Judge Ben Saylor thanks heaven for solid DVD remastering jobs.
Our reviews of Gigi (Blu-Ray) (published April 20th, 2009) and TCM Greatest Classic Films Collection: Best Picture Winners (published February 19th, 2009) are also available.
"I'd rather be miserable with you than without you."
Gigi is generally considered to be MGM's last great musical during the period when it dominated the genre. The film represents the combined talents of director Vincente Minnelli (Meet Me in St. Louis), producer Arthur Freed (Singin' in the Rain), writing team Frederick Loewe and Alan Jay Lerner (Lerner adapted the screenplay from a Colette novella), and stars Leslie Caron (Fanny) and Maurice Chevalier (Love in the Afternoon). The film was a great success upon its 1958 release, grossing the most of all the "Freed Unit" musicals and winning all nine of the Academy Awards for which it was nominated. Fifty years after the film's release, Warner Home Video has issued a double-disc edition of Gigi (along with a special edition of another Freed/Minnelli musical starring Caron, An American in Paris).
Facts of the Case
In 1900 Paris, playboy Gaston Lachaille (Louis Jourdan, Octopussy) regularly makes headlines with his exploits involving the opposite sex, despite his apparent boredom with the high society lifestyle. He always makes time, however, to visit his friend Madame "Mamita" Alvarez (Hermione Gingold, The Music Man), who lives with her charming and precocious granddaughter, Gigi (Leslie Caron). Mamita, together with her sister, Alicia (Isabel Jeans, Suspicion), are raising Gigi to be a courtesan. Gigi, however, wants to be in a relationship for love, not money, which complicates things when Gaston makes an offer to "take care of" Gigi.
In the interest of full disclosure, I've never been what one might call a musical fan. This applies to musicals both staged and filmed of any era (although I find modern movie musicals like Moulin Rouge! and Chicago particularly irksome). There's just something in my inner film snob that causes me to balk at the prospect of sitting through a long movie filled with nothing but a bunch of silly people singing silly songs. This tendency has led to my avoidance of most entries in the genre.
So I was quite shocked to find myself, for the most part, enjoying Gigi, a clever and charming film buoyed by a trio of solid performances from stars Leslie Caron, Louis Jourdan, and Maurice Chevalier; catchy songs from Lerner and Loewe; a deft comic script from Lerner; and strong direction from Vincente Minnelli.
Audrey Hepburn originated the role of Gigi in a stage production (sans songs), but after having watched Caron, it's not that I can't imagine anyone else in the role, it's that I don't want anyone else in the role. (Hepburn would play a similar role in the film adaptation of My Fair Lady several years later anyway.) As Gigi, Caron is bursting with the youthful energy and precociousness so important to the role. Gigi has to walk a fine line; she must be her own woman, with her own idea of love, and she must also have that vivaciousness of a young woman without coming across as immature and bratty. If Caron had made Gigi annoying, not only would the movie be tough to sit through, but it would be incomprehensible for Jourdan's Gaston to fall in love with her because she wouldn't seem like the obvious alternative to the vapid women he used to chase as she does in the final product. True, Caron doesn't sing her own songs (she was dubbed by Betty Wand), but the actress nonetheless turns in a comic and winning portrayal.
Jourdan has nearly as difficult a job as Caron with his role, as Gaston must not only be a stuffy rich guy, but a sympathetic stuffy rich guy. But through the combination of Lerner's careful construction of the character and Jourdan's amusing performance, Gaston never really gets on the audience's bad side. His discontent with his lifestyle is conveyed skillfully in the early musical number, "It's a Bore," which lets the viewer know right away that Gaston is looking for something beyond the predictable, dull women he is accustomed to romancing. Of course, what he's searching for is right under his nose, in the form of Gigi, whom Gaston views only as a silly friend for much of the film. Predictable? Sure, but entertaining nonetheless, thanks in no small part to Jourdan. The actor brings just the right amount of pompous blustering to the role, making Gaston funny and not, as the character himself might say, a "bore."
Last, but certainly not least, we have Chevalier. I have to admit, when the actor first began to sing the film's opener, "Thank Heaven For Little Girls," I cringed a little. (Jeanine Basinger concedes on the commentary track that the lyrics play a bit problematically today.) But Chevalier's charisma makes the song work for him, and of all the actors in the film, it is Chevalier who makes what he's doing seem the most effortless. His wonderful smile (often directed straight at the camera) takes years off the actor's face, and it's really a pleasure to watch him in this film, as he has some of its most memorable moments: "Thank Heaven For Little Girls," his lovely (and a bit melancholy) number with Hermione Gingold, "I Remember It Well," and his terrific closing number, "I'm Glad I'm Not Young Anymore."
