The most-read book since Gone with the Wind looked at the coming of age struggle of an ambitious, upwardly mobile Jewish girl in the 1930s. This glossy film version gives Natalie Wood an ‘adult’ role and provides Gene Kelly with the seemingly optimal character of a troubled theatrical artiste. Good intentions aside, the show lacks guidance — and may have harmed Kelly’s acting career.
KL Studio Classics
1958 / Color / 1:85 widescreen / 128 min. / Street Date May 9, 2017 / available through Kino Lorber / 29.95
Starring: Natalie Wood, Gene Kelly, Claire Trevor, Everett Sloane, Martin Milner, Carolyn Jones, Martin Balsam, Edd Byrnes, George Tobias, Jesse White, Paul Picerni, Ruta Lee, Shelley Fabares, Lana Wood.
Cinematography: Harry Stradling
Film Editor: Folmar Blangsted
Original Music: Max Steiner
Written by Everett Freeman from the novel by Herman Wouk
Produced by Milton Sperling
Directed by Irving Rapper
When doing interviews for West Side Story we found out that Natalie Wood had to audition for the role, and in fact was nobody’s first choice. Presumably Splendor in the Grass hadn’t yet opened. 1958’s Marjorie Morningstar perhaps says why. A Warners contract player, Natalie had been paired up with Tab Hunter in a series of forgettable teen-appeal pictures. Her previous WB film Bombers B-52 was a casting embarrassment, as poster bait for a movie about our valiant peacetime Air Force.
Marjorie Morningstar is adapted from Herman Wouk’s popular novel about a young woman’s coming of age in Jewish America in the Depression era. The book was apparently required reading in upscale Jewish homes, but the movie has major problems. Moved up to the 1950s, it can boast some good performances, but also a couple of terrible turns by actors we’d expect to show better judgment. Independent producer Milton Sperling had special distribution status with Warners for over a decade, but scored few hits among his big-star pictures, which include some highly visible failures, like Otto Preminger’s The Court-Martial of Billy Mitchell. In Morningstar he snagged a hot property and a star actress with major potential. Good actors are on hand to offer sensitive performances, but the movie is slack and unfocused, with some terrible scenes that beg to be re-shot, or re-thought.
Well to-do Marjorie Morgenstern (Natalie Wood) wants something different than the life her doting father Arnold (Everett Sloane) and conscientious mother Rose (Claire Trevor) have in mind for her. When Rose tries to push Marjorie into an engagement with Sandy Lamm (Edd Byrnes), the son of a department store owner, Natalie refuses a ring and opts to spend the summer counseling at a girls’ camp with her mildly adventurous friend Marsha Zelenko (Carolyn Jones). They sneak across the lake daily to check out the theater scene at the South Wind resort, where Marjorie gets involved with show director Noel Airman (Gene Kelly) and writer Wally Wronkin (Martin Milner). Marjorie and Noel hit it off right away, but he’s a vagabond who combines high standards, nervous ambition and a low self-esteem; his seduction method is to send Marjorie away because he’s no good. Noel’s freethinking ways also don’t mesh with Marjorie’s family.
Four years and one college degree later Marjorie is being wooed by doctor David Harris (Martin Balsam) when she again connects with Noel, who has gone into advertising. But when Wally has success as a playwright Noel sinks into another funk. Encouraged to write his own show, Noel’s erratic boorishness almost costs him a producer, but Marsha’s fiancé Lou Michaelson (Jesse White) backs him on Wally’s recommendation. When the show’s a flop Noel runs away to Europe. Marjorie turns away more suitors, including Wally and businessman Philip Berman (Paul Picerni) to chase after him. When is Marjorie going to grow up, and realize that Noel isn’t the man for her? He tells her often enough.
