I've been watching all the movies that have won the Oscar for Best Picture, although I got off-track over the holidays. Next on my list was Gigi, the 1958 winner, directed by Vincente Minnelli and starring Leslie Caron, Maurice Chevalier and Louis Jourdan.
It beat out Auntie Mame, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, The Defiant Ones and Separate Tables.
The film is a musical by Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe, who at this stage in their careers, had brought the world the musicals Brigadoon (of which there was a 1947 screen adaptation), as well as Paint Your Wagon and My Fair Lady (which wouldn't be adapted for the screen until 1969 and 1964, respectively). Two years later, they would write Camelot, which would be adapted for the screen in 1967.
Unlike their other works, the movie Gigi was based on book by Colette, which had previously been turned into a play as well as into a nonmusical 1949 French film, starring Danièle Delorme in the title role. In fact, Lerner and Loewe wouldn't produce a stage version of this musical until 1973.
At the time, My Fair Lady had just opened on Broadway. Since the play's sets and costumes received so much praise, Lerner insisted on using the play's production designer, Cecil Beaton, on the film.
In many ways, Gigi is not a typical musical. For one, it lacks big dance numbers, and most of the songs are performed as solos, as if they represent the inner thoughts of the characters. Still, it contains some classic songs, as well as superb acting by Leslie Caron in the lead role. Audrey Hepburn, however, who she had played the role on stage, was the first choice for Gigi. She declined, since she was making Funny Face.
The story, which follows the growing relationship between rich playboy Gaston Lachaille (Louis Jourdan) and the young Gigi, may be read differently by today's viewers, who might see the film as a musical apology for pedophilia.
The movie begins with Gaston's elderly uncle, Honoré Lachaille (Maurice Chevalier), singing as he wonders through a lively turn-of-the-century Paris park. This scene, along with many others, was shot on location.
Honoré sings the well-known song, "Thank Heaven for Little Girls." [LINK PLAYS MUSIC] The song contains the lyrics: "Thank heaven for little girls / for little girls get bigger every day! // Thank heaven for little girls / they grow up in the most delightful way!" In this way, he sets up the story, as well as the character Gigi, 16, whom we meet playing with other young women in the park.
Of course, Chevalier plays Honoré as a lovable scalawag, but there is something a bit off-putting to today's viewers about an older man wondering around a park, winking at young girls and singing about how wonderful it is that they'll soon be women.
At the beginning of the movie, Gigi wears very young, girlish clothes. At the time, Caron was actually 28, and it was fairly clear in the opening scene that she was older than the teenage girls with whom she is seen playing.
But through her mannerisms and body language, such as her clumsy way of throwing her leg over a chair to sit down, Caron soon convinces the viewer that she is, indeed, a young woman. She wasn't able, however, to convince the producers to use her real voice for the musical numbers, and she was overdubbed on the songs, without her knowledge or consent.
Gigi lives with her grandmother (Hermione Gingold) and has been taking etiquette lessons from her grandmother's sister, Aunt Alicia (Isabel Jeans), who strives to teach her how to behave like a lady, with the goal of turning her into a courtesan for wealthy suitors. Despite a great effort on Aunt Alicia's part, the lessons haven't taken, and Gigi is a wild tomboy.
Gaston, whose romantic exploits are chronicled in the tabloids, breaks up with an unfaithful lover, afterwards engaging in public displays of partying and frivolity so as to save face. He embarsk on this program of conspicuous fun at the advice of his Uncle Honoré, an aging playboy himself. But really, Gaston doesn't take pleasure in such society functions. Rather, he enjoys quiet moments with Gigi and her grandmother, who are old friends of the family. The three take a vacation together at the shore, which provides him with some welcome relaxation and cements the friendship between himself and Gigi.
Upon their return, the grandmother tells Aunt Alicia about how well the trip went, and the two decide to groom Gigi to become a suitable romantic partner for Gaston. Thus, we're treated to a montage of Gigi taking a crash course on etiquette. After that, a simple costume change completes the transformation, and Gaston, who is initially confused about experiencing new feelings for a woman he has known as a little girl, falls in love. Again, this presents a slight ick factor for the modern viewer, as it smacks ever so slightly of pedophilia.
While, the plot can be excused as a product of the times, this movie's major disappointment is that it doesn't make full use of Leslie Caron's fantastic dance ability, which she demonstrated in An American in Paris (1951). She does, however, use movement in creative ways, and her transformation from a girl to a woman is impressive.
Aside from a couple well-known songs, such as "I Remember It Well" [LINK PLAYS MUSIC], many of the songs are fairly forgettable. I believe now I understand why I had trouble locating this movie, which wasn't available through Blockbuster.com. Eventually, I had to buy a copy from Amazon.com. The film simply doesn't suit modern tastes in musical entertainment.
Still, Leslie Caron's performance is fantastic, and the movie offers a rare opportunity to see the famous French actor Maurice Chevalier in an English-speaking role. The film is also considered the last of MGM's traditional musicals, since it was the last filmed by producer Arthur Freed, who had been responsible for all of MGM's classic movie musicals.
In addition, the film walked off with all 9 Oscars for which it was nominated, a feat not surpassed until The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King (11 wins).
Rating (out of 5): ***