You know how it is when the description of a movie makes you groan and you just know watching it is going to be utter misery. That utter lack of enthusiasm that makes you wonder why you do this to yourself.
“Gigi” was such a movie for me. Up front everything screamed misery and I could not wait to get this one behind me. With such dismal anticipation I could only be positively surprised. And I was. Almost.
“Gigi” is not that intolerable, though it does manage to hit a lot of horror buttons for me, but there are redeeming elements enough that I managed to get through this without too much pain.
Button number one is the setting itself. A musical set in a fin de siècle Paris that only exists in the head on a 1950’ies Hollywood set designers imagination (and presumably in the heads of any number of teenage girls) with big, useless gowns, idle rich and gallantry in droves. Nobody works except for servants and all anybody thinks of is how to pass the time and how they look to the public. That is just such a strange world, like a permanent vacation, which I suppose is why Gaston Lachaille (Louis Jourdan) is bored sick.
Such a setting is also the ideal environment for some very old school gender politics, which is the second button for me. I am not on some crusade for women’s rights, but one thing is watching women endure the infamy of being a commodity, it is something else to celebrate it as the most desirable state of affairs. The good old days where the best prospect of a woman was to find a rich man, serve him well and maybe even make a career out of it.
This is exactly such a story we are fed here. Gigi (Leslie Caron) is an adolescent girl in Paris being raised by her grandmother Mamita Alvarez (Hermoine Gingold) and great aunt Alicia (Isabel Jeans). Both Mamita and Alicia were courtesans in their days and they are grooming Gigi to be a courtesan as well. Gigi is a wonderful girl full of energy and spark, but the two old women are busy stamping that out to replace it with mannerism, gossip, useless skills and servitude to men. Man, I could kick their butts!
Meanwhile Gaston Lachaille is super rich and super bored. His uncle Honoré (Maurice Chevalier) is having a great time picking up young girls and taking them to Maxim’s and for a time he is trying to entertain Gaston with such pastimes. What Gaston actually prefers is to visit Mamita and play cards with Gigi. His relationship with Gigi is something like a child with a rich uncle and it is kind of sweet. Until the point where Gigi turns into a woman.
Here is another set of issues for me. Gigi is as a young woman being setup as a courtesan for Gaston, but a courtesan is simply a glorified prostitute and instinctively Gigi realizes that. That means we are supposed to realize that as well, but still think it is kind of sweet, which it is definitely not. Okay, Gigi and Gaston resolves this little problem by getting married and everything is happy happy. Ehhrr… is it just me who thinks it is ultra creepy that Gaston is marrying a girl he only weeks before considered a child? Or that Gigi is marrying her “uncle”?
Despite these inherent problems the producers of “Gigi” actually managed to pull it off pretty well. First off there are plenty of real shots from Paris which beats the crap out of a sound stage. Secondly all the principal actors are actually French, which means we do not have to be tortured by fake French accents. These actors are also pretty good at what they are doing. Particularly Maurice Chevalier is perfectly cast as the charming pedophile. The same can be said of Leslie Caron who manages to be both a juvenile and a young lady, but particularly for bring a breath of fresh air into a stale and revolting environment.
The music is good too, not intrusive and serves well to give the movie an air of frivolity. Often the music element of a musical can feel like a stone in the shoe, but here it was mostly painless which may be because of the lack of dancing. Choreography here is really at a minimum.
“Gigi” is not the worst musical around. It is a big and glorious production and at times even funny. But listen to this: “Gigi” won nine, saying and writing nine, Academy awards including Best Picture!
I will just let that stand a moment.
This does not bode well for 1958.
Finally, close your eyes, imagine an old man with a lusty smile going around in a park singing “Thank Heaven for Little Girls”.