The Journey So Far

A chronological stroll thru the history of Broadway Musicals as they came to be recorded by Hollywood--the summation of a lifelong vocation, and a journey of self discovery. Equal parts cultural history, critique and personal memoir. Coming next: Nine

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Gigi

May 15, 1958   MGM   116 minutes
To say that Gigi owes everything, from its conception, style and success, to My Fair Lady would be an understatement. Before that landmark musical Lerner & Loewe were merely another promising Bway songwriting team—inheritors of the R&H tradition with one solid hit (Brigadoon) behind them, and a couple of lesser items (Paint Your Wagon, The Day Before Spring) that nonetheless were juggled around Hlwd for years. On his own Lerner secured a contract with MGM and wrote a couple of films: Royal Wedding and An American in Paris—winning an Oscar for the latter. But My Fair Lady put them in a whole new stratosphere. Suddenly Lerner & Loewe were nearly as revered, and as famous as Rodgers & Hammerstein.

The idea of a musical Gigi had been around for at least since Colette’s 1944 novella had been made into a French movie in ‘49. Anita Loos adapted the book into a modest Bway success in ’51 that starred Audrey Hepburn. She was also writing the book for a Bway tuner; unbeknownst to MGM producer, Arthur Freed, who was developing his own screen musical. Both had independently been sold the rights by Colette’s unwitting estate (MGM eventually bought out Loos). Upon seeing MFL, Freed recruited Lerner to tackle the script, but without Loewe on board Lerner had no interest in writing the lyrics. Once Freddie read the first treatment he excitedly joined in and thus L&L wrote their first score after MFL. So how do you follow-up a hit of that magnitude? What everyone wants is really more of the same—only different. That hat trick certainly worked for The Pajama Game gang with their Damn Yankees; and R&H followed up Oklahoma! with a kindred Carousel. Here was the perfect sequitur; period posh and Bway literate with a Continental touch. It sounds so calculated.

Just how similar is Gigi to My Fair Lady? Let me count the ways: both are tales of female transformation; a blossoming woman, a man awakening to love; both traffic in the training of women to navigate a chauvinistic society; lessons shown in comic montage; an eventual public unveiling. Both feature older males who perform in the music hall manner; as well as imperious non-singing dowagers and curmudgeonly protagonists. Both require lavish turn-of-the-century sets, with plush interiors; and an orgy of fashion—by Cecil Beaton—to be paraded at public spectacles (Ascot/Maxim’s). Both heroines are given climactic makeover entrances. There’s even a discarded song of Eliza’s from MFL that slips right in for Gigi (“Say a Prayer for Me Tonight”). The scores, too, have many parallels. Gaston has much of the same spoken-sung recitative that Rex Harrison legitimized in MFL. “The Night They Invented Champagne” recalls the flash-excitement of “The Rain in Spain;” Chevalier’s music-hall turns are the French translation of Stanley Holloway’s busker alley romps; and the loquacious soliloquy that builds to the title tune easily recalls both “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face” and “On the Street Where You Live”—not an easy feat, and one worthy of an Oscar for Song.

But while the film signaled the summit of the Freed Unit, the Minnelli touch, the artistry of MGM, and the original screen musical—it was also the death knell of all the above. Original movie musicals were getting scarcer than an orchestra seat to Music Man on a Saturday night. What few tuners the studios were still making (and reaping record grosses from) were those with pre-sold titles that Bway—in its undeclared Golden Age—was producing with regularity once or thrice a season. And at its core, Gigi was in the Bway vernacular. The world was so eager for another slice of MFL-heaven, that given more than half the chance with Gigi, the collective response was just this side of rapture. The Motion Picture Academy nominated the film in 9 categories—tho none of the actors were acknowledged—and took the Oscar for all nine—an industry record until Ben Hur won 10 the following year. The film’s reputation is so ingrained in the collective peripheral consciousness that it comes as a bit of a shock to see how far it falls short of its vaulted status. It seems to me the acclaim is built on the lavish pictorial direction, both in design and action; and all else, including the score, that echoed the cultural uplift of My Fair Lady.
But let’s face it: this is MFL lite. There’s very little story really, about enuf for a chamber musical, tho MGM’s Gigi has us running all over Paris—a handsome sight as usual, but also a good deal of padding. The entire second half seems to consist of Gaston storming out of, and returning back to, Gigi’s apartment—usually with a great orchestral flourish, or song in the interim. And still the film is less than two hours. There’s more filler in the added shenanigans of Gaston’s uncle, Honore—an old boulevard goat Lerner added to the story, to be its narrator and sounding board to Gaston. Lerner also connected Honore to Gigi’s grandmother, Mamita, via a past l’affaire—setting up the unjustifiably lauded duet; that ol’ Prelude to Alzheimer’s, “I Remember it Well,” a one-note lyric-joke that Lerner recycled from a show he wrote with Kurt Weill, (Love Life. . . It’s the Loewe melody everyone knows, but the Weill one was better.) The travails of Colette’s belle époque demimonde seem rather lightweight, too, against Bernard Shaw’s social arguments on breeding and class. In Henry Higgins we get a fascinating creature, at once admirable and insufferable. By contrast, Gaston Lachaille is a multi-millionaire sugar magnate without a shred of curiosity or interest left in the world. How are you supposed to warm up to a character like that? Especially when his first song is reducing every suggestion of pleasure to, “It’s a bore.”

