A seminal masterwork from the Freed Unit at MGM, and the deserved recipient of a then unprecedented 9 Academy Awards, Vincente Minnelli’s Gigi (1958) remains a sparkling vintage of very rare champagne, capping off producer, Arthur Freed’s illustrious tenure with oodles of in-house style and Gallic suave sophistication. These trademarks, inherent in virtually all – or at least, a good many – of Metro’s memorable musicals, in retrospect and proportionately proved its epitaph. In retrospect, Freed, who had cultivated and mined the musical genre, gingerly guiding it through three decades of evolution to make MGM the envy of its competitors, was concurrently gearing up and winding down with Gigi; incontrovertibly, his last great hurrah. Electing to premiere the picture with an exclusive ‘black tie’ engagement at the Shubert Theatre on Broadway – a marketing ploy to effectively legitimize its’ pedigree – reserved engagements for Gigi sold out for months in advance; a minor coup rivaling the popularity of New York’s celebrated stage version of My Fair Lady (also co-written by Frederic Loewe and Alan Jay Lerner). Still, pulling off a project as big and lavish as this was hardly a ‘joy galore’ for Vincente Minnelli. Maurice Chevalier, who on-screen epitomized the spritely and carefree bon vivant, behind the scenes was deadly serious and slightly morose; his costar, Louis Jourdan, more finicky than pleasant, leaving the coquettish Leslie Caron to scratch her head. Caron was slightly incensed to learn her thin vocals would be dubbed by studio contract singer, Betty Wand without her consent. Confronting Arthur Freed on the matter, Caron was left to stew for a good ten minutes before, overcome with impatience, she was politely informed by Freed’s secretary, the old master had quietly gone home for the day.
Freed’s driving ambition to make Gigi had a lot to do with the overwhelming success of the stage version of My Fair Lady. Having lost the bidding war to produce that show as a movie musical, Freed did the next best thing; hiring the ‘fair lady’s’ team of Alan Jay Lerner and Frederic Loewe to write a new score for his picture. While Lerner was immediately drawn to the project, Loewe (who could be counted upon to always prefer play to work) reluctantly signed on only after it was plainly understood he was getting a free trip to Paris out of the deal. Time has generally been unkind to Lerner and Loewe’s critical reputations. In the wake of Rodgers and Hammerstein, they simply have been allowed to fade into minor obscurity. But lest we forget, here is the team responsible for such stage smash hits as Brigadoon, Paint Your Wagon and Camelot. My Fair Lady’s Broadway run dwarfed all previous records for ticket sales set by R&H’s Oklahoma!, South Pacific and The King & I. For Gigi, the team turned their song-writing prowess inside out, composing a roster of breezy pop tunes with chart-topping brilliance. There’s not a sour note or forgettable lyric among them; Gigi’s soundtrack becoming a rare best-selling album. The narrative parallels in Gigi’s Pygmalion-inspired transformation are an obvious riff on My Fair Lady, hardly opaque and causing noted film critic, Bosley Crowther to comment “There won't be much point in anybody trying to produce a film of My Fair Lady, because Arthur Freed has virtually done it with Gigi.” Glowing praise, indeed, for a project once unceremoniously dubbed, ‘Eliza Goes to Paris.’ The day after Gigi’s triumphant premiere, MGM’s switchboard operators were instructed to answer their telephones ‘Good morning, “M-Gigi-M.”
In retrospect, Gigi marks the apex in Arthur Freed’s ability to pull off such seamless musical entertainments. Freed’s great gift to the movie musical had always been his ability to assemble exactly the right people for each and every project he undertook. In his prime, Freed’s authority was law around the backlot. But by 1958, even he could see those halcyon days were fast coming to an end. Gigi therefore marked the end of an era for Freed, simultaneously representing both his very best and last truly great effort in producing for the big screen. Vincente Minnelli’s tireless direction and perfectionism worked overtime to create an irrefutable work of art, mostly beyond reproach. The film is, undeniably blessed to have Maurice Chevalier as its éminence grise. In the rarely seen 1951 French film, the role of Honoré Lachaille had been little more than a wily middle-age philanderer, goading his grandson, Gaston to partake of the pleasures of Paris. Chevalier’s Honoré is a far more enriching presence; a gateway to these 18th century mores and mannerisms, bookending and anchoring the story in its timeless regality. Chevalier was, alas, persona non grata in Hollywood, having entertained the Vichy government during the war and therefore regarded as something of a traitor. Minnelli, however, was a great admirer of Chevalier’s, as was Freed, who went to bat to secure his participation. More problematic for Freed on every level was Hollywood’s governing board of censorship. Gigi is, after all, the story of two retired courtesans, sufficiently aged and past their prime, undertaking to train an awkward niece in the stratagems of prostitution. French author, Colette had never considered Gigi one of her major works. The novel had, in fact, been written under great duress at the height of the German occupation while Colette’s own husband, of Jewish extraction, was in hiding. Throughout most of the 1950’s, Freed had repeatedly tried to convince the censors there was more merit to the story than perhaps first met the ‘naked’ eye. Worn down by Freed’s constant prodding, and his sincere promise to adapt the novel tastefully, with more than a modicum of morality attached, the project was ultimately green lit.
