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The girl who became the greatest show in show business!
"Here she is, boys! Here she is, world! Here's Rose!"
Facts of the Case
Rose Hovick (Rosalind Russell, His Girl Friday) might just be the world's most determined mother. She dreams of turning her young daughters June (Morgan Brittany, The Birds) and Louise (Diane Pace) into vaudeville stars, and she'll do whatever is necessary to get them there. As time passes, Rose's gets closer and closer…but she's also forced to make compromises along the way. Yes, Louise (played as an older girl by Natalie Wood, West Side Story) will eventually become something of a superstar, but in the realm of scandalous burlesque rather than innocent vaudeville. Gypsy offers the tune-filled tale of how a particularly overbearing mother managed to unintentionally transform a mild-manner little girl named Louise into a high-class stripper named Gypsy.
The most curious thing about Gypsy is the title. Though it's based on the memoirs of the famed Gypsy Rose Lee, the title character remains a minor supporting player until the film's third act. There's no question that the blustery Rose is the film's central character, and it's clear that the story is far more concerned with Rose's questionable decisions than with Gypsy's career. The show's misleading name aside, Gypsy is a vibrant, engaging musical that manages to underline the irresponsibility of Rose's actions without prudishly condemning Gypsy's career path.
The Broadway show was a huge success, and Ethel Merman won rave reviews for her performance as Mama Rose. It's a part that practically seems tailor-made for Merman's brassy persona, and she was indeed director Mervyn LeRoy's initial choice for the role. However, a variety of factors led to the role being given to Rosalind Russell (a decision that reportedly made Merman very angry indeed). It's understandable that some might find this ridiculous, given that Russell's singing skills were so lacking that most of her songs had to be dubbed by Lisa Kirk. However, what Russell lacks in terms of vocal chops she compensates for during the film's fast-paced dialogue scenes. Tearing through big scenes with the sort of relentless energy she had become famous for decades earlier, Russell offers a welcome reminder of what a powerful screen presence she could be. It's a consistently engaging performance that keeps the film afloat even during some of its less inspired moments.
There are plenty of other qualities contained within the film, too. Karl Malden is a pleasure as Rose's longsuffering boyfriend Herbie Sommers, expertly playing the sad-sack frustration of the character. Natalie Wood's turn as Gypsy is largely a vanilla affair, but she nonetheless manages to handle her third-act transformation quite well (and actually performs her own musical numbers—something she didn't do in West Side Story). The tunes by Steven Sondheim and Jule Styne are largely witty and memorable, and they allow snippets of tunes like "Let Me Entertain You" and "Everything's Coming Up Roses" to reappear on numerous occasions; functioning as recurring themes as well as stand-alone musical set pieces. The choreography courtesy of Jerome Robbins and Robert Tucker is dynamic and inventive throughout.
Alas…well, we'll get to that in a moment.
I was honestly a little skeptical when I heard that Warner Archive was going to start offering Blu-ray releases. While their DVD line has provided movie buffs with a chance to own lost rarities of all sorts, there's generally little work put into making the films looks good. This half-hearted approach is disappointing on DVD, but it would be disastrous on Blu-ray. Thankfully, it would seem that the good folks at Warner Bros. actually did put some work into scrubbing up Gypsy, which has received a satisfying 1080p/2.40:1 transfer. The level of detail is impressive, the bright colors really pop and depth is decent, too. There's some prominent banding on occasion, but it's usually not bad enough to become distracting. The DTS HD 2.0 Master Audio track isn't quite as impressive, as some of the dialogue sounds disappointingly flat and tinny. Still, the musical numbers mostly sound pretty crisp and clean, even if they lack the punch I wish they had. It's not a bad track, merely a functional one. You also get a very small sampling of extras: two deleted songs ("Wherever We Go" and "You Couldn't Get Away From Me") and a trailer.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Where was I? Ah, yes. Alas, the direction of Mervyn LeRoy nearly manages to negate the film's many considerable virtues. All of the strong performances, engaging music and dazzling choreography are undercut by the almost alarmingly flat cinematography Leroy creates with director of photography Harry Stradling, Sr. (whose work on other films like My Fair Lady and A Streetcar Named Desire was far more impressive). Most of the time, LeRoy is content to simply let the camera sit there and lets the action unfold in a blandly-staged wide shot. Were it not for Russell's seemingly superhuman efforts to keep the film's fire burning, this approach would have completely robbed the film of its considerable energy.
Gypsy is most assuredly a product of its time—it's difficult to imagine a modern remake based on the same book and score—but it remains an enjoyable experience thanks to the memorable music and Rosalind Russell's strong performance. LeRoy's weak direction is a serious liability, but even that fails to prevent the film from being a modest pleasure.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Musical Numbers
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