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Gypsy (1962, Rosalind Russell, Natalie Wood)

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Gypsy, one of the most enjoyable of all the stage-to-screen musicals of the ’60s, ‘speeds along throughout with pace and verve,’ wrote Scene. It’s a vividly scripted adaptation of the Broadway hit by Arthur Laurents with music by Jules Styne and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, which, in turn, was based (loosely) on the memoirs of legendary stripper Gypsy Rose Lee (Natalie Wood).

The focus, however, was less on Lee than on her archetypal monstrous stage mother Rose Hovick, played with the script between her teeth and the wind in her hair by Rosalind Russell in her only screen musical. Fiercely possessive, inexhaustibly energetic and more ambitious than Alexander the Great, she is determined to make vaudeville stars of her two young daughters and enters them in a ‘kiddie show’ in Los Angeles, whose host, Herbie Sommers (Karl Malden), agrees to act as their agent.

The years pass and the sisters, played by Natalie Wood and Ann Jillian as June, tour the vaudeville circuit with the same hackneyed act, supported by a male quartet. But mom refuses to acknowledge that the children are growing up and vaudeville is dying. Herbie Malden tries to persuade her to marry him and give up show business after June elopes with one of the boys from the act but Rose simply revamps the act to showcase Gypsy. Bookings come even less frequently and the act is finally reduced to appearing in a cheap burlesque house where Gypsy, thrust on stage by her mother to replace the star stripper who has failed to turn up, discovers her true vocation…

Apart from Russell’s commanding central performance, one of Gypsy’ s major strengths was producer/ director Mervyn LeRoy’s vivid evocation of vaudeville from its heyday to its sad death throes, the gaudy world of burlesque and the shoddy grind houses, and the general tawdriness of life backstage and on the road. His work was superbly complemented by Harry Stradling’s deservedly Academy Award-nominated colour cinematography and a further Oscar nomination went to the costumes designed by Orry-Kelly. Frank Perkins also received an Academy Award nomination for his song score, among them Russell’s tour-de-force Rose’s Turn (partially dubbed by Lisa Kirk), Some People, Everything’s Coming Up Roses, Let Me Entertain You and You’ll Never Get Away From Me.

The role of the mother had been created on Broadway by Ethel Merman. Russell replaced her overwhelming brassiness and wearying dynamism with a rather less relentless but equally effective approach, which brought out the character’s unflagging energy, thick skin and devouring ambition but also showed her inherent warmth and humour.

production details
USA | 143 minutes | 1962

Producer and Director: Mervyn LeRoy
Writer: Leonard Spigelgass, from the stage musical by Arthur Laurents (book), Jules Styne (music), Stephen Sondheim (lyrics)

cast
Natalie Wood as Louise Hovick – aka Gypsy Rose Lee
Rosalind Russell as Rose Hovick
Karl Malden as Herbie Sommers
Parley Baer as Mr. Kringelein
Morgan Brittany as ‘Baby’ June
Ann Jillian as ‘Dainty’ June
Harry Shannon as Grandpa
Faith Dane as Miss Mazeppa
Betty Bruce as Tessie Tura
Paul Wallace as Tulsa
Roxanne Arlen as Miss Electra
Jean Willes as Miss Cratchitt
Diane Pace as Baby Louise
Ben Lessey as Mr. Goldstone
Jack Benny as Himself
Harvey Korman as Phil
Danny Lockin as Yonkers
Lois Roberts as Agnes
Beulah Quo as Waitress
Guy Raymond as Pastey
Louis Quinn as Cigar