Although MGM and Freed would continue to produce musicals after Gigi, none ranked of its caliber. In hindsight, it remains a small wonder the picture was made at all, much less on such an opulent scale. By 1958, Metro was in a state of imploding chaos; its grand domain of sound stages and sprawling backlot under siege by skyrocketing costs and dwindling profits – thanks to the intrusion of television and the Government Consent Decrees, forcing a divesture of the Loewe’s Incorporated theater chain and its venerable star system. Despite this brewing storm, MGM broke a time-honored precedence for Gigi, allowing Freed and Minnelli to shoot the picture in August in Paris. Minnelli had, in fact, always regretted An American in Paris (1951) had not been afforded this luxury. But now, he would rectify the oversight with a resplendent TripTik through the city’s streets and byways; lapping up the local color and scenery as only an American tourist could in expansive Cinemascope and Ansco color. The results would prove as intoxicating as a whirl around the dance floor at Maxim’s. But capturing the spirit of Colette’s novel was, regrettably, more a work-a-day chore than a pleasure for Minnelli.
Descending on Paris during its citywide August shut down was a minor blessing for Minnelli, as it easily gained the stock company the necessary permits to take over and populate the Bois-de-Boulogne with 18th century courtiers and carriages in place of the usual foot traffic and automobiles. A personal connection to Arthur Freed, managed to secure the Palais de Glace and Maxim’s for the shoot, the latter a once-in-a-lifetime enduring piece of Parisian iconography, having long transcended its status as mere restaurant to become an orangery for the internationally rich and powerful. The name alone is synonymous with a uniquely aristocratic glamor, although Minnelli was to quickly discover a minor shortcoming; its mirrored walls and ceiling limiting his camera angles, lest his own reflection and that of his omnipotent camera be reflected back into his lens. To offset this challenge, Minnelli gained permission from the owners to stencil and artificially marble a few of its mirrors, Minnelli horrified when his camera boom accidentally shattered one of the ceiling mirrors; comforted when a waiter casually explained that exploding champagne corks were apt to pose a similar problem almost nightly when the club was in operation.
Shooting in Paris ought to have brought Minnelli his greatest satisfaction as a film maker, except the summer of 1958 proved to be the hottest on record. With his artificial foliage wilting, extras fainting – and smelling – the ice at the Palais de Glace melting, and Metro’s patience back at Culver City dwindling, Minnelli labored at a feverish pace to ensure Gigi had at least the look – if not the reality – of a cool elegance. Even so, the production fell disastrously behind schedule; MGM cancelling the shoot before Minnelli had the opportunity to complete certain key sequences in the film. These would have to be shot on sound stages back at Culver City instead; populated by a veritable art auction of props and scenery pilfered from Irving Thalberg’s 1938 magnum opus, Marie Antoinette. Even Antoinette’s throne room set, featured in countless MGM films from Du Barry Was A Lady (1943) to High Society (1956) makes yet another brief appearance during Gigi’s masked ball. Depending on one’s point of view, the one unforgivable flub remains the exquisite testimonial to old love, ‘I Remember It Well’ – staged with costars, Hermione Gingold and Maurice Chevalier reminiscing against an obviously painted skyline, but, with an artificially induced ‘sunset’ achieved via dimming yellow lights; the effect, uncanny, though in no conceivable way capably mimicking the glistening shoreline at Trouville.