Milton Sperling’s production makes Marjorie Morningstar the luckiest Jewish girl in the country. The Morgensterns’ plush apartment on the Upper West Side has an unobstructed view of Central Park and her clothes are an unending fashion show. When l’amour beckons, Marjorie can zip off to Europe on a moment’s notice, even if Paris is represented by a single hotel lobby. Marjorie is definitely not a Jewish American Princess. She’s sincere, honest with her parents and not obsessed with class or status. She is a little star-struck, but has the sense to turn down an acting job when she realizes that Wally has given it to her because he loves her. But her travails are still the stuff of lower-rung soap opera. Guys throw themselves at Marjorie’s feet, but she only sees Noel. Poor Wally is just not her amorous ideal. Martin Milner seems her best bet in every respect but he still looks like Dennis the Menace grown to adulthood, with dorky practical eyeglasses. He’s a great guy but Marj baby wants it all. On one rebound Marjorie passes time with Martin Balsam’s doctor. As he’s nearly twenty years older than she, this now seems absurd (Natalie Wood with Detective Arbogast?), although in reality such an arrangement was likely not surprising at all.
Marjorie has only one peer girlfriend, Carolyn Jones’ Marsha, who follows an instinct to be wild. Perhaps because of a bad reputation we aren’t shown, she eventually runs for marital cover, settling for (good grief) vulgarian Jesse White, cigar and all. The captivating, intelligent Ms. Jones’ attempt to act dumb doesn’t work very well; we’d think all the good catches that Marjorie attracts, would immediately be detoured to the lovely Marsha. The only other alternative female type in the show is Ruta Lee’s Imogene Norman, who Marjorie finds with Noel under compromising conditions. Ruta Lee is a definite highlight — bright and unapologetic, and capable of winging an excellent cover story for an afternoon tryst.
The problems are easy enough to spot. Golden-age name Irving Rapper (Now, Voyager) directs as if the show were being made in 1940, not 1958. He doesn’t protect his actors, particularly Gene Kelly, from terrible overplaying. Second, the movie has little to say about the film’s cultural background, which was a major element in the book.
Let me recommend Margot Lurie’s fine assessment of Wouk’s Marjorie Morningstar, which delves helpfully into the story’s ethnic content. In the book Marjorie anglicized her name for the stage, and actively attempts to erase her Jewish-ness. The movie’s Marjorie isn’t so direct, and ‘Morningstar’ becomes a pet name given her by Noel. We see that Marjorie’s family is devout, but not Orthodox; the background is made clear when the movie begins with the younger brother’s bar mitzvah. Pactically everybody we meet is Jewish. Marjorie’s problems do not include becoming involved with anybody outside the faith, which makes more sense for a story set in the 1930s. Noel calls Marjorie a ‘Shirley,’ which I didn’t know was a pejorative term for a Jewish woman aiming for a comfortable traditional marriage. Although the movie doesn’t downplay the Jewish aspect, it hasn’t much to say about it either. One lame addition is to make Marjorie’s uncle into a ‘cute’ guest role for vaudevillian Ed Wynn. His Uncle Samson apparently goes to work at South Wind to keep an eye on Marjorie. Without explanation, he performs some clowning in one of the resort’s outdoor pageants. Wynn is fine but the sidebar is a distraction, and its conclusion is a cliché that falls flat.
Old Hollywood was of course nervous about the issue of Jewishness, even as its films presented a wide range of negative and positive stereotypes. Even the ‘important’ social issue film Gentleman’s Agreement fails, because both its hero and the audience have an out: the main character really isn’t Jewish. And films set wholly inside the Jewish culture were uncommon because American consensus culture preferred to push the public relations myth of the Melting Pot. Marjorie Morningstar dumps its negative Jewish vibe into one character, George Tobias’s Maxwell Greech, the stingy manager of South Wind, who is continually ejecting non-paying freeloaders. In the 1930s, a guy like this would be an old-country grouch, like the sidewalk grocer in King Kong who tries to arrest Fay Wray. I don’t know what he’s doing here.
In format this is a show biz success drama, albeit one in which neither lover becomes a star. The big problem is Gene Kelly’s Noel Airman, who we first see producing South Wind’s bush league entertainment. Noel dances beautifully, directs with élan and has personality to spare, and is in every way indistinguishable from the multi-talented Gene Kelly we already know. Since nobody tells us that Noel is supposed to be a mediocre non-achiever, we’re not ready for his play to be a dismal failure. Is this a case of toxic bad casting? Kelly is of course delightful in his musicals, playing bright and superficial. He is sometimes an unconvincing drag in dramas, when trying to play self-destructive pessimism.
