Drama, Romance | 128 mins | Released: 1958
Director: Irving Rapper
Starring: Gene Kelly, Natalie Wood, Claire Trevor, Everett Sloane, Martin Milner, Carolyn Jones, George Tobias
Our Rating: 6
Marjorie Morgenstern (Natalie Wood) begins the film as a student at Hunter College and the girlfriend of an eligible young man who attends her family’s synagogue. Her parents are happy with her choice of mate, and one evening while they flirt in front of the Morgenstern cooperative apartment, her mother Rose Morgenstern (Claire Trevor) tells her father, Arnold (Everett Sloane), that she hopes the two kids marry.
Marjorie breaks up with the boy, though, and that summer attends a summer camp in the Adirondacks as a camp counselor. One night, Marjorie and her friend Marsha Zelenko (Carolyn Jones) sneak across to a Borscht Belt resort for adults called South Wind. There she is caught by resort owner Maxwell Greech (George Tobias) who is going to get her in trouble when the resort social director Noel Airman (Gene Kelly) vouches for her as a guest. She begins to work at the resort and begin a relationship with Airman and a friendship with playwright Wally Wronkin (Martin Milner). The latter wants a relationship with Marjorie, but she’s tempted by the tragic Airman, who meets the disapproval of her parents. According to them, as demonstrated in a lunch scene with Airman, he lacks the prospects that a true professional should aspire to. Airman, whose original name was the more Jewish Ehrman, renames Marjorie as well from Morgenstern to Morningstar.
When Marjorie’s Uncle Sampson (Ed Wynn) dies of a heart attack at the camp, the brief affair is interrupted and Marjorie goes back to the city. There she meets a doctor, with whom she quickly breaks up when Airman returns to find her. He declares that his love for her has convinced him to attempt to become respectable. Marjorie tells her mother, and Rose insists that Marjorie bring him to a Passover meal. “Not Passover, mother. He’s not very religious. He doesn’t believe in those things,” Marjorie says. Rose answers, “He doesn’t believe in those things… you’re going to get married. How are you going to raise your children?” Airman attends the Passover meal when a dramatic eruption occurs. In the midst of the meal, he leaves and Marjorie follows him. She is concerned he’s bored, and he says, “I wasn’t bored. I was disturbed, deeply. I couldn’t help thinking of all the things I’ve missed in life. Family, your kind of family. Faith, tradition. All the things I’ve been ridiculing all the time. That’s why I couldn’t take it anymore. I love you very much, Marjorie Morgenstern.”
Airman gets a job at an advertising firm and seems to be doing well for himself. But one week he disappears, doesn’t show up to work, and refuses to take Marjorie’s phone calls. She goes to his apartment to check up on him and finds him drunk with a strange woman in his apartment. He has decided he cannot stand the professional lifestyle and wants to be an artist. The impetus for his desire to change careers is the success of Wally Wronkin on Broadway – the playwright has launched on a series of hits and Airman is consumed with jealousy. Airman and Marjorie fight, but soon reconcile as Wronkin’s investors meet with Airman to invest in his play. Despite the investment, Airman’s play is panned by critics. “We were crucified,” someone explains to Marjorie, and their relationship is unable to survive Airman’s incredible failure. He runs away, again; and, she chases after him, even to Europe. In the end, Wally tells her where to find Noel: back at the resort, where they all first met.
In the final scene, Marjorie is back at South Wind. She watches Noel rehearsing his new summer show. Everything is exactly the same as it was, her first summer there, except for herself. Greech meets her, and says she’s done some growing up. In the final shot, we see her board a bus and sit down. It is unclear where she is heading, but when we see her look in the rearview mirror, we see Wronkin in the back of the bus. He smiles, as he said, he’s been waiting for her to grow up, and get over her summer fling. Although, the film ends there, the suggestion is that they will embark on the relationship Wronkin had been hoping for from the beginning.
Marjorie Morningstar is a 1958 melodrama film based on the 1955 novel of the same name by Herman Wouk. The film, released by Warner Bros. and directed by Irving Rapper tells a fictional coming of age story about a young Jewish girl in New York City in the 1950s. The film’s trajectory traces Marjorie Morgenstern’s attempts to become an artist – exemplified through her relationship with the actor and playwright Noel Airman. The film’s cast includes Natalie Wood, Gene Kelly, and Claire Trevor.
The central conflict in the film revolves around the traditional models of social behavior and religious behavior expected by New York Jewish families in the 1950s, and Marjorie’s desire to follow an unconventional path.
The film is notable for its inclusion of Jewish religious scenes – including a Passover meal, a synagogue sequence and Jewish icons in the Morgenstern house. These depictions were one of the first times Jewish religion was portrayed overtly in film since The Jazz Singer in 1927.
The film received an Academy Award nomination for Best Song (A Very Precious Love) sung by Gene Kelly. Music by Sammy Fain and Lyrics by Paul Francis Webster.
Natalie Wood, who would later go on to her greatest hit, West Side Story, had until Marjorie Morningstar played mostly childish roles, including that of Judy in Rebel Without a Cause. A NY Times reviewer wrote of her performance, “Natalie Wood, who only yesterday was playing with dolls in films, has blossomed into a vivacious pretty brunette who very likely is as close to a personification of Marjorie as one could wish. But the character is hardly complex, and while Miss Wood is competent in the role, it is rarely a glowing performance.”
Gene Kelly was near the end of his film career when he appeared in Marjorie Morningstar. His 15-year association with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer had ended the previous year. Born in 1912, he was 46 when he took the role of Noel Airman. By contrast, his love interest Wood was only 20 years old. The Times noted: “Although Mr. Kelly appears a mite uncomfortable in his assignment, he plays it with understanding. And, as a professional song-and-dance man, he both hoofs with polish and pleasingly warbles ‘A Very Precious Love,’ the film’s theme number.”
Times critiques of the other performances: “Carolyn Jones, as Miss Wood’s best friend, makes it an outspoken performance marked by one truly poignant scene in which she reveals her essential loneliness. Ed Wynn, in the comparatively short role of an impecunious but understanding relative, adds some glint of humor and compassion. Claire Trevor, as Marjorie’s over-protective mother and Martin Milner, as the playwright, who is one of Marjorie’s retinue of devoted suitors, are well-turned, if not inspired, characterizations.”
For Dirty Dancing, another film with a coming of age story set at a Catskills resort, Kenny Ortega, who was trained by Gene Kelly, was selected to direct.
In his autobiography, 700 Sundays, actor/comedian Billy Crystal wrote, “Another of my mom’s cousins was married to a woman whom I knew as Cousin Marjorie. She was a quiet, very lovely woman. Only a few years ago I found out she was actually the ‘Marjorie’ that ‘Marjorie Morningstar’ was written about.”
Paul Newman was initially offered the role of Noel Airman that eventually went to Gene Kelly.
Jennifer Jones was considered for the role of Marjorie before Natalie Wood was cast.
Actor Al Pacino wanted to produce a remake of the film and optioned the rights in 1998. Scarlett Johansson was attached to the title role in 2004 but by early 2007 the project was canceled.
Marjorie Morgenstern: “Were you in love with Papa when you married him?”
Rose Morgenstern: “When I met your father I was in love with Rudolph Valentino.”