Natalie Wood and Gene Kelly Star in Modernist Melodramatic Ramble



Will she or won’t she?  That’s the central question for the majority of Marjorie Morningstar, the 1958 melodrama based upon the novel by Herman Wouk.

Rambling just passed the two-hour mark, Morningstar feels every bit a book adaptation; albeit a book adaptation of the more contemporary variety.  The type in which the author (looking at you, E.L. James) has too much control over what stays in, often resulting in simply too much stuff, winding in too many directions.

Yet, being a studio product (Warner Brothers) of 1958, it also bears so much of the intriguingly awkward struggle inherent in a film industry anxious to be on the cutting edge of adapting popular literature, but still hopelessly restricted by a production code in terms of how adult themed content is dealt with.

The sexual tension at the buried forefront of Marjorie Morningstar is, in pure retrospect, what makes the film most interesting today.  It’s easy, even inviting, to indulge one’s viewing through a hindsight 20/20 filter of knowing what changes were just around the corner in terms of  objectionable content in films.  “Will the pretty girl sleep with the man?” is the kind of (literally) Godard-ian question that Godard himself would help take a sledgehammer to at the cinema with Breathless in 1960.  But for director Irving Rapper (Now, Voyager) and WB, they remained stalled at a series of yellow lights and the occasional red light in adapting this particularly modernist material.

Unequally yoked in worldliness, religious conviction and “experience”, how could such a relationship ever succeed?

In novels and even magazine racks, sexual mores, for both better and worse, were a good twenty or so years ahead of American movie morality.  They front-load the film’s frankness (using the word “sex” when talking about sex, etc.) to double purpose:  signaling the audience right away of the grown-up themes that will dominate this wandering tale; and also giving censors plenty of time to forget these instances as the rest of the movie more conventionally unspools.

Natalie Wood successfully carries the film in the title role (the character renamed from her familial “Morganstern”) a would-be ingenue, naturally the prettiest and most radiant girl anyone has ever seen.  To be certain, director Rapper clearly admires her rear end, and Wood’s waistline is so delusionally narrow that she appears in danger of snapping in half were she to lift anything heavy.

Marjorie longs for a career of acting in the theater, but how far up the ladder can she climb while she chastely adheres to the values of her Jewish faith?  From the outset, the eighteen year-old girl laments having to fight off her randy dates despite “these feelings” of her own.  Her mother (Claire Trevor) urges her to “take those feelings, and put them in a box” to save them for when she meets the right man, whom she will marry.  “But what if I never do…?”

Fleeing the proposal of one unworthy and desperate suitor, Marjorie takes a job at a girl’s summer camp, lured there in part by the promise of a boy’s camp across the lake, rife with swell (swelling?) guys.  Enter Gene Kelly as Noel Airman (another showbiz name change from “Ehrman”, a modernist fleeing his New York Jewish roots).  Airman is the overqualified director of the local theater, and a hard-bitten loner who loves ’em and leaves ’em.  While Kelly isn’t unappealing in the role, he’s obviously in over his head, dramatically.  But, he does get one good dance number as he is first seen directing a rehearsal for a sultry musical.  He chain smokes in his raw masculine swagger as he jaunts and thrusts his way through the dance – and life.  Before there was Bob Fosse, there was Noel Airman.

Marjorie must have him.  But, she can’t…!  But she must!  Oh, how could it ever work… a man like him and a girl like her??

Unequally yoked in worldliness, religious conviction and “experience”, how could such a relationship ever succeed?  Of course, he soon feels the same way, and it threatens to, above all, wreck him.

To further complicate things, young playwright Wally Wronkin (a very good Martin Milner) is forever waiting in the wings for Marjorie, hopelessly encouraged one fateful night by a sympathy kiss from her.  In another movie, this would be the set up for a killing spree.  Thankfully, Marjorie Morningstar sticks to its more grounded guns.

A vibrant “Warnercolor” production of 1958, the film boasts some convincing location photography and a continually eye-opening wardrobe, particularly for Wood.  Supporting performances from Everett Sloane (Citizen Kane) as Marjorie’s father, Carolyn Jones (The Addams Family TV series) as her worldly friend, and Ed Wynn (Mary Poppins) as her clowning drifter of an uncle help to flesh things out.  It all looks and sounds quite remarkable on Blu-Ray, down-converted its new 4K restoration, with the exception of a few quick instances of print damage.  No extras to speak of on the disc, aside from a slew of trailers for similar Kino Lorber Studio Classics titles.

Marjorie Morningstar is quite likely a much better book than a movie.  But, as a recovered bit of 1950’s high end glamour cinema, it is primarily today a continually engaging curio, a product of an era about to fold.  And, it’s not an altogether unengaging film in its own right.  Whatever the parameters, and whatever the morality, even in today’s post-Fifty Shades of Grey culture, the central question of “will she or won’t she?” persists as one of cinema’s most popular.  Majorie Morningstar shines on – and trudges on – on Blu-Ray.


The images in this review are not representative of the actual Blu-ray’s image quality, and are included only to represent the film itself.