You can get away with a lot in a Hollywood musical, and Gigi’s artifice didn’t seem to bother the critics or audiences for that matter, although today it remains quite easy to spot the Parisian footage from those scenes recreated back at MGM. After a main title sequence featuring caricatures based on the artwork of famed French artist, Sem (a.k.a. Georges Goursat 1863–1934), Minnelli settles into a delicious moving tableau of courtiers and carriages traversing up and down the Bois-de-Boulogne; well-mannered mannequins preening and parading with stilted chic. At present, we are introduced to Honoré Lachaille; an epicurean man about town, unapologetically admiring youth from afar. “Each time I see a little girl of five, or six or seven…” Lachaille reminisces, “I can’t resist the joyous urge to smile and say thank heaven…” In more recent times, this innocent ode to precocious young girls who will one day send men ‘crashing through the ceiling’ with their flashing eyes, has taken on pedophiliac undertones. Yet, herein, it is important to recall two social climates; the one in which such indigestibly frothy lyrics were written – the 1950’s – but also, the tone and mood set for the period being evoked within the context of the story itself – the late 1800’s.
Honoré offers us a glimpse of Gigi, playing tag ball in her little Scotch dress with a gaggle of school girlfriends, utterly oblivious to his polite observations as she nearly trips over him on her way home, momentarily dashing her school books to pieces on the dusty ground before scurrying to the upstairs’ apartment she shares with her grandmother, Madame Alvarez (Hermione Gingold) and her own mother (whom we never see, but chronically hear rehearsing fractured scales in an adjoining atelier; too self-absorbed in her own career to take an active interest in Gigi’s upbringing). It’s Tuesday, and Gigi must submit to lessons of a very different kind inside her Aunt Alicia’s (Isobel Jeans) fashionable apartment. In her day, Alicia was a much sought after courtesan; the Duke of Milan and the Maharaja among her many weathly suitors. Alicia is determined to educate Gigi in the social etiquettes of a great lady. Not that she has even the slightest notion on how to behave as one just yet. As example, when told by Alicia she must learn how to choose a cigar, Gigi’s first reaction is “Oh, but Aunt, I don’t smoke cigars.” Asked what makes a great lover, Gigi bewilderingly replies, “cigars and jewelry?”
Alicia’s butler, Charles (Edwin Jerome) is sympathetic to the young girl’s plight. She has, after all, not yet figured out what all these lessons are leading up to. Nor does Gigi seem particularly invested in this mis-education of her spare time, opening declaring “I don’t understand the Parisians!” In the meantime, Gaston Lachaille has narrowly averted another paralyzing embassy tea, leaving Honoré to make his apologies while he skulks off to Alvarez’s apartment for an afternoon cup of chamomile and diverting game of cards with Gigi, whom he readily regards as an infantile brat who cheats. Still, it is Gigi’s unmitigated spunk that excites Gaston. She is a fresh face with wild ideas, uninhibited by the guile exploited by others of her sex inside the cultured salons across the city for Gaston’s benefit. These feminine wiles Gaston readily finds ‘a bore’. Even so, his latest fling is Liane d'Exelmans (Eva Gabor), a superficial fashion plate who has fashioned another grand amour right under Gaston’s nose with Sandomir (Jacques Bergerac), her skating instructor. Tailing Liane to a cozy little inn at Honfleur, Gaston and Honoré discover her involved in some heavy petting with Sandomir. “She never kissed me like that,” Gaston admits. “How is she kissing him?” Honoré inquires. “Wholeheartedly!” Gaston confides. “Of course,” Honoré concludes, “What did you expect? You’re legitimate. He’s forbidden fruit!”
Exposing the affair and paying off Sandomir, Liane attempts suicide with an insufficient amount of poison. The scandal leaves Gaston unsettled. But Honoré concludes there is only one thing to do; be gay, debonair and charming; also, to be seen going out with an uninterrupted cortege of eligible maidens. To satisfy his uncle’s declaration, Gaston commits himself to a series of fruitless trysts he finds as dull as paint. Gigi follows his exploits in the local tabloids. Eventually, the great man makes his way back to Alvarez’s apartment for another game of cards, admitting to the old matron and her granddaughter of his weekend plans, including a trip to Trouville. Gigi strikes a bargain; if she wins Gaston will take them all to Trouville – a wager he willingly accepts and is doomed to lose since Gigi is an expert con and easily defeats him.
