The story “Les Girls” was purchased by producer Sol Siegel for MGM as early as 1955. Like George Cukor's A Star Is Born, it was an original musical created directly for the screen. With Cole Porter writing the music, and Cukor signed to direct, Siegel was aiming for an all-star cast, which would feature Gene Kelly, Leslie Caron, Cyd Charisse, and Carol Haney. Alas, of these performers, only Kelly would finally be in the picture.
An unconventional musical, Les Girls has an amusing premise. It begins in a London courtroom where Lady Sybil Wren (Kay Kendall), a former showgirl, is faced with a libel suit after publishing her memoirs about her experience with an act called Les Girls. All three women in the act–Sybil, Angele (Taina Elg) and Joy (Mitzi Gaynor)–are amorously involved with their manager and star Barry Nichols (Gene Kelly).
Sybil, Angele, and Barry take the witness stand and in a Rashomon-like style tell their version of the “Truth.” As their stories unfold, the film moves back and forth between the courtroom, the stage, and their personal lives. In Rashomon, a film Cukor adored, Japanese director Kurosawa argues that all people are liars. In contrast, Cukor and screenwriter John Patrick suggest that people try to tell the truth, but they do it in their subjective manner.
The film features Porter's last complete score, which was not vintage Porter. Extremely ill during pre-production, Saul Chaplin had to finish the score. The sophisticated air and ingenious rhyming were intact but the musical was too reminiscent of Porter's previous endeavors; “Ca C'est L'Amour,” echoed “C'est Magnifique” from Can Can.
The film has one standout number, “Why Am I So Gone About That Gal” a musical parody of Marlon Brando's 1954 motorcycle film, The Wild One. Performed by Kelly in shiny black leather, it imitated Brando's arrogant hood, with Mitzi Gaynor as his moll. The number is played against a red barroom background with a large chorus of Brando-like types.
Cukor was initially asked to work with costume designer Helen Rose, whom he disliked, but he was able to persuade the studio to use the talented Orry Kelly for the costumes.
The picture's nominal star is Gene Kelly, who had never worked before with Cukor. Kelly did not want to star in the film; it was his last musical at MGM. Les Girls is not a typical Kelly musical because the story focuses on the women. Cukor's label as a woman's director, combined with the film's title, made Kelly extremely nervous even before shooting began.
Kelly had never worked with choreographer Jack Cole either, which also created tension, as Cole tried to stage scenes that wouldn't be “typically Kelly.” Cole wanted to create a more sophisticated, less bravura, style, but Kelly was unwilling to change his manner.
In Kay Kendall's big number with the other women, “Ladies in Waiting,” her screen presence is so strong that she steals the scene. Tall, blithe and beautiful with thoroughbred features, Kendall has star quality, that “something extra” which both Mitzi Gaynor and Taina Elg lack. In Kendall's number with Kelly, she seems to be out-dancing him and having an easy time of it.
Kendall, who died young from illness, was an original. In one scene, she is getting out of a cab wearing an enormously chic black hat. Just by accident, the hat got caught but, with a gesture and a look, she turned it into a marvelously funny bit. Unfortunately, Kendall's role is not big enough to sustain the whole film.
A standard procedure, Cukor had to submit Porter's songs for ratings before shooting began, and a number of changes were dictated. Porter's ribald song, “Ladies in Waiting,” with words like “nizzle-nozzle” and “foodle-doodle” was deemed “suggestive.” The song was toned down, but it was still funny because of Kendall's assured comic style. Cukor thought that the censorship demands–when Sybil hangs out her laundry, intimate garments (panties and brassiers) were to be omitted–were downright ridiculous. In October 1957, Les Girls was given Class B rating, because of its suggestive dialogue, situations, and costumes.
Les Girls lacks the energy and exultation that permeate the best Hollywood musicals. For one thing, it simply doesn't have enough musical numbers (80 percent of the film was book). Nonetheless, released at a time when musicals were at a low ebb, Les Girls still stood out.
The film's three Oscar nominations, for art direction, sound, and costume design, deservedly winning for the latter, certifies Les Girls as highly accomplished musical.