Les Girls (1957): Cukor Oscar-Winning Musical, Starring Gene Kelly, Kay Kendall, Mitzi Gaynor, and Taina Elg (Gay, LGBTQ)

The story Les Girls was purchased by producer Sol Siegel for MGM as early as 1955 for George Cukor to direct.

Like Cukor’s 1954 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 a lavish production, with an all-star cast, which would feature Gene Kelly, Leslie Caron, Cyd Charisse, and Carol Haney.

Alas, of the aforementioned performers, only Kelly would finally be in the picture.

An unconventional musical, especially for a conservative studio like MGM, Les Girls is based on amusing premise.

The tale 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.

It turns put that all three women in the act–Sybil, Angele (Taina Elg) and Joy (Mitzi Gaynor)–have been 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. Thus, “Ca C’est L’Amour,” was too much of an echo of  “C’est Magnifique” from Can Can.

The film boasts one standout number, “Why Am I So Gone About That Gal” a musical parody of Marlon Brando’s 1953 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 some tensions, since Cole tried to stage scenes that wouldn’t be “typically Kelly.” Cole wanted to create a more sophisticated, less bravura, European-flavored style, but the all-too American Kelly was unwilling to change his manner.

As Cukor predicted before the picture began shooting, of the three women, Kay Kendall easily “stole” all of the scenes in which she appeared.

In Kay Kendall’s big number with the other women, “Ladies in Waiting,” her screen presence is so strong that she dominates the scene. Tall, blithe and beautiful, with a face defined by thoroughbred features, Kendall has star quality, possessing that “something extra” quality, which both Mitzi Gaynor and Taina Elg were lacking.

Moreover, though not a trained dancer, in her number with Kelly, she nonetheless 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.

Ultimately, Les Girls lacks the dynamic energy and exultation that permeate the best Hollywood musicals. For one thing, it simply doesn’t have enough musical numbers (about 80 percent of the film was book).

Even so, released at a time when Hollywood musicals were at a low ebb, Les Girls still managed to impress some critics and audiences.

The film’s three Oscar nominations, for art direction, sound, and costume design, deservedly winning for the latter, have certified the artistic merits of Les Girls an otherwise flawed musical.

Made on a bigger than average budget at the time, Les Girls was a commercial failure, signaling the decline of Cukor as a viable director.

 

Oscar Nominations: 3

Art Direction-Set Decoration: William A. Horningand Gene Allen; Edwin B. Willis and Richard Pefferle

Costume Design: Orry-Kelly

Sound: Wesley C. Miller

Oscar Awards: 1

Costume Design

Cast

Gene Kelly as Barry Nichols
Mitzi Gaynor as Joy Henderson
Kay Kendall as Lady Sybil Wren (Betty Wand provides the singing voice of Lady Wren)
Taina Elg as Angele Ducros
Jacques Bergerac as Pierre Ducros
Leslie Phillips as Sir Gerald Wren
Henry Daniell as judge
Patrick Macnee as Sir Percy
Stephen Vercoe as Mr. Outward
Philip Tonge as associate judge
Barrie Chase as dancer
Credits:

Directed by George Cukor
Screenplay by John Patrick, story by Vera Caspary
Produced by Sol C. Siegel
Cinematography Robert Surtees
Edited by Ferris Webster
Music by Cole Porter
Color process Metrocolor
Distributed by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer
Release date: October 3, 1957
Running time 114 minutes
Budget $3.4 million
Box office $3.9 million