Friday, May 9, 2014

Gigi (Best Picture 1958)

Congratulations to all those David Niven and Cantinflas fans. Two weeks ago I said that Around the World in Eighty Days was the least deserving Best Picture film. I now stand corrected, as Gigi definitely has less going for it than the 1956 Mike Todd produced epic does. Shall I count all the things wrong with this motion picture? Yes, I shall. Be warned: there are huge spoilers if you have never seen this film. This movie I don't recommend you ever seeing, but you might want to, so be fore-warned. 

Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Lowe became famous after they wrote My Fair Lady for Broadway in 1956. As they were enjoying that success, they began to work on a musical adaptation of the short-story Gigi by Colette for MGM. There are similarities between the two works, and in a very real sense "if you've seen one, you've seen them both." Both feature the "teaching" of a younger female character for the pleasure of a man. Both feature strongly misogynist older gentlemen as the leads. Both feature costumes and scenes over characterization. And to my ear, both feature similar music and lyrics.
Gigi is about a young girl who is being raised by her grandmother and great-aunt, as her mother is too busy being an extra in the Parisien opera to raise her herself. Gigi's one friend is a man she considers her older brother, Gaston. Why or how they met is never explained, but he is an incredibly rich eligible bachelor who enjoys stopping by and spending time with Gigi and her grandmother. Gigi goes to her great-aunt twice a week to learn about feminine things such as jewelry, the proper way to eat, or the proper way to pour coffee. All is going along fine until Gaston catches his girl-friend cheating on him; he publicly embarrasses her and then tries to show Society that he is not upset by the break-up by throwing several lavish parties. Unfortunately, he stops by and visits Gigi again, and when he realizes he has more fun with Gigi and her grandmother in one evening than he has all week in Society, on a whim he offers to take both of them with him to the seaside. After this little vacation, her grandmother and great-aunt decide to speed up Gigi's lessons. They have a conversation I simply did not understand: one says to the other, "Did it never occur to you that Gigi...?" the other gasps, and the scene is over.
Well it turns out that in a scene soon after this, Gigi asks her great-aunt point blank, "So I will never get married?" to which the reply is, "We do not plan to marry at first, but it is possible that we may end up married at last." This is when I suddenly realized that the elderly women were training Gigi to be a high-priced call girl! Sure enough, Gaston comes back from his business trip and the grandmother makes him promise to make a "business deal" for Gigi. He has their lawyer call his lawyer. They work the arrangements out, but when Gaston himself calls on Gigi again she flatly refuses him. She does not want to be his mistress. However, the next day she calls him back and says she would rather be miserable with him than without him, so agrees to the arrangement. They go out to the trendy restaurant Maxim's, where Gaston realizes that she is behaving like a trained monkey, and is not the Gigi he fell in love with. So he drags her back home and then, finally, asks her to marry him, presumably to stay away from the shallow Social life he hates.
And this is me trying to be nice in my description of the story! I don't know if this, My Fair Lady, and Camelot (all by Lerner-Lowe) were true representations of their times or not, but to watch them today it's shocking to see just how misogynist they are. I will give you two examples from this film: at the beginning of the film we meet the charming Maurice Chevalier as Gaston's uncle, Honore. He introduces the story and then sings, "Thank Heaven For Little Girls" while lecherously eyeing a prepubescent girl! (You can catch a glimpse of the actual scene I mean in the trailer below). At the time maybe this was "cute," but now I can't think of this character as anything other than as a dirty old man. Likewise, later in the film he consoles Gaston when Gigi has refused to be his concubine. He tells Gaston that if Gigi says no to Gaston's offer to "buy" her, she isn't good enough for him. Let me say that again: he tells Gaston that if Gigi says no to Gaston's offer to "buy" her, she isn't good enough for him. This is a class war and a gender war that I want no part of! By this point I was just waiting for the film to end.
Of course, if I had liked the lead characters or the music by this time I would have been more invested, right? Well I'm here to tell you that the only song you have ever heard of from this movie is Chevalier's "Thank Heaven For Little Girls." Watch the trailer below and tell me that you have ever heard any of these other songs. They are forgettable, partly because they are so similar to the score from My Fair Lady. Only one other song was familiar to me, "I Remember It Well," because my parents would sometimes quote that line back at each other or us kids. The song is a duet between Chevalier and Herminone Gingold (as Gigi's grandmother). However, watching it now I can't tell if it's a fun story about how romance is not as important to men as it is to women, or a creepy story about how men remember conquests but not the details about them. While I was watching it I couldn't tell if Chevalier really did "remember it well" or was just humoring Gingold. Nor could I tell if Gingold knew, either, or cared.
I almost got through the whole review without commenting on either of the two leads: Leslie Caron as Gigi, and Louis Jordan as Gaston. They are fun together, but dull apart. I don't know if it's chemistry, or the plot, but whenever they were apart the film was incredibly dull. In fact, one song that Jordan has with Chevalier is called, "It's a Bore." Yes, it is. Neither of them lit up the screen for me, although I didn't dislike Caron here as I did in An American In Paris. In a film full of unlikeable characters, she and Jordan were able to make their parts slightly warm and loveable. Due to the nature of the plot, however, I never felt like I knew and/or understood either of them. This film is definitely a Best Picture for "production" rather than for acting. Tellingly, none of the actors were even nominated. 
Comparing this film to other Best Picture winners, it is almost impossible for me to come up with anything that might have made this Oscar-worthy at all, and yet it won nine awards! Director Oscar for Vincente Minnelli might have been his "career" Oscar, but the music, screenplay, costumes, cinematography...okay, I'll give you those two last ones. The film IS easy on the eyes. But the song "Gigi" is utterly forgettable! Checking on what it was up against that year in Best Song competition, I have to admit I haven't heard of any of the other songs, either. I guess if you like musicals (which I do, in general) and if you like comedies (which I do, and this one really isn't one to my taste) you might like this. Or you might feel cheated, like I did, and hate it. If you have agreed with most of my other opinions, that I would suggest you might not care for this film.

*Academy Award Best Picture of 1958*
Produced by Arthur Freed
Directed  by Vincente Minnelli
Screenplay by Alan Jay Lerner

Also Nominated:
(in alphabetical order)
Auntie Mame
Cat On A Hot Tin Roof
The Defiant Ones
Separate Tables
My recommendation would be to see any or all of these other nominees before you took the time to watch Gigi. Auntie Mame is a wonderful comedy with Rosalind Russell as the free-spirit aunt trying her best to raise her orphaned nephew. Cat On a Hot Tin Roof is a searing drama by Tennessee Williams starring Paul Newman, Elizabeth Taylor, and Burl Ives. All three actors were nominated this year, but Ives was nominated for a different film, Big Country, and he actually won. Newman and Taylor lost out to David Niven (in Separate Tables) and Susan Hayward (in I Want To Live), respectively. Separate Tables also won Best Supporting Actress for Wendy Hiller as the owner of the inn where Niven, Deborah Kerr, Burt Lancaster, and others are living. It's a wonderful drama about missed connections, and Niven gives a terrific performance. The last nominee is The Defiant Ones, a "hip" Hollywood take on racism starring Tony Curtis and Sydney Poitier as fugitives hand-cuffed together. Both men were nominated for Best Actor. To see it now it appears so innocent. Lon Chaney, Jr gives one of his last and best performances in it, too.

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