LES GIRLS: Blu-ray (MGM, 1957) Warner Archive

I suspect somewhere in the back of writer, John Patrick’s mind, the impetus for his screenplay to George Cukor’s Les Girls (1957) was a vision of Harry Van and Les Blondes, that gloriously fabricated act, featuring a rather randy, yet charismatic Clark Gable, warbling ‘Puttin’ on the Ritz’ and backed by a girlie chorus in the as enchanting comedy, Idiot’s Delight (1939). Alas, this hypnotic talisman of amusement is wholly absent from Les Girls. Ditto for Gable’s animal magnetism. In its place we get a somewhat sullen and thoroughly bossy Gene Kelly as the puppet master of a trio of would-be sexpots. The chief problem with Les Girls is that those waiting to see it were likely expecting a big and bloated fifties musical. With a score by Cole Porter (whose most recent contributions on the effervescent High Society, 1956 had hit the high-water mark in entertainment with a capital ‘E’) it’s easy to see why. But Porter was so ill by the time he agreed to partake of Les Girls he needed Saul Chaplin to assist. Still, not a bad second fiddle. Alas, all but 5 of Porter’s 12 contributions actually made it into the movie, and only one – ‘Ça c'est l'amour’ became a pop standard (although the bouncy title tune also has merit). For the rest, Les Girls is a perfunctory offering at best, bawdy – no less – but boring on the whole. In addition to being Porter’s last – and slightest – effort (he died in 1964 of kidney failure), Les Girls also put a period to star, Gene Kelly’s tenure at MGM and his full-blown in-front-of-the-camera participation in the genre he redefined for the post-war generation.
In hindsight, Les Girls is a terrible waste of a lot of good talent; starting with Kelly, reduced to playing a dazzlingly cruel and womanizing producer, Barry Nichols, the picture’s necessary deus ex machina to straighten out a bruhaha between the frivolous, Lady Sybil Wren (a luminous Kay Kendall), and, less-than-forthcoming Angèle Ducros (Taina Elg).  Both were once headliners in Nichols’ Parisian burlesque show, Les Girls, along with Joy Henderson (Mitzi Gaynor, utterly wasted). Now, the girls are at each other’s throats, thanks to a racy biography penned by Sybil in which she suggests Angèle once attempted a Sylvia Plath-styled suicide after her ill-fated affair with Barry. Countering the claim, Angèle swears it was Wren who tried to off herself with the gas – again, because of Nichols. Naturally, none of this sits well with each lady’s respective spouses, the painfully wooden Jacques Bergerac as Angèle’s trusting paramour, Pierre (he thinks she has been going to school to become a nurse), and, Leslie Philips, playing a real stick-in-the-mud, as the stiff-britches Brit, Sir Gerald Wren.
Cukor is obviously relishing the Parisian trappings – even if Les Girls was shot on backlot recreations, pilfered and redressed from An American in Paris (1951) and the ‘Limehouse’ sequences in The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945). But he is also aping his own style, better displayed in Warner’s monumental musical of 1954, A Star is Born. Virtually all of the theater sequences in Les Girls sport this same frenetic energy and backstage megalomania Cukor so lovingly imbued in ‘Star’ and knew how to effortlessly extol. There is even a ‘flashbulb’ sequence to kick off the London liable trial at the Old Vic, the paparazzi exposing enough celluloid to stock several volumes of ‘Hush-Hush’ Magazine. For all its homage and detail to period and sets (Cukor filling every inch of the Cinemascope frame with interesting bric-a-brac, Les Girls is one of those grotesque misfires, ostensibly to have hastened the death knell for the golden age of the MGM musical. Producer, Sol C. Siegel was hoping for another sparkling champagne cocktail. Alas, the dreadful flashback machinations spun by noted novelist, Vera Caspary, and badly bungled by John Patrick, get so mired in innuendo and misdirection it hardly seems worth the effort to further muddy the waters with four inconsequential production numbers, and one – a ripe parody of Marlon Brando’s 1953 motorcycling classic, The Wild One (reconstituted in Les Girls as Why Am I So Gone About the Gal?) that should have appeared in a musical more laudable of its ribald execution. Kelly’s deadpan spoof of Brando is bang on, arriving at a luridly impressionistic diner where he engages a prim waitress (danced by Mitzi Gaynor) in an electric pas deux of luscious satire.
