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For more than a year now fans of the innovative home video made-on-demand delivery model The Warner Archive Collection have been wondering when Warners would let the other shoe drop and start marketing Blu-rays in the same direct-to-collectors fashion. It's finally happened, sort of... Warners is launching a WAC line of Blu-rays. The only catch is that, at least to begin with, they won't be burned Blu-ray discs. The actual format for BD-Rs isn't yet established, so the WAC's first offerings are actually standard pressed Blu-rays. They look as if they were prepared as garden variety BD product, with full menus and even some extras. A two-disc per month schedule will commence in February of next year, with the Coen Brothers' The Hudsucker Proxy and Peter Weir's Fearless. Available now are Deathtrap and the 1962 musical Gypsy.
Gypsy is a film adaptation of the 1959 musical play Gypsy: A Musical Fable, based on the memoirs of the famous "classy" stripper Gypsy Rose Lee. The show had no lack of legendary Broadway talent. The music is by Jule Styne with lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and the book was written by Arthur Laurents. The original director and choreographer was Jerome Robbins. The original stars were Ethel Merman as Rose, Jack Klugman as Herbie and Sandra Church as Louise, the girl who becomes Gypsy Rose Lee. Considered one of crowning achievements of Broadway, Gypsy has more than its share of lasting hit songs: "Everything's Coming Up Roses", "Small World", "Let Me Entertain You", "Together, Wherever We Go."
Stage Mother 'Mama' Rose Hovick (Rosalind Russell) is obsessed with turning her two girls June and Louise (as children, Morgan Brittany and Diane Pace) into vaudeville stars despite the fact that vaudeville is dying out. She lives on the road, denying her children an education; the outgoing blonde June is pressed into the star role while the dark-haired and less demonstrative Louise often plays a boy alongside a chorus line of destitute (and unpaid) boys Rose has rounded up for the act. Rose meets Herbie Sommers (Karl Malden), an agent who realizes the harm that Rose's futile dream is causing. He strings along hoping that she'll see the light, marry him and settle down. As the girls grow into their teen years (Ann Jillian & Natalie Wood) Rose becomes more domineering, making choices that seem to be for her benefit and not the girls'. June eventually runs away with one of the boy performers. Rose talks Herbie into continuing with an all-girl act starring Louise. Then they're accidentally booked into a burlesque house, as an act the management can substitute for the strip-teasers when the cops drop by. As they're broke, Louise convinces Rose that they need to honor the engagement. Rose tells Herbie that she'll quit and marry him. But on the last day, the show's main stripper doesn't show. Rose sees the opportunity to make Louise a star after all... all she'll have to do is tease the burlesque audience.
Some movie musicals get rediscovered, and some don't. For every Singin' in the Rain MGM made three Pagan Love Songs. Nowadays the dramatic passages of a 'classic' like South Pacific are tolerated mainly to hear the great musical numbers. Gypsy ruffled feathers in 1962, when fans of Ethel Merman cried foul at her being replaced by the more bankable Rosalind Russell. But the show's hit songs are bulletproof and the story has qualities that set it above ordinary musical fare. Arthur Laurents' play subverts the standard showbiz biography to show the ugly side underneath. Stage mother Mama Rose has enough energy and will to keep poor Herbie on a string. She relentlessly pushes one of her daughters into the limelight, only to have the shy one blossom into a sensational career as a stripper, as the famed Gypsy Rose Lee.
Rosalind Russell is at her best, looking years younger than her turn as an old-maid schoolmarm in Picnic made seven years earlier. Rose is brassy, warm and heartbreaking and connects with the screen audience as if projecting from the footlights. It's almost impossible to miscast the utterly professional Karl Malden. Much maligned is Natalie Wood, the wallflower who becomes a gaudy stripper, yet retains her self-respect. Gypsy Rose Lee was a colorful, intelligent and funny multi-talent who arose from what must have been a truly rough childhood in a tawdry business.
Gypsy is a big budget family event film that had little choice but to sanitize the rough edges of Arthur Laurents' play. The fleapit burlesque theater is by necessity so squeaky clean that you'd expect to see kiddies in the burlesque audience; the strongest material is a stage manager who talks to Rose and Louise in a rude manner. The strippers are comic relief and little more. When Tessie Tura, Mazeppa and Electra demonstrate their bump & grind movies, the pelvic 'bumps' become less vulgar sideways hip motions. It would take the relaxation of censorship to bring a more believable naughty-but-sweet vision of burlesque to the movies in The Night They Raided Minsky's. In Gypsy we see a line of Minsky dancers, all of whom look far too glamorous and well scrubbed.
Less suppressed is the show's disturbing main theme. Laurents, Styne and Sondheim admire Mama Rose's drive and energy, but she's a glamorized version of the frustrated stage mother type that typically does great harm to her children. Rose drives Louise and June to fulfill her own fantasies. She feels betrayed when June runs away and resents Louise's success, proving that her prodding and pushing was done for selfish reasons. Show business is riddled with horror stories of demanding parents that abused their children; many child stars were fleeced by their own relatives. Gypsy doesn't disguise the fact that Rose Hovick is a borderline monster despite her (conventionally) admirable devotion to show business. The final nail goes in when Herbie sees the light, that Rose is incapable of ordinary emotional honesty. There's not much difference between Rose's stage mother and a pimp, really, especially when Rose's 'brainstorm' idea is to shove her daughter on stage in a strip act. To survive amid the warped values of show business, troupers like June and Louise clearly needed to develop tough skins. Although the movie adaption and Rosalind Russell temper this aspect of the show, it can't be removed. The woman's a menace.
Gypsy has been beautifully orchestrated and the songs are handsomely staged. The pity is that with all the performing effort invested, the movie is so slackly directed. The camera just sits there. When Ms. Russell sings in her father's front room the shot holds wide on the scene, stranding her in the middle of a bunch of dull furniture. When the MGM musical style was supplanted by the 'Broadway adaptation,' there was always too much of a tendency to throw stylized Broadway hits into realistic sets and then expect the actors to make up the difference. Here it really hurts, especially when some of the sets are so stage-bound. In one of the strongest scenes Rose finds out that June has run away. It takes place at a lonely train station. The indifferent interior set adds little to the dramatic situation. Nobody expects a cinematic tour-de-force like West Side Story but Mervyn LeRoy's visuals are so minimal as to be nonexistent. The topnotch Warner production values and the distinctive brassy Warner soundtrack are doing all the work.
The Warner Archive Collection disc of Gypsy gets a major boost thanks to the added resolution of Blu-ray. Director LeRoy holds so much of the movie nn wide shots that even DVDs did not always give us a clear view of the actors' facial expressions. Originally filmed in Technirama (squeezed VistaVision), the image is sharp, bright and detailed. The musical's celebrated Overture plays over a shot of an orchestra pit that stretches across the screen, establishing the 'theatrical' setting.
As explained above, this initial Warner Archive Blu-ray offering is not a burned-on-demand product but a bona fide pressed disc. When and if MOD BDs are offered, it's a sure bet that collectors will be looking for differences in quality.
The extras are not extensive. Fans of Jule Styne and Stephen Sondheim will want to see two musical numbers dropped from this already long film, a duet version of You'll Never Get Away From Me and the wonderful Together, Wherever We Go sung in the desert set.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Gypsy Blu-ray rates:
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T'was Ever Thus.