#502) Gigi (1958)
Directed by Vincente Minnelli
Written by Alan Jay Lerner. Based on the novella by Collette. Original score by Lerner & Frederick Loewe.
Class of 1991
The Plot: Gigi (Leslie Caron) is a free-spirited young girl in turn-of-the-century Paris, groomed by her grandmother Madame Alvarez (Hermione Gingold) and Aunt Alicia (Isabel Jeans) to be a courtesan (aka mistress) to a wealthy man. Gigi deplores this training, and enjoys playing cards with family friend Gaston Lachaille (Louis Jourdan) instead. Gaston is a wealthy womanizer who is bored with his rakish lifestyle, but comes around to the idea of Gigi becoming his mistress. Providing commentary on the story is Gaston’s equally roguish uncle Honoré (Maurice Chevalier), who once had a fling with Gigi’s grandmother. Oh, and this whole thing is a musical.
Why It Matters: The NFR states that “Gigi” is “often considered to be one of MGM’s best musicals” and gives a rundown on the film’s story and production.
But Does It Really?: “Gigi” is a lavish pageantry of spectacle, but something about it seems off, and not just the outdated storyline and gender politics. From a historical viewpoint, this film works as the evolutionary step between the earlier MGM musicals like “Singin’ in the Rain” and later Broadway adaptations like “West Side Story“: “Gigi” was sophisticated for its time, but quickly eclipsed. “Gigi” is on here for its standing as the last of the great studio system musicals, but through a modern lens, to quote one of the film’s songs, “It’s a Bore”.
Wow, That’s Dated: While the practice of young women being groomed as courtesans in French society was long gone by 1958, the notion that this could serve as the basis for a crowd-pleasing romantic musical is quite problematic. In fact, because of its subject matter, the Production Code initially banned any film version of “Gigi” from being produced, until MGM convinced the code that their version was a condemnation of this lifestyle.
Title Track: The title number “Gigi” was one of the last to be written by Lerner & Loewe for the film. Like the songwriters’ previous leading man, Louis Jourdan speak-sings his way through a number about his newfound adoration for Gigi. Almost like he’s grown accustomed to her face…
Seriously, Oscars?: At the 1959 Oscars, “Gigi” tied with “The Defiant Ones” for most nominations with nine, and won all nine! Among the film’s accolades were Best Picture, Director, Screenplay, Score and Song (for “Gigi”). While none of the cast was nominated, Maurice Chevalier received a lifetime achievement Oscar “for his contributions to the world of entertainment”. “Gigi” broke the record for most Oscars won by a single film, and held the title until 364 days later, when “Ben-Hur” took home 11.
- Quick shoutout to the previous stage adaptation of “Gigi” written by former Hollywood screenwriter Anita Loos. It played Broadway in 1951, and novella author Collette handpicked a young actress named Audrey Hepburn to play Gigi. And now you know the rest of the story!
- After only being allowed one on-location establishing shot in “An American in Paris“, Vincente Minnelli was finally permitted to film the bulk of “Gigi” in the City of Lights. Unfortunately, there was so much noise pollution on-location that most of the audio was unusable, resulting in practically every scene being dubbed later. In addition, once the film started going over-budget, MGM demanded that “Gigi” return to California and film the remaining scenes in-studio, which explains the occasional jarring transition from Paris location to Culver City set.
- A minor character in the 1949 French film adaptation, the role of Honoré was expanded for this movie, and Maurice Chevalier was the first and only choice for the part. Chevalier opens “Gigi” with “Thank Heaven for Little Girls”…because they’ll grow up to be your significantly younger courtesan?
- Despite Leslie Caron’s natural vocal talents (she really imbues a lot of character into her singing), Freed opted for go-to ghost singer Betty Wand to dub all of Caron’s singing. Fortunately, some of Caron’s original recordings have been released as supplemental material.
- Each of the individual numbers in the film are fine, but they lose something once you realize that Lerner & Loewe composed this score immediately after their Broadway triumph “My Fair Lady“. The stories have enough overall parallels to give the “Gigi” score a certain sameness to it.
- One of my problems with this movie is the cinematography. True, MGM veteran Joseph Ruttenberg creates some beautiful CinemaScope compositions, but we’re always at a distance from the characters. With only a handful of close-ups throughout the movie, the majority of “Gigi” is pleasant looking medium shots that favor the spectacle over character intimacy. And if I’m not invested in the characters, it’s just a two hour costume parade.
- “The Night They Invented Champagne” is a fun number and really lightens up the…wait that’s it? It’s not even two minutes long!
- After production wrapped, Lerner & Loewe were so dissatisfied with the film, they demanded several cuts and reshoots. MGM initially balked (it would have added $300,000 to the budget), but when Lerner & Loewe offered to pay $3 million to have the film destroyed, the studio acquiesced. One of the numbers completely reshot was “I Remember It Well”, which now jarringly cuts from an overcast location shot to an obvious studio recreation (including a sudden sunset!)
- My other big problem with this movie is that everyone talks about Gigi, but we never spend a lot of time with her. It’s a true Cinderella story, in the sense that Gigi is a very passive lead; everything happens TO her.
- If “Say a Prayer for Me Tonight” sounds especially like a “My Fair Lady” reject, that’s because…it is. Eliza Dolittle was supposed to sing this before going to the Embassy Ball, but the song was cut out of town. At least it’s a chance to hear Gigi’s perspective about this whole…wait that’s it? That was even shorter than “Champagne”!
- So the moral of this movie is: Men, it’s okay to love your mistress. Women, it’s okay to conform to your man’s idealized version of you. Yikes. Well maybe this epilogue will sort things…wait that’s it? What even is this movie?
- “Gigi” was one of the biggest hits of 1958, and despite being considered one of the best musicals from “The Freed Unit”, Arthur Freed only produced one more movie musical, 1960’s “Bells Are Ringing”. Vincente Minnelli continued being one of MGM’s top directors (including “Bells”) before his career petered out in the mid-60s.
- Although their professional collaboration officially ended with 1960’s “Camelot”, Lerner & Loewe reunited in the early 70s to write a handful of new songs for a “Gigi” stage adaptation. This new musical opened on Broadway in November 1973…and closed three months later. In 2015, “Gigi” returned to Broadway, and while there were attempts to soften the subject matter (“Thank Heaven for Little Girls” was given to Mamita and Aunt Alicia), this production was even less successful than the first.
- “Gigi” is one of those movies that endured as a cultural reference point for many decades, but more recently has disappeared from the conversation. References of “Gigi” are more or less reserved for film geeks and Oscar Best Picture montages. Do people even know the songs from this anymore?