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.
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.