Op-ed: AFI’s 100 Years…100 Passions: ‘Gigi’ (#35)
I will be watching and reviewing all of the films included on AFI’s 100 Years…100 Passions list. The list contains the 100 greatest love stories in American cinema and I plan to consider how our views on romance and social issues have changed over the years as well as judge whether the romances in these films actually made me swoon. As a fan of the romance genre, I expect to love each and every one of the nominees but I also don’t know if I would consider all of them romantic.
Of all the movies in the world, you wouldn’t think that Vincente Minnelli’s Gigi (1958) would be the one tearing me apart. I feel like it has slipped into obscurity after its Best Picture win in the late 1950s but as somebody who obsessively follows awards, I ended up seeing it and I felt so guilty for enjoying it so much. I thought I was going to hate it because I tend to be bored by glossy 1950s musicals which are overlong, poorly written, and full of forgettable songs. As I watched it, I could identify all of the problems that it had but I was oddly charmed by it, I hummed along to some of the music, admired the cinematography and the costuming, and never found myself yawning. Of course, I feel guilty about loving this film because it doesn’t have a great deal of substance and the message that it does have is disturbingly misogynistic and creepy. I am hoping to come to terms with my own complicated thoughts about this film through writing this column, but I may end up attacking AFI voters in the process.
The film concerns Gaston, Louis Jordan, a dissatisfied young playboy whose most recent lover has cheated on him. When she attempts suicide after he breaks up with her, he becomes more frustrated with his lifestyle. He finds relief with Gigi, Leslie Caron, a young woman who is learning how to become a courtesan from her great aunt Alicia, Isabel Jeans. Her grandmother Mamita, Hermione Gingold, has a past with Gaston’s uncle Honore Lachaille, Maurice Chevalier. Gaston finds it difficult to admit his feelings for Gigi and she is unwilling to simply be a courtesan. Eventually, he relents and they get married so she can ascend into a higher social class.
If you are going to enjoy Gigi then you have to disregard the plot, the characters and the themes. This sounds ridiculous and most people would argue that those three elements serve as the basis of all successful cinema but I feel like most musicals are fairly weak in these areas. Yes, there are exceptions as Singin’ in the Rain (1952) has plenty to say but for me, most entries in the genre do end up feeling a bit hollow and they rely on catchy tunes and eye catching visuals to make up for weak scripts that exist to stitch song and dance numbers together. Gigi fits into the latter camp but it is better than other musicals because it is under two hours long and it doesn’t feel pretentious, unlike a certain 1961 classic that I’ll be writing about someday.
The plot is horrific as it focuses on a vulnerable young girl who is being taking advantage of by everyone around her and we are meant to cheer when she enters into a marriage with an uncaring pedophile. She has been raised by women who have been used by men and they want to make money out of her. We see that she does have a ‘normal’ life outside of being groomed to serve as a courtesan and runs around with other girls her own age but when she comes home, she is expected to entertain older men who view her as a sex object. I don’t object to prostitution and I think it can be a profession in which people can earn money without being physically or emotionally abused but Gigi is just a child and it is unfair to push her into such a difficult position. It’s also gross that her relatives are basically serving as her pimps and they are forcing her to spend time with Gaston, rather than letting her consider her romantic options or bide her time before committing to somebody when she is an older, wiser woman. Gaston sees her as desirable because she is so youthful and inexperienced, he wants to recapture his own youth by being with her. I would be more comfortable with their relationship if she were presented as a mature young woman who had the same intellectual capacity as him and could handle taking on the same responsibilities as him, but from what we see and hear, she is too innocent and naïve to properly enter into a long-term relationship. This imbalance in their relationship could cause her a lot of emotional distress and I also worry that she will see sex as something that is transactional rather than being an expression of love. I feel like pedophilia was not acceptable in the 1950s and yet this film tries to make it seem cute by glossing over the darker implications of this story. We are meant to be happy when we see that Gigi has married the man who is using her for sex while seeing her as something that can be bought, but I couldn’t help but feel a little icky.