Looking back on Gigi now, it's somewhat surprising that the film ever got made. Like Stanley Kubrick's Lolita, Gigi contains subject matter that was considered very questionable for film by the standards of the era. Lerner's screenplay carefully—almost too carefully; what the story is driving at is admittedly somewhat vague at times—tiptoes around the fact that Gigi's aunts are arduously preparing her for a life of sexual servitude, and it does so by never explicitly stating the aunts' goals, and also by making it very clear that 1. What Gigi's aunts are training her to do is silly, and 2. Gigi has no interest in the courtesan life and only wants to be with a man for his love, not his money. These two elements are a large part of why Gigi is successful as a film and also why it manages to hold up pretty well today, despite its rather blatant similarities to My Fair Lady. (One of the songs in Gigi, "Say a Prayer For Me Tonight," is an unused leftover from My Fair Lady.)
This review would be remiss without a mention of Minnelli, whose terrific widescreen compositions allow the actors room to give full-bodied performances and also let the audience enjoy the film's French locations (although some of the film was shot in Hollywood as well). Gigi's musical numbers don't necessarily lend themselves to wide compositions, as there are generally only one or two people involved in each song, but Minnelli wisely avoids ruining the moment with excessive close-ups. One of the best sequences in the film, the musical number "The Night They Invented Champagne," is helped greatly by Minnelli keeping the camera at a distance and not cutting very frequently.
I haven't seen Warner Home Video's 2000 DVD of Gigi, but this 2008 edition is very good, starting with the excellent technical presentation. The image quality throughout is, with a few exceptions, uniformly stunning. The impressive Dolby 5.1 track more than does justice to the film's music. In short, Gigi represents another solid remastering and restoration job from Warner Home Video.
In the special features department, Disc One leads off with a feature commentary track with film historian Jeanine Basinger and Caron. Don't be fooled, however; Basinger does the bulk of the talking. It sounds like the two women were recorded separately, and Caron chimes in only very sporadically. Basinger talks pretty much nonstop, and is full of interesting information on the production of the film. My only complaint about the track, beyond Caron's limited involvement, is Basinger's tendency to get a bit too effusive when describing her love for a certain performance or sequence. Also on Disc One are two shorts: "The Million Dollar Nickel" and "The Vanishing Duck." The latter is a Tom and Jerry cartoon that is representative of Warner Home Video's continuing obsession with placing cartoons on discs of older films even when the cartoon has nothing to do with the film. "Nickel," however, not only has a connection, however slight, to Gigi, but it's a fascinating piece of Cold War propaganda filmmaking. The nine-and-a-half minute short is basically about immigrants from Eastern Europe writing home about how great America is, thereby quashing the lies spread about the U.S. in Soviet nations. At the end of the piece, MGM trots out several foreign actors, including Pier Angeli, Ricardo Montalban, and Caron, who encourage Americans to keep writing about their new homeland to those back in the old country. The disc is rounded out by the film's theatrical trailer.
Disc Two has just two extras, but they're pretty substantive. The first is a documentary on the film called "Thank Heaven! The Making of Gigi." Running about 34 minutes, the featurette touches on all aspects of the production, from producer Arthur Freed's initial struggles to get the film off the ground to casting, shooting (and re-shooting for several days following an unfavorable preview) and releasing the film. It features interviews with music and film historian Gary Giddins and author Drew Casper (who also spoke on a featurette on the recent Funny Face reissue), among others, along with archival interviews with Minnelli and a new interview with Caron herself.
The other feature on Disc Two is the 1949 film version of Gigi. Running about 82 minutes, the film is very similar to its 1958 successor in terms of plot structure and dialogue. However, it is inferior to the better-known screen telling of the tale in every respect. While none of the actors is particularly bad for his/her respective role, none of them holds a candle to the 1958 cast, and director Jacqueline Audry's bland black and white, full frame shot compositions similarly pale in comparison to Minnelli's vividly colored Cinemascope shots. The sound and image quality of the 1949 version are quite bad. The film is in French, and sometimes portions of certain shots are so bright that it's impossible to read the original English subtitles. (New, legible subtitles are included, something I didn't discover until the last few minutes of the film.) Warner Home Video does include a printed insert with the DVD that acknowledges that the 1949 version "reflects the ravages of time in picture and sound quality." Overall, while the 1949 Gigi is worth seeing once for comparison purposes, I doubt I'll ever watch it again.
If you're a fan of classic musicals, you've probably already seen Gigi, and this handsomely presented, well-supplemented DVD is well worth your time and money. Even for nonfans, however, Gigi is worth a look. "The ravages of time" (to borrow a phrase from the DVD insert) have failed to wither away the charms of the film's cast, nor made its music or visuals any less enjoyable.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Feature commentary with film historian Jeanine Basinger and star Leslie Caron
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