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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
Although the novel is, of course, inevitably dated in some respects, it indisputably contains timeless, universal themes concerning tradition, convention, race, love, sexuality, etc., that this flawed film version needs to be remade instead of perfect or near-perfect, towering classics like "Planet of the Apes," "The Manchurian Candidate," "Psycho," "Charade," etc.! Don't get me wrong, I liked this film, even after reading the Herman Wouk magnum opus on which it's based, but in comparison to the novel it's an indisputably flawed film with some bad miscasting and its omittance of many key events and situations, which causes the film adaptation to lack much of the substance and soul which the book possessed.
"Marjorie Morningstar" stars Natalie Wood in the title part, a role she lobbied heavily for in her (ultimately) successul attempt to transition from a teen star/ingenue to a bona fide leading lady. The film starts off with Marjorie (then Morgenstern, her real last name; "Morningstar," her 'stage' name, comes later) fresh out of high school and a at a crossroads: Her traditional, conservative-minded parents (Claire Trevor & Everett Sloane) want her to attend college and marry her rich, great catch of a boyfriend, but the dreamy, yearning, starry-eyed, somewhat spoiled Marjorie disdains the conventional plans laid out for her, although she is unsure of what she wants to do. That uncertainty is resolved when her fun-loving, man-crazy best friend Marsha Zelenko (Carolyn Jones) persuades her to become a counselor at an all-girls summer camp, which just "happens" to be across the lake from an upscale grown-up resort where all sort of racy things occur. It is there that Marjorie will develop her serious aspirations to become an actress (and hence adopting the more harmonious, not to mention less ethnic, stage name "Morningstar") and where she will meet two young men who will play a pivotal part in her life: a stable, talented, aspiring playwright Wally Wronkin (Marty Milner) and the gifted but volatile Noel Airman nee Ehrman (Gene Kelly), the great love of her life. The latter man will (albeit intentionally or not) put her through hell but she ends up growing and maturing as a result; whereby the former, Wally, remains patiently to the end as a lighthouse does on the dunes, a comforting, stable, safe presence, as it appears to a ship navigating troubled, tumultuous waters, which is analagous to Marjorie's relationship and experience with Noel.
As mentioned earlier, this is a good enough film if one hasn't read the book, but if one has, the movie is at best acceptable and at worst deplorable. I tend to take the former view. Regarding the casting--I can't really think of an actress of the time that would immediately come to mind as epitomizing Marjorie, but Natalie Wood did well enough in the part. She certainly was of the right age, convincingly emoted the vulnerable uncertainty yet heady excitement of a girl on the cusp of womanhood, and what's more, had enough of the "look" to be convincing. I've often heard it said that Natalie was miscast in "ethnic" roles such as the part of the Jewish beauty Marjorie in this movie, the mulatto in "Kings Go Forth" and the Puerto Rican Maria in "West Side Story," but I've always found that view inexplicable. While Wood has always had a sort of 'wholesome' quality in her persona and appearance, to me there was a slightly exotic cast in her face (most evident in her large, expressive, enchantress-like dark eyes) which made her acceptable in more exotic-ethnic parts.
The always reliable Claire Trevor and Everett Sloane were solid in their parts as Marjorie's concerned, conventional parents, and though I have not mentioned him, so was the delightful Ed Wynn as Samson, Marjorie's lovable, understanding whale of an uncle (despite his performance sometimes bordering on this side of being hammy). The big sour note here is Gene Kelly, with Carolyn Jones as Marsha running a close 2nd and Marty Milner as Wally not far behind. Noel in the novel is 29 years old, very tall, lanky, blond, blue-eyed and handsome, like a Greek God. If Troy Donahue had been a little older, he would have been perfect. Kelly is the complete physical antithesis--46 years old, short, overweight, brunette. Even in his young and handsome days he still would be inappropriate, not only lookswise but performance as well. His acting is acceptable and in some parts even good, but doesn't quite hit the mark. If the similarly short and dark-haired, explosive and phenomenal actor John Garfield had still been alive and been cast in this part, he would have done a spectacular job as Noel (see him in a similar type of role in "Humoresque").
Then there is Carolyn Jones as Marjorie's best buddy Marsha, another complete miscast. Whereas Jones is good-looking, slender, sexy, vivacious and well-groomed, her character is supposed to be very unattractive (with glasses, too!), fat (in fact, this is mentioned over and over again!), of course not sexy in the least, ill-tempered and slovenly (another fact which is mentioned or inferred to countless times). She does turn in a warm, likable performance; however, she's supposed to be just the opposite. As for Marty Milner as Wally, as with Kelly, Milner is physically miscast--he is very tall, blond, blue-eyed and attractive when he should be the complete opposite. In fact, Kelly and he could have switched parts! Also, Milner's performance is too upbeat; his character should be more solemn.
But overlooking the inexplicable miscasting, in my estimation the film adaptation left out the heart and soul and substance of the novel, which spanned many decades and touched upon some important and uncomfortable events and issues. The book starts with Marjorie at 17 and eventually ends off with her at middle-age--this is very crucial because it not only captures the painful, heartrending passage of time but also a nostalgic, reminiscent, almost aching yet loving fondness mixed with unflinching objectivity for things, places, events and people bygone, a perspective that can only be reached when a lot of time has gone by. The most important situation and event the movie leaves out concerns the Jewish individual's and community's place and struggle for acceptance and assimilation in what still was then a very Anglo-Saxon, WASP era, and the impending circumstances and eventual arrival of World War 2. The movie also fails to really capture the theme of the traditional vs the un-traditional, the "old ways" vs. the "new ways" in Marjorie's youthful defiance to be everything her parents are NOT.
All in all, "Marjorie Morningstar" is a somewhat entertaining, somewhat poignant coming-of-age romantic soap-opera fare amidst the background of Bar Mitzvahs, Summer Camps and Broadway, and while it tends to leave off the hot-button issue of the characters Jewish heritage and completely omits any mention to WW2 and instead transfers the era to well after the war, it does effectively present a portrait of stirring sexuality and young love in the vein of other such similar movies like "A Summer Place," "Splendor In The Grass," etc. But if you're interested in a movie which perfectly delivers what Wouk does in his novel--about how young love doesn't always last and how we can still end up quite happy when making practical choices, see "The Umbrellas of Cherbourg."
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