Those pesky plot details are the worst part of Gigi and some might gag at the fact that the sexual politics seem so retrograde. The script isn’t full of sparkling, witty dialogue, and exposition is frequently used to explain the emotions that people are feeling rather than letting the actors convey these feelings through facial expressions or gestures. The performances are also rather flat and unremarkable, with a few notable exceptions, and I’m not going to argue that Caron and Jourdan have the sort of chemistry that caused sparks to fly between them. It shouldn’t work for all of these reasons and yet it stuns you with how gorgeous it looks.
I would never claim to be a big fan of Minnelli’s work, I tend to dismiss his work as pretty but shallow and rather crude. I have no time for the cloying sweetness of Meet Me in St. Louis (1944) and he displayed a shocking lack of knowledge when it came to pacing a romantic comedy with his work on Designing Woman (1957). He seems more at home when he is working on musicals or epic melodramas that deal with the breakdowns of families and the impacts of World War II on the lives of ordinary family men. If I am honest I prefer the melodramas and I think that Some Came Running (1958) was his magnum opus. It features some of the best use of Cinemascope technology that I have ever seen and Minnelli finds ways to create discomfort in the audience without actively trying to jolt them out of their reverie. All of the characters in that film seem uncomfortable in their own skin and Minnelli knows how to draw the best out of his performers as Frank Sinatra was never better and a luminous young Shirley MacLaine proved that she could be plucky, charming and quietly devastating. For previously explained reasons, I like musicals less but Minnelli’s mastery over this genre in certain areas was obvious to me and seeing the work of a master can be thrilling.
I was overwhelmed by the richness of the colors in Gigi. Everybody talks about Technicolor and Eastmancolor and the way that they produced deeper, more defined colors. It is true that the primary colors we see in blockbusters today can look washed out and faded compared to the striking scarlets and lavenders that could be found in the work of Jack Cardiff. There was always the danger that cinematographers and art directors could go too far and all of this bright color could end up looking garish rather than being tasteful and classy. Gigi finds a way to look utterly ravishing as it is exists in a dream world where everybody is backlit with pinks or blues and everybody lives in an opulent apartment that happens to be entirely red. The interiors have all been expertly crafted to look like a non-European’s fantasy of what French glamor is like and some poor set dresser must have been working day and night to source some of the ornate lamps that appear in Mamita’s living room. At times I would tune out all of the dialogue and find myself obsessing over some painting that was hung up on the wall behind Caron’s head, then I would start furtively admiring the hinges on her magenta dresser before wondering why the teal plates on the bureau didn’t clash with the outrageous scarlet walls. These are all facile observations and there were times when I was mad at myself for enjoying a film for such silly reasons but I don’t necessarily think it’s bad to appreciate the work of the set dresser or the cinematographer.
Joseph Ruttenberg created a fictional version of 1890s Paris that I desperately wanted to visit. Everything looks fake to some degree but I wanted to believe in a world where there was a grand fountain lurking on every street corner and skies that would magically turn orange in just a few seconds. All of this doesn’t happen in the real world and I would never argue that Gigi was aiming for realism but it does convincingly render Paris as a place of exoticism and excitement. Most ‘outdoor’ scenes are obviously shot on sets but Minnelli loves to set up shots in which there is plenty of hustle and bustle and we see crowds full of people slowly breaking apart to reveal the true subject of the scene. Early on, we meet Gigi and she is one of a dozen girls in a hat and drop waist dresses. The girls bound around on screen and we are given a few seconds to pore over the way that their skirts flare outwards and Minnelli even flirts with going full Busby Berkeley by giving us a shot of their hats rotating around from above. Caron emerges from the pack and we get to marvel at the sharp curves of her jacket and the shiny leather of her boots. I just kept being drawn to the costumes and Minnelli seems to know that this is what the audience is truly interested in.
Cecil Beaton, E. Preston Ames, F. Keogh Gleason, and Henry Grace were all credited as costume designers and they all did terrific work. Even though so many different people had a hand in designing and picking out the outfits that would appear on screen, you wouldn’t know it, as everything feels very of a piece. I don’t know whether they were period accurate but I could tell you that the dresses seemed perfectly tailored to each performer and in many cases, these costumes convey details about the character to you. In some cases, the symbolism is a little obvious as Mamita, an older woman, wears fairly conservative dresses that cover up her entire body and allow her to appear as a pure, wise old woman rather than being a former prostitute. I do love the fact that she still wears accessories that give us a sense of her history as a maneater and a wild child. She’ll wear necklaces that she received from her lover back in the day and this will sharply contrast with the prim and proper smock that she sashays around in. She needs to cling to this piece of history and convince herself that she is still the desirable young flirt rather than being somebody who barely registers in the eyes of young men.