Of course the story is really about the girl. Anita Loos’ 1951 Bway play starred a Colette-approved Audrey Hepburn, and Lerner first pushed for her, but Freed insisted on Leslie Caron—looking to graduate her beyond mere gamine roles. Undoubtedly Hepburn would have been lovely, but Caron has that extra bit of Gallic authenticity that makes her simply ideal; convincing in her Madeline bonnet and scotch schoolgirl uniform, she’s no less the ripened womanly beauty at her Maxim’s debut in full fin de siècle couture from the House of Beaton. Strange that Freed saw this as a vehicle for Caron yet left the film’s dance card virtually blank. And Gigi is a character of youth and exuberance—isn’t that a natural for dance?  How hard would it have been, given that they were building the show from scratch? Nor did Caron sing either (her voice dubbed by Betty Wand). Yet this became her signature role. Why? Well certainly the fame of the film didn’t hurt, but also because her luminous presence cannot be denied. I fell in love at the logo—Caron’s winking countenance several stories high on a Hlwd billboard (this, years before I saw the film) is forever seared into my brain.

Lerner created the role of Honore specifically for Maurice Chevalier, who was then being welcomed back to Hlwd (much like Ingrid Bergman) after a long exile. Impishly, Billy Wilder began the reunion lap casting him, not too credibly, as Audrey Hepburn’s father in Love in the Afternoon. But Gigi had the town throwing him their equivalent of a tickertape parade:  an Honorary Oscar. Tho cresting 70 years he suddenly found new  lease in  studio films and made another nine before retiring. No question that L&L tailored their songs perfectly to his style but I find only one of these at all appealing; “I’m Glad I’m Not Young Anymore.” Here’s a sentiment from the old rake that isn’t cringe-worthy, tho it isn’t helped by a seated performance from a café table. I confess I have a hard time seeing what many find appealing about Chevalier. My feelings about him straddle the fence between indifference & repulsion. And that goes the same for his younger ‘30s cinematic persona. Here he welcomes us into the movie speaking directly to the camera—which I was surprised to find a bit startling. I’m sure there are prior musicals with narrators breaking the fourth wall, but this is the first I’ve seen of it on this journey. One aspect of Gigi that hasn’t aged well is the concept of women-as-playthings being a given; worse still, the accepted leering over young girls. It’s impossible now to listen to Lerner’s paean to innocence, “Thank Heaven for Little Girls,” without cringing at its pedophiliac implications. It doesn’t help that it’s sung by Chevalier as an over-the-hill roué––just a step removed from Uncle Ernie in The Who’s Tommy. Honore’s obnoxious creedo: “stay close to the young. . . and a little rubs off.” Yuck.

