Saturday, August 20, 2011

GIGI (1958)


The Academy's choice for best picture of 1958 is one of its most lighthearted and charming choices ever; it's a sweet trifle, a light little pretty bon bon of a movie.  It was director Vincent Minnelli's second win for best picture, the first being 1951's AN AMERICAN IN PARIS, and, like that film, it's a romantic musical set in Paris (but, unlike AN AMERICAN IN PARIS, GIGI was shot almost entirely on location there, which adds to the film greatly), and both films have a script by Alan Jay Lerner (who also wrote the music for GIGI with his writing partner Frederick Lowe). But while the earlier film showed the city's cafe society and bohemian artists of the postwar period, GIGI displays the romantic side of Paris at the turn of the century, with people concerned only with love, gossip, fancy parties and fine dining.  (This is the kind of movie where the only people ever shown working are servants!).  Unfortunately, I think both films have skimpy, weak stories that are too predictable; although they may have won the best picture awards, I personally think that some of Minnelli's other musicals (like 1944's MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS and 1951's THE BANDWAGON) hold up better with age than these two films do.  Still, GIGI is a lovely film to look at and listen to, with eye popping color and CinemaScope cinematography by Joseph Ruttenberg, excellent production and costume design by Cecil Beaton, and a mostly great score by Lerner and Lowe.

GIGI began as a novella published by French author Collette in 1944; it was first turned into a pleasant but not memorable movie  by French director Jacqueline Audry in 1949.  Then in 1951 it was adapted into a Broadway play, with Audrey Hepburn in the title role.  MGM producer Arthur Freed first proposed a movie musical version of the story to writer Lerner in 1954, who had to make some changes to the original story to pass muster with the Hayes code (In the original story, Gigi learns how to be a courtesan, in this version she learns how to be "a proper lady").  Hepburn was originally going to be cast in the title role, but she was too busy and Leslie Caron was used instead.  The film was quickly completed on a budget of around 3 million dollars; it would go on to make around 13 million.

Set in Paris in 1900 and narrated by Honoré Lachaille(Maurice Chevalier), an aging romantic, GIGI tells the story of young French schoolgirl Gigi, who lives in a small apartment with her grandmother Madame Alvarez (Hermione Gingold), and receives lessons in how to be a proper lady from her once adventurous aunt Alicia (Isabel Jeans).  Wealthy playboy Gaston Lachaille(Louis Jordan), Honoré Lacahaille's nephew, is on friendly terms with Gigi and her grandmother, and he treats Gigi like a daughter or a little sister.  But, after his latest romance goes sour, he finds himself drawn to her as she begins to enter womanhood.  Eventually, he offers to make her his mistress, which she accepts with some reluctance because she's not sure if she wants to lead that kind of life.  When Gaston also realizes that he cares too much for her to treat her that way, he proposes to her, and she agrees.

The movie's opens with  Honoré Lachaille talking directly to the camera, describing love as his profession, and then singing "Thank Heaven for Little Girls" as school girls run by.  This scene has been mocked numerous times over the years, and it's easy to see why as the then 70 years old Maurice Chevalier leers at the girls.  Thankfully, the film rights itself by moving away from him, and when it does return to him later, his pursuit of much younger women throughout the rest of the film is implied instead of shown.   Actually, Chevalier is very good in the film, in a role that could have been written for him; (for years he had typified the stereotype of the jolly singing Frenchman that is irresistible to women in films like 1931's THE SMILING LIEUTENANT), and he still had a fine singing voice.  In fact, I think he think he gets the film's best musical moment as he and Gingold reminisce on a long past dinner date and duet on the what is probably the film's most famous song, "I Remember it Well."  It's a lovely song that is both witty (she has to keep correcting his poor memory) and wistful.

Hermonie Gingold and Maurice Chevalier

Leslie Caron was 27 when she took the title role, but her even younger appearance and girlish manner make her a believable schoolgirl on the cusp of womanhood (she's usually seen in her school uniform, which helps) and she appeared to enjoy the role, playing up the flighty nature of her character as she cheats at cards, sings to a cat, sneaks sips of champagne and plays tennis in a crazy waving manner.  She is both silly and lovable.

Hermoine Gingold, Louis Jordan and Leslie Caron

On the other hand,  Louis Jordan's Gaston is not particularly likable, in fact  he often seems downright stuffy, cold and priggish. In his first scene he sings about how boring he finds all the charms of Paris, a not particularly endearing character trait! And I find him particularly mean when he shrugs off the news that his former lover, Liane d'Exelmans (Eva Gabor), just attempted suicide. With his good looks and wealth, it is assumed that he has much to offer Gigi, but I wish he were a little warmer.  It's interesting to note that writers Lerner and Lowe had just finished writing MY FAIR LADY for Broadway before working on this film, since there are many similarities between Gaston and LADY's leading male character Henry Higgins, (they even sing similar songs) and, I must say,  I find it hard to warm up to either of them!

Another problem with GIGI is that its simple story feels too protracted, with its inevitable happy ending arriving almost too late.  Even worse, the best songs are all performed in the first two thirds of the film, with Gigi's solo number "Say a Prayer for Me Tonight" not making much of an impression.  Ending the movie with a brief reprise of "Thank Heaven for Little Girls" seems like a real missed opportunity; surely Lerner and Lowe could have come up with a better closing number!


Clearly, I have mixed feelings for GIGI, although it certainly has its charms.  But there were better films that year, such as Alfred Hitchcock's VERTIGO, Orson Welles's TOUCH OF EVIL  and THE DEFIANT ONES by Stanley Kramer.  Still, as frothy fun goes, GIGI satisfies.