Historically August has never been the month for which studios save movies with boffo box office potential. Imagine my surprise when Guardians of the Galaxy, which was released on August 1st, turned out to be the biggest hit of the year so far. And it deserved to be because it’s a terrific film to boot. That accounts for the fact that the movie has largely dominated the entire month. Ok so there was Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles too but that was awful. Seeking some counter programming was the impetus behind my decision to see a revival of Gigi at The Stanford Theatre. It was the palate cleansing sorbet in a month of mostly bitter tasting selections.
The MGM musical won a then unprecedented 9 Academy Awards, including Best Picture for 1958. It held a short-lived record until Ben-Hur won 11 the very next year. In addition to Gigi, lyricist and librettist Alan Jay Lerner and composer Frederick Loewe were responsible for creating Camelot, Brigadoon and perhaps most famously, My Fair Lady. Gigi pales in comparison to that similar smash hit also thematically built around a Cinderella transformation. Gigi isn’t my favorite musical, but it’s still entertaining.
Gigi is based on the 1944 novella of the same name by Colette. Rich and attractive millionaire Gaston Lachaille (Louis Jordan) is bored with the superficial lifestyle of the upper class in Parisian society. The year is 1900 and he’d prefer to hang out with the former mistress (Hermoine Gingold) of his uncle (Maurice Chevalier). Gaston calls her Mamita. Madame Alvarez is also grandmother to the carefree Gigi, with whom he enjoys hanging out with as well. She is currently a young girl but on the verge of becoming a woman. Madame Alvarez encourages Gigi to spend time with her Aunt Alicia (Isabel Jeans) to educate Gigi in the ways of becoming a courtesan, that is a wealthy man’s mistress. Important skills like walking elegantly, how to choose a cigar, and pouring coffee in the proper fashion, are part of the lesson plan. How long before Gaston notices this tomboy of a girl has matured into a beautiful young woman?
Director Vincente Minnelli fills the screen with so much color and pageantry, the eyes can barely contain it all. There’s a magnificence to the presentation that seems to have spared no expense in recreating the French fashions. Cecil Beaton’s production design, costumes and scenery is the ultimate. It is sumptuous. There’s such an old fashioned grandeur that relies so heavily on sets and wardrobe that it is kind of fascinating. Even for 1958, Gigi was a bit of a throwback to an earlier time. It was the last great MGM musical of Hollywood’s golden age, although Minnelli would direct Bells are Ringing in 1960 and that’s pretty wonderful too.
The cast is captivating. My favorites are Maurice Chevalier and Hermione Gingold. They are an absolute delight, particularly in their witty duet, “”I Remember It Well”. Other song highlights are “Thank Heaven for Little Girls” and “Gigi”. Leslie Caron is a spirited vision as the title character. No one conveys indignant exasperation like suave Louie Jourdan. The script is rather funny too. Isabel Jeans as the highly strung Aunt Alicia delivers some of the best lines with perfect timing and intonation during her tutelage. Classic lines abound. “A topaz? Among my jewels? Are you mad?” “Bad table manners, my dear Gigi, have broken up more households than infidelity.” “Wait for the first-class jewels, Gigi. Hold on to your ideals.” The social mores and customs are amusingly dated, but that’s really the point now isn’t it? Let’s just say, they don’t make ‘em like this anymore.