By all indications, Gigi should be a musical masterpiece, the last hurrah of Metro Goldwyn Mayer’s Freed Unit and yet, it took me several viewing attempts to actually sit through Gigi in its entirety, extracting as much appreciation as I can from what the film has to offer. While there are aspects of this musical vacation I enjoy, there is a synergy derived from one of the film’s songs which sums up this disappointing production, the ironically titled It’s A Bore.
So how did a major Hollywood movie about a girl being trained to become a prostitute get made in 1958? The film is full of gags about the French stereotype of impropriety however the film doesn’t outright state that Gilberte “Gigi” (Leslie Caron) is being trained to become a courtesan and a less in-tune viewer looking at the film from an anglo-centric perspective as opposed to a continental one may just think she is receiving lessons in etiquette. One of the film’s more successful elements is its (often dark) Ernst Lubitsch-style comedy from casual conversation on Laine d’Exelman’s (Eva Gabor) failed suicide attempts to Gigi’s mentally ill, off-screen mother’s out-of-tune singing. The other aspect of the film tying it to Lubitsch is the casting of the ever charming epitome of Frenchness, Lubitsch pre-code regular Maurice Chevalier. However, when it comes to the film’s two leads, Leslie Caron and Louis Jordan as Gigi’s eventual love interest Gaston Lachaille, I’m not seeing many sparks. They make for a decent pairing but I’m never left thinking these two were made for each other nor am I dying to see them end up together. This romance fails to create any real conflict in the story nor does Gaston’s boredom with everyday life or Gigi’s disdain for her training and the Parisian obsession with love. Gigi’s age is never stated however Caron was 26 at the time of filming yet she looks like a girl in her teens and like Ginger Rogers in The Major and The Minor, it is an impressive transition (in earlier films she looked older).
Ah Paris, the preferred setting of every romantic comedy made in the ’50s and ’60s. Gigi does deliver the goods with a slice of turn-of-the-century nostalgia (if only the characters knew they would have two world wars ahead of them, you cheese-eating surrender monkeys). However, this world is captured using Metrocolor which was never as visually eye-popping as Technicolor (nor was any colour process post-Technicolor). Compare Gigi with earlier Vincente Minnelli-directed musicals such as Meet Me In St Louis or An American In Paris and there is a clear downgrade in aesthetic beauty. Despite this (as well as some less than stellar rear projection during It’s a Bore number) Minnelli was one of the best directors when it came to the ability to compose shots (or mise-en-scène to use a pretentious French term) that look like paintings. Gigi does contain some stunning frames from Gaston’s silhouette at the fountain to any of the shots within the Grandmother’s apartment in which the bright red background beautifully contrasts Gigi’s blue dress. The real-world locations also give the picture a big boast from the Ice Palace skating rink (the former Palais des Glaces) to the interior of Gaston’s home which was filmed inside an actual museum (Musée Jacquemart-Andre).
The lush orchestrations of the MGM Studio Orchestra do deliver the goods however none of the songs has me rushing out to listen to the film’s soundtrack (while Thank Heaven For Little Girls doesn’t help matters with its unintentionally creepy lyrics). Gigi is an all singing but no dancing affair; there is no hoofer action and the cast sings while walking, riding or just sitting down (The Night They Invented Champagne being the only number with a brief stint of dancing). On top of that, Gigi also lacks any grand finale like the ballet in An American In Paris. Come the conclusion I was left with the reaction of “that’s it?”. What a legacy the MGM musicals left behind, it’s just a shame they went out not with a bang but with a whimper.
An American In Paris is a very different beast of a movie than Singin’ in the Rain. It’s not as fun as other MGM musicals (although there is fun to be had) but it’s better described as a more intellectual viewing experience. The film is light on plot like other classic Hollywood musicals but there is much going on internally between and within the characters. Simply put, this movie musical is dark. Gene Kelly’s role of Jerry Mulligan is a cynical loser who is not a very successful painter (although I do like when he tells of the pretentious art student, telling it like it is!). Likewise the romance between Jerry and Lise Bouvier (Leslie Caron) is a hopeful but not entirely a happy one. Even with Kelly and Caron ending up together at the end, the character relationships in the film are never resolved. During the film I kept thinking is she not better off with Henri Baurel (Georges Guetary)? The guy who is a successful actor and saved your life during the war or the loser whom you only recently met? Likewise in Milo Robert’s (Nina Foch) final appearance she states “I think I need some champagne” and is never heard or seen again. Even though her character denies wanting more with Kelly than championship and only wants to help him professionally in a surprising prostitution reference (“If you’re hard up for companionship there are guys in town who do this kind of thing for a living, call one of them”), I never felt convinced by this. Who says classic Hollywood is all just happy endings?
An American In Paris is the perfect display of the artistry of director Vincente Minnelli. He found French painting an inspiration for his own style; a skill he would incorporate into other productions such as Lust for Life. There couldn’t be a better or more obvious choice of director for An American In Paris than Minnelli. Not many other directors can use space as effective as Minnelli and display such a fluid motion of the camera. Just look as the film’s introductory sequence to Gene Kelly and his chums or the shot of Kelly walking down several flights of stairs in his apartment building; thus I can forgive the very visible camera shake 47 minutes into the movie during the Tra-la-la number. Even though he was a contract director (he made 33 films, only three made outside of MGM) he rose above these constraints and formed his own style whereas contract directors where usually assigned to conform to the studio’s standard and aesthetic. Whether or not he can be classified as an auteur there has been no other filmmaker like him in Hollywood history.
The film’s sets themselves look like they’ve been lived in instead of coming off as totally shiny and glossy with frames still looking like Paris as the impressionists saw it. Have neighbourhoods in Paris ever looked like this or is it just movie fantasy? Likewise take in the appearance of the Beatnick nightclub and observe the early incarnation to the modern day world of the hipster.
Kelly’s ability to dance alongside children and interact with them is something no one could do better than him which is evident from the genuine reactions from the on looking kids during the I Got Rhythm number; truly the dancing figure for the everyman. Leslie Caron’s introductory ballet sequence on the other hand is a Technicolor assault on the senses; the backgrounds are one solid colour while she wears dresses which totally contrasts them. Could you ask for a more memorable first ever screen appearance; complete with a sexual chair dance and one flexible body. Likewise the contradictory humour from the sequence’s narration always makes me laugh. Another major musical highlight is Oscar Levant’s dream sequence which reminds of the Buster Keaton short The Playhouse in which every member of the theatre is played by Keaton; likewise here he have an army of Oscar Levant. The sequence was actually his idea and along with the character he portrays in the film reflects his real life personality as a neurotic. The appearance and the colours of the sequence definitely remind me of Powell and Pressburger; surely the filmmakers must have taken inspiration.
They do save the best for last however in the form of the American In Paris Ballet; among one of the greatest things ever committed to film. A sequence which takes full advantage of cinema as an art form; could the entire thing be recreated on the stage? Watch French impressionism come to life in a 17 minutes feast for the senses which is artful without being artsy. There’s chorography and then there’s this with so many people moving, dancing and doing their own thing; with Gene Kelly’s graceful yet masculine dancing still being at the centre of it. Fred Astaire once said he didn’t want the camera to dance for him but rather stay stationary with as few cuts as possible. Kelly’s style is very much the opposite of this in that the camera movement is integral to the dance but doesn’t take away from his talent, not one bit. Yet I haven’t I even mentioned the music of Gershwin; could it be more lush and rich?