As a pre-birthday treat (today I’m 56), I invited a friend over to watch “Gypsy” last night. We’d both seen the film as teenagers and identified with the daughters first time around.

If Momma was married

I’d get all those hair ribbons

Out of my hair

And once and for all

I’d get Momma out too…

Natalie Wood’s Louise was so lovely, so poignant! But this time we found Momma a much more sympathetic character. Rose is pushy, sure. She won’t let her babies grow up and get lives of their own. She wants them to live HER dreams and resents it when they break free to pursue their own. Her ambition for her daughters drives her to turn away the one man who truly loves her, warts and all. (And Karl Malden is sweet and funny, nose and all.)

But the incomparable Rosalind Russell brings such warmth to the character of Rose that you can’t hate her — not when you’ve got teenaged daughters of your own. Sometimes Momma does know best (not that you could ever tell them that…) and sometimes a push is what it takes to launch those babies from the nest.

Of course, it’s not only the story that makes “Gypsy” so delightful. The songs are unforgettable, with some numbers so over-the-top that you can’t believe they were from the unenlightened era of June Cleaver.  “You Gotta Have a Gimmick,” for example:

Makes me feel old, watching this musical forty years later. But I feel lucky to have had such wonderful movies available when I was growing up, even if we did have to watch them with commercials. There I was this morning, humming “Everything’s Coming Up Roses” as I cleared away the breakfast dishes, ignoring out my seventeen-year-old’s morning grumpiness. With songs like that, you can ride out the storms of female adolescence.

The Women

This one’s a weeper.  Norma Shearer’s straightforward and endearing heroine, Mary, is surrounded by ill will.  Her so-called friends can’t wait for her to discover that her husband’s having an affair—and not with someone in their set, but with a scheming shopgirl played by Joan Crawford.  The humiliation is simply too much to bear!


Mary’s mother tells her to swallow her pride.  They didn’t call it an open marriage in 1939, but that’s what a woman in Mary’s position was expected to put up with, to keep her home intact.  Men have their appetites, you know?

But Mary goes ahead and confronts her cheating husband, takes herself off to Reno and gets a divorce.  Only after it comes through does she admit to herself that she still loves the scoundrel.  And Crawford’s character is such a bad girl.  There she’s got Mary’s husband right where she wants him, he gives her everything she asks for, and she’s cheating on him?  Talking all lovey dovey to her new beau on the phone while taking a bubble bath?  How wicked can you get?

When Mary finds out, she decides to fight back.  “I’ve had two years to grow claws,” she tells her mother, brandishing her newly-manicured fingernails.  “Jungle red!”

So have yourself a good cry.  You’ll be smiling by the end.  Between the catty dialogue and the stellar performances (don’t miss Rosalind Russell!), “The Women” is another George Cukor gem.

Auntie Mame

Rosalind Russell’s performance is over the top, from start to finish.  The costumes.  The arched eyebrow.  The tart one-liners.  Like Patrick, the orphaned nephew who is thrown into Auntie Mame’s crazy world, you really have no choice.  Either you go along for the ride, or you’ll turn into a stuffy old lawyer like Patrick’s guardian, Mr. Babcock.

“Life is a banquet, and most poor suckers are starving to death!” says Mame.  Take her word for it and load up your plate.  There’s so much to enjoy about this film.  Mame’s parties, where an avant-garde Russian composer rubs shoulders with an Indian Raja, the bohemian founder of a progressive school where children and teachers romp around stark naked, and other free spirits.  Mame’s around-the-world trips with her new husband, oilman and southern gentleman Beaureguard Burnside.  Poor Beau is always trying to get the perfect shot of Mame, climbing up the Eiffel Tower or dangling precariously—a tad too precariously, as it turns out—from the Matterhorn.

Russell isn’t the only one who’s first-rate in this movie.  Coral Browne is delightful as Mame’s best friend, the perpetually drunk actress Vera Charles.  Then there’s Peggy Cass (so this is what she did before To Tell the Truth…)  Cass plays Mame’s self-effacing secretary, Agnes Gooch, who lives it up, all right, but can’t remember a thing afterwards.  “I lived,” she tells Mame’s Japanese houseboy,  “I gotta find out what to do now!”  And don’t miss Lee Patrick and Willard Waterson as the idiot WASP parents of Patrick’s idiot WASP fiancée.  When they find out that she’s bought the property next door to their exclusive Connecticut estate and intends to turn it into a home for orphaned Jewish refugees, you can enjoy their horrified reactions without a twinge of guilt.  Snobs and stuffed shirts get their just desserts.  The rest of us will feast at Auntie Mame’s banquet of life.

His Girl Friday

I love Rosalind Russell in this film.  (I love Cary Grant too, but then, I love him in just about everything.)  his-girl-friday-poster-art-cary-everettRussell shines whether she’s bantering with the boys in the newsroom or parrying Grant’s insults.  She knows how to take care of herself, that’s for sure.  Here’s how she talks to Grant’s editor character, who happens to be her ex-husband:

“Now, get this, you double-crossing chimpanzee: There ain’t going to be any interview and there ain’t going to be any story. And that certified check of yours is leaving with me in twenty minutes. I wouldn’t cover the burning of Rome for you if they were just lighting it up.”

Grant’s trying to prevent Russell’s character from marrying another man, and leaving the newspaper business for good.  He took it hard, the divorce.  Or so he claims.  But Russell shows not an ounce of sympathy:

“A big fat lummox like you hiring an airplane to write: ‘Hildy, don’t be hasty. Remember my dimple. Walter.’ Delayed our divorce 20 minutes while the judge went out and watched it.”

I can’t help myself, quoting dialogue left and right.  It’s just so good.  Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur wrote the original play, “The Front Page,” based on their experiences as Chicago reporters, and the story has an authentic feel.  What stands out (apart from the jokes about picaninnies — a reminder that the play dates to 1928) is Russell’s character’s nose for a story.  The boys in the newsroom know it:

Newsman: Well, I still say that anybody that can write like that ain’t gonna give it up permanently and sew socks for a guy in the insurance business. Now I give that marriage three months and I’m layin’ three to one. Any takers?

Hildy: [entering the room] I’ll take that bet. Geez. It’s getting so a girl can’t leave the room without being discussed by a bunch of old ladies…

Newsman: Oh, don’t get sore, Hildy. We were only saying a swell reporter like you wouldn’t quit so easy…

When Hildy’s got a scoop, nothing on earth can compete.  She’ll see her fiancé rot in prison, her future mother-in-law kidnapped by a thug.  She’ll wrestle a gun away from a lunatic killer, lie to the cops.  And marry Grant all over again.  But who can blame her?

(2 March 2011)