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While working as a counselor at a summer camp, college-student Marjorie Morgenstern falls for 32-year-old Noel Airman, a would-be dramatist working at a nearby summer theater. Like Marjorie, he is an upper-middle-class New York Jew (born 'Ehrman'), but has fallen away from his roots, and Marjorie's parents object among other things to his lack of a suitable profession, such as medicine or law. Noel himself warns Marjorie repeatedly that she's much too naive and conventional for him, but they nonetheless fall in love. As they pursue an on-again-off-again relationship, Marjorie completes her studies at Hunter College, and works to establish an acting career, while Noel first leaves the theater for a job with an advertising agency, but later completes a musical he'd started writing before he and Marjorie had first met. Meanwhile, their relationship deepens (though, consistent with '50s Hollywood mores, the more full-fledged sexuality in their relationship is never explicitly communicated... Written by
The movie suffers in two ways when compared to the magical novel about theater and love: (1) by losing the late-Depression setting, when show-business was very different than in the 1950's, and (2) by casting Gene Kelly (who himself felt he was wrong for the part) as the tall, blond Noel Airman (Warner Brothers must have lost its mind not to use its contract star Tab Hunter). But those two compunctions aside, there is no other movie like it. Natalie Wood, not yet a superstar, had to read fourteen times for the role, but all of us who loved the book knew there was no one else for it. Natalie's acting ability may have been limited to looking pretty and poignant, but there's not much else that ambitious, innocent Marjorie needs to do. This story is a loving tribute to a nice girl, and a tender acknowledgment of how hard life is for one. So far as I know, no other story captures those years when a pretty young American female has the world to choose from--or how confusing her multitude of choices are. As Marjorie slowly travels through the gauntlet of family and education (and the foggy fantasies of fame that tempt any attractive teen who draws attention and compliments) toward her inevitable, bittersweet fate, a whole world is revealed--the world of The Pretty Girl, a world of school and dates and dancing and romance--with no one really to guide her--because everyone either envies her or wants to take advantage of her. By taking her story seriously, novelist Herman Wouk created a highly individual and yet universal character, and Natalie simply WAS her. The scriptwriter did a marvelous job of condensing a long and elaborate book into an entertaining and moving photo-play--and kept enough of Wouk's dialog from the novel to give flashes of the book's insight and sophistication. All of the actors must have read the book, for they dig into their roles far deeper than the screenplay does. Not a great movie, but until someone makes a better one, it stands alone as Hollywood's most honest and endearing tribute to--The Nice Girl.
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