GYPSY (1962)

  • Director: Mervyn LeRoy
  • Writers: Screenplay by Leonard Spigelgass, Music by Jule Styne, Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, based on the non-fiction book Gypsy: A Memoir by Gypsy Rose Lee, and the stage musical Gypsy: A Musical Fable by Arthur Laurents, Jule Styne, and Stephen Sondheim
  • Starring: Rosalind Russell, Natalie Wood, Karl Malden, Paul Wallace, Morgan Brittany, Ann Jillian, Diane Pace, Betty Bruce, Faith Dane, and Roxanne Arlen
  • Accolades: 3 Oscar nominations (Best Adapted Score, Best Cinematography – Color, Best Costumes – Color)
  • Where to Watch: Stream with subscription on HBO Max, buy or rent with Amazon Video, YouTube, or Apple TV

The tributes have poured in following the recent passing of Stephen Sondheim, who is seen today as perhaps the greatest of all Broadway titans. His musicals are thought by many to have brought the medium into its maturity as an art form dealing with complex, adult issues, and are particularly known even among those of us who consider ourselves Broadway laypeople for their virtuosic, dense lyrics. Sondheim first came to prominence as a lyricist, especially for the classic West Side Story, before transitioning to writing both music and lyrics for nearly all of his shows starting with A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum in 1962. The majority of his work is now considered classic by Broadway buffs, even those shows that were considered financial failures when they first opened. Even those who are not Sondheim stans, to use the online parlance, would admit that, at the very least, Company, Sweeney Todd, and Into the Woods are all among the greatest musicals ever written.

But this is a movie blog, and I found to my surprise that there have not been nearly as many successful screen adaptations of Sondheim musicals as you would probably think. Outside of West Side Story, the two Sondheim movies I think most people today are aware of are the Tim Burton/Johnny Depp version of Sweeney Todd and the Rob Marshall-directed Into the Woods (with a star-studded cast of Meryl Streep, Anna Kendrick, Chris Pine, and Emily Blunt, among many others), but both of these are more recent than the time frame we cover at Movie Valhalla. I was only able to find two total movie adaptations of musicals for which Sondheim wrote both music and lyrics that fell within our twenty year rule, 1966’s A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum and 1977’s A Little Night Music, but while the former was seen at the time as a success it inexplicably cuts out the vast majority of Sondheim’s actual songs, and the latter has an 11% score on Rotten Tomatoes and, according to Wikipedia, is primarily remembered for “Elizabeth Taylor‘s weight fluctuating wildly between scenes.” Thinking about it, this relative dearth of movies can likely be attributed to the fact that Sondheim really hit it big right at the tail end of the big-budget studio musical, and by the time most of his work was in a position to get adapted there weren’t a lot of movie musicals getting made, period. Fortunately, we have more recently seen something of a revival, and I even saw one recent review refer to our current era as “the Silver Age of Movie Musicals.” So anyway, I eventually settled on Gypsy, from the early stage of Sondheim’s career when he was still working primarily on lyrics for other people’s music.

As a musical, Gypsy has become pretty exclusively known today as the ultimate story of a pushy stage mom, making it relatively easy to forget that, on one level, it’s basically just a massive origin story for a famous stripper. The story is based on the memoir of Gypsy Rose Lee, probably the most famous burlesque dancer who ever lived, but as a musical it is so much the story of Gypsy’s crazy mother, Rose, that when, most of the way through, it turns out that mousy little “Louise” gets famous as a stripper it plays as a surprise twist. That is not really how “biopics” usually work.

Though he was working in collaboration with other people, many of the songs in Gypsy are very recognizably Sondheim in construction. I was particularly struck by an early number where Rose begs her elderly father for money to get the family act out on the road again, which, content aside, could have been straight out of Into the Woods. The music was by Jule Styne, whose other popular work would include Funny Girl and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. The musical is still a Broadway favorite and has been revived repeatedly over the years, partly because Rose is considered maybe the great part for brassy middle-aged female Broadway legends. Having been originated by Ethel Merman, the role has since been played on stage by Angela Lansbury, Tyne Daly, Bernadette Peters, Patti LuPone, and Imelda Staunton, among many other luminaries.

The movie version stars Rosalind Russell as Rose and Natalie Wood as Louise/Gypsy, and was a hit at the time of its release, ranking as one of the top 10 films of the year at the US box office (perhaps helped a long by a poster featuring big star Wood with her back to us, topless, something that I’m pretty sure never actually happens in the movie). However, while on stage the work has lived on, the movie is not something that I get the sense a lot of people have watched today. I had a good time with it. In some ways, as a story about female relationships that’s relatively open (as far as 1962 Hollywood movies went) about sexuality, it feels more modern than you might think. For a big-budget musical its portrayal of whatever is going on her psychologically is a lot more nuanced than I was expecting: in some ways this is sort of a cross between Singin’ in the Rain and what my mother would call a “social work movie.”

