Monday, 14 April 2014

L.J. SPENCE'S STARTING POINTS: GYPSY

L.J. SPENCE'S STARTING POINTS

23. GYPSY (1962, dir. Mervyn LeRoy)

14/04/2014


Anyone who saw the film of "West Side Story" (1959) should see "Gypsy," the story of stipper Gypsy Rose Lee, and her Svengali of a mother, especially if you expect to see the same level of storytelling. They share the same star, Natalie Wood, scriptwriter Arthur Laurents and lyricist Stephen Sondheim, with Jule Stine writing the music this time around. 

Natalie Wood did not appear in the original stage versions of either of these musicals, so I am aware my argument is a little shaky, but in translating from stage to screen, you can usually do no better than take the original actors along, as they will know how best to reproduce the role, so long as the rest of the film doesn't become a flat copy of the stage version, like usually-theatrical-director Susan Stroman's version of "The Producers" (2005) became.

Ethel Merman is the mother in "Gypsy," as listening to the original Broadway soundtrack will tell you, Merman possessing a voice so powerful it could blow Shirley Bassey and Tom Jones into the sea. Already an accomplished film and stage actress, she was told her role in the film version of "Gypsy" was assured, were it not for the inconvenient fact that the theatre producer selling the film rights was also married to an actress with a bigger name in the pictures.

Rosalind Russell acted in films from "His Girl Friday" (1940), with Cary Grant, through "The Velvet Touch" (1948) to "Auntie Mame" (1958). She was nominated for four Academy Awards, and won five Golden Globes.

But she can't sing, and especially not as well as Ethel Merman. Russell's voice is too low, with a smaller range, and the show-stopping final number, "Mama's Turn," features her voice mixed in with someone else's to make it work. Yes, her acting is brilliant, but her singing lets it down, which is worse when she is meant to be the star. Its not like the recent film version of the musical "Les Miserables" (2013), when the quality of singing is in keeping with the gritty feeling of the film as a whole - "Gyspy" is Hollywood and Broadway combined, perfection on top of perfection. Oh well - considering the plot of the film, it is ironic that Natalie Wood works so well against Rosalind Russell.

I cannot end this without mentioning Marni Nixon, who dubbed Natalie Wood's singing in "West Side Story", and sang Marilyn Monroe's high notes during "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend" in "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes" (1953), as people finally saw her as Sister Sophia in "The Sound of Music" (1965). Wisely, the rest of her career carried on in her own name.


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