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The Artistic Appeal of “Marjorie Morningstar” (1958)

Gene Kelly and Natalie Wood in “Marjorie Morningstar” (1958).

Marjorie Morningstar marks the sole meeting of two great stars from very different worlds. Gene Kelly, the musical genius from MGM, plays older lover to former child star Natalie Wood, here in her first adult role. They seem an unlikely pair, but once the plot gets underway, it is clear that the combined magnetic talent of these two legends is enough to power any movie forward.

18-year-old Marjorie Morgenstern (Natalie Wood) is coming of age in a rather normal way, dating steadily and fantasizing about becoming an actress, much to the chagrin of her traditional Jewish parents. After rejecting a marriage proposal from her beau, she takes a job with a friend at a summer camp for little girls “across the lake from a camp with big boys,” as her friend, Marcia Zelenko, puts it. They sneak over to the other side of the lake one night, and there she meets a dapper and handsome stage director by the name of Noel Airman (Gene Kelly) who charms Marjorie immediately with his talent for all aspects of the theatre. Renaming her “Marjorie Morningstar,” he offers her a number of odd roles in the current production, and in time, Marjorie begins to fall in love with Noel. Though he claims to feel the same way it becomes clear that Noel’s past experience with girls has left him bitter and suspicious of girls with dreams of the theatre. His treatment of Marjorie borders on cruel and manipulative, but Marjorie is so taken with him that she takes no notice.

Meanwhile Wally, a young man who works in Noel Airman’s show, has fallen for Marjorie. She shuns his attention because of her devotion to Noel, but later when Noel begins to have problems with depression and drink, Marjorie learns that he has been seeing another girl and leaves him. She shows up to audition at the theater where Wally is putting on a play and gets the part. When she learns that her success is due to Wally’s love for her instead of her skill as an actress, she expresses gratitude but turns it down, with a kiss and a goodbye to Wally.

At the marriage of her old friend Marcia Zelenko, Marjorie catches a glimpse of Noel, who confides to her that he only showed up to talk to her. He and Marjorie have a passionate scene in which they reconcile, but after the failure of Noel’s next play, he disappears from Marjorie’s life. She tracks him down in London but instead of pursuing him once again, she chooses to shift her attention to Wally, who has shown up in London to meet her.

Marjorie Morningstar is classified as a melodrama, and it definitely lives up to its classification. There are scenes of intense angst, particularly the scene where Marjorie finds Noel with another woman, and this drama clearly shows the range of both main actors. Gene Kelly is especially noteworthy in these scenes, as he is very much playing against type.

Kelly was a magnificently multi-talented personality. He excelled at drama, comedy, and musicals, and felt equally at home behind or in front of the camera. His talents seemed to know no end, and whether directing, producing, choreographing, dancing, singing, or acting, Gene Kelly was the best there was. However, audiences up to this time were used to seeing him in musicals. Though there are a few songs here and there in Marjorie Morningstar (notably “A Very Precious Love,” sung by Kelly toward the beginning of the film), the film generally pushes aside his musical abilities and instead focuses on his ability to play drama. The only time we see him dance briefly in the film is during rehearsal of a number for the show–and there we get a glimpse of classic Kelly.

Natalie Wood, by contrast, does have an extended dance sequence. In her first role for Noel Airman, Marjorie plays a Spanish dancer who transforms her Spanish dance into a modern 1950’s number. Natalie Wood was not known for her abilities as a dancer, but she was famous in the industry for her sky-high IQ and ability to learn unusually fast. Her abilities as a dancer were likely honed on the spot, and her apparent talent is a pleasant surprise. She is nimble, confident, and a joy to watch in this number.

Natalie Wood as Marjorie in the dance sequence.

The film is shot in Eastmancolor (billed as “Warnercolor,” a form of Technicolor popular in the 1950’s), and the film is in desperate need of a restoration. Given the amount of skips, pops, and crackles that continue throughout, it seems as though the print hasn’t been touched in decades. Regardless, the color is absolutely breathtaking. I think this movie would be a wonderful candidate for restoration, because if the color is already this beautiful, I can only imagine what could happen with a little bit of work. This could become a visually stunning piece of film.

Marjorie Morningstar is, in some ways, rather groundbreaking. Uniquely touching and original in its own right, it is also notable as one of the first films to explore the life of a Jewish family without direct reference to their Judaism. Though the thematic elements of The Jazz Singer (1927) were also strongly tied to Judaism, the difference lies in the fact that The Jazz Singer defined the characters primarily by their Jewishness, while the characters in Marjorie Morningstar are defined by their personas instead of their religion. In fact, the word “Jewish,” or any of its derivatives, is not mentioned once. Instead, the family’s religion is evidenced through their activities, specifically Marjorie’s younger brother having a bar mitzvah and a very elaborate Passover dinner scene.

See you next time!


“Forever Natalie Wood,” Castro Theatre, San Francisco, CA, November 9-11, 2012.

The extraordinarily talented Natalie Wood, who stole our hearts at the age of 9 in Miracle on 34th Street (1947) and made the rare successful transition to meaningful roles as an adult, was tragically taken from us 31 years ago in an accident off Catalina Island. Last year, the case of her death was reopened when law enforcement gained some new information about that night, and the intense feelings surrounding Natalie’s death were reopened with it.

