Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Vincente Minnelli's GIGI

This year, I read some comments under a blog post about Vincente Minnelli's box office and Academy Awards champ, Gigi.  That original screen musical took home Oscars for Best Picture of 1958, Best Director (Mr. Minnelli), Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Song.  Gigi, starring Leslie Caron and Louis Jourdan, took home nine Oscars in all.  She was the Queen of that Hollywood Prom Night.
I love musicals.  I love this musical.  A long time ago, when I was in college, my mother gave me a copy of Colette's 1944 novella, Gigi, as a Christmas gift.  Mom knew I loved watching the movie on TV.  The screenplay seemed pretty faithful to Colette's book.  It's a story written about character in a different country at a different time.  Their society was different.  It had different attitudes towards sex.  When I've heard friends or acquaintances say that the movie is "creepy" because Maurice Chevalier opens the film by singing "Thank Heaven for Little Girls," I feel they misinterpret it.  First, they're ignoring that it's not a modern-day story set in, say, Milwaukee.  The story is set in Paris.  Next, Chevalier was the older man saluting the women that little girls grow up to be.  Way back in its early years, in the days before political correctness, Chevy Chase sang the song and changed the lyrics on Saturday Night Live.  THAT was creepy.  He could not do such material on TV now without being slammed in the news the next day.

I love the look of Gigi.  It's a rich example of a Vincente Minnelli musical made for the Arthur Freed unit.  MGM was like the Emerald City of studios for Hollywood musicals and the Freed unit famously produced some of the studios biggest and brightest musical gems.  From the "Minnelli red," as I call it, in set decoration, to the hairstyles by Sydney Guilaroff, to the performances and the score of songs written directly for the film by My Fair Lady's Lerner & Loewe, to the thrilling sound of the MGM orchestra, you can tell this is the quality of classic movie musical that only Vincente Minnelli could deliver.

I have a suggestion for how to look at Gigi in a different way.  Think of the director's private life. Think of his superstar ex-wife.  Think of Louis Jourdan's Gaston as Vincente Minnelli and Leslie Caron's Gigi as Judy Garland.
The older women in the Alvarez family were grooming young, clueless Gigi to be a courtesan.  Like her Aunt Alicia did in her day, she'd attract rich older men who would take care of her financially in exchange for romantic favors without proposing marriage.  Young Garland was under contract to a powerful Hollywood studio and being groomed for profitable movie stardom.
Gigi was a story of a young female's transformation and the mature man who falls truly in love with her.  Garland grew up before the MGM cameras.  In the 1930s, she was learning her screen craft in Andy Hardy features starring Mickey Rooney and non-Hardy musical comedies.  The first Judy Garland musical to have a contribution from new director Vincente Minnelli was a fantasy section of the Oscar nominated "Our Love Affair" number in 1940's Strike Up The Band.
The "Our Love Affair" section Minnelli staged involved fruit puppets as members of an orchestra playing the song.  You have to see it.  Trust me.  It's clever.  Minnelli, reportedly, was in awe of the teen actress' talent and singing.  In her films, she was usually the best pal with the big voice.  She didn't have the allure of the glamour girls like young and blonde Lana Turner.  But the glamour girls didn't have Judy's talent.  In the 1930s, MGM gave Judy's image sort of an "ugly duckling" vibe.
Things started to change with her performance in 1939's The Wizard of Oz.  Her star was on the ascent.  In that fantasy, she introduced what would become her legendary signature song, "Over the Rainbow".  Come Strike Up The Band, Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland were two multi-talented teen stars who did great things for MGM's box office.  Those scripts were celebrated for their simple "Let's put on a show" plots about young show biz hopefuls seeking Broadway success.

