Paris, 1900. Gaston (Louis Jourdan) has lots of money and the attention of many beautiful women but it's all a bore. He prefers to spend time with Madame Alvarez, or “Mamita” (Hermione Gingold), a former lover of his uncle Honoré (Maurice Chevalier), and her granddaughter Gilberte, or Gigi for short (Leslie Caron). Gigi is being trained in etiquette and charm, with the intention of making her a courtesan.
It's impossible to discuss the American screen musical without Arthur Freed (1894-1973). For just over two decades he ran the Freed Unit at MGM, and many of the great musicals of that time were produced by the Unit – simply because Freed recruited as many talented people, both in front of and behind the camera, and allowed them their head. Stars like Gene Kelly and Judy Garland, directors like Vincente Minnelli and Stanley Donen (to list but two of each), did their best work for him. Gigi was the the Unit's biggest commercial success and most prolific Oscar winner (nine including Best Picture, plus a special award for Maurice Chevalier). It's not true that it was the Unit's last musical – that would be 1960's Bells Are Ringing, also directed by Minnelli – but in some ways it was its last hurrah. It's fifty years old this year. While I wouldn't put it in the same league as the Unit's earlier work such as Singin' in the Rain and The Band Wagon, I would still put it quite high up the list. The first half is masterful, the second tends to peter out, but there's plenty to enjoy.
Colette's original novella was written in 1944, towards the end of her life. There was a (non-musical) French film made five years later, which is included on this DVD as an extra. Almost from the time of publication, Freed had the novella in mind for adaptation. But the problem was, how to get the story past the Hays Office – it is after all, about a young woman being trained as a prostitute. (Chevalier's opening number, “Thank Heaven for Little Girls”, only takes on creepy overtones in retrospect.) However, the result is so circumspect it's difficult to imagine anyone taking offence – any potential dodginess is waved away as insouciant Gallic charm.
The production, in colour and CinemaScope, was lavish indeed, involving location shooting in Paris which would probably be impossible today. (The Bois de Boulogne was closed off for the shooting of the opening sequence.) Shooting did run over schedule and over budget, which caused Minnelli and his crew to have to return to California, and some minor reshoots were not done by Minnelli but by an uncredited Charles Walters. But the studio need not have worried. The film was a hit and it won all nine Oscars it was nominated for – a record that would stand for just one year, before being broken by Ben-Hur.
Minnelli had made effective films in black and white and the old Academy Ratio, but, as seen in earlier films like Lust fro Life he easily took to the wide screen. If you haven't seen Gigi in its full Scope ratio, you simply haven't seen it properly: Minnelli uses long takes, often composing along diagonals across the screen. Joseph Ruttenberg's cinematography, Cecil Beaton's production and costume design, the art direction of Preston Ames and William A. Horning are all luxurious. (All of them won Oscars.) Then there's Lerner and Loewe's songs. I've already mentioned Chevalier's curtain-raiser, but the wordplay of “It's a Bore” is a delight, “The Night They Invented Champagne” is an exuberant highlight and the Chevalier/Gingold duet “I Remember It Well” is simply staged as a series of static shots (which double in number when the film is panned and scanned for TV) and quite affecting. However, the award winner was Jourdan's number Gigi. Importantly, Minnelli ensures that dramatic sections of the story work as well as the production numbers, which is not something every maker of musicals does.
At the centre of the film is Leslie Caron's Gigi. If I prefer the first half of the film to the second, it's because of her: her girlish exuberance is adorable, and the film loses a little when she becomes the “trained” (if still supremely elegant) Gigi in the latter stages. Caron, a French dancer, had been discovered by Gene Kelly for An American in Paris earlier in the decade – she's just about convincing as a teenager in Gigi even though she was actually twenty-six and a mother when she made the film. Her singing was actually dubbed by Betty Wand, to her chagrin. Her fellow countryman Jourdan had made a career out his impossible good looks. Max Ophuls had found something darker and more complex in him for Letter from an Unknown Woman a decade earlier – also a film set in a 1900 of the imagination, though a different European city. Minnelli on the other hand pushes him in a different direction: as the jaded bon vivant whose eyes are opened by his love for Gigi. Jourdan (who is still alive as of this writing) tends to be underrated, which is unfair considering the calibre of films he has starred in. Amongst the more senior members of the cast, Chevalier, Gingold and Isabel Jeans are perfection.
