During the 2017 holiday season, I got a great deal on the Best of Warner Bros. 100 Film Collection. Diane and I haven’t seen most of these movies, but we are committed to watching one a week and writing a short review.
Based on a book of the same name, 1958’s “Gigi” is a musical-romance with songs and lyrics by Lerner and Loewe, the same duo that would later do “My Fair Lady”. The film is set in Paris and feels distinctly French despite being American-made. “Gigi” also won the Academy Award for Best Picture in 1959, as well as many other Academy Awards in other categories, which were all likely well-deserved … at the time.
It is hard to imagine anything more French than “Gigi”. Set in 1900’s Paris, the film opens with a stroll in a Parisian park that recalls George Seurat’s painting A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte. The character Honoré Lachaille, played by Maurice Chevalier, introduces himself directly to the camera as an older gentleman prone to chasing younger girls. He then sings in his distinctive French accent a song that celebrates how young girls grow to be worthy objects of lust. He expresses it a little differently, but it is not at all a song that has stood the test of time, at least not lyrically. Unless you like the idea of sexy French grandpas leering at children in a park.
Creepiness-aside, Chevalier was a global treasure and he is positively enchanting throughout “Gigi”. He is the French self-ideal: a charmer, a gallivanter, and someone who can still get erect even in his twilight years. His character is full of life, but when juxtaposed against his nephew, Gaston Lachaille (Louis Jordan), he helps grease the plot with, for one last sex joke, lube. Obviously.
Unlike his Uncle, Gaston thinks everything is a bore. He says so in his introduction song several times and the line is called back to throughout the film. His boredom is an extension of his immense privilege as an imminently wealthy young gentleman. I still found the character and the actor to be a delight. He plays the straight man in the movie, and a few temper tantrums aside, I genuinely wished he would succeed in finding love.
The titular character of Gigi, played by Leslie Caron, was also a treat. We previously saw her in “An American in Paris” opposite of Gene Kelly. In the seven years between the two films, Caron has significantly improved. In “An American …” she primarily danced and swooned her way through the film’s plot, but in “Gigi” she proved she can lead a film and manage a speaking role. Far less dancing here, but Gigi’s youthfulness saturates every scene she is in and her charm lifts up a film that would be lesser without her.
Isabel Jeans as Aunt Alicia and Hermione Gingold as Madame Alvarez manage to steal the show despite having almost no songs in a musical. Their characters combine to bring much of the comic relief to the film. Madame Alvarez plays Gigi’s grandmother, whom Gigi lives with, and her sister and Gigi’s aunt, Alicia, gives Gigi weekly lessons.
These lessons all focus on their intent to train Gigi not as the marrying kind of girl, but as a sort of professional mistress. The movie does nothing to explain this and it only made sense after reading about it later. This was by far our biggest flaw with the film. Maybe there is something about French culture I am missing that was more evident to Americans in the 50s?
As watchable and enjoyable as it was, “Gigi” fell apart in its final act. With the gap in storytelling, sudden changes (yes, plural) of heart by Gaston feel out of place. His inability to decide how he feels about Gigi, combined with a tamer era limited in how blunt it can be about a controversial topic like children/only barely of age mistresses, leads to whiplash that sours the movie. When you add in the many elements that do not hold up to a modern audience, you are left with solid performances, some well-sung songs, and a Best Picture winner that is pretty forgettable.
With one exception: “I Remember Well” is a perfect song. Listen for yourself:
I wish the movie had been about Maurice Chevalier, an old gentleman who has slept with everyone in Paris, recall the one mistress who he truly loved and courting her again despite the years taking them in vastly different directions. It could still be funny and could still be very, very French.
For other reviews, make sure to check out the Warner Brother’s Top 100 Film’s page.