Caspary would later quip she was Hollywood’s highest paid writer, receiving $80,000 for two words – Les Girls – since John Patrick’s screenplay bore no earthly resemblance to its source material. Perhaps it was pure panic on Siegel’s part to go ahead with what he had to work with as he was unsuccessful at luring Leslie Caron, Cyd Charisse, Jean Simmons or Carol Haney onto the project. At least Caron or Charisse would have brought presence to their parts. But the trio ultimately settled upon, while accomplished performers apart, ironically failed to gel. None ever makes much of a splash in this picture. Kay Kendell is the most distinguished of the lot; her vivaciousness ever-so-slightly blunted by the leukemia that would claim her life just two years later at the age of 32. In 2006, critic Rhoda Koenig payed the actress a belated tribute, thus, “…in the wrong place at the wrong time”, the crime - a sheer waste of her formidable talents. “One of the most delightful of British actresses…a natural screwball heroine, Kendall was born too late for the 1930s comedies… and too soon for the naughtiness and absurdity of the 1960s…a true comedienne, unafraid to compromise her ladylike appearance with pratfalls, pop eyes and comic drunk scenes… without looking vulgar.”
Les Girls opens with a creative main title sequence conceived by Cukor’s long-time collaborator, Gene Allen and William A. Horning (the pair, also responsible for the picture’s art direction).  From here we regress to a rather dull opener at the Old Vic; Lady Sybil Wren called upon to take the stand and defend a chapter in her ‘tell-all’ biography, entitled ‘All for Love’. In it she suggests her one-time friend and fellow performer, Angèle Ducros tried suicide after being spurned by the only man she ever truly loved; the act’s manager/headliner, Barry Nichols. Wren’s allegation, that Angèle never loved Pierre Ducros (the wealthy man she ultimately wed) backfires when Angèle takes the witness stand to suggest it was Wren who turned on the gas in the apartment they shared, in an attempt to end the pain from a similar affair du Coeur with Nichols; a most disagreeable complication for Sybil’s stuffy hubby, Sir Gerald to swallow. Gerald would give his entire fortune to be rid of the trial’s notoriety, though not so much as a brass farthing to save the fractured fidelity in their marriage. Interpolated with these diametrically opposed testimonies, we retreat in flashback to happier times for all concerned; Sybil and fellow chorine, Joy Henderson called into Barry’s rehearsals for a ‘new girl’. Despite a pathetically weak audition, Barry hires Angèle on the spot, with Joy and Sybil agreeing to put her up in the cramped flat they already share.
Arriving with enough fashionable clothes and perfumes to stock a small couturier, we quickly learn our Angèle is hardly an angel, having played around with enough stage door Johnnies to write her own lurid memoir. In fact, Angèle is already engaged to Pierre, a handsome but naïve suitor whom she has been lying to about studying to become a nurse. Naturally, Pierre will never find out the truth. Or will he? After scoping out her fellow chorines as to their intentions, Angèle sets her cap for Barry; the two sharing a lazy afternoon punting along the Thames. Alas, Pierre arrives in search of his beloved – stalled in his inquiries by Joy and Sybil until Angèle’s late return from her outing with Barry. Once again, Angèle successfully eludes being found out by her fiancée. Alas, at the following night’s performance, Joe and Sybil both insist they have spotted Pierre in the audience. This leads to Angèle haplessly flubbing of the act. Humiliated, Barry fires her on the spot and a heartsore Angèle retreats in tears to the apartment to turn on the gas and end it all; spared certain death after discovered by Sybil.
