The storied Freed Unit at MGM—home of the movie musical—had its last hurrah with Gigi, from the legendary team of Lerner and Loewe. Librettist and lyricist Alan Jay Lerner and composer Frederick Loewe were coming off of their Broadway triumph My Fair Lady when they agreed to adapt the novella by Colette into an original screen musical. Though Gigi had a bumpy road to the screen, the film proved to be producer Arthur Freed's biggest success, raking in nine Oscars, including Best Picture (a tenth, honorary Oscar went to key supporting player Maurice Chevalier).
A comedy of manners set in fin-de-siècle France, Gigi purportedly tells of a girl (of indeterminate age, but definitely a "girl") ostensibly being groomed to be a courtesan by her great-aunt Alicia (Isabel Jeans) and grandmother Madame Alvarez (Hermione Gingold). Due to the threat of the production code, screenwriter Lerner and director Vincente Minnelli (An American in Paris) sufficiently obscured the plot to the degree that it's easier to read the story as a girl being groomed to be a debutante, to attract men, rather than being trained to be a proper woman for hire. The climactic decision of whether or not she'll give herself to a man seems unsavory not because it's a literal depiction of prostitution but a figurative one, in which a man will pledge a luxurious life to the woman if she'll agree to bypass the emotional intimacy of wedded union. To some today, that arrangement would simply qualify as a certain stripe of modern relationship. After all, it's a fine line between those two old standbys of one-way love: prostitute and golddigger.
Of course, even that point proves irrelevant, as Gigi is, after all, a love story. World-famous idle playboy Gaston Lachaille (Louis Jourdan) has never thought much of the social scene. As he musically expresses to his uncle Honoré Lachaille (Chevalier), "It's a bore!" Notwithstanding the Eiffel Tower, the only thing in Paris that doesn't bore Gaston is the company of Gigi (Leslie Caron, skillfully evoking girlhood) and Madame Alvarez (Gigi's mother remains resolutely off-screen and oddly uninvolved). A cup of tea and a game of cards with the witty elder and her vivacious granddaughter provides Gaston with diversion and even escape from the drudgery of maintaining appearances amongst the rich. Though he never once considers packing it all in to live in a relatively humble walkup apartment like that of Gigi and Madame Alvarez, Gaston does find cause to notice Gigi one day, an event which leads to the climactic negotiations.
Gaston's discovery takes the form of the title tune, a musical contemplation. It's one of several scenes to take advantage of authentic French scenery (others have to make do on studio sets). The fondly recalled musical numbers include "I Remember It Well," a light-comic duet for Chevalier and Gingold; the up-tempo "The Night They Invented Champagne," and "I'm Glad I'm Not Young Anymore" and "Thank Heaven for Little Girls," both late-career signature tunes for Chevalier. The latter puts a mildly creepy spin on the film's theme that female youth can reinvigorate the male spirit, with a steady supply of little girls coming up to replace those being "aged out." Still, Chevalier's charmingly corny performance as a man whose life has been "devoted to the chase" overcomes all; besides, the film seems to say, he's French, and you know the French.
Gigi's principal selling point is its Metrocolorful CinemaScope pageantry, and indeed Minnelli's film is a kind of visual feast of upper-class finery; even the lower-class apartment pops with blazing red wallpaper. The film opens and closes at the Bois de Boulogne, with horse-drawn carriages and beautifully costumed extras lolling around behind the perky Chevalier. The legendary crooner delivers most of his big numbers from a chair while breaking the frame—or "the fourth wall," to use the theatrical term. The theatrical approach fits Lerner and Loewe's mythical France of delicate fair ladies and exploitative men who must be taught to be grateful for their ladies' love and devotion. As such, the film is never more than a stone's throw away from My Fair Lady, especially in the tendency toward talk-singing.
Given the shortage of dancing and soaring vocal melodies (only Betty Wand, dubbing Caron, gets a full-bodied singing part in "Say a Prayer for Me Tonight," a number salvaged from My Fair Lady), Minnelli must lean heavily on personality and a spectacle defined by the pageantry of historic locations, sets and costumes. The designs of Cecil Beaton and crack music supervision of Andre Previn (with orchestrations by Conrad Salinger) take the film a long way. Somehow it all works sufficiently to keep Gigi on the short list of classic screen musicals. Though Chevalier's dating advice to Gastonis implicitly bad, it's a good way to approach Gigi: "Play the game!"
Gigi looks its very best in the new hi-def upgrade from Warner. Transplanting the entirety of its double-disc DVD edition onto single-disc Blu-ray, Warner gives a boost in picture and sound quality that makes the film look better than it ever has on home video: the image is steady, and we get as much detail as there is to be had from the source material, which turns out to be more than earlier DVDs could provide, and the colors are eye-popping. Sound is mixed in 5.1-channel Dolby TrueHD for maximum effect; there's also a Dolby Digital 5.1 option.
A commentary with film historian Jeanine Basinger and Leslie Caron gives us the best of both worlds: an enthusiastic scholarly appraisal (and context for the film and its talents) as well as memories from the star, introduced into the track by Basinger.
The 1949 French feature Gigi (1:22:37) is an especially nice bonus feature, though it comes with a warning about its picture and sound quality. I've seen worse, but it's hard to enjoy the picture due to the obnoxious subtitles, burned in and superimposed over an oversize black box. (Why not simply use yellow subtitles? Well, the sole surviving print already has subtitles, which at times would be unreadable--perhaps the new ones are also updated?)
"Thank Heaven! The Making of Gigi" (35:49, HD) is a very well compiled documentary recounting the film's struggle to get to the screen and its huge success. Interviewees include Vincente Minnelli and the Film Musical author Dr. Drew Casper, author/Colette expert Diane LeBow, Minnelli (vintage), Leslie Caron, MGM's Greatest Musicals: The Arthur Freed Unit author Hugh Fordin, Lerner and Loewe biographer Gene Lees, music and film historian Gary Giddins, and Arthur Freed's former secretary Mildred Kaufman (vintage).
Lastly, there's a trio of vintage pieces: the film's "Theatrical Trailer" (3:30, SD), the 1952 MGM short "The Million Dollar Nickel" (9:30, SD), and the 1958 MGM cartoon "The Vanishing Duck" (7:08, SD), starring Tom and Jerry.
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