The archetypal stage mother, Mama Rose was performed on Broadway for almost two years by Ethel Merman, who helped create the character for the stage after reading Gypsy Rose Lee’s memoirs. Yet when the film adaptation began production shortly after the play’s initial run ended, Merman was passed over. The reasons behind Rosalind Russell being given the plum role range from the pragmatic to the conspiratorial. Nevertheless, though she may have been no match for Merman musically (who was?), the film version immeasurably benefits from the performance of Russell, who sublimely ushers Rose away from the pitfalls of caricature.
Blinded by her obsessive desire to make her youngest daughter a star, Mama Rose is not so much oblivious to the consequences of her actions in that she just doesn’t care! When June rebels and abandons the act, Rose’s attention turns to her other daughter, Louise. But vaudeville is dying, and Louise’s lack any discernible talent forces Rose to reluctantly concede that the curtain has finally come down on what she considers her showbiz career. Then an accidental booking at a burlesque theatre provides Rose with a stage that Louise may succeed on – much to the disgust of her long-suffering beau.
Key to this film’s success was the seamless blending of Rosalind Russell’s vocals with that of songstress Lisa Kirk, who altered her singing to match the actress’ voice. Other modifications permitted by the adaptation was an onscreen narration to bypass some of the plays’ slower segments and exterior shots to open out the predominantly stage-bound piece. Marni Nixon was also used sparingly to augment Natalie Wood’s songs. Nothing could help Karl Malden though. His one contribution was cut from the final release.
as Gypsy Rose Lee
as June Havoc
“I didn't want to be accused of being unfaithful to the facts. So I said it was a fable. Of course, Gypsy's memoir is a fable, too.”
"I cherish and am extremely proud of my childhood. If you'd been a child -- a phenomenon, really -- someone who earned fifteen-hundred dollars a week on the Keith-Orpheum circuit, who was a headliner with all the applause and laughter and raised in that glorious vaudeville family, and then see yourself portrayed as a no-talent, whining nothing, well, it hurts terribly."
“There was that meeting. The contracts hadn't been signed and June had been protesting.... And Gypsy was sitting right there, calm and demure. She had one fear. That the show might not go on. She didn't care whether it was truth or untruth.”
“Gypsy was deliriously happy. She said, ‘It's my monument, June.’ I said, ‘Do you want the world to remember you as someone with nothing but a gimmick?’ She said, ‘I don't care what they say about me as long as my name is up there.’ How are you going to quarrel with that? You can't. I gave up. I always gave up. Because she was my sister.”
Though June Havoc appeared in a few Hal Roach shorts during her heyday, there are no scene recreations in this biopic. Havoc would go on to a successful acting career after the events depicted in this film. Gypsy Rose Lee would also appear in a few films.