Mommie Fear Fest


Occasional guest writer David Melville contributes a piece on Mervyn LeRoy’s GYPSY, screened recently at Edinburgh Filmhouse.

A year or so back, some callow critics dubbed Sweeney Todd “the first horror movie musical.” Understandable – given its lusty cannibalism and torrents of blood gushing from slashed throats – but not strictly true. Stephen Sondheim, the composer/lyricist of Todd, helped to create the genre as far back as 1962 (or 1960, if you count the Broadway original) with the profoundly terrifying Gypsy.

A musical biopic of strip-tease artiste Gypsy Rose Lee, the film was directed by Mervyn Leroy from a stage show with lyrics by Sondheim, music by Jule Styne (Funny Girl) and book by Arthur Laurents (The Way We Were). Rather than focus on the star herself – who, played by Natalie Wood, is surely the most winsome and genteel stripper in history, on screen or off – Gypsy is built around Rosalind Russell as her maniacally overbearing stage mother, Mama Rose. Here’s one lady who will do anything – and I mean anything – to see her little girl’s name in lights.

For much of the film, Mama Rose drags her two daughters (Louise, the future Gypsy Rose Lee, and her allegedly more ‘talented’ sister, Baby June) around the dustbowls of Depression-era America, performing in a vaudeville act of unique and awe-inspiring ghastliness. A platoon of chorus boys prance about inanely; there’s a dancing cow; it all ends in a rousing stars-and-stripes finale. Had it only been shown to Malcolm McDowell in A Clockwork Orange, those scientists might truly have shocked him into submission

Whenever the act starts to pall, Mama Rose rallies her troops with one of those show-stopping songs that Broadway divas so relish – if only to wake up punters who are snoring in the back row. Rosalind Russell, who cannot actually sing, transforms her hit numbers – “Some People” and “Comin’ Up Roses” – into dramatic monologues. Think of Clytemnestra, about to be slaughtered by her children to avenge her murder of their father, only a bit more bone-chilling. (Ethel Merman, who created the role on stage, reprised “Comin’ Up Roses” for the 1981 inaugural gala for President Ronald Reagan…and fear took on a whole new meaning.)

At last, down on its luck, the troupe is reduced to performing in a sleazy strip joint. Horrified at first, Mama Rose nonetheless volunteers her daughter as a stand-in when the star stripper winds up in jail. It says a lot for the creepiness of Russell’s performance that this moment plays like a sordid and horrifying act of betrayal. (Just compare her to Susan Sarandon in Pretty Baby, who initiates her 12-year-old daughter into prostitution, but seems just a likeable good-time gal.) The little minx takes up the challenge and the rest is history – or, at any rate, camp showbiz history…which will do just as nicely, thank you, in a movie of this ilk.

As a study in deranged mother love, Gypsy is infinitely more horrific than Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho – which takes place in a far more sane and reassuring moral universe. We may intuit, from the tics and twitches of Anthony Perkins as Norman, what a devastatingly dysfunctional presence the deceased Mama Bates must have been. But we never see her alive on camera, as we do Russell – ranting and raging and looking, incidentally, far more like a Grand Guignol drag act than ever poor Tony does in his wig. Oh, that throaty drawl of a voice! Ah, those outsize mannish hands!


That poor little Gypsy and her sister (who went to become the 40s starlet June Havoc) do not start disembowelling chorus boys in the shower, or finish the film in the confines of a padded cell, is a mystery to which they alone know the answer. The American critic Paul Roen is right, I believe, when he describes Gypsy as “a Technicolor prologue to the Crawford/Davis opus Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?” Released in the same year, the two films attracted – and continue to attract – a remarkably similar audience. One might say that Gypsy is scarier, while Baby Jane has better musical numbers.

In 1993, Gypsy was remade for TV starring Bette Midler. Although she is a vastly more accomplished musical performer than Rosalind Russell, the Divine Miss M falls flat as Mama Rose. Camp and cuddly and bursting with fun, her presence robs the story of its chilling emotional subtext. Simply put, she is just not scary. And fear, in its most primal and deep-rooted form, is what Gypsy is all about.

