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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
This is one of those movies to see over and over for certain memorable scenes, the hauntingly beautiful piece, A VERY SPECIAL LOVE, and for the novelty of watching Gene Kelly in a strictly dramatic role. But as for the treatment the film gives to the Herman Wouk novel, MARJORIE MORNINGSTAR experiences the usual celluloid plastic surgery and comes out an approximation of the 1950's best seller. For central to Wouk's fiction is the New York Jewish community and its effect on a young woman struggling with her own sexual identity. In short, what we get in the film is Natalie Wood, nascent and alluring, but resembling more a Beverly Hills rich girl than a Jewish American Princess.
MORNINGSTAR is undoubtedly Natalie Wood's maiden flight as a leading lady. REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE may have brought her to the public's attention, but MORNINGSTAR was the movie that launched her as a star and sent her career skyrocketing. The obvious parallel between the coming of age of Marjorie in the film and Natalie Wood as a leading lady cannot be ignored.
Noel Airman (Gene Kelly) is a shiftless romantic forever working on his musical PRINCESS JONES. He's more or less a drifter and supports himself in summertime by working as a dramatic director at a Jewish summertime resort in the Adirondacks where young girls are drawn to him like moths. It is there that he meets a very young and impressionable Marjorie. Her obsession with him begins immediately and the more irresponsible Airman behaves, the more deeply she is drawn into him. The Marjorie--Noel relationship is the movie's centerpiece as Marjorie simply refuses to see Airman as a deadbeat and supports his pipe dreams about a Broadway production. She even influences her best friend (Carolyn Jones) to get her boyfriend, well-connected Jesse White, to put financial backing together to produce Airman's play. The production flops, of course, because it's so romantically saccharine and Kelly finally realizes he's going nowhere. Taking to drink, he escapes to Europe and heartbroken Marjorie goes off after him.
Natalie Wood's performance as Marjorie Morningstar is superior and is performed with the same passion characteristic of almost every role she ever tackled. However, Kelly's performance as Noel Airman is, for the most part, superficial. It wasn't his first dramatic role by a long shot, for Kelly was always a fine actor in his own right and showed his talents in many of his musicals such as COVER GIRL and AN American IN Paris, but MARJORIE MORNINGSTAR was his first non-dancing dramatic effort.
Most of the others in the cast, with the exception of Carolyn Jones, Marjorie's common-sense best friend, come off as stereotypes. Ed Wynn hovers around Wood as the wise Uncle Sampson sprinkling common sense over Marjorie's romantic dizziness. Claire Trevor and Everette Sloan are Marjorie's uppity, bigoted Jewish parents who will tolerate nothing less than a wealthy husband for their daughter. Marty Balsam is a complete figurine playing Marjorie's wimpy suitor. But the most obtuse character in the film is Wally (Mary Milner), the struggling playwright who's been in love with Marjorie forever. Milner is portrayed as a Marjorie's shoulder to lean on lurking behind the scenes for years. Then in the bat of an eye, he's suddenly transformed into a successful Broadway playwright! The transition is laughable.
In the end, Marjorie matures and finally seees Noel as a self-destructive dreamer. She visits the old summer camp on the Adirondacks for one last time and looks on as Noel draws impressionable young girls into his web all over again. The sequence itself is very effective; however, the movie's very last scene in which Marjorie boards a bus and discovers a smiling Wally behind her in the rear view mirror now ready to step into her life big time is a bit much.
MORNINGSTAR works if you don't want to hold the script up to the light and just enjoy Wood and Kelly in a film. The theme song, A VERY SPECIAL LOVE, casts the appropriate mood over the summer camp atmosphere and, if nothing else, strikes a cord in all of us who ever had a nostalgic vacation romance.
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