Based on the memoirs of striptease queen Gypsy Rose Lee, the film follows her early years in vaudeville, which involved being dragged from one musical theatre to another by her domineering and ambitious mother, Rose Hovick (Rosalind Russell).
Rose will stop at nothing to make her daughter, blonde and talented June (Ann Jillian), a star. But it’s the other daughter – the shy and talent-challenged Louise (Natalie Wood) – who eventually finds fame (as “Gypsy”) in this marvellous presentation of one of the greatest of all Broadway shows.
We first see Louise and June being bustled by Mother into a theatre to be auditioned for an act being set up by Herbie Sommers (Karl Malden). Mother’s manner is so domineering that Herbie walks out of the theatre in disgust, not suspecting that he will later be the agent for a musical vaudeville act featuring the two girls.
They tour successfully with Mother planning big things for June, and the shy Louise is content to take a back seat. And then the most awful thing imaginable happens to Mother: June runs away to marry.
In her grief, Mother becomes determined to bring to Louise the fame she had planned for June. Louise is reluctant but realises it’s no good protesting to a Mother like hers.
Talking pictures has sounded the death knell for vaudeville, though, and the going is tough for Mother and Louise. Despairing of ever realising her ambition, Mother is about to retire from the theatre when Louise is given the chance of appearing as a stripper. She brings sophistication to the art of “peeling” and it is her rise to fame as Gypsy Rose Lee that gives the film its climax (no pun intended).
Purists may argue that Russell isn’t Ethel Merman (the star of the stage show), that some songs are missing, or that Mervyn LeRoy’s direction is too “theatrical”, but, nevertheless, this is a bright, dazzling and, above all, entertaining movie.
It contains a fabulous array of colourful showbiz characters and a performance by Russell that will knock your socks off. No, she isn’t Merman, and she isn’t Judy Garland (Sondheim’s ideal) either, but she is – aided by Liza Kirk dubbing some of her songs – quite magnificent, especially in the finale, Rose’s Turn.
There are other great moments, too: Natalie Wood’s tender, touching Little Lamb and her final triumphant striptease, plus Paul Wallace’s All I Need Is the Girl.
Bette Midler‘s TV-movie remake was shown theatrically in Britain but is nowhere near as good.