Thursday, November 21, 2019

the hissy fit

Those who read this site with any regularity are aware that Mervyn LeRoy's 1962 adaptation of "Gypsy" is my all-time favorite movie musical - and a favorite film in general - with much space devoted to finer points.

Case in point: A 60-plus-year hissy fit ensued when the play's star, Ethel Merman, was passed over in favor of movie icon Rosalind Russell.

This casting was - and remains - one of the more contentious aspects of the movie, haunting it ever since and prompting columnist Dorothy Kilgallen to put "Gypsy" under a microscope during its production with regular criticisms. Kilgallen even questioned the inspired decision to bring in Jack Benny for a cameo as a vaudeville comic. "Jack Benny has been hired for a role in the film of 'Gypsy,'" Kilgallen wrote. "Must be in trouble."
A year later, Merman got a consolation prize (so to speak) - and the last word - when she was hired by Stanley Kramer to play the harridan, Mrs. Marcus - mother of Dorothy Provine and Dick Shawn and mother-in-law of Milton Berle - in Kramer's 1963 "It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World."

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

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

"NO!" screams Merman as only she could, adding ... "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."

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

Finally, it can be safely presumed, I think, that Jack Warner wasn't stupid: Like everyone else, he had seen the Merman movies, "Call Me Madam" and "There's No Business Like Show Business," and knew that she was no screen personality. Instead, he went for a world-class actress who would bring psychological depth to the character. Rosalind Russell. Terrific.

But, nevertheless, he managed to acknowledge Merman in his film of "Gypsy." It's a small tribute and it occurs in the scene in which Natalie Wood is preparing to perform as Gypsy Rose Lee for the very first time. She's backstage, in her dressing room, and thinks aloud, "I'm a pretty girl, Momma." If you pivot towards Natalie's right shoulder and look closely, you'll see a framed caricature on the wall - a caricature of ...  Could it be?

Ethel Merman!

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* * * * *
(from top)
~Jack Benny in a scene from "It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World" 
~photography: United Artists 1963©

 ~Dorothy Provine and Ethel Merman in a scene from "It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World"
 ~photography: United Artists 1963© 

 ~Benny with Mervyn LeRoy on the set of "Gypsy"
~photography: Warner Bros. 1962©

~Natalie Wood in a scene from "Gypsy"
~photography: Warner Bros. 1962©

~Benny performing in "Gypsy"
~Film clip: Warner Bros. 1962©


mike schlesinger said...

I'd never made that connection, but it is interesting--and clever of you to pick up on it.

Of course, that's not the reason Benny was cast. The role was intended for Stan Laurel, who ultimately decided he didn't want to work without his late partner. The second-unit footage had already been shot, so they needed someone who was quickly available and might match the double--and Jack qualified on both counts.

The proof of this, as I mentioned on the Criterion commentary track, is that this is probably the only time in his career that Jack wore a derby.

Sheila X said...


Bunuel said...

"Mad World"! One of the best mad-cap comedies ever made. The cast was fantastic, especially Merman and Dick Shawn. Shawn screaming "I'm comin' for ya momma!! is the best, the absolute best! And Merman slipping on the banana peel always has me on the floor.

mike schlesinger said...

Now this guy knows what he's talking about!

Billy from Philly said...

Hah! Merman was great in Mad World. A better "consolation prize" was never had by anyone.

Beef said...

Wow--I've seen "Gypsy" innumerable times and never caught that caricature of Merman in the corner of the frame. Awesome!
I think Merman is great in "Mad World"--she's the MVP, and that's saying a lot, considering the amazing cast. I can't understand why she wasn't a nominee for the Best Supporting Actress Oscar in '63! I think she might've won if she had been up for the award.

Paul Margulies said...

One of the things that I loved about Mad Mad... was the intermission soundtrack that played during the uncut roadshow runs.

Nothing on the screen but the surround channels were the sounds of Sid Caesar and Dorothy Provine stumbling around in the dark in the basement of the hardware store. Brilliant.

As I recall, this was one of the Super Panavision "Cinerama" films.

mike schlesinger said...

Yes, and it's been restored on the Criterion edition. We continue to talk on the commentary track through it as well.

BTW, small correction: It was Ultra Panavision, not Super Panavision, and was advertised as the first one-camera Cinerama film.

And to answer your next question: Super Panavision used a 65mm camera with a standard spherical lens, producing an image of 2.2:1. Ultra Panavision added an anamorphic lens, creating a wider aspect ratio of 2.76:1, which was close enough to the 2.8:1 of "regular" Cinerama.

joe baltake said...

Thanks, Mike, as usual, for the heads-up. -J