Jewish Summer Camp Movies: Marjorie Morningstar (1958)

I'm including the 1958 film "Marjorie Morningstar" in this collection of essays just to be a damn completest, because while the title character does attend a Jewish summer camp in the movie, it's all of about two minutes before she paddles across the river to a Borscht Belt summer resort, meets Gene Kelly, and falls madly in love.

But this is likely the first representation of a Jewish summer camp in film history. I don't know how much more of the camp was represented in the original novel by Herman Wouk -- from what I gather, not much. He provided a much more detailed look at camp life in a novel called "City Boy: The Adventures of Herbie Bookbinder," published in 1948 and detailing a Jewish boy from the Bronx who goes to camp with characters named Yishy Gabelson and Ted Kahn. This was also made into a film, 1951's "Her First Romance," but I won't be covering it because it was so stripped of Jewish content as to be useless. Herbie Bookbinder was not only changed into a non-Jewish girl for the film, she was played by Margaret O'Brien.

"Morningtar's" camp scenes were lensed at an actual upstate New York camp, Camp Cayuga, which is not a Jewish camp. It nonetheless looks like it might be Jewish in the film, as it features a scowling camp director who could be the father of Morty "Mickey" Melnick, the camp director from "Meatballs." But Wouk drew from his own experiences at largely Jewish camps and resorts for this book, including Camp Copake, where he met Elinor Glenn, the Brooklyn-born daughter of a Jewish suffragette and a Jewish union tradesmen who reportedly was the model for  Morningstar.

The film's Morningstar wants to be an actress, and this is why she lands at summer camp, in a position as drama teacher. She is played by Natalie Wood, looking coltish and fragile as usual, and here she is the daughter of upwardly mobile Jews from the Upper West Side. Specifically, her parents are played by Claire Trevor and Everett Sloane, the former doing a credible impression of an oppressive Jewish mother, the latter, well, being Everett Sloane, which is about as Jewish as anyone has ever been on film this side of Fyvush Finkel.

The film doesn't short-change the family's Jewishness either. There is both a bar mitzvah scene, where Marjorie's brother not only accurately chants a haftarah portion but managed to swing it a little, and a Passover scene. (More about that in a moment.) Even if there isn't much Jewish camp in the film, it's nice that there is so much Jewishness, even if about half the cast is not Jewish -- and the Jews they do have are superlative, including Ed Wynn, Martin Balsam, and George Tobias.

Unfortunately, the film loses interest in Marjorie's career as an actress as quickly as he loses interest in her summer camp, which barely even gets named -- it's Camp Tamarack, which we mostly know because the campers and staff all have adorable crew shirts with the name emblazoned on it.

Instead, the film sends Morningstar to the nearby resort, where she meets a deftly drawn but rather depressing type, played by Gene Kelly. He's a struggling songwriter and playwright who manages to be quite a big deal during the summer theatrics at the resort and quite a nobody for the rest of the year. Marjorie falls for him instantly, and the rest of the film is about the emotional labor he demands from her. Marjorie essentially ends up babysitting him as a full-time job, blinded by her affection for him to faults that are obvious to everyone else. He is unstable, unhappy, and unlikely ever to accomplish anything, and he has nothing to offer Marjorie except a romantic fantasy where she is helping a tortured soul.

Kelly plays it pretty straight, and, as a result, is a genuine bummer. His character is also Jewish, but the only way you know it is that he rankles at any mention of his father, a well-respected New York judge, and looks quite bored during Passover, both of which feel like the most authentically Jewish moments in the film.

Marjorie helps Kelly get a musical produced, and, in one of the film's few really sharp comic scenes, we know it's a flop because his friends enthusiastically tell him how great the scenery is. In the end, he just sort of fails his way back to the summer resort, which is where he belongs, and Marjorie ends up with a playwright with real talent who has held a torch for her for years.

I don't know if Marjorie gets back to acting after the final scene -- there is no reason to think she does, and Wouk's original novel ended with her married and settled in as a notably ordinary housewife. It's a shame, too. If the character was based on Wouk's old friend Elinor Glenn, she wound up acting in a troupe that appeared in union halls, which led to her cofounding and leading a women's labor union in Los Angeles. Hers was a notable and decidedly not ordinary story, without the years wasted acting as unpaid emotional support for a talentless hack, and I would sort of like to see that story told.

In the meanwhile, I'd also like to see versions of the Camp Tamarack crew shirts made available for purchase. We don't get much Jewish camping from this film, the least we can get is a stupid t-shirt.

1 comment:

  1. I went to Camp Copake in the 1950's after it had become a children's day camp owned by the Copake Country Club and Hotel. Marjorie Morningstar may not have been the greatest film ever made but Camp Copake was a very special place which I still think about and remember fondly 60 years later.