I also couldn’t overlook the fact that the titular character is given a new ensemble to sport in every scene. Caron was a stunner with her clear skin, sharply pronounced cheekbones, and turned-up nose but filmmakers didn’t always know how to light her or how to highlight her best features. I’m not saying that she doesn’t look very pretty in something like Lili (1953) but she looks like something out of Vogue whenever she turns to camera in Gigi and she gets the full diva treatment. Minnelli lovingly captures every inch of her doll-like features and you can practically hear him shrieking in excitement whenever she steps out in one of Beaton’s big showstoppers. She was particularly striking in the cream frock that she wears to dinner with Gaston. The dress is flowy and she moves freely in it, but it is also wonderfully urbane and it is hard not to get envious as you watch the fabric pool beneath her feet and wonder if it feels as soft as it looks. Oh, I’m getting worked up just thinking about the beauty of some of her dresses.
The appeal of the gowns is mostly aesthetic but aesthetic pleasures should count for something and Gigi provides this sort of entertainment in spades. I would also say that the score was surprisingly good and I found myself humming along to a few of the songs as I write this piece. The most famous song from the film, “Thank Heaven for Little Girls”, is fairly controversial as Chevalier, then 60, was singing about girls who were five or six or seven and speaking of them as romantic prospects. Lines like “Those little eyes, so helpless and appealing” do set you on edge but I found myself tapping my foot on the floor as I tried to keep up with the beat. It sounds jaunty and upbeat and Chevalier delivers the song with his typical flair. I know that he likely didn’t have a cartoonish accent in real life and his lips might not have curled every time he had to pronounce a vowel sound but it is terribly entertaining to watch him trying to cope with the horrors of the English language. He got to have a lot more fun when he was collaborating with Ernst Lubitsch and he could wink as he covertly referenced the sway of Miriam Hopkins’s hips or his desire to have an affair with Claudette Colbert. Gigi does not let him play a randy old playboy, it feels like he is being held back and he can’t let loose with his notorious Gallic charm.
The other songs are all pleasant and they manage to feel like they are thematically linked without all sounding exactly the same. There were times when I considered downloading the soundtrack and I do not say that often as I tend to be resistant to show tunes in which people sing their hearts out. Fans of dancing might be disappointed as Caron doesn’t get a chance to be a hoofer and is mostly reduced to waving her arms around as she sings about her prah-oor-it-eees. The song and dance numbers aren’t massive in scale and some will prefer An American in Paris (1951) because it is more of a traditional musical but I gravitated towards the minimal use of music in this film.
I have outed myself as somebody who sees this as a guilty pleasure but when I consider whether I would have placed it on this list, I don’t hesitate for a moment in saying that it isn’t a truly great film and it is not romantic at all. As previously stated I wasn’t that engaged in any of the human drama in this story, thought that Caron and Jourdan lacked chemistry, wasn’t that taken by the dialogue they were asked to deliver, and found the messages surrounding their courtship to be rather creepy. All of that stopped me from swooning in the final scenes when the two of them are allegedly involved in a happy marriage and whenever I think back to Gigi my mind doesn’t jump to the love story that ostensibly serves as the basis for the story. I can only guess that it was included on the list because Minnelli is seen as one of the greatest directors of all time and Gigi won a ridiculous amount of awards back in 1959. It set new records for amount of awards won at the 31st Academy Awards and I assume the lazy AFI voters skimmed through the list of Best Picture winners and seized upon Gigi as an easy choice. They didn’t read the plot description before they included it on their list and they probably breathed a sigh of relief when they realized that they could move on to more modern titles like Shakespeare in Love (1998). This is hardly as popular as other musicals on the list, such as The Sound of Music (1965), and ordinary people who do read about the plot of the film are horrified rather than being overawed by Minnelli’s towering reputation.