Gigi (1958): Minnelli Oscar-Winning Musical


The MGM Oscar-winning musical may not be Minnelli’s best picture but it certainly is his best-known movie. A morally ambiguous story, staged in a sumptuous style, Gigi is also the biggest commercial hit of Minnelli-Freed’s long and productive collaboration.

Gigi reflects the technical powers of high-gloss Hollywood, a summation of the classical era. Yet it was made in an atmosphere of suspicion and pessimism, initially undermined by threats of censorship, squeezed budgets, and skepticism.

Like many of Minnellis musicals, Gigi had a winning combination of ingredients: original score, nuanced characters, a bittersweet love story that balances sentiment and irony. And it was set in Minnellis favorite city, Paris, in his favorite era, turn of the century.

Minnelli was familiar with the 1948 French film of Colette’s controversial novel, as well as with Anita Loos’ 1951 Broadway adaptation. The stage production starred the then unknown Audrey Hepburn, whom Colette herself had discovered while vacationing in Southern France. Minnelli knew that Gigi would not be approved in the moralistic climate of Hollywood of the 1950s. Collette’s sophisticated vision didn’t conform to the Code’s old-fashioned strictures.

Gigi concerns a schoolgirl raised by courtesans to assume her place in society as a kept woman. Indeed, the Code administrators protested that the films man-mistress relationship was considered in the story as perfectly normal.” Under pressure, Freed urged Minnelli to stress the innate virtue of Gigi’s heroine and the moral lesson, conveyed in the films ending. Minnelli helped Lerner restored the delicate tone and subtlety that were missing from Anita Loos’ version. He proposed to eliminate completely Gigis mother, who was redundant in the play, from the script. Lerner concurred, and the result was an amusing gag: Maman, a bit player at the Opera Comique, is heard but never really seen.

Lerner expanded the role of the dapper old reprobate, Honore Lachaille, who only had a tiny part in Collette’s story as Gaston’s father and Madame Alvarezs former lover. In the movie, Honore became Gaston’s uncle and narrator, sort of the audience’s confidant. Honore mediates between Gigi’s world and the viewers by addressing the camera directly. The part was inconceivable without Maurice Chevalier, whom Lerner idolized; he still lamented Chevaliers absence from American in Paris. As noted, the vet French star embraced the idea right away.

Hermione Gingold was a good choice for Madame Alvarez, but there were no suitable candidates to play Gaston, the films hero. Dirk Bogarde, then heartthrob of the British screen, was considered, but the Rank Organization refused to release him. Instead, Louis Jordan, who had appeared in Minnelli’s Madame Bovary, was signed. Minnelli hoped that Jordans Gallic charm would be right for Gaston.

For Aunt Alicia, the retired courtesan who trains Gigi, Minnelli wanted vet Broadway star Ina Claire, whereas Freed wanted Irene Dunne. Both were accomplished singers but long-retired from the screen. Two weeks before production began, the part was cast with the British actress Isabel Jeans.

The studio determined that Gigis budget was not to exceed $1,800,000, a modest amount for a film to be shot entirely on location in Paris. Minnelli proposed to shoot most of Gigi in Paris, and Freed scheduled the location work for midsummer, when it was easier to work there.

On this film, Minnelli worked with his usual collaborators: cameraman Joseph Ruttenberg, editor Adrienne Fazan, song arranger Conrad Salinger. MGMs staff musician Andre Previn, who did Kismet and Designing Woman, was to conduct and supervise the score. The new, significant addition to the team was Cecil Beaton as production designer, based on his distinguished work on My Fair Lady. Preston Ames was to create the interiors in Culver City under Beaton’s supervision.

The films title proved to be problematic. After Lili and Gaby, MGM was nervous about naming yet another film with a Gallic name, particularly since both movies starred Leslie Caron. In the meantime, the working title was The Parisians, named after one of the songs, but publicity head Howard Dietz insisted that Gigi must prevail, due to the novellas literary cache and the audiences familiarity with the source material.

Shooting a musical on locations made it an expensive and exacting proposition. The studios continuous pressure to wrap the production speedily, cramming a dozen of locations in less than a month was too demanding for Minnelli, who was known for his slowness in setting up elaborate track shots and booms, all of which would become more complicated than the usual by the Parisian variable weather.