David Melville

With thanks to Nicola Hay.

Addendum — I just watched the film myself on the small screen. Mervyn LeRoy has certainly calcified a bit since his snappy days in the ’30s, but the widescreen filming of the stylised sets is pleasing, and everybody seems to be quite aware of the story they’re telling, in all its darkness. The “Hollywood ending” is cursory and deliberately unconvincing-as-hell. The screenplay adds an unnecessary voice-over from Russell that fragments things rather than holding them together, but whenever Laurents’ scenes are allowed to play out, they work as brilliant filmed theatre, and there’s not a weak song in it. The studio system may have been in decline, but this is one of its finer last gasps. DC.

25 Responses to “Mommie Fear Fest”

  1. david wingrove Says:

    Many thanks for doing such a marvellous graphic design job on my name. I may adopt it for my business card…if I ever get round to printing one!

  2. Wow! I never even realised WordPress had done that. Seems to have happened by itself when I copied your document into the blog!

  3. Nice post that captures the beating heart much of the story. But it’s an extremely complex and multi-faceted one.

    When it all began the general idea was to create a musical out of Gypsy Rose Lee’s memoir, “Gypsy.” Arthur Laurents read it through and through and came to the conclusion that the only way to turn it into a musical was “to make it about the mother.” So hat in hand, he went to the great stripper/ aesthete (leave us not forget she shared a dwelling in Brooklyn Heoghts with W. H. Auden, Aaron Copeland, Paul and Jane Bowles and Joan McCracken (of Good News fame) to give her his diagnosis. Her reply? “Darling I don’t care what it’s about — as long as it’s called Gypsy.”

    And so it was.

    Produced by David Merrick AND Leland hayward (Oh to have been a fly on the wall at Sardi’s) music AND lyrics were supposed to have been written by Stephen Sondheim. But Ethel Merman balked, feeling the youngster was too untried in that department, preferring Jule Styne instead. Styne and Sondheim got along like a house on fire, helped immeasurably by the greatest libretto ever creeated for a musical, the Performance of a Lifetime by Ethel Merman, and the superb direction of the evil Jerome Robbins

    Gypsy is the REAL Death of Salesman, as Laurents takes of the gloves Miller so decrously puts on. He doesn’t ask for our sympathy for Rose. How can he? “Everything’s Coming Up Roses” is the finale to Act One. June has left the act. Louise has no talent, and yet Rose insists they’re going on to be greater than ever.

    In other words she’s lost her mind.

    In Act Two it gets even better, leading to the grand climax of “Rose’s Turn” — the “Guernica’, “Last Supper” and Sistine Chapel of “11 O’Clock Number(s)”

    Get yourself a copy of D.A. Miller’s book “Place For Us: Essay on the Musical.” It begins as an examination of why gay men of a certain generation are hung up on musical theater (we’re talking of the pre Andrew Lloyd Webber era, folks.) and gradually builds to a dissertation on Gypsy as the ur-text of gayness with the most important character being the dancer “Tulsa” who has but one number in the show, “All I Need is the Girl.” Jerry Robbins wanted the show to be a panorama of the last days of vaudeville. But any show about Ethel Merman means — Ethel Merman. She naturally balked at the number. She didn’t sing it, so who needed it? Well Louise needed it. It’s the number that cements her character and allows nher to break free of her mother at last. Forced to play one of the newsboys or farmhands in numbers that star her sister and perpetually informed ho untalent she is, Louise doesn’t even know her gender.

    When Tulsa in the middle of the number says “Louise take my hand” I burst out crying. It’s the most moving moment in all of theater for me.

    He also has The Gayest Line of All Time : “This step is good for the costume.”

    Paul Walker originated the role, and did it in the movie. When last heard from he was living in Palm Springs, his theater and film career (such as it was) LONG over.