It all seems rather cut and dry – very dry, indeed – until Angèle takes the stand in her own defense, the judge (Henry Daniell) cautioning her, she is under oath to tell the truth. Nevertheless, Angèle spins an alternative theory to the ordeal, painting Sybil as a raging alcoholic, constantly in threat of toppling their successful act because she has been spurned by Barry after a flawed/failed flagrante delicto. It seems Sybil is being pursued by Sir Gerald, who cannot wait much longer for wedding bells to peel madly. Refusing to accept that his potential wife prefers her career and Barry to him, a wrench is thrown into Sybil’s plans for grand amour with Barry when he elects to entertain Gerald’s invitation to open their act in a plush ‘legitimate’ theater with Gerald’s sponsorship – of course, without Sybil’s participation (and, with the understanding Sybil will be his wife). Being traded like a prized cow is not exactly what Sybil had in mind, and so she makes a rather clumsy attempt to thwart this arrangement by keeping Gerald and Barry apart during their planned rendezvous at a seedy and smoke-filled cabaret. Rather idiotically, her plans are foiled as Barry and Gerald clear the air and get into a barroom brawl that ends with a disgraced Sybil retreating to the apartment and turning on the gas; discovered at the last possible moment by none other than Angèle.
Unable to draw clarity from these polar opposite claims of romantic infamy, the judge calls upon a ‘surprise witness’; Barry Nichols, who arrives in typically suave fashion to set the record straight. It seems Barry was neither in love with Sybil nor Angèle, minimizing their interests in him as he spins yet another account of their collective past history. Barry was hot for Joy. She, alas, did not believe his intentions were honorable – at first. Hmmm. Perhaps, they weren’t! And thus, the affair to be was repeatedly delayed until the hour when neither could resist the other any longer. As neither Sybil nor Angèle were aware of Barry’s desire to wed Joy, and, according to Barry, neither was actually interested romantically in him, there was no reason for either to attempt suicide. According to Barry, neither did. In fact, Barry and Joy arrived at the apartment late to discover a faulty cup link on the gas main had ruptured, causing both Sybil and Angèle to become unconscious.
This latter summation of events really does not gel at all for several reasons: first, because the flat was not large and thus, Sybil and Angèle had to be aware of each other’s presence at home before fainting from the gas. Second, if neither was suicidal, why did they not attempt to shut off the gas sooner? Surely, if Barry and Joy could smell it from the outside Sybil and Angèle could also smell it from within. Hence, neither of their accounts, claiming to have discovered the other unconscious from ‘attempting suicide’ makes sense. Are both girls lying about everything else they witnessed leading up to the suicide? Sybil had not firsthand knowledge of an affair between Barry and Angèle or vice versa? Is Sybil’s bio a complete fiction as Angèle earlier claimed? Hmmm. Whatever ‘the truth’, Barry’s revised account of what ‘actually’ happened seems to satisfy the courts. The liable suit is dismissed. Sybil and Angèle are reconciled with their husbands, also settled in their long-estranged friendship. The girls embrace as Barry and Joy – who have married – look on from the back of a taxi cab. Joy suggests she does not believe a word of Barry’s testimony and thus, perhaps, intends to dissolve their partnership or, at the very least, make the coming days very uncomfortable for him. A disgusted Barry mutters, “Here we go again” as the taxi pulls away from the courthouse.  
