by David Cornelius
We often hear of a filmmaker working “at the top of his game.” “Gigi” is Vincente Minnelli working at the middle of his game. The film is not nearly as rapturous as his finest projects, such as “An American In Paris,” and yet it is a testament to his talents as a director and as a storyteller that “Gigi” still delights, despite its faults. It is a good movie from a great moviemaker.The 1958 film, which won nine Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director, is one that coasts entirely on sophistication and charm. There are no dance numbers, there are few jokes, the pacing is languid and the plot is merely so-so. And yet the movie provides us with two great performances, several other fine ones, a handful of songs so enchanting that humming them becomes a reflex, and a quaint, attractive view of turn-of-the-century Paris and the high society types that inhabited it.
"Fine entertainment. Not nine Oscars fine, but still fine."
The opening scene sets the tone. Strolling through the Bois de Boulogne, circa 1900, we find none other than Maurice Chevalier, ever so dapper, looking as if the years were so very good to him indeed. He addresses us directly, letting us in on the time and place, along with an introduction: “Occupation: lover, and collector of beautiful things.” Anyone not grinning ear to ear yet will soon be, once Chevalier starts in with “Thank Heaven For Little Girls.”
Now, it’s true that there’s an underlying ickiness to the song - one can’t help but find it to be a tribute to pedophilia, or at least Dirty Old Man Syndrome. The rest of the plot doesn’t help much, either, something about a young lass raised to be an old rich guy’s mistress, etc. And yet the song and the story are both presented with such an unflappable innocence that we find ourselves willing to forgive, despite our knowing better. Even the most disgusted by the opening number’s lyrics will still find themselves unable to stop tapping their toes.
Anyway. The plot, as mentioned above, straddles creepiness, but it’s so light and barely-there that it doesn’t hit as hard as one would think. Upscale society chap Gaston (Louis Jordan), bored by high society stuffiness, only finds happiness around his winking uncle (Chevalier). Uncle, meanwhile, has been hanging around his old mistress (Hermione Gingold), grandmother to Gigi (Leslie Caron, at her most stunning). With the help of happy-go-lucky grandma and a stiff-as-a-board aunt (Isabel Jeans), Gigi is being taught how to be a courtesan, which, if the movie’s lightheartedness is any indication, wasn’t as sleazy a job then as it is now.
Long story short, Gaston slowly comes to discover that he’s in love with Gigi. And that’s about it, really. The plot isn’t much of a story as it is an excuse on which to hang many a fine tune, lush visual, and/or musical set piece. There’s a stunning scene in a nightclub during which the music starts and stops on a dime, as society hounds soak in who’s walking in with whom. A rousing rendition of “The Night They Invented Champagne” comes bursting with energy. And the Chevalier/Gingold duet “I Remember It Well” is a truly classic moment, a heartwarmer eager to win large smiles.
The film is adapted from the Broadway musical by Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe, who had previously penned “My Fair Lady.” That play (which, when taken to Hollywood, also landed a hefty pile of Oscars, including Best Picture) tackled similar subject matter: “Gigi” and “Pygmalion,” on which “Lady” was based, got smushed together decades later to give us the inexplicably successful “Pretty Woman.” And while “Lady” does it much better, both in terms of the stage and screen versions, thanks to a sharper plotline, crisper characters, and more memorable musical numbers, and while “Gigi” doesn’t manage to rank among the great movie musicals, this does not mean that Minnelli’s film is a failure.On the contrary, “Gigi” comes to us bubbling with energy and joy that it takes a strong effort not to be won over with enchantment. The film is one of Minnelli’s lesser works, and yet it still sticks in the memory, with wonderful scene after wonderful scene carrying the viewer past the trouble spots. The songs are delightful, the mood is breezy, and elegance reigns supreme. In the hands of a master craftsman, even this otherwise iffy musical becomes lively, lovely entertainment.
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originally posted: 02/23/05 01:21:05