Vincente Minnelli worked on the MGM lot while Garland was transforming from "ugly duckling" teen starlet to a young woman and top musical star.  She now had studio clout.  But the actress' potential had yet to be fully tapped.  Also, she'd never quite been given the full glamour treatment like the other female stars.  That would change when Vincente Minnelli brought out her acting depth and her beauty during Meet Me in St. Louis (1944).  He had her cosmetic look refined by giving her special attention.  Her refined her acting skills by giving her special attention.  This was where her "sparkle turned to fire...and her warmth became desire," to use lyrics inspired by those from the title tune Best Song Oscar winner in his 1958 musical.  Minnelli would increase her star wattage.
Under Minnelli's direction and with more challenging material, she transformed into a sensitive, versatile actress and the object of desire.  She won the love of "The Boy Next Door."  Her rendition of "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" alone should've brought her Oscar consideration.  The musical story about a not always happy year in the life of a American family was the studio's biggest box office hit since 1939's Gone With The Wind.

In 1945's The Clock co-starring Robert Walker, she showed even more depth.  Her first dramatic film and a memorable, moving performance as the New York City secretary who falls in love with a lonely soldier on leave during World War II.

Not a box office hit, but The Pirate (1948) showcased her sophisticated musical comedy skills and her ability to do physical comedy -- most notably in the fight scene in which she chases Gene Kelly's mischievous ham actor around a room and tries to put lumps on his head with anything she can get her hands on.
This was also her most sexually-charged role.  She's a repressed, proper maiden who thinks she's come face-to-face with the lusty pirate who has long been her sexual fantasy.  She's engaged to marry a middle-aged wealthy man who's built like a pumpkin.  It would be an arranged and respectable marriage.  And dull.  Kelly, masquerading as The Pirate, opens the door to her ignored sexual and show biz fire.

For her number in Ziegfeld Follies (1945), you wondered why Hollywood didn't give her more sophisticated comedy opportunities like Irene Dunne and Claudette Colbert got.  She's glamourous and satirically funny as a Hollywood star getting all grand for a casual press conference in the "A Great Lady Has An Interview" number.  She was directed by Vincente Minnelli.

Vincente Minnelli was like Gaston who watched Gigi transform from this...
...and this... this.

Judy stayed in Vincente's heart, even after their 1951 divorce.  Nanette Fabray told me that, during production of 1953's The Band Wagon, it was obvious he was still in love with her.  Look at Minnelli's 1952 The Bad and the Beautiful.  There's a Judy reference in one scene.  It's the Hollywood party Kirk Douglas' brash young Hollywood player attends with three pals early in the film.  A woman at the party sits near the piano on the right side of the screen in a wide shot and softly sings "Don't Blame Me" while the party is in full blast.  That's something Judy was known to do at parties.  Notice that the woman singing is styled like Judy from 1949's In the Good Old Summertime directed by Robert Z. Leonard.
Vincente Minnelli and Judy Garland fell in love during Meet Me in St. Louis.  The director, in his early 40s, and the star, in her early 20s, were married.  They became the parents of Liza Minnelli.

Vincente Minnelli noticed Judy Garland when she played the lovelorn high school librarian in Strike Up The Band...

...and eventually turned her into the glamorous, unrivaled queen of MGM musicals in the 1940s.
Just like Gaston and Gigi at the end of the Best Picture of 1958 Oscar winner,  Vincente and Judy were married. Gaston watched the miracle of Gigi's transformation from energetic teen to sophisticated young woman.  The same can be said of Vincente watching Judy grow and transform on the MGM lot.

Think about that the next time you watch Leslie Caron and Louis Jourdan in Gigi.  In a way, the film sweetly reflects an experience in the director's real life.


  1. Nice post! Can’t wait for the next one. Keep stuff like this coming.
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  2. Nice post! "Gigi" is a personal favorite of mine, too. I also get irritated when people today say Chevalier was "creepy." They're immediately thinking he's singing about loving little girls in a dirty way. So not true. He loves women, and so of of course would love little girls in a platonic way knowing that they will grow up and become beautiful women. To me, the lyric are clear, as you mentioned. Anyway, it's a great film and very deserving of all of its Oscars. I look forward to it being released newly remastered in HD (I hope that happens!). :)

    Scott B. (The Judy Room)



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