    Neil Patrick Harris’ sweetie David Burtka played Tulsa in the Bernadette Peters-starred, Sam Mendes-directed revival of severla years back that Arthur didn’t like. Didn’t see it but I hear he was fabulous.

    Miller’s book is exceptionally clever as it traces the birth of “Rose’s Turn” — whic was written entirely by Sondheim They needed a big finish for the finale He took several musical themes used throughout ths show, glued them together and strung it onto this aria.

    Even Merman (not the sharpest knife in the drawer) recognized that it was an aria.

    Sondheim was most personally involvein that he had a monster other too. Lucky for him she wasn’t in show business. But there’s moe than a dab of “Foxy Sondheim” in Rose’s “Nessun Dorma.”

    Roz Russell is great as far as the acting goes in the film. Her singing voice however belongs to the great Lisa Kirk — worshipped by yours truly and Chris Schneider, over tp whom I turn the cyber-floor.

  4. It’s quite a singing voice — so harsh! One is convinced it must be Roz because it’s not “pretty,” and usually stars are dubbed to make them sound prettier.

    Thanks for that excellent explication, I can hardly wait for Chris’s take now.

  5. Arthur S. Says:

    Am I the only one who thinks the big half-balding head behind Roz Rusell in the top still looks a little too familiar?

  6. The Cabinet of Dr. Roz?

  7. And before I forget, for the next revivl might I suggest LIZA!

  8. That would be truly terrifying!

    Who do you think the balding head is, Arthur?

  9. Isn’t that Karl Malden?

  10. Can’t be, unless it’s a mirror — she’s talking to Malden. In which case, Mama Rose casts no reflection!

  11. Well that would make perfect sense.

  12. Arthur S. Says:

    I thought it looked like Hitchcock.

  13. David Boxwell Says:

    Kirk could do “harsh” or smoky/lush (“The Gentleman is a Dope”) depending on the situation. A GREAT vocal performer (like Marni Nixon).

  14. I am, indeed, a Lisa Kirk worshipper, even though David E. has me beat as far as fervor is concerned.

    I think it’s a bit harsh to talk of “Gypsy” in terms of “Psycho.” I prefer the comparison that Frank Rich — *not* my favorite critic, as a rule — came up with on the occasion of the Tyne Daly revival. He described “Gypsy” as a combination of “King Lear” and “Godzilla.”

    Here’s a clip from the Leroy picture, finessed so that it employs Russell’s own voice:

    I think it shows a fearless, if not particularly graceful, performance by Russell. I like the use of ‘scope — and the presence of the cow head in particular. Perhaps a case could be made, citing both this and “Bad Seed,” for Leroy employing deliberately articificial sets to emphasize the theatricalism of the *zeitgeist* and/or performances?

    I also remember Sarris, when talking about “Baby Jane,” citing the “Gypsy” movie as an example of familial neuroses of performers captured onscreen. “Gypsy” certainly does that.

  15. Tony Williams Says:

    Thanks for your post David E. as well as others.

    I’ve only seen the trailer but David C’s description makes this sound like the original MOMMIE DEAREST!.

  16. > [“Rose’s Turn”] was
    > written entirely by Sondheim

    Alas, I deleted it, so I can’t give you a direct quote, but something I read this morning described what, to me, is a more credible scenario as far as “Rose’s Turn” is concerned.

    As Person X (and others) have described it: SOndheim came up with the notion of “Rose’s Turn,” the number to replace the proposed ballet, as a quasi-“mad scene” made up of quotes from earlier numbers, one which would place La Merm front-and-center and please the producers in that it wouldn’t call for dancers or elaborate production effects. He sketched out the proposed number, brought it to composer Jule Styne, and then Styne put together the “Turn” that we know.

    The “Who Done What?” will be debated endlessly, of course. And has been. A point that I remember having been made, which bears repeating, is that Styne had already written a “reprise of earlier material as number for the heroine” in the stage version of pre-“Gypsy” musical “Bells Are Ringing.”

