Gigi: A Belle Époque Girl

THE FIRST LERNER-LOEWE MUSICAL SINCE “MY FAIR LADY”.

There’s a moment in The Pink Panther Strikes Again (1976) where Peter Sellers impersonates Maurice Chevalier singing ”Thank Heaven for Little Girls” with an extreme French accent that always makes me laugh. It’s hard watching that scene in Gigi without thinking of its comedic potential. Times have changed in other ways. Our society has become obsessed with pedophiles, making that scene look almost obscene now, as Chevalier is strolling through the Bois de Boulogne, enjoying the sight of little girls playing in the park.

In some ways, Gigi may rub modern audiences the wrong way today.

Paris, the early 1900s. Young Gaston Lachaille (Louis Jourdan) is enjoying wine, women and life in general, just like his uncle, the infamous but still lovable Honoré Lachaille (Chevalier) who never married but remained a bon vivant all his life. Still, Gaston is not happy because his lifestyle has begun to bore him. The only time he seems to be laughing is when he’s spending time with two women he doesn’t have to pursue as part of a ”game” – the elderly Madame Alvarez (Hermione Gingold) and her feisty granddaughter Gigi (Leslie Caron), a carefree girl who loves going on adventures with Gaston. Gigi is being trained to become a courtesan, so that she’ll eventually find a husband among the Paris bourgeoisie. At the same time, Gaston’s dating life takes a dark turn…

One of MGM’s last great screen musicals
One of French author Colette’s most famous novels was first published in 1944 and subsequently turned into a play by Anita Loos. That’s where producer Arthur Freed stepped in and began the project that would turn into one of MGM’s last great screen musicals. Alan Jay Lerner was working on the stage musical ”My Fair Lady” (whose story has a few similarities with ”Gigi”) when he accepted writing the script and lyrics for this project, once again teaming up with his partner from ”My Fair Lady”, Frederick Loewe, for the music.

The songs are wonderful, with the title tune winning an Oscar and ”Thank Heaven” turning into a classic. One of the best scenes in the film has Honoré and Madame Alvarez reminiscing that time many years ago when they dated; the charm in ”I Remember It Well” lies in him not remembering anything well at all, and her gently correcting him. Another memorable tune, ”I’m Glad I’m Not Young Anymore”, actually originated from Chevalier talking before the beginning of production about how his interest in women and wine had waned over the years; he’s irresistible throughout the film and performs each song with a smile and ease. Caron and Jourdan are both very good as they struggle with what becomes a romance. Gaston and Honoré are not automatically lovable, especially not to modern audiences; these men are part of a social structure that treats women poorly. The story has old-fashioned sensibilities.

Then again, Colette was a young girl herself during the Belle Époque and certainly broke conventions, so the story has credibility and interesting ingredients, with Gaston realizing that he must change and not treat Gigi the way high society almost expects him to treat her; in the meantime Gigi is uncomfortably adapting to adult life. It’s a character ahead of her time.

Much of the movie was actually filmed in Paris and the crew takes wonderful advantage of la ville lumière. Director Vincente Minnelli also made An American in Paris (1951), which had most scenes shot in Culver City. For a nostalgic, romantic visit to Paris, Minnelli was your go-to-guy. No wonder the French government made him Commander of the Legion of Honor before he died in 1986.

Gigi 1958-U.S. 116 min. Color. Widescreen. Produced by Arthur Freed. Directed by Vincente Minnelli. Screenplay: Alan Jay Lerner. Novella: Colette. Cinematography: Joseph Ruttenberg. Editing: Adrienne Fazan. Music: Frederick Loewe, André Previn. Songs: Alan Jay Lerner, Frederick Loewe (”Gigi”, ”Thank Heaven for Little Girls”, ”I Remember It Well”). Art Direction: Preston Ames, William A. Horning. Costume Design: Cecil Beaton. Cast: Leslie Caron (Gigi), Maurice Chevalier (Honoré Lachaille), Louis Jourdan (Gaston Lachaille), Hermione Gingold, Jacques Bergerac, Eva Gabor.

Trivia: Later a stage musical. Audrey Hepburn was reportedly considered for the lead role; Irene Dunne and Dirk Bogarde for other parts. The novella was previously filmed in France in 1949.

Oscars: Best Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay, Cinematography, Film Editing, Scoring, Original Song (”Gigi”), Art-Direction-Set Decoration, Costume Design. Chevalier also received an honorary Oscar. Golden Globes: Best Motion Picture (Comedy/Musical), Director, Supporting Actress (Gingold). 

Last word: “I had trained as a ballet dancer so I was in very good condition physically. Still nimble. The film starts in the park with Maurice [Chevalier] singing ‘Thank heaven for little girls’ and I had to play around with real little girls and I got so tired. I was 28. The main difficulty of the part is to be believable as an adolescent and a young lady. That’s the challenge.” (Caron on making the movie a few weeks after giving birth, The Telegraph)

 

IMDb

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