Classic Film: Gypsy

The BBC pitched it right this Easter Monday.  Instead of people venturing outside into the lovely Bank Holiday sunshine, they were watching the television for a screening of a well-loved musical, tweeting the lyrics or trying to get the fact that they’d performed a near perfect rendition of Rose’s Turn into 140 characters.  Such is the draw of the movie version of Gypsy.

The 1962 film of the musical based on the memoir of burlesque star Gypsy Rose Lee, features the songs of Jule Styne and Stephen Sondheim, with the screenplay by Leonard Spiegelgass adapted from Arthur Laurents original book for the stage. A truly stellar cast includes Natalie Wood as the grown up Louise, who goes on to be Gypsy Rose Lee, and Karl Walden as Herbie, the lovable guy trying to keep the family grounded and out of trouble.  The star of the picture is of course Rosalind Russell who plays Momma Rose, a mother so determined to make her daughters famous that she’ll go to almost any means, even to the extent of pushing Louise towards stripping all because she hears the word “star”.

And wow does Rosalind Russell play Momma Rose.  It’s Russell who delivers all the big numbers and even steals much of the incidental action, a flash of the eyes, a sneer or a hand gesture flicking into the frame brings the attention of the audience right back to her.  She can deliver the demands of all the songs, from the emotion of Small World and chutzpah of Some People, to the comedy of Mr Goldstone, I love you and the drama of one of the greatest musical numbers of all time, Rose’s Turn.

One of my favourite sequences in the movie is one that can perhaps be overlooked, as it’s an aside to the main story of Momma Rose and her daughters.  As Louise, June and the boys of their supporting dance troupe get older, it’s clear that they are looking to move on.  In a pivotal scene indicating changes are bound to come, Tulsa (Paul Wallace) performs a dance routine he has been working on to the tune of All I Need Is The Girl.

The contrast of a big dance routine of Tulsa’s own making and the setting of the grimy backlot of a rundown Vaudeville theatre is just marvellous. The choreography is framed by some lovely long shots, giving an uninterrupted view of the dancing that makes us feel like we’re there with them to witness a little bit of magic. Tulsa gives a running commentary of the movements, the costumes and the girl who he hopes will eventually partner him, whilst  Louise looks on, imagining a different, more glamourous life.  She joins Tulsa in the dance before being dragged back to perform on a crummy stage, essentially representing the story of Louise’s life whilst she’s controlled by her mother.

It would have been difficult to go wrong with a film version of such a great show, but for me it’s nigh on perfect. It has amazing casting, great staging of the songs, smart dialogue and fantastic choreography.  Interest may have risen again recently, with Gypsy opening in the West End, but the power of the movie to hold people in front of the TV rather than being out in the sun on a Bank Holiday afternoon is testament to the lasting affection for the film. It’s a true classic movie musical.

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