Forget little girls, let us thank heaven for old broads!  Bringing just the right amount of indefinable spice to the mix is a witchy enchantress named Hermione Gingold. Aside from Caron she is simply the best thing in the movie. I trust my judgment is not too clouded by Gingold’s fierce and uncanny resemblance to Baba, my beloved New York grandmother; the same chin and eyes, down to the deep, characteristic voice. But Gingold, herself, is never less than amusing to watch, nor listen to--with her unique raspy sense of enunciation. As Gigi’s grandmother, Mamita Alvarez (why the Spanish roots?), Gingold is so fully realized you hardly notice when the movie ends you still know almost nothing about the woman but for her ancient affair with Honore. (She received a Golden Globe–the only performer to win an award for the movie.) Tho she was a character in Loos’ play, Gigi’s mother remains unseen in the film—a minor member of the Opera Comique chorus (whose last role had her standing behind a pillar), we hear only the occasional trill of her scales, which are absurdly silenced by shutting a door. Here’s a character that might have been interesting to meet, to see the lineage of “tradition” among this house of women. But the story, now so coy and innocuous was of great concern to the censors in the ‘50s. Mamita’s sister, the supreme retired courtesan Alicia, takes Gigi in hand for her “education”—which feels like the French equivalent of geisha training, all domestic manners, but not a hint of how to please a man in bed—which would surely be in the courtesan playbook. Before she played Higgins’ mother in MFL, Cathleen Nesbitt had already essayed the role of Alicia on Bway with Hepburn. But Freed & Lerner turned to a rather less well-known British actress, Isabel Jeans for the film. For some reason she puts me in mind of Mama Jolie Gabor, perhaps because the film has an actual Gabor as well, Eva. They (also Zsa Zsa & Magda) were the Kardashians of the ‘50s, insinuating their personalities into the national culture, playing essentially themselves; Continental party girls with a taste for expensive husbands & jewelry—and of course, the occasional modeling, film or TV role. Eva was starting to get a few supporting roles that required acting—not that here she is anything but herself. She would most unexpectedly come into her best self on the hillbilly sitcom Green Acres as a sort of goulash Gracie Allen. God bless her.
The film was shot during a blistering heat wave in Paris in August ’57, and finished at MGM. The elaborate sequences in Maxim’s were done on a tight 96 hour limit. (Parts of the restaurant were rebuilt on MGM stages for reshoots). In fact the film suffers from a bad mix of location & studio shots, with rear-projection backgrounds. The editing is also noticeably poor—songs end oddly, dissolving too soon or too late; scenes are cut unevenly between sets and locations. The Oscar win for editing is hard to justify—and explainable only by the film’s total industry sweep. The same could be said for the cinematography of Joseph Ruttenberg—which takes surprisingly stingy advantage of the Paris locations. Case in point is Gaston’s soliloquy, leading into the song, “Gigi,” which could be a good deal more scenic and in sync with the music. Instead we get several generic locations that could be anywhere, including the backlot at MGM. And that’s exactly where Gaston sings the refrain, in a tarted-up backlot park with its pond of swans—oh, the symbolism!—sitting staid on a bench, before retracing his steps thru all the previous locations back to Casa Alvarez. On the other hand the art direction is an orgy of Art Nouveau indulgence. Even the lower-class flat of Gigi’s family looks like a vivid Impressionist painting. The bordello-red velvet wallpaper and lavishly set-decorated rooms are utterly inviting. Each interior is more beautiful than the next, including the real thing: Maxim’s—which inspires Minnelli to the zenith of his visual choreography, assisted in no small measure by Beaton’s wardrobe. Loewe wrote a terrific waltz for the scene, “She’s Not Thinking of Me” that is “sung” in Gaston’s thoughts for the first verse. By the second he is mouthing to the playback, then as la Gabor returns, his final line is heard as a thought in only his head. Whatever its intent, it comes across looking like nothing more than bad continuity.

Despite the dullness of his role, Louis Jourdan compensates with his handsomeness. But at first it’s somewhat disconcerting to hear him reciting his songs in the Rex Harrison style. These aren’t familiar movie musical tunes, this is narrative-in-song, what’s taken over Bway, even in the most frivolous shows. And “Lerner & Loewe” are anything but frivolous. Yet the score doesn’t always feel organic—something about the pacing, the editing, or perhaps the sound (here’s one category it justifiably didn’t get a nomination—and which South Pacific won.) Inconsistent thruout, the sound is often downright bad. The otherwise electrifying scene at Maxim’s, “The Gossips,” suffers from bizarre sound editing; the room collapses into silence upon new arrivals; then allows the rustle of shoes and fabric only; followed by a crowd whispering in unison, before resuming full sound. The visual point is flawless but the ear senses something off. Much of the music feels that way, poorly drawing us in to a song, or ending one as if waiting for applause. The songs—dubbed as they mostly are—have a tinny, canned aural quality. Perhaps this is because the voices were recorded before filming in Paris, in isolation, and then later layered in with the orchestra at MGM. The most satisfying musical moments are to be found in the underscoring, conducted by Andre Previn. Loewe’s melodies pop in their jolly Conrad Salinger orchestrations—played at varying tempos and emotional moods. Much as I admire the song “Gigi,” neither Jourdan’s lipsynching, nor the absurdly restrained Tour de Paris make it very effective. Much better is the reprise, with only Previn’s orchestra swelling up to tell us Gaston’s temperature. Yes, there’s a reprise: Gaston storms out, Gaston returns. Again. The orchestra swells with “Gigi.” Again. Nearly every L&L song gets extended instrumental exposure in the underscoring—to the point where we really come out feeling we know the score. The soundtrack LP was easily the best selling one in MGM history, clocking in at #8 of all albums sold in the ‘50s. (The Original Cast recording of My Fair Lady was #4) It sat on Billboard’s Top 100 chart for 172 weeks—almost until 1962—and was the #1 album in the country for ten weeks. But it wasn’t until 1996 that a remastered CD gave us all the underscoring as well as the songs, and a far greater pleasure it is to listen to. Previn & Salinger’s contributions to Loewe’s melodies make the score soar with Parisian flavor.