The worst scene in Morningstar is so bad that we want to avert our eyes. Noel tells off a trio of casual investors, for nothing more than some innocent remarks about their desire for a lightweight and cheerful show. His abusive tirade goes ballistic, ending with him screaming in tears about their assault on his genius. It’s awful, embarrassing, dreadful. The effect is like throwing salt on a snail — the movie practically curls up and dies, right on the spot.
At this time Gene Kelly’s superlative Singin’ in the Rain had been out for only five years. After MGM shut down its musicals Kelly had directed a show or two, and put in some honorable sidebar performances here and there. He’s not bad at all in a supporting role in Inherit the Wind. Did Marjorie Morningstar put the kaibosh on any hope of Kelly continuing as a leading man?
We can see where Natalie Wood might have thought her career was in trouble after this show, her big breakthrough from WB bondage. Her Marjorie is a swell gal at all times, who seemingly has but one goal in mind, repelling other suitors. Yet for the audience it’s just a waiting game, to see when she comes to her senses. It’s great that the dramatic powerhouse picture Splendor in the Grass came along to give her talents a real workout in a worthy vehicle. Wouk’s book had Marjorie pursue her dreams and even break some of the rules by sleeping with Noel, yet returning to the ‘safe’ norm of upscale matrimony within her faith. The movie’s Natalie apparently remains a virgin (scene fades notwithstanding) and finally comes to her senses. But we don’t see her retreat to her traditional background; instead we’re given a strong hint that one of her earlier admirers may finally have an inside track, a nice homely boy with nerd glasses and an established career.
Perhaps the one actor who hits the perfect cultural note is Claire Trevor, a consistent miracle woman in everything from Key Largo to How to Murder Your Wife. Trevor’s Rose Morgenstern is a deftly honed portrait of a upscale Jewish mother with good judgment. Rose doesn’t press Marjorie or interfere with her dates, and she doesn’t blow a fuse when Marjorie goes against what Mama devises. Rose’s confronting Noel about his values and aims is just great. Everyone knows that some kind of interrogation is to be expected, and Rose seems rough only because Noel can’t handle a single discouraging word. Imagine a slightly older Shelley Winters in the role, and Trevor seems even better.
The production is only so-so, with most scenes staged flat in un-memorable rooms. Harry Stradling achieves some nice lighting effects up front, with the lights of South Wind shining invitingly on a lake in the Catskills. But it honestly seems that Natalie Wood’s contract insured that she’d never leave a Hollywood soundstage. Some tacky traveling mattes place her in a canoe in the woods, and it even looks as if doubles are used here and there. Hilariously, the film ends with a credit list of vendors for all the glamour products used in the film, as if we’d just seen a fashion show. It’s so long it necessitates a text crawl; it even includes things we can’t detect, like underwear and perfume.
The KL Studio Classics Blu-ray of Marjorie Morningstar is a fine transfer of this show originally released in WarnerColor. The elements seem in uniformly fine shape save for a couple of scenes that show red fringing, indicating that they may have been recreated from separations. The audio is quite good, with Max Steiner’s syrupy, rather unimaginative music score sounding fine. Noel Airman is the composer of a song, “A Very Precious Love” by Sammy Fain and Paul Francis Webster, which is heard in various versions throughout the show. When we hear Noel singing it, any thought that his talents have limits goes out the window. We never get to the revelation that the world is crawling with talented people kept from success for any number of (often beneficial) personal reasons.
The feature advertising stresses the book connection. The disc has no special extras, which is a shame, as my own limited understanding of the book makes me curious to hear a commentary from a knowledgeable expert. Kino includes several trailers, but not one for this picture.
A final thought. In the first season of TV’s Mad Men Don Draper is interested in Rachel Menken, a client who runs a Jewish-aimed department store. His impulse is to try to get her to modernize the store and to appeal to a wider customer base. He learns that the upscale New York Jewish society is more insular than he thought. I have a feeling that Rachel, well played by Maggie Siff, was conceived as a ‘Marjorie Morningstar’ character, with some of the same ethno-centric problems made more explicit.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Movie: Good – Minus
Video: Very Good
Sound: Very Good
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: May 08, 2017
Text © Copyright 2017 Glenn Erickson