After Gypsy proved itself to be a tremendous success on the legitimate stage, its transfer to the silver screen seemed inevitable. Seemingly inevitable to transfer with it was the show's original star, Ms. Ethel Merman. It was, by all accounts, Merman who really made the show; the material had been expertly tailored to fit her form, her reviews had been splendid (Brooks Atkinson raved she was “a triumph,”), and her word-of-mouth was even better. Everybody knew: Gypsy was Ethel’s show. But Hollywood didn’t agree.
Warner Brothers had purchased the film rights for $650,000 and, if you can believe, they were initially pursuing Judy Holliday to replace la Merm. Holliday never signed. Anyways, it’s probably for the best; not that Holliday wouldn't have been an interesting choice, but her little black book was already full that year with another film-- the adaptation of her own star vehicle from Broadway, Bells are Ringing. So, at least this way, a fraction of the magic at least one star produced is forever preserved on film.
With no Rose's yet in bloom, swooping in to feed upon the casting carrion was none other than Rosalind Russell (feel free to read way more about her in my continuing “Mame” series). In Russell's memoirs, “Life’s a Banquet,” she explains what led Jack Warner to her filling of the role: “Merman had starred in the movie version of her musical Call Me Madam, and the results hadn’t come up to the producer’s expectations. I felt [Merman] should have got the part in Gypsy, it belonged to her. But I’d learned from Myrna Loy, early on: ‘Grab ‘em if they come up.’”
Unfortunately, the role she “grabbed” was one that her talents were ill-equipped to handle. At first, she claims she, “... was only hired to act the part; Rose’s singing was dubbed by a professional with a big trained voice. When I heard it, I got sick. ‘I’m bad, but I can’t stand to hear that. Everybody knows I don’t sing operatically, it throws the balance off.’” She makes claim in her memoirs that the voice you hear in the film is entirely hers. That is a lie. In truth, some of the voice you hear is hers; and all the rest of it was dubbed by Lisa Kirk— the original Lois Lane/Bianca in Kiss Me, Kate (which is ironic when you consider the song for which Kirk is best remembered is called “Always True to You in My Fashion”.)
While the dubbing certainly sanded down a few of Roz’s rougher edges, there were still plenty of splinters to go around. The film premiered on November 1, 1962. That was only a year and a half after the show had closed on Broadway. As far as the critics were concerned, Merman’s performance had not yet been forgotten (nor would it ever be). Roz Russell was raked over the coals. Bosley Crowther of the New York Times stated, “That tornado of a stage mother that Ethel Merman portrayed on Broadway in the musical comedy Gypsy comes out little more than a big wind in the portrayal that Rosalind Russell gives her in the transfer of the comedy to the screen.” The most personal of his attacks occurs when he goes on the admonish her for “forcing as much air into her singing as her rusty vocal chords will bear.”
But Ethel Merman always got the last laugh (and the 11 o'clock number). According to author Darcie Denkert, for the delight of her friends at parties, Merman used to perform a scathing imitation of Russell trying to croak her way through the demanding score. But, on this occasion, I think we owe the last word to the man who wrote the words first: the show’s librettist, Mr. Arthur Laurents. When asked to proffer his opinion of Rosalind Russell’s performance in the film, with tongue planted firmly in cheek, he replied, “We can say she wore black-and-white pumps and that’s about it.”