At Trouville, Alvarez takes notice of her old flame. Honoré pursues the invitations of a young courtesan. Unable to consummate this affair under Alvarez’s watchful eye, he instead reunites with Alvarez on the balcony of a hotel overlooking the seashore. She explains the purpose of her weekend respite to him and he confesses an old wound to her; that he cheated on her many years before with a soprano because he was actually, desperately in love with her, but not quite certain what to do about it. “Thank you, Honoré,” Alvarez admits, “That is the most endearing excuse for infidelity I have ever heard.” The two reminisce about their once vibrant passion for one another. The song, ‘I Remember It Well’ is one of Gigi’s most illuminating bright spots, a poignant ode to fate’s misaligned chances for happiness, half-spoken/half-sung. The number was shot right in the middle of Chevalier’s 71st birthday, Minnelli and company pausing to mark the occasion with a cake and warm-hearted felicitations. Hence, when Chevalier’s line in Lerner and Loewe’s song read, “Am I getting old?” to which Hermione Gingold, placing a hand gingerly upon Chevalier’s own, declared, “Oh no…not you” the moment took on an unanticipated resonance that had everyone, including Chevalier, tearing up.
Returning from Trouville, Alicia plants the idea in her sister’s head Gaston has suddenly become infatuated with Gigi; quite possibly, as his next conquest. Setting aside Gigi’s obvious, if as yet, innocent attraction to Gaston, Alicia and Alvarez aggressively endeavor to remake the waif into exactly the sort of cultured and well-bred young lady Gaston finds deadly dull. Their tutelage yields predictable results. But these create an unexpected friction in Gaston’s weekly visits to Alvarez’s apartment. At some point, Alvarez explains she will only entrust Gigi’s ‘good name’ to the man who will take charge and answer for her future. Shocked by the insinuation the reputation preceding him can only taint Gigi’s honor, Gaston storms off in a huff, returning a few hours later with a proposal – not of marriage – but of monetary gain for all concerned; to look after Gigi and to spoil her “as no woman has ever been spoiled before”. “It’s alright,” Alicia concurs, “But it’s a little vague.” The sisters are further enlightened to Gaston’s prospects; a suitable house on the Avenue Dubois, servants and a car, plus an expense account to satisfy everyone – everyone, except Gigi.
Here, indeed, is a young girl of quality – and so very frightened to throw caution to the wind to satisfy anyone else’s desires except her own. She puts her cards on the table where Gaston is concerned, explaining when he moves on, as inevitably he will, she has nowhere to go but into another gentleman’s bed. Her frankness is upsetting to him – frustrating too, as he storms off for a second time to confront Honoré with his difficulties in wooing this girl of his heart. Honoré speculates “youth can really do a fellow in” and extols the virtues of being sufficiently aged, grateful to have passed this awkward time when such trivialities seem so paramount and rife for concern. Summoning Gaston to her apartment a second time, Gigi poignantly declares, “Oh Gaston, I’d rather be miserable with you than without you.” However, a planned rendezvous at Maxim’s goes hopeless awry when Gigi plies the tools of her trade in public. She is every bit the enterprising courtesan Alvarez and Alicia have trained her to be and she disgusts Gaston with her proficiency as a paid escort. Returning her in tears to Alvarez’s salon, Gaston marches off in the direction of…well…he isn’t quite certain, and, after the briefest of contemplations, suddenly realizes their relationship cannot endure the same as before. Returning to the apartment, Gaston declares, “Madam, give me the infinite joy of bestowing on me Gigi’s hand in marriage.” All struggles abated, the couple is fated to be mated. We return to the Bois-de-Boulogne, Gigi, superbly turned out as a young married with Gaston on her arm; the pair stepping into a horse-drawn carriage as Honoré bids the couple a fond goodbye with a reprise of ‘Thank Heaven for Little Girls’.
In hindsight, Gigi is every bit about the growth of its male protagonist as it proves an illustration of the debut of a young lady of culture and devises. Gaston’s life has been exemplary thus far, but left unsatisfied by female diversions. He is unable to bring himself to marriage, not entirely because no eligible prospects exist, but moreover, because none appear to satisfy his need for fresh new adventures along the road of life. When he meets Gigi he has no worldly intensions to make her his lover; nor is he particularly satisfied with the Pygmalion-esque results achieved by her grandmother and Aunt. Ultimately, Gaston comes to the realization Gigi is the only girl for him, not because she has achieved a level of sophistication to rival his own, rather, because she remains unapologetically clear-eyed and pure of heart. At one point she pleads with Gaston for their lives to remain the same; he, periodically coming to the house with chocolates and treats, the two engaging in card games and playful banter unencumbered by the prospects of a sexual liaison or marriage. “Wouldn’t that be a lovely little life?” she asks. And, of course, from a child’s perspective, it would, except that Gaston now confesses his affections for the girl have ripened beyond mere friendship; an unexpected turn of events for this bored playboy.
