Gigi (1958)

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By Scott Ross

Leslie Caron is one of the few post-war figures possessed of that great, indefinable asset that, among screen actors, is also the most rare: Charm. With all of Gigi‘s considerable assets it is, finally, Caron’s gamin presence that holds this enormously appealing movie together.

Coming off the astonishing success of My Fair Lady, Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe could probably have developed a project musicalizing the greater Los Angeles telephone directory and been given the money to mount it. Lerner chose the delicious Colette novella — a previous dramatization of which introduced another gamin charmer, Audrey Hepburn, to Broadway audiences — and it inspired one of the most adult of all screen musicals. (You may assume the sheer Frenchiness of the thing helped.)

The story involves an innocent young girl’s schooling in the art of courtesanship, yet there’s nothing smutty or even particularly racy about it. That very matter-of-factness gives the enterprise a boost; without dwelling on the seedier aspects you can relax and admire the Cecil Beaton sets and fin de siecle costumes, be carried along by the brightness of the music and the wittiness of Lerner’s lyrics and dialogue, and luxuriate in the ingratiating performances. Gigi was one of the biggest Academy Award-winners of all time, and — despite some My Fair Lady carry-overs, such as Louis Jordan’s Henry Higgins-like title solo — it’s about as graceful and witty as a musical can be.

With Maurice Chevalier as the movie’s roguish compere, Hermione Gingold as Gigi’s exuberant grandmama, and the great Isobel Jens as Caron’s aging, one-time courtesan aunt and instructor.

The dances were staged by Charles Walters, and Andre Previn did the perfect orchestrations. Vincente Minnelli directed, with his usual attention to décor but, reportedly, considerable laissez-faire: Lerner and Loewe were so distressed by the first cut they offered to pay MGM thousands to fix it. (The studio coughed up the bucks.) Gigi is also notable as both the crowning achievement of, and the last great movie produced by, MGM’s curiously workmanlike genius of a musical producer, Arthur Freed.

Text copyright 2013 by Scott Ross

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