present themselves as little children in a vaudeville show. June (Ann Jilian) eventually elopes with one of the dancers in an effort to become a Hollywood star instead. While her world nearly falls apart, Rose decides to simply transfer her dreams over to Louise (Natalie Wood) and tries to make her a vaudeville star. But the path to fame and fortune is never an easy one and Louise may have to make some hard choices in order to break free of her mother and find her own brand of fame.

Now Rosalind Russell is a great comedic actress and was very popular in her time. Of course she was also the victim of significant typecasting and it was unlikely that she'd be able to perform in a role that didn't involve being a strong-willed woman of some sort. She did make for a decent Rose, although I can't help but wonder what the movie would have been like with Ethel Merman, who was Rose in the stage version of this story. It's always been documented how the musical score was specifically written for Ethel Merman's voice and that does make it a bit of a tough act to follow for anyone but her. But clearly the studio executives wanted to go for the safer bet and Russell definitely had a better chance at succeeding at the box office considering Merman's Hollywood track record.

The movie was certainly interestingly put together. The traveling antics of the Hovick family are fun enough along with the repeated themes and the near-running gags in the form of the June's sort of title song. But as with a lot of these early musical adaptations, they had to do a little Hollywood magic and blend the voice of Russell with Lisa Kirk, since Russell simply couldn't handle the range of some of the songs.

Did I appreciate Natalie Wood as Louise / Gypsy Rose Lee? Yeah, I think I did. She totally nailed the mixed emotions of the Let Met Entertain You number. Plus the fact that she sang pretty much all of her songs herself instead of relying on some external voice support as was done in West Side Story.

The movie was good enough, although at times it feel dragging and slow in some parts, mostly when no one was singing and we just had to deal with Rose's antics. Her monologs can get a bit tiring and we probably shouldn't have watched it right after watching Mame, in order to give a sort of break from her unique vocal quality.

Gypsy is a good movie and certainly a classic that deserves to be in any musical library of films. It gets 3.5 silly back-up dancers (yes I said a half!) out of a possible 5.

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