From start to finish, Les Girls is a conflagration of misdirection and false starts. It barely comes alive during its more lighthearted musical sequences that, quite frankly, are incidental to a story having virtually no place for their showcase. Cukor and his cast would have been better served to concentrate either on straight melodrama or strict English farce. As John Patrick’s screenplay plays fast and loose with the conventions of both genres, periodically interrupted by the occasional song and/or dance, Les Girls emerges as an artistic gumbo of flailing/failed possibilities. Were that the casting had been more interesting too. Gene Kelly just seems to be going through the motions here. As the focus is not on his trademarked bright and breezy air of masculinity he appears out of place and rather cursorily inserted, merely for the box office cache his name above the title could then bring to a theater marquee. The ‘girls’ in Les Girls do their best to carry the show. But the heavy-handedness of the story conspires to submarine their camaraderie. In the final analysis, Les Girls amounts to a whole lot of nothin’ glossed up with some stellar production values and some gorgeous set design.  It all looks spell-bindingly attractive in Cinemascope. But it falls into mush of the lowest and most pointless order like a half-baked soufflé.
Not one of my fondest MGM musical memories, for sure, and a real head-scratcher for selection on Blu-ray via the Warner Archive (WAC). The executive logic behind a good many of WAC’s Blu-ray releases baffles me when so many stellar examples of MGM’s supremacy in the musical genre (Holiday in Mexico, Show Boat, Annie Get Your Gun, Good News, The Harvey Girls, High Society, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers…and on and on) remain MIA in hi-def.  Les Girls was shot by Oscar-winning cinematographer, Robert Surtees in problematic Eastmancolor that has since proven to suffer from a complete implosion of its ‘yellow layer’ – resulting in severe discoloring and fading. As no viable negative could be used in this remastering effort, WAC has turned to a relatively unencumbered interpositive made over thirty years ago with superior color stabilization.  This was scanned at 2K at Warner’s own imaging facility. Aside: I really do not see the point at this late stage in home video, performing anything less than a 4K scan on virtually all digital restorations being attempted in the present, since 4K mastering is fast becoming the new ‘norm’, thus leaving 2K work performed today virtually no ‘wiggle room’ for a legit upgrade to 4K in the future…if, indeed, this is Warner’s ambition. But I digress.
WAC has achieved miraculous color-correction on Les Girls while applying their routinely thorough cleanup to eliminate dirt, scratches and age-related damage. The result is a phenomenally pristine and razor-sharp 1080p transfer, its only limitations inherent in the era’s CinemaScope lenses (creating a slight vertical warp to the extreme left and right, as well as ever-so-slightly diffused clarity. Grain is amply on view and properly maintained for some truly impressive resolution and overall texture. The bland color that afflicted the 2003 DVD release of Les Girls has been replaced with sumptuous hues, interchangeably vibrant during the production numbers and more appropriately demure for the courtroom sequences. Blacks are solid, contrast is superb.  Optical dissolves, always suffering during the infancy of Cinemascope, herein maintain a consistent palette. Les Girls soundtrack was remastered in 2003 from original ‘scope’ mag-tracks to create a home video 5.1 presentation. Herein, it’s favored with an uptick to DTS 5.1 and predictably, the results are immersive, besting the DVD release.
Extras are limited to a charming Tex Avery cartoon ‘The Flea Circus’ regrettably, suffering from age-related dirt and dust, some aliasing and digital combing; plus, a careworn theatrical trailer missing its voice-over narration. Bottom line: while Les Girls is hardly an award-winning entertainment, this Blu-ray offers reference-quality mastering for a title, arguably, unworthy of the effort.  Now, can we convince someone at WAC to take an interest in some of their aforementioned ‘true musical gems’ in the Technicolor and Eastman back catalog, to say nothing of the myriad of non-musical ones still waiting in the wings (The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex, The Three Musketeers, National Velvet, Scaramouche, Ivanhoe among them – plus B&W treasures like The Great Ziegfeld, Rosalie, Random Harvest, Goodbye Mr. Chips, Red Dust, San Francisco, The Great Waltz, The Good Earth…and on and on and on and on. Bottom line: as an entertainment, pass on Les Girls and be very glad that you did. As an example of 1080p mastering (or a Gene Kelly completionist) – you’ll likely want to pick up this disc. Judge and buy accordingly.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)