BEST PICTURE REVISITED: GIGI (1958)

Poster - Gigi_01

Note the tagline!

Gigi was released in 1958, when the MGM unit was in decline. Musicals had changed since the Gene Kelly days; no more spontaneous dancing and dream ballets. Peter Wollan, in his BFI Film Classics guide to Singin’ in the Rain, suggests it was “McCarthyism, in the broad sense of the term—the determination to destroy all traces of Popular Front culture—that first tragically limited the MGM musical and eventually brought it to a halt.” Singers, dancers, choreographers didn’t have a safe home in Hollywood during the decade, and so the musical had to change. Gigi was essentially a costume drama with occasional songs, and the songs were really born out of censorship.

What I resist about Gigi is what audiences responded to: the fact that it’s a musical at all, cautioning us against the darker elements of Colette’s original story. Gigi is a courtesan in training, raised by her grandmother and aunt to seduce increasingly richer men and attain status and money. This preordained sexual slavery is uncomfortable and very forward for the censors of 1958, so a musical of vibrant Vincente Minnelli costumes and colors was born.

Eliza Doolittle Returns

We can’t assess Gigi without My Fair Lady. In 1956, Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe transformed Bernard Shaw’s classic Pygmalion into a smart, romantic musical that transcended its Broadway home. The My Fair Lady recording starring Rex Harrison and Julie Andrews reached #1 on the Billboard charts. I wager more Americans then could sing along to “I Could Have Danced All Night” than we could today to “Happy” or “Get Lucky.”

Lerner was committed to Gigi since 1954, but once he talked Loewe into writing songs, they started writing in the vein they’d perfected: high society, aloof bachelors, bon mots and not-quite love songs. Gigi’s score apes their My Fair Lady songs: Bored old Louis Jordan rails against womanhood before melting into the song “Gigi,” just the way Rex Harrison blustered and mellowed in “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face.” Compare both below:

The Maxim’s pearl-clutchers sing in unison just like Shaw’s Ascot chorus. Then there’s “The Night They Invented Champagne,” Gigi’s invitation to a world of sophistication, which seems to parody “The Rain in Spain.” But Gigi is no Eliza Doolittle. Perhaps because Leslie Caron was not a singer and was dubbed, she’s under-musicalized, only getting three songs. Her lone ballad “Say a Prayer for Me Tonight” plays like an after-thought, a moment of hesitation before she emerges from her cocoon; if it sounds like Eliza Lite, that’s because Lerner and Loewe wrote it for (and cut it from) My Fair Lady! (See it here in Caron’s own voice.)

I’m partial to the “Gigi” ballad and “I Remember It Well,” where Hermione Gingold corrects Maurice Chevalier’s cloudy recollections, but the rest lacks the sophistication it needs. Look at these lyrics from “It’s a Bore”:

Henri: Don’t tell me Venice has no lure

Gaston: Just a town without a sewer

Henri: The leaning tower I adore

Gaston: Indecision is a bore

I won’t linger on old Maurice Chevalier leering at teenagers and singing “Thank Heaven for Little Girls.” The movie does have its subversive moments, though I doubt they were intentional. There’s so much rear-screen projection and reliance upon old-fashioned Hollywood musical tropes that the movie almost mocks itself: it’s so fantastic, deliberately chaste, when all the while we’re applauding Leslie Caron’s Gigi for having the courage to prostitute herself.

The uninspired casting of Louis Jordan, a complete drip, also gives Caron’s Gigi the edge. She’s gawky and independent-minded, and delightfully so. It’s not her fault that the last twenty minutes of the movie sideline Gigi. She waits for her paramour to accept her or toss her aside, and the script doesn’t even give her a word to say. That was the way of this fascinatingly obscene pocket of society: women were groomed to marry or be mistresses. What’s the most ridiculous way to end a movie about women’s enslavement? Reprising “Thank Heaven for Little Girls” with a straight face. Or is Gigi winking at us?

Why It Won

Vincente Minnelli was something of an auteur in movie musicals, years before that word came around. His 1951 movie An American in Paris won Best Picture, and here he was on the scene with another smash hit. He was a veteran of the glamorous silver screen, full of sound and splash, color and light, from The Bad and the Beautiful to The Band Wagon. There was a lot of respect for Minnelli and the old-fashioned musical that was, sadly, dying out.

The nominees included two other big moneymakers, Auntie Mame and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. The first recreated Rosalind Russell’s stage success as Mame Dennis; life is a banquet indeed, and Russell devours it. It’s a delightful comedy, the sort they stopped making in the sixties. The Tennessee Williams adaptation, by contrast, veered away from the playwright’s original script. Paul Newman smolders even though Brick is impotent. On stage, of course, Brick was working through his feelings for recently dead Skipper, but that sort of talk was curtailed in the movies. The characters’ intentions become increasingly vague, and at the end, after a heart-to-heart with Big Daddy, Newman is seemingly cured and ready to bed Elizabeth Taylor.

Separate Tables received a lot of Oscar love, including awards for David Niven and Wendy Hiller’s acting. This was a drawing-room drama, also adapted from the stage, following the interactions of guests in a small British hotel. Burt Lancaster and Rita Hayworth are so American for this very English movie, but no matter: it’s an enjoyable lark, seldom seen.

The Defiant Ones was Gigi‘s real competition, winning the Golden Globe for Drama. This movie was one of Stanley Kramer’s first social-message pictures that found an audience. Sidney Poitier and Tony Curtis escape from a chain gang and take off into the country, handcuffed together. The Poitier-Curtis dynamic invigorates the movie: Curtis revealed a more serious acting persona here, and Poitier earned the first Oscar nomination for a black male actor. It’s a powerful movie, though one that meanders: too much time is spent with the sheriff and the team hunting our leads. In a year of crowd-pleasing movies, Gigi earned top honors. Hollywood wasn’t ready to give full approval to a movie like The Defiant Ones.

Not Nominated

Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo. Orson Welles’s Touch of Evil. Both directors faded from Oscar love over the years. Look at Rebecca (2 wins, 11 noms) and Citizen Kane (1 win, 9 noms) in the early forties. Vertigo did reasonably well at the box office, though the reviews weren’t all favorable. Both directors were outside the Academy, Hitch too mainstream and Welles too unusual, but soon the influence of French critics in the sixties would elevate these men to auteur status. Thank heaven.

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