San Francisco impresario Marc Huestis, beloved for his lavish and creative productions dedicated to the stars of stage and screen, was uncomfortable with this new attention. A huge fan of Natalie Wood himself, he took matters into his own hands and created “Forever Natalie Wood,” a large tribute to Natalie featuring some of her best and most beloved film work to be shown over the course of 3 days at the Castro Theatre in San Francisco.

Beginning Friday night with a double feature of Rebel Without a Cause (1955) and This Property is Condemned (1966), the event continued yesterday with another double feature of Gypsy (1962) and Love with a Proper Stranger (1963). The latter is a brave powerhouse of a film, featuring probably the most powerful scene I have ever seen on film dealing with back alley abortions. Wood’s performance earned her an Oscar nomination, the third of 3 over the course of her career.

The centerpiece of the event, however, was a frank and honest discussion with Natalie Wood’s younger sister Lana, with whom she was very close. Lana, who made her own name for herself in Hollywood (notably as a Bond Girl in Diamonds are Forever (1971), wrote one of the quintessential books about Natalie Wood, and along with 2001’s Natasha by Suzanne Finstad, Natalie: A Memoir By Her Sister stands as one of the most complete and honest accounts of Natalie Wood’s life.

Preceded by 20 minutes of film clips compiled by Huestis that detailed the life and career of Natalie Wood (as well as a very entertaining performance by Matthew Martin lip syncing to a mashup of “Everything’s Coming Up Roses”), the discussion with Lana was an insightful look into the early life and career of her legendary sister as well as the details of Natalie’s later personal life. Simultaneously serving the roles of sister, friend, and confidante, Lana Wood’s words were sincere, moving, and beautiful as she spoke about what Natalie meant to her. She was quick to protect her infamously pushy stage mother, who she admitted was “difficult to deal with” but who was ultimately “full of life” and protective of her children.

Natalie Wood with Lana and their parents.

The Wood family (originally Zakharenko, later changed to Gurdin and then to Wood when Natalie began in Hollywood) was from San Francisco. The sisters’ parents were both born in Russia and emigrated to the United States later in life. Both Natalie and Lana grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area, speaking Russian and proud of their Russian heritage. Lana spoke fondly of her “very Russian” mother and her father who “played the balalaika and wished the Communists would get out of Russia.” This reverence for her Russian heritage and San Francisco background was especially moving to me, as my own nativity to the San Francisco Bay Area and my Russian heritage has always made me feel close to Natalie Wood.

During the discussion, Marc Huestis announced that there would be a surprise for Lana and the audience. He had conducted telephone interviews with Mary Badham (primarily known as “Scout” in To Kill a Mockingbird) and Ann Blyth (known for her role as “Veda” in Mildred Pierce), who had both worked with Natalie. They offered remembrances of their times with her, and expressed thanks to the audience for keeping Natalie’s memory alive. It was a lovely gesture by Huestis, and wonderful to hear such stars in their own right speaking so candidly.

Mary Badham and Natalie Wood in “This Property is Condemned.”

Speaking about Natalie’s later life, career, and relationships, Lana commented on an increasingly difficult relationship with Natalie following her second marriage to Robert Wagner, of which Lana disapproved. But they loved each other dearly despite their disagreements, and referring to of the circumstances surrounding the ongoing investigation of Natalie’s death, Lana’s voice broke as she remarked that she appreciates the investigators’ thoroughness but nothing will change. She emphasized that she does not want to bring more pain to Wagner and their two daughters. Lana concluded by thanking the audience for their devotion to Natalie. “I don’t want her to be forgotten,” she said, with a sincerity that was palpable. As with all of Huestis’ events, the crowd was warm and enthusiastic for her, and it was a true pleasure to hear her speak so freely about Natalie.

Lana Wood’s talk was followed by a screening of Splendor in the Grass (1961). I have a special affinity for this film, as it was one of the first Natalie Wood movies I ever saw and it was wonderful to see it on the big screen. One of my favorite trivia bits about this movie demonstrates just what a magnificent and dedicated actress Natalie Wood was. There is a scene in which Natalie is supposed to have a nervous breakdown in the bathtub. Due to a childhood injury on the set of The Green Promise, Natalie had a malformed wrist and due to her nearly pathological insecurity about it, she nearly always wore a bracelet on her left hand. In order to get into the right mindset for the scene (and for the reality of the scene, as she was in the bathtub), Natalie took off her bracelet. The psychological distress that she shows in this scene is not completely acting, the fact that her bracelet was off was an intense psychological impetus that helped her play the scene accurately. The film afforded her her second Oscar nomination.

The bathtub scene from Splendor in the Grass.

Today, the final day of “Forever Natalie Wood,” features a Sing-A-Long version of West Side Story (1961) at 2:00, followed by a double feature of Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (1968) at 7:00 and Inside Daisy Clover (1965). For those in the San Francisco Bay Area, this is a great opportunity to see some of Natalie Wood’s true gems. I hope to see you there!

See you next time!