    Oh, and one more addendum: June Havoc had a rather decent stage career in the ’40s, including lead female roles in a Cole Porter musical (“Mexican Hayride”) and the Mamoulian-directed musicalization, with score by Vernon Duke and Howard Dietz, of “Rain” (“Sadie Thompson”). One understands, too, that she wrote a very decent theatrical script in the ’60s about Depression-era marathon dancing. Let’s not belittle her achievement *too* much …

  17. As far as design goes, I recently suggested that Anton Grot’s work dominated LeRoy’s in Little Caesar, but here we see LeRoy, decades later, still exploiting highly abstracted sets for dramatic effect — I guess that’s something he really liked. In Tulsa’s dance, the floor of the alleyway is subtly variegated in what I must refer to as “myriad hues,” suggestive of lights reflected in wet road, but actually painted there. Subtle, but quite unreal and beautiful.

  18. I think that head is a little too hairy for Hitchcock, but I like the idea of him doing cameos in other filmmakers’ work, just to mess with us.

  19. A glance at IMDb reveals that LeRoy was working with the same art-director for both “Bad Seed” and “Gypsy,” so … perhaps the artifice may turn out to’ve been a deliberate choice. In both films. The art director in question is John Beckman.

    Other, non-LeRoy films designed by Beckman include “Monsieur Verdoux,” “Young at Heart,” and “Battle Cry.”

  20. Oh, it’s certainly deliberate. I doubt Battle Cry deploys backdrops so boldly. Now that I start to think of it, bold design seems to feature in every LeRoy film I’ve ever seen.

  21. david wingrove Says:

    Amazing! It never occurred to me that Roz Russell’s singing had been dubbed – for the simple reason that the voice issuing from her mouth sounds exactly like her!

    Quite a change from the standard Hollywood musical of the 50s or 60s, where Audrey Hepburn and Natalie Wood and Deborah Kerr all sound exactly like…Marni Nixon.

    Thanks a lot for the info!

  22. To the two Davids- Warm thanks for this wonderful post. As a diehard aficionado of the 1962 film version of “Gypsy,” I found some bracingly incisive observations here, as well as a genuinely-felt appreciation by Melville of a film that has rarely been given its due. And I’ve also been taken by the uncanny resemblence of Roz Russell in “Gypsy” to Anthony Perkins in his Mrs. Bates/”Psycho” guise. Great responses here, too. I intend to link this post to my blog The Passionate Moviegoer, if you don’t mind. Coincidentally, I’m in the midst of doing my own “‘Gypsy’ ’62” tribute on my site. A seven-parter. I’m up to number six. If anyone feels compelled to check it out, just go to

  23. For those insterested in Lisa Kirk, whe gained ultimate immortaily in Kiss Me Kate where she sang “Why Can’t You Behave?” (to Gore Vidal’s sweetie, Harold Lang) and the Beyond Fabulous “I’m Always True To You Darling in My Fashion.” She’s also famous for her performance in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s cult flop Allegrowhere she sang “the Gentleman is a Dope” (a National Anthem for many.) This was the R & H show that most impressed Sondheim.

    Kirk also had a grandt finale when she appeared in an all-star concert performance in 1989 of Nymph Errant, singing “The Physician” with the sort of gusto Gertie Lawrence (nor anyone else for that matter) could ever muster.

    It was her last public appearance.

    (The recording is available on Angel)

  24. Thanks, Joe. Should really credit The Three Davids, and Chris and everyone else too. That’s what makes this place such a pleasure for me, the feedback and info and ideas we share.

  25. I stand corrected, David. Incidentally, I see that my response came through twice (thanks to my agility with the computer!). Feel free to delete the second one, if you want. (I’m new to your site and I love it.) Also, should anyone care to check out my seven-part marathon on “Gypsy” on my site, I advise them to start with Part One. Part six, the most recent post, is at the top. -J

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