Despite many distinctions, Gigi lacks the flowing rhythm of Minnelli’s other great musicals, perhaps a result of his reverence for Colette’s and for Lerner’s respective texts. Gigi’s fidelity to Collette’s ideas is impressive, but the film is not very cinematic. Carried away by the era, Minnelli puts too much effort on painting Gigi’s milieu.

Collette focuses on a barter system that exchanges female sexual compliance for masculine largesse. Minnelli records the terms of each transaction. To take care of me beautifully means that I should go away from here with you and that I should sleep in your bed,” Gigi declares. “And when it’s over and done with, Gaston Lachaille goes off with another lady and I have only to go into another gentleman’s bed.” These were too harsh and candid words for a heroine in a 1958 Hollywood musical.

Even so, Gigi is a quintessential Minnelli musical, one based on a delicate interplay between seductive images and emotional tension underneath. Its the kind of delicate interplay that also defined his personal life.

Of all Minnelli’s movies, Gigi proves most forcefully that style is a philosophy, a way of life. Artifice is Gigi’s true subject, and Minnelli shows a nearly perverse respect for all the glamorous silliness. No director knows better than Minnelli the hard work, skill, and commitment it takes to create such debonair. But no other director relishes in the joy and gusto in putting such style on screen.

Gigi’s visual design was inspired by the artists Minnelli admired: Boudin for the seascapes, Seurat for Paris at its leisurely Sundays. The drawings of the caricaturist SEM of La Belle Epoque bon ton were adapted for the opening credits. Other inspiration derives from Lubitsch’s 1930s Hollywood musicals starring Chevalier, The Smiling Lieutenant, The Merry Widow, light escapist concoctions that transport audiences with their magic to a bygone era. In Gigi, Minnelli dusted off the Lubitschs antirealist world and blended it into his own film vocabulary.

The opening sequence at the Bois de Boulogne sets the tone for the rest of the film. Minnelli’s camera shows a wooded alley, in which the bystanders form a human freeze of elegant languor; their parasols and walking sticks perched at the requiste angle. He gives each figure its own idiosyncrasies, cutting from matrons to Amazons to ingnues with a dyed Titian coiffure. Its a lovely portrait of a bygone milieu when style ruled supreme.

The, theres the first glimpse of Gigi, an outsider who has not been civilized yet. Larking with her books, she throws the seemingly placid and balanced setting into chaos. Leslie Caron as a misfit fits into Minnelli’s overall plan. Caron easily overcomes the problems of playing a teenager whos younger than she is by a decade, endowing the role with a vivacious, irresistible charm, a schoolgirl whose spirit is too rebellious to play her allotted position in the hierarchical structure.

It’s Minnelli’s depiction of Paris that gives Gigi its special, artificial glamor. Stanley Donens Charade, and most Hollywood pictures set in Paris, offers a touristic view of Paris, with the obligatory picturesque cityscape with the Eiffel Tower, shots of the louver and Montparnasse. Minnelli, however, goes for those architectural elements that best serve as props for his post-Impressionistic musical. In Minnellis Paris, statues of mythological rape loom over Gigi as she ponders the Parisians sex drive, and the Beaux Arts fixtures of the Pont Alexander are presented when Gaston expresses his feelings over the new Gigi. Minnelli uses this world as a stage for sensual yet abstract ideas, a peculiar combination that somehow works for the musical. If Brigadoon tries to make the synthetic look real, Gigi attempts something more intriguing. Following his admired painters, Minnelli shapes actual landscapes into his own artificial brand of art.

The moodiness comes from Minnelli’s gift for painting with light. Hence the cobblestones washed blue by the moon, and Gaston as a dapper black silhouette against a sapphire sky and liquid-diamond fountain. The stateliness of the group portraits in the Bois is more striking because Minnelli frames them with real chestnut trees in the sunshine.

Gigi suffers from its own stylistic lapses due to the forced retreat to the studio for some exteriors. One of the films weakest scenes is set in a Metro outdoor cafe, where Chevalier croons two choruses of “I’m Glad That I’m Not Young Anymore.”

The blend of French and Anglo-American literature, old Broadway and Hollywood traditions restrains Minnelli’s otherwise freewheeling instincts. It’s one of the few Minnelli movies that occasionally feels like an illustrated and overly studied musical. That said, Gigi flaunts a particular beauty unmatched by any other Hollywood musical, and remains Hollywood’s most endearing reverie of an age mostly known from French paintings.