Monday, July 05, 2010

a mad "inside" joke: ethel's revenge

La Merm with screen daughter, Dorothy Provine, in Stanley Kramer's elephantine, oddly unfunny comedy epic, "It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World"
I've written repeatedly here about my affection for Mervyn LeRoy's 1962 filmization of "Gypsy," my all-time favorite movie musical.

The film - actually, its star, Rosalind Russell specifically - has been the subject of a five-decade hissy fit on the part of Broadway types who resent that Ethel Merman, the star of the piece on stage, wasn't signed by Warner Bros. to repeat the role that she created to some acclaim.

The disturbing columnist Dorothy Kilgallen in particular got her nose out of joint when her good friend Merman was passed by as Mama Rose.

But Jack Warner wasn't stupid: Like everyone else, he had seen "Call Me Madam" and "There's No Business Like Show Business" and knew that Merman was no screen personality. Instead, he went for a world-class actress who would bring psychological depth to the character.

Anyway, while it was in production, Kilgallen had "Gypsy" under a microscope for her on-going demonization. LeRoy's nifty decision to hire Jack Benny for an inspired cameo elicited the following Kilgallen criticism: "Jack Benny has been hired to play a role in the film of 'Gypsy.' It must be in trouble." Jeez, you can't buy bad publicity like that.

A year later, Merman got a consolation prize when she was hired by Stanley Kramer to play the harridan, Mrs. Marcus - mother of Dorothy Provine and mother-in-law of Milton Berle - in Kramer's elephantine comedy, "It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World." The film, despite its plethora of noted comedy stars, is singularly unfunny - except for Merman.

She's a hoot in the film.

Anyway, Jack Benny, perhaps not coincidentally, popped up for a cameo scene opposite Merman - which leads to a very inside joke.

Merman and company are stranded, their car having broken down, when Benny drives by and asks if they're having trouble.

"No!," screams Merman as only she could, adding angrily "And we don't need any help from you!"

The scene isn't the least bit funny and seems pointless - until you think about Benny's unclean participation in Merman's beloved "Gypsy."

The traitor!

I don't know but that thowaway line, "And we don't need any help from you!," always takes on a deeper meaning for me.

"It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World" airs on Turner Classic Movies at 8 p.m. (est), 6 July.

6 comments:

John Kaiser said...

Singularly Unfunny? This is one of the best mad-cap comedies ever made. The cast was fantastic, from Milton Berle to Spencer Tracy. If ever I am feeling really down and need a brainless pick-me-up, this is one of the first films I turn to. In all the many times I have seen it over the years, it has never failed to make me laugh out loud. Just thinking of Jonathan Winters on the "little girls bike", Dick Shawn screaming "I'm comin' for ya momma!!", Mickey Rooney and Buddy Hacket in the out of control plane, and best of all, Merman slipping on the banana peel make me smile. "It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World" is a singular comedy classic.

joe baltake said...

As the saying goes, John, different strokes

Tammy said...

I think, in reality, the film falls somewhere in-between. It's too hit-or-miss to be considered a classic but funny enough to be called a good comedy.

Daryl Chin said...

One of the problems with mythologizing stage performances is that there is no way to verify. Yes, certainly Merman must have been a powerhouse as Rose in GYPSY; when wasn't she? But she wasn't what you'd call a subtle actress. Also: she wasn't what you'd call a dancer. In fact, she refused to accept Jerome Robbins's direction, because she felt that what she should do was stand front and center and belt out her lines. All attempts to have a more physically fluid performance were doomed (and obviously for a choreographer-director like Robbins, movement is key). Even Gertrude Lawrence accepted his directions on THE KING AND I and the results were (reportedly) very flowing. But not with Merman, and it all came to a head with "Rose's Turn": the initial conception was that the piece would be a ballet, or at least a dance turn. But Merman would NOT budge: front-center-belting out the song, or nothing. (That's why i thought of Lesley Ann Warren for the part since she CAN dance.) Though Robbins did not choreograph the movie, Russell did move during "Rose's Turn" and that number is closer to Robbins's original conception than the original Broadway production.

joe baltake said...

Daryl- True, Jerome Robbins didn't choreograph LeRoy's film version of "Gypsy," but Robert Tucker, the credited choreographer, recreated Robbins' dance steps for the movie. Tucker assisted Robbins on the original stage production in '59 and was the choreographer of the Angela Lansbury revival, also recreating Robbins' steps. -J

Betty said...

"Gypsy" rocks.