In terms of its longevity, I think Gypsy might suffer from being more of a showcase for performers than for memorable songs. “Everything’s Coming Up Roses” is, as far as I can tell, the only song here that I’d ever heard outside of the context of the musical. Russell (who had been the leading lady of classic screwball comedies like His Girl Friday a couple decades earlier) gives it her all as Rose, who is the sort of stage mom who can’t resist doing all the moves along with her kids at auditions, seemingly oblivious to the fact that by doing so she is clearly hurting their chances. My take on Rose is that she becomes so used to hustling for scraps that, when things finally start to work out for anyone, she has no idea what to do with it. She has a lot of other issues, too, and I saw several people writing about this musical straight up call her a “monster.” Meanwhile, though it’s much less showy, I think that this is probably my favorite Natalie Wood performance that I’ve seen in anything. For one thing, she does her own singing, unlike in West Side Story.

The story starts with Rose dragging her two daughters, June and Louise (played as kids by Morgan Brittany and Diane Pace, as teenagers/adults by Ann Jillian and Wood, respectively), around the country circa 1920, with dreams of Vaudeville stardom. June is the star, with Louise hoofing it thanklessly in the background. They meet with up with a former producer named Herbie Sommers (Karl Malden), who falls for Rose, makes her put a few non-related boys in the act, and starts getting them better and better gigs. This goes on for several years, during which time Rose refuses to pay any of the troop, never tells anyone how old they actually are, and when confronted about keeping like eight people in various tiny apartments and hotel rooms, staves off landlords by making up claims that they are sexually assaulting her. This all culminates in an audition at a prestigious theater in New York. The theater manager thinks vaudeville is on its way out and the act is not great, but likes June, so he offers her a solo contract to work on Broadway and in movies. Because she cannot give up on whatever twisted dream of her own, and because she cannot stand to not have total control over her “babies,” Rose turns him down.

Rose refuses to understand that vaudeville will not survive the advent of sound movies, and before long all her male cast members, who she refuses to pay or acknowledge are not small children, despite them being basically adults, quit on a railway platform, and June elopes suddenly with a man, leaving only a note. The real life June succeeded in becoming an actress on both Broadway and in the movies, playing the female lead in the original Brewster’s Millions and appearing in a supporting role in 1947 Best Picture winner Gentlemen’s Agreement. Rose gathers a new, all-girl act, but the much-put-upon Louise is not good enough as June’s replacement and no one is going to book them anyway. They end up in Wichita at what they don’t realize until they arrive is a run-down burlesque theater, booking them as the one non-stripping related act in order to “keep the cops away.” It appears that Rose is finally ready to face facts, call it quits, and marry Herbie, but one day one of the strippers gets arrested for shoplifting just before showtime and Rose cannot help volunteering Louise as a replacement, even though she’s done nothing but bad mouth burlesque up to that point. Herbie is so disgusted by this that he leaves for good, and Louise seems so shell shocked by this final indignity that she can barely protest. 

But Louise, as “Gypsy Rose Lee,” turns out, to everyone’s surprise, to be a smashing success, and also finds that she really enjoys being seen as beautiful rather than the ugly duckling in the background. Soon Rose finds herself shut out. Hurt at being excluded from backstage at her star daughter’s big New York show, Rose bitterly criticizes her daughter and asks what she spent all those years hustling for. “I thought you did it for me?” Gypsy replies, with an absolutely heartbreaking delivery from Wood. But it is very clear that Rose never did anything for anyone but herself, and she was always doomed to be miserable in the end because even when her daughters achieve success it was always going to be theirs and not hers. She achieves the goals she worked so hard for, but is such a terrible human being that she will never be happy.

Gypsy presages later Sondheim musicals in the sense that it is hardly some big colorful romp, and is more interested in psychological realism. One later New York Times theater critic referred to it as “the greatest stage musical of all time,” while another would call it “Broadway’s own brassy, unlikely answer to King Lear.” But as a movie from 1962, it is in many ways doomed to be this sort of hybrid, because it is very clearly a production of the same big MGM musical unit that made your favorite Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire movies. And in the end, your tolerance for Rose the insane stage mom will, more likely than not, be limited at some point, no matter how nuanced a character she is.

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