MGM usually booked their musical films into Radio City, but this was too prestigious even for that venue. The film opened May 15, 1958 with all the hoopla of a Bway premiere, at an actual Bway theater, the Royale (where John Osborne’s play, The Entertainer with Laurence Olivier closed just five days before). On the single busiest legit block in town, you could easily mistake the film for another live show, playing cheek by jowl with Look Back in Anger, Romanoff & Juliet and Two for the Seesaw, with Dark at the Top of the Stairs and Lena Horne in Jamaica across the street.  It was, of course a two-a-day, reserved seat engagement, where it remained for six months before eviction for David Merrick’s French import, the revue La Plume de Ma Tante. At which point the film moved to the Sutton, a cinema on East 57th Street where it played for one solid year more—at “popular prices.”
Nationally, the film was rolled out slowly, city by city; a well-publicized premiere in each. It didn’t reach Hollywood (or more accurately, Beverly Hills) until mid-July. Eventually the film racked up $6,750,000, besting the studio’s High Society, but still short of Guys & Dolls and the trio of R&H blockbusters. But if South Pacific was far more lucrative, Gigi won the prestige contest. Once bestowed, that reputation is hard to besmirch but an adaptation for the Bway stage some 15 years later made a good, unwitting, go of it. 1973 was an awkward time to resurrect what at that moment must have looked particularly outdated (a pseudo-operetta of dubious relevance) when the zeitgeist had shifted to the likes of Hair, Company and Jesus Christ Superstar. But Saint Subber partnered with Edwin Lester’s west coast Civic Light Opera to produce an elaborate expansion of the movie—even getting the reluctant Loewe out of retirement to write several new songs with Lerner. I saw that production in San Francisco, with a group of college peers—we of the Theater Dept. under the influence of a charismatic and encouraging teacher whose motto was nothing if not, Anything Goes—and I don’t mean Cole Porter. Having infiltrated the ranks of contemporary youth, I was forced to wrestle with my long-ingrained feelings for the musical genre, while those around me were so quickly, easily, bored and dismissive. In fact, I had seen the movie for the first time only two years earlier—while still in high school and my own cocoon. But tho I greatly enjoyed the picture, it didn’t strike me with any particular lasting force, and I’ve returned to it only twice more in all the decades since. Perhaps the stage show had something to do with that. It wasn’t poorly cast: Alfred Drake, far more appealing than Chevalier; Agnes Moorehead as the (still) non-singing Aunt Alicia. Maria Karnilova as Mamita and Daniel Massey as Gaston. But no Gigi of note—no Hepburn, or Caron—and that was no doubt a huge deficit. Without the movie’s numerous montages, the stage show had to be filled out; with most of the newer (and inferior) songs going to Gigi. (The show mistakenly took pains to announce itself as separate from the film by having an overture sans the familiar score, the one audiences loved and came to hear). That summer I moved to New York, and the show followed me onto Bway in the fall, where it limped along for three measly months. The times, they were a changin’.

Next Up: Damn Yankees

Report Card:    Gigi
Overall Film:    B
New Songs:     10
Standout Numbers: “The Gossips”
           “The Night They Invented Champagne”
Casting:     Authentically French principals
Standout Cast: Leslie Caron, Hermione Gingold
Direction:  Minnelli at his visual peak
Choreography: Surprisingly little
Ballet:   None
Scenic Design:   Exquisite studio interiors
         Heralded, but lackluster use of locations
        (except for Maxim’s)
Costumes:  Cecil Beaton Deluxe
Titles: Thrilling overture with panels by French Illustrator, Sem—Minnelli’s favorite.
Standout Sets: Gigi’s flat, Honore’s apartment
Oscar Nominations: 9    Won all 9
         (plus Honorary Award for Chevalier)

1 comment:

Michael said...

I never stopped to consider the parallels between MFL and GIGI...which you've made admirably clear. And I'm sure that AJ Lerner, wherever he is, is relieved that you found fewer holes to shine your light through than you did with the swiss cheesery of BRIGADOON...