Gypsy Rose Lee’s Biopic strikes the right note…
Let this cast entertain you as Rosalind rustles up her matriarchal musical role.
Gypsy (Original Theatrical Trailer), Warner Archive
Combining my two favourite genres, biopic and musical, Gypsy (1962) immediately got my attention. This film was chosen (admittedly) after two unsuccessful attempts. I had tried – and failed – to watch two completely different film genres with the leading lady, Rosalind Russell.
However for me, Gypsy was engaging from the start. With this film’s opening showing an orchestra and the films leading names in lights and both of these beautifully accompanied by Overture, a medley of the film’s musical tracks. I was then transfixed by this film from the outset.
Hearing this track, I discovered this particular musical to my joy was one I recognised and then remembered watching many (many) moons ago. Now in 2019, I got superexcited seeing one name in particular in those credits. This as I read the name, Suzanne Cupito (a name that would have gone over my head back then). This a name all true Cupito fans will know, as an actress who later changed her name to Morgan Brittany. With more of Brittany’s more famous shot in front of the camera later if this name still escapes you.
The film is beautifully narrated by Russell in her role as Rose, mother of two future stars, June and Louise Hovick. Louise later becoming the more well known Gypsy Rose Lee, a singer, actress and stripper. Much later June became the actress June Havoc.
Gypsy‘s opening scene taking you to one of those awful audition scenes, as seemingly full of precocious kids with marginal talent. Herbie Sommers (Karl Malden) is Uncle Jacko, the star of the show, and appears in charge of separating the chaff from the corn. He’s surrounded by kids with all sorts of talents. Think America’s /Britain’s /add country here (not) got Talent, but where pushy mums are refused entry.
An act Baby June and her older sister, Louise take centre stage with their song and dance number Let Me Entertain You. “Baby” June (Cupito / Brittany) is a pretty little blonde girl singing and dancing her wee heart out with wee Natalie Wood lookalike, Louise (Diane Pace) dressed as a boy with cap and wee knee-length trousers.
The sister double act is interrupted as their mother, Rose (Rosalind Russell) – who is seen and heard as more than a bit garrulous, sassy and more overbearing – takes over their (and the orchestra’s) stage direction.
Herbie quits after his employer openly tells him he wants to fix this contest. As his employer’s hopes Herbie will fix the competition by choosing a kid covered in balloons as the “winning act.” This conversation is overheard by Louise who tells her mother, Rose then fights for a fair audition for her daughters.
The family then move onto the next town and audition as it turns out Rose is hoping for a vaudeville show to take on June’s obvious talent. Rose is a single mother with three former husbands. In one town, the girls bump into Herbie – now a sweets salesman – he promises to help them as he knows the right people in showbiz.
Herbie becomes the kid’s manager and with his bourgeoning attraction to Rose, the pair go on a date. Rose is wanting showbiz but not marriage, he wants kids and a normal life. Despite their differences, Rose feels she and Herbie perfect for each other as Russell sings Small World.
In time the girls grow up, with Herbie still ever hopeful of marriage with Rose and a normal upbringing for June (now Anne Jillian) and Louise (now Natalie Wood). June turning into Dainty June and Her Newsboys or Farmhands, and Louise as a newsboy or front end of what looks like a pantomime cow. It’s clear June destined for big things.
After a successful audition, June is offered to train for Broadway. But with a cost, the condition is this is without her mother in tow. The girls both hoping for different things with Louise hoping to have Herbie as their stepfather providing a normal life with a home, pets and more. June, her Broadway career. The girls sing If Mamma Got Married. However Rose turns down June’s chance for Broadway. June is angry and upset with her mother for quashing her dreams.
Rose, Herbie and Louise – waiting at the station before they move town again – learn that 13-year-old June has eloped with one of the supporting dancers. They are then let down, by the remaining supporting dancers resigning. Rose seemingly catatonic thinks of her next move. With Herbie hoping for a normal life once more, the shy and awkward Louise is now thrust centre stage. This time accompanied by dancing girls.
The troupe is added as a supporting act in a burlesque show and this horrifies Rose. She promises to marry Herbie after the gig over. That is until Rose learns the leading act needs replaced. This new role taking Louise into a new, then unwanted – but decidedly much more feminine, sexy and sassy – stage career… with a gimmick.
I adored this musical, it was wonderfully cast. Russell was more than believable as the pushiest but most captivating stage mother ever. Russell’s musical numbers were transfixing and were wonderfully staged and she performed with gusto.
I later learned some of her singing performances dubbed, however Russell’s vocal performance in spoken lines complementing all her songs so seamlessly. But with her excellent narration and all-round – singing, dancing and acting – matriarch and love interest role, Russell is at her best and most versatile.
Wood’s sweet and beautiful singing voice wasn’t replaced (thankfully). She sings a captivating solo in the song, Little Lamb. This song is sung after her character’s birthday party with Louise not sure of her true age, after singing as a child actress for so long. Wood using her own voice for this film surprised me. This as I learned that her musical role as Maria in West Side Story (1961) was dubbed. Her performance credible in all her scenes as the older sister who emerged from her sister’s spotlight.
Wee Cupito / Brittany also showing an entrancing performance as a singer and dancer in her performances. 11-year-old Cupito (Brittany) was fantastic, her performance showing a side to this actress I’d never seen. She took my breath away. Malden was a wonderful romantic lead, and I admired Malden’s performance as the lovelorn and tolerant Herbie. He was a wonderful character, who supported the women in his life. This despite his strong belief that he could provide a normal life for the family.
The film settings looked unrealistic but I’m not sure if this was intentional. This worked to the film’s benefit. These scenes making you feel you were watching the story unfold on a theatre stage, rather than using real-life locations. This added to rather than detracted from the charm of this movie, particularly in Russell’s final musical track. The choreography was mesmerising and all the lyrics and tunes catchy and memorable.
With a final word on the Gypsy cast, who would have foreseen their film future. With Natalie Wood and Karl Malden reuniting on the set of Meteor (1979). Rosalind Russell joined a cast with the real Gypsy Rose Lee in The Trouble With Angels (1966). As for wee baby June’s actress, she became more famous for a shot in the dark. This is in a role after she became Morgan Brittany.
With Brittany cast as Katherine Wentworth in Dallas (1978-91). Where in soap reality, her character shot Bobby Ewing, and in the dream, she mowed him down outside her screen sister’s house. With this Morgan’s childhood film debut in this fabulous biopic where Gypsy Rose Lee stripped bare on her relationship with her mother.
The Rosalind Russell Blogathon 2019, No 30
This film was added to The Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood‘s Rosalind Russell Blogathon. Other films and TV with this cast include Morgan Brittany in Galaxies of TV stars, a post on her Dallas character, Katherine Wentworth and she stars in Glitter and Gable and Lombard. Karl Malden in Beyond the Poseidon Adventure and Meteor. Natalie Wood in Brainstorm and West Side Story.