Oui, Oui, Gigi!
Updated: Mar 18
For the first half of the twentieth century, beginning as early as 1926, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios (MGM) was home to "...more stars than there are in heaven." A major player in the entertainment industry, it produced — at factory speed — an abundance of musical films that not only offered a much-needed escape into an idealized, glitzy and glamorous world but that could arguably be considered more refined, expertly performed and skillfully executed than those of its Hollywood counterparts. By the time the late 1950s rolled around, the tastes of pre- and post-war movie audiences were already evolving. The introduction of color to broadcast television in 1953, which would ultimately increase the medium's popularity as it continued skyrocketing well into the 1960s and beyond, did little to support the film's cause.
Despite the prohibitive circumstances in which major Hollywood producers now found themselves, even as movie musicals began fading away, the MGM lion could still give a mighty roar. To once again capture the imagination and gain the attention of the American audience, MGM had to go somewhere no television ever could; a lavish and luxurious trip to Paris, the City of Lights, filled with the picturesque sights and stunning sounds of CinemaScope and Metrocolor, was the ticket it needed.
Even though I did not know it at the time, my Wonderland adventure had already begun by the time I stumbled across Gigi and marveled at yet another musical film that was strangely unfamiliar and completely new to me.
Based on a 1944 novella by French writer Colette, the charming, coming-of-age story of a young courtesan was produced as a comedy film in 1949 and adapted by Anita Loos into a Broadway play with none other than 22-year-old Audrey Hepburn at the helm two years later. By the time the material made its way through the star-studded gates of M-G-M, Hollywood film producer Arthur Freed had his work cut out for him. Navigating the prohibitive restrictions of the Eisenhower-era Production Code Administration, which questioned the morality of the story's subject matter, Freed took it upon himself to find a workaround. Imploring the writing talents of lyricist Alan Jay Lerner and composer Frederick Loewe, Freed's recommendation to turn Gigi into a musical gifted it with the je ne sais quoi it needed to find new life and become an important part of Hollywood movie history.
Given the abundance of resources at MGM's disposal, it is no surprise that Gigi, the film and the heroine, met her perfect match on more than one occasion. Thanks to its pairing with Vincente Minnelli — known for his impeccable taste in art design and knack for staging exceptional movie sets for gems such as An American in Paris, Meet Me in St. Louis, Cabin in the Sky and The Band Wagon — Gigi is a shining star among the most brilliant and vibrant of the director's musicals. And that's only the beginning.
From the movie's offset, Honoré Lachaille, played by legendary performer Maurice Chevalier, welcomes you with open arms to witness the unfolding of Gigi's unique story, which he tells from the personal viewpoint of a doting, fatherly figure during the "Thank Heaven for Little Girls" number. Arthur Freed's original intent to soften the overall plot works well here, and when depicted with the sophistication, delicacy and warmth of a beloved international icon, the subtlety of the scene takes precedence over its seemingly uncomfortable undertone.
Although Gigi was a discovery to me the first time I watched it, the appearance of Maurice Chevalier felt like the return of an old friend whom I haven't seen in years. Starring in a guest episode of The Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour, a continuation of the I Love Lucy sitcom that was syndicated as a rerun on the Nick at Nite channel throughout the 1990s, the dashing and talented Frenchman made an impression at me even at the age of 10. Whether it was his demeanor, chivalrous charm or uncanny ability to light up the screen with a simple smile, Maurice Chevalier was nothing short of magical; seeing him in Gigi made me realize that the likes of entertainers like him are now far and few between.
While following Lachaille around the streets of turn-of-the-century Paris, we meet his nephew Gaston, depicted in the 1958 film by the classically handsome and elegant Louis Jourdan. Having had all of his material comforts met, Gaston, who belongs to the cream of the crop of France's upper-class society, is bored and unhappy. Fancy luncheons, embasy teas, the 90-story Eiffel Tower and thrilling bullfights in Seville no longer hold a sense of novelty; visits to his old friend Madame Alvarez's home — where he is entertained by Gilberte (Gigi), her highly spirited granddaughter — have not been lost on Gaston, however, and he tells his uncle just as much during the lighthearted "It's a Bore" exchange.
Because Audrey Hepburn never reprised her role as Gigi in the 1958 film, fairly recent Hollywood newcomer Leslie Caron was the next obvious choice. A French ballerina who made her on-screen debut thanks to the well-meaning efforts of Gene Kelly — who went out of his way to recruit and support her as his co-star for 1951's An American in Paris — 27-year-old Leslie was faced with the important task of portraying a teenage girl being groomed by her grandmother and great-aunt Alicia to become a mistress. Young, spirited and highly opinionated, Gigi cannot understand the pretentious, materialistic and extravagant manner in which Parisians declare their love for each other. In many ways, she is still a child who sees the world through a lens of decency and humility. The role for which Gigi is ultimately preparing makes her circumstances seem all the more unfair.
In what is considered to be standard Hollywood practice at the time, Leslie Caron never got a chance to showcase her own vocals in the movie. Although she recorded and filmed the "I Don't Understand the Parisians" sequence for Gigi, the final soundtrack was dubbed by the more polished stylings of singer Betty Wand. And while Audrey Hepburn herself gave the songs in My Fair Lady her best shot, she, too, suffered a similar fate as Leslie Caron in Gigi, Natalie Wood in West Side Story and Ava Gardner in Showboat.