Interestingly, Louis Jourdan was uncomfortable with the idea of doing a musical until Lerner assured him the score would neither tax nor embarrass him; encouraging Jourdan to speak/sing the lyrics on pitch the way Rex Harrison had done for Prof. Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady. Listening to Jourdan’s vocals today, one sincerely wonders what all the fuss was about. While it is true enough he could never rival a great baritone or operatic superstar, Jourdan is more than capable of warbling the title tune with infinite amounts of Gallic charm. There is an unexpected robustness to his intonations, knowing exactly when to carry and hold a few notes at a time, and when to break off into a sort of lyrical contemplation of practically spoken cues.
At the end of their grand sojourn in Paris, Vincente Minnelli and Arthur Freed could breathe a great and rewarding sigh of relief. Although an early preview had revealed certain shortcomings in Margaret Booth’s heavy-handed editing of the picture, Minnelli’s insistence on a second edit done by Adrienne Fazan, also Freed’s urging that certain scenes be entirely reshot by George Cukor after Minnelli had already departed on another project, revealed the inherent perfectionism all had wrought together under this communal labor of love. Viewed today, Gigi continues to emanate a warm afterglow and for good reason. The stars are all at the top of their game, exuding a magical chemistry, almost as unquantifiable as that ‘elusive flicker of blue’ Aunt Alicia tells Gigi only the rarest emerald gemstones possess. Seemingly, Minnelli had spent a lifetime achieving this sumptuous and flavorful palette, typified in Joseph Ruttenberg’s positively gorgeous cinematography. And Lerner and Loewe’s score is instantly recognizable: the celebratory ‘The Night They Invented Champagne’, comedic ‘It’s a Bore’, melodic ‘Say a Prayer for Me Tonight’ and three grand odes of fresh insight into affairs of the heart; ‘I’m Glad I’m Not Young Anymore’, ‘I Remember It Well’ and ‘Thank Heaven for Little Girls’ capping off this bubbly elixir of jollity. The proof is in the years since the movie’s debut. We continue to say ‘Thank heaven for Gigi!’
Warner Home Video’s Blu-Ray is a few years old. Despite some eye-popping colors, it is probably in need of another hi-def scan. Gigi was photographed in Metrocolor, its prints by Technicolor. We get vibrancy herein that, at times, looks almost too rich to the point of appearing slightly garish. Flesh tones, in particular, are either a strange pumpkin orange or wan pink hue. No one can fault Warner’s mastering efforts as such; but the color is queerly overpowering at times, while exhibiting slight sporadic fading. Overall, these shortcomings will likely go unnoticed by the casual viewer. But they are present and accounted for nonetheless. Film grain is naturally reproduced and contrast looks fairly consistent and solid. The image is startlingly razor-sharp, an impressive amount of fine detail in skin, hair, fabrics and background information – everything we’ve come to expect from 1080p.
Warner’s ultra-hi res restoration has yielded magnificent results; more so in the way Gigi sounds, with Lerner and Loewe’s score filling the natural timber of one’s 5.1 surround channels with the glorious orchestrations of André Previn and Conrad Salinger. We’re a little light on extras; all of them ported over from Warner’s 2-disc DVD. We get the 1951 French film of Gigi, plus a new ‘making of’ documentary; a compendium of more recent interviews interspersed with archival footage and other testimonials. Otherwise, there are a couple of unrelated short subjects and the film’s theatrical trailer, plus a fantastic audio commentary from historian, Jeanine Basinger and Leslie Caron.
The ‘French’ Gigi, shot in 1.33:1 and B&W exhibits abysmal picture quality, well below par and plagued by white subtitles that completely disappear into the background of this overly contrasted print, making the film virtually un-watchable; a disappointment to be sure. I suppose it is MGM’s award-winning musical version we’ve all come to see anyway, but it would have been prudent of Warner to spend just a little extra time and money cleaning up this ‘origin’ master for comparison and appreciation. Otherwise, Warner’s Blu-Ray comes highly recommended. Gigi is a rare gemstone indeed, and an obvious ‘must have’!
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)