Lovers of Broadway musicals count Gypsy among the most memorable, and yet it's a show that has yet to get a home-run film treatment. Barbra Streisand has set her eyes on that prize, with a yet-to-be-greenlit package that includes her as producer, star, and possible director of a Julian Fellowes (Downton Abbey) script now in the works. It would certainly be interesting to see Streisand take a crack at the towering role of Rose, the ultimate in overbearing stage mothers. Rose was originated on Broadway by Ethel Merman (an infamous brayer, she was a perfect fit), who was followed over the years by other certified divas: Tyne Daly, Angela Lansbury, Patti LuPone and Bernadette Peters onstage, as well as Bette Midler in a 1993 TV-movie.
But Gypsy was first committed to the big screen in 1962, with Rosalind Russell as Rose. Known as a first-class American dame at least as far back as 1940's His Girl Friday—and an experienced Broadway actress, to boot—Russell certainly had the brass to play "Mama" Rose. But her raspy, throaty voice wasn't going to cut it when it came to the vocal pyrotechnics, which led to her songs largely being dubbed by Lisa Kirk. The sense that something isn't quite right there proves emblematic of this movie Gypsy, directed by Mervyn LeRoy (Gold Diggers of 1933, Mister Roberts). In a reasonably faithful fashion, LeRoy's film gets the job done, sometimes enthusiastically, but never thrillingly.
Rose is the unstoppable, whirling dervish life-force behind "Baby June and Her Newsboys," a vaudeville act comprised of her daughter "Baby" June (Suzanne Cupito, a.k.a. Morgan Brittany), a troupe of aging juvenile dancers (most notably Paul Wallace's Tulsa) and, when necessary, Rose's other daughter Louise (Natalie Wood, fresh from West Side Story). For years, Rose has demonstrated she can talk their way into anything, including a stint on the Orpheum Circuit secured by agent Herbie Sommers (Karl Malden). But as the act gets long in the tooth ("Baby June" becoming Ann Jillian's "Dainty June") and vaudeville crawls into its deathbed, Rose finds herself at wit's end, unable to keep the act together. Still, she clings to Louise and the last, desperate hope of turning her also-ran daughter into a star. When that proves impossible in vaudeville, Louise finds herself reinvented as a burlesque stripper, under the name Gypsy Rose Lee.
Arthur Laurents' book for the original stage musical derived from Gypsy: A Memoir by Lee, but Laurents took plenty of dramatic license, which no doubt accounts for the show's stage subtitle "A Musical Fable." The result is an enduring American backstage myth built on the foundation of the "you're going out a youngster but you've got to come back a star!" archetype, here following a path littered with broken dreams and made yet more poignant by the character of the stage mother who cannot live without the light of her daughter's reflected glory. The tuneful score by Jule Styne and brilliant lyrics of Stephen Sondheim instantly became part of the DNA of American musical theater, especially the certfied classic numbers "Everything's Coming Up Roses," "Some People," and the astonishing aria "Rose's Turn," a bit of musical drama that, for its genre, was well ahead of its time in its raw emotional power.
One reason Hollywood never quite sticks the landing is its insistence on casting movie stars instead of making them by retaining Broadway talent. Despite LeRoy's efforts, he couldn't sell the studio on Merman, and though they're definitely the right "types," neither Wood nor Malden are known for their singing ability. Malden's lack of skill in this area accounts for the unfortunate deletion of the popular trio number "Together Wherever We Go" and most of the duet "You'll Never Get Away from Me." Still, this is big Hollywood filmmaking, with grand musical orchestration, and despite it all, "Rose's Turn" still packs a wallop. Even when it's not quite running on all cylinders, LeRoy's Gypsy is never less than cute, and sometimes, it's a good deal more.
Warner Archive Collection rolls out its first Blu-ray titles with Deathtrap and Gypsy. Warner's made-to-order Archive Collection line allows for titles that don't necessarily have mass appeal to hit the market (though the first two films seem awfully appealing to me), and it's utterly thrilling that Warner Archive is now supporting Blu-ray. The Gypsy Blu-ray derives from a 2009 hi-def transfer, polished up for this release. I can't imagine anyone expecting any more from this terrfic disc, which not only looks and sounds great but also offers up two deleted songs and a trailer (not bad for a studio archive disc, which tend to be bare bones). The color is startlingly beautiful, detail impresses throughout (with no sign of compression artifacts), and black level and contrast are rock solid. The disc comes with a faithful, lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 track, which is probably the best we can ever expect this film to sound. And that's quite good indeed for what's a pretty simple stereo track: the music has a robust quality, and the track is clean and clear throughout. The songs "Together Wherever We Go" (2:39, HD) and "You'll Never Get Away From Me" (3:37, HD) look and sound as good as possible (given that they survive here only as transfered from a collector's work print), and we likewise get the "Trailer" (3:36, HD) in hi-def.
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