Unlike An American in Paris, which was filmed in the backlots of MGM, Gigi is a feast for the eyes thanks in part to its on-location showcase of Parisian favorites such as the Bois de Boulogne, where we first meet Honoré; the Palais de Glace, which puts all other ice-skating rinks to shame; and Maxim's, a landmark restaurant with a flair for flaring up a disheartened Gaston.
Even when the film makes its return to the studio's backlots, the quality of the production never ceases to amaze or delight. In a sequence that pays homage to turn-of-the-century bathing beauties and sparkling seashores, Gaston once again finds himself at odds with his surroundings in the coastal city of Trouville. Gigi is there to pick him up, a bright spot amid the stuffy and arrogant visitors, and the two bask in the sunlight — and their easygoing, blossoming friendship — even as Honoré and Madame Alvarez reminisce about romantic days gone by.
The sentimental and heartwarming "I Remember it Well," a highlight of the film played to perfection by Maurice Chevalier and Hermione Gingold, pays homage to a promising love affair that was cut short by Honoré's infidelity. The ending was bittersweet, disrupting a relationship that could have turned into marriage, and both partners are lost in the sweet trance of remembrance as seemingly forgotten feelings float to the surface once more.
Unlike Gaston, who questions the validity of the society to which he's grown accustomed and cannot seem to accept throughout the film, Honoré is perfectly at ease with himself and his lifelong circumstances. A carefree existence of a bachelor is the card that he is willing to play for as long as it takes, and the never-ending whirlwind of female companions he keeps clearly outweighs the promise any long-term commitment could hold.
When Gaston ends a relationship with his lover, Liane, portrayed by Green Acres favorite Eva Gabor, whom he caught in an affair with a skating instructor earlier on, he is clearly unsettled and equally as frustrated. That's when the devil-may-care advice that comes from his beloved uncle speaks for itself. As Honoré encourages Gaston to be with "A different girl every night. Keep them guessing who's next," the contrast between the two characters becomes even more obvious.
Just when it seems that the film can't get any better, Gigi surprises yet again. In the title song from the movie, Louis Jourdan gives it his all — vocally untrained but fully undubbed — in a climatic performance and unexpected realization of Gaston's feelings toward Gigi. He undergoes quite a transformation from the distant, world-famous and scandalous bachelor we meet at the beginning of the film, struggling with but coming to grips with his unmistakable feelings.
Gaston is sure he can find the happiness that's eluded him for far too long; although being together with Gigi now seems like the most logical solution, his well-meaning intentions go awry when high society rears its ugly head once again, making the eligible bachelor second-guess all he's ever known about the meaning and profession of love. The cultural norms of the rich and famous are cleverly exposed through a series of well-written dialogues and music — including Honoré's declaration of personal relief and self-contentment in "I'm Glad I'm Not Young Anymore" — even as a glaring spotlight is shone on characters with opposing values and beliefs. None shine more brightly than Gigi herself, however, as she takes a moral stance to redeem herself and the film that could have never seen the break of day.
In yet another parallel that can be drawn to My Fair Lady, "Say a Prayer for Me Tonight" was conceived as a song for Eliza Doolittle to sing before her highly anticipated presentation at the Embassy Ball. In a similar way, Leslie Caron's Gigi hopes for the best while getting ready to face the unknown and make a formal appearance as Gaston's mistress. The result is just as breathtaking, thanks in large part to stage and costume designer Cecil Beaton, and Gigi is every bit the courtesan she was trained to become.
She certainly makes an impression and shows more maturity as a young woman who's had to trade in her adolescence for adulthood. There's only one problem: Gaston cannot bear to see Gigi turn into yet-another one of his material possessions. Despite the etiquette and well-to-do manners she exhibits at every turn, she is no longer protected from the prying eyes of her surroundings. Refusing to let Gigi become a product of a society that passes judgment and seeks to invent objects of ridicule, he breaks off the deal and finally makes a life-changing decision — surrounded by the spectacular beauty of an orchestrated Parisian night — that can no longer be ignored.
While Gaston and Gigi searched for their happily ever after, the movie did not have to look far to find the recognition it deserved. Despite initial objections made toward the story's offensive-dubbed content, the tastefully done film still managed to meet its fairy tale ending. In a landslide victory, Gigi won all nine Academy Award® accolades for which it was nominated, setting a record matched only by the tremendous, 11-award success of 1959's Ben-Hur. But the question of whether modern audiences will embrace the film the way past generations have can easily be debated.
It's true that marriage may not seem like a plausible solution to Gigi's woes in a culture that values women's independence and upholds feminist ideals. I would even argue that some viewers may prefer to see Gigi escape the life imposed upon her and find her own way in the world through any means possible. But the reality of the situation is that Gigi is not a product of our time — she belongs in an entirely historical setting, in well-to-do Parisian society, nonetheless, that's completely unknown to us. Some of us may not understand or respect her decision, but we can choose to accept the fact that she found the sort of happiness that makes sense to her, even if it doesn't make any sense to us. To say that love conquers all is a bit cliché, I admit, but in a Cinderella-like story that exudes vibrance, romance and joy through the finest of cinematic craftsmanship, the saying is a glass slipper that fits Gigi well.