So, a great musical? Maybe not, as it faces strong competition amongst other Freed productions. It's also not really the end of the classic musicals, not with the likes of West Side Story the following decade. But with its fin-de-siècle French setting of the imagination, and its summing up of the careers of many of its principals, it's still essential.
Warners's fiftieth-anniversary edition of Gigi is a two-disc edition in NTSC format and encoded for Regions 1, 2, 3 and 4.
Gigi is transferred to DVD in its original ratio of 2.35:1, anamorphically enhanced. To expect this to look like a modern film is foolhardy. Gigi was shot in CinemaScope and Eastman Colour (MGM's Metrocolor process). Colours were deliberately heightened, and sets and costumes were specifically designed to show this off. Reds especially pop from the screen. Given relatively early CinemaScope lenses (the improved Panavision ones would come later) there's some softness and grain, but that is what the film has always looked like.
The soundtrack is Dolby Digital 5.1, though in practice it's really 4.0, reflecting the soundtrack the film had on its release. There is some directional dialogue left and right (most noticeable when Gigi's mother sings her scales off screen right) and the surround is used for the music. A French dubbed version in mono is also included.
The film is given an enthusiastic commentary by Jeanine Basinger, with comments by Leslie Caron edited in. Basinger clearly adores the film, and much of her talk is appreciation of the various talents involved, but she also conveys a lot of information about the film's production along the way, backed up by some of Caron's anecdotes.
Along with the trailer (3:31, in non-anamorphic 2.35:1), Warners have included a couple of short films on Disc One. The Million Dollar Nickel (9:30), is a 1953 propaganda piece (in black and white and 4:3), exhorting people to write home to their relatives in other countries to say how good life is in the USA. Foreign-raised Americans such as Caron, Zsa Zsa Gabor and Ricardo Montalban are seen doing just that, in their native languages with English subtitles. The Vanishing Duck (7:08) is a CinemaScope Tom and Jerry cartoon from 1957 – though after the letterboxed opening credits it's cropped to 1.78:1. Bad mark there, Warners!
Disc Two contains two items. “Thank Heaven! The Making of Gigi” (35:35) is a newly produced documentary. Most of the principals are now dead, with Leslie Caron being the only one interviewed. (Jourdan is in his late eighties and does not participate.) Minnelli is represented by an archive interview, but the rest of the interviewees are critics and experts on Colette, the Hollywood musical or MGM. Inevitably this isn't the most in-depth making-of, but it's useful enough. Presented in 16:9 anamorphic, the documentary has optional subtitles in Japanese.
Also on the disc is the non-musical 1949 French version of Gigi, directed by Jacqueline Audry (and it's worth mentioning a female director at a time when there were none in Hollywood) and starring Danièle Delorme. A caption apologises for the state of the print, the only one known to exist. As well they might: it's stratched to pieces, with contrast flickering all over the place, and has burned-in English subtitles which are hard to read. The film is in black and white and, as you would expect, presented in 4:3 with a 2.0 mono soundtrack. Unless you are fluent in French it may be better to switch on the English hard-of-hearing subtitles (Japanese ones are also available), even if they appear on a black background and obscure part of the picture. The film is noticeably rather more risqué than Hollywood would have allowed at the time, or even nine years later when the musical version was made – in this version, Gigi is all of fifteen. It's interesting as a comparison, but it isn't on a level with the 1958 film. Audry would make two more films from Colette stories, all of them starring Delorme.
So, a fine example of the kind of film that isn't really made any more, and a showcase for the talents of many people who were never or rarely better. That's the fiftieth anniversary DVD edition of Gigi, thank heaven.
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