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Thank heaven for little girls!
by Asa Butcher
2008-11-24 09:09:35
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Directed by Vincente Minnelli
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1958
Fifty years on and there is something a little disturbing about a film beginning with an old man strolling through a park singing "Thank heaven for little girls!" The old man is the late Maurice Chevalier and the film in question is Vincente Minnelli's multi-Academy Award winner Gigi, and it a sad sign of the times that such a enjoyable song has taken on suspect connotations.

2008 marks the fiftieth anniversary of Gigi's 1958 release and it has almost stood the test of time, albeit for that creepy scene of an elderly gent ogling teenage girls in the local park! I hadn't watched Gigi for over a decade and it was surprising at how little had remained in my memory concerning the plot, the characters and even the songs.

Yes, Gigi is a musical and one that has been described as MGM's "last traditional musical" - i.e. it was filmed by the Arthur Freed Unit that had been responsible for all of MGM's classic movie musicals throughout Hollywood's Golden Era, such as An American in Paris, Show Boat and Singin' in the Rain. I am not a great fan of the film musical and have found it bizarre that the Oscars have deemed them worthy of awards (Chicago being the catalyst for this hatred), but even I haven't dismissed them out of hand.

Fresh from the success of their stage musical My Fair Lady, Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe collaborated once again to produce Gigi based on the book of the same name by French authoress Colette. The adapted screenplay won Alan Jay Lerner an Oscar and the duo also scooped an Oscar for the title song "Gigi", but the film also gave birth to at least two songs that have entered popular culture - "I Remember it Well" and "The Night They Invented Champagne".

The saving grace for Gigi as a musical is the almost non-existent choreography, although perhaps that gives the wrong impression. I should say that the lack of overblown dance routines with hundreds of extras is gracefully absent and in its place are just the singers or singer performing the song. When Gaston Lachaille (Louis Jourdan) sings "Gigi" in a Parisian park it is a great scene, which is primarily due to his excellent performance and being the sole focus of our attention - my only problem was I couldn't stop picturing Louis Jourdan as James Bond villain Kamal Khan from Octopussy!

Set at the turn of the 20th century, Gigi is the story of, well, Gigi (Leslie Caron), a young Parisian girl who is being groomed in etiquette and charm by her great aunt for a career as a grande cocotte (a wealthy man's mistress), although Gigi is blissfully unaware of this destiny. Lachaille, who is obscenely rich, has become bored with upper class life and often spends time with Gigi's aunt (Hermione Gingold) and Gigi, and it is only a matter of time before Gigi transforms from little girl into a woman.

The role of Gigi was originally meant for Audrey Hepburn, who had been playing the role in the original stage version but she was making Funny Face and was unavailable, so Caron got the role. In the film I would have guessed that Gigi is 14, maybe 16, which made the whole transformation into a woman and romance with a seemingly 25-30 year-old Lachaille a bit disturbing, but Caron was actually 27 years-old when she made the film - it may have escaped my attention, but Gigi's age is never revealed in the film.

Maurice Chevalier may have been on the receiving end of some 21st century "shock and horror" in the first paragraphs, but his Honoré Lachaille character, Gaston's uncle, brings humour and fun to an otherwise dodgy film about training a great niece to become a high-class prostitute. Each of his scenes are memorable and, likewise, each of his songs are performed exquisitely, especially "I'm Glad I'm Not Young Anymore". Chevalier never won an acting Oscar, but he was awarded an Honorary Award for his contributions to the world of entertainment for more than half a century at the same ceremony Gigi won all nine nominations.

Gigi set a new Academy Award record by scooping all nine Oscars for which it had been nominated - it also has the shortest title of any film to win Best Picture - and this record would remain unbroken until The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King managed 11 wins 45 years later - strangely, that film holds the record for the longest title. Gigi also gave director Vincente Minnelli his first and only Academy Award, following a nomination for An American in Paris seven years earlier.

The overall production of Gigi is mediocre. The cinematography among Paris' parks, the set decoration and the costumes are all stunning - each won an Oscar - but the editing is often irritating and distracting. It is thanks to the power of the songs and the character performances that save the film and, in the eyes of the Academy, made it a worthy winner of the Best Picture award over Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and The Defiant Ones - see, I'll never understand what power the film musical has…

NB: It was worth noting that Louis Jourdan celebrates his 90th birthday in June 2009.

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Jack2008-11-24 02:56:43
Just the fact that we are marking this film with an anniversary is to say it must have had a cultural impact that was significant....

i.e. "Gigi set a new Academy Award record by scooping all nine Oscars for which it had been nominated". That's incredible in any period of cinematography's history.

I can say, proudly, after having all sons and now grandson (x3), that I have to say thank heaven for my (now 11) little girl! As the local princess among the many princes, she is winner her own "little oscars" from our family. I still remember with fondness, the tea parties and mud pies! (:

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