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Hollywood often showed its love for Paris, presenting elitist fantasies of boulevardiers and their ladies engaging in a luxury lifestyle far removed from the mundane cares of American living (or real life in France for that matter). As the studio-dominated Golden Age of Hollywood began to fade away, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer made one last stab at an original musical set in the City of Light. 1958's Gigi was an all-out quality production distinguished by its expensive location shooting. Director Vincente Minnelli had to reproduce both Paris and Scotland on MGM sound stages for his American in Paris and Brigadoon. Gigi benefits not only from its authentic locations, but from a cast made up almost entirely of authentic Europeans.
Warners' marvelous Blu-ray edition of Gigi gives us the CinemaScope and Metrocolor film in an eye-popping HD transfer, with the participation of one of its only surviving cast members, Leslie Caron.
Some of the participants in the disc's extras refer to Gigi as the "other" My Fair Lady. Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe's 1956 Broadway hit played for years, and Gigi seems almost a remake: an unschooled girl is taught the rules of society to better her position, but love enters the picture and changes everything. Colette's original book (and a 1949 French film, present on this disc as an extra) took a rather jaundiced look at the phenomenon of the professional Courtesan: beautiful, presentable women kept by wealthy Parisian men as afternoon lovers and arm candy in the finest restaurants.
Gigi (Leslie Caron) is the spirited granddaughter of Madame Alvarez (Hermoine Gingold), a retired courtesan. Madame sends Gigi to her Aunt Alicia for deportment lessons. Gentlemen want "companions" that are at all times elegant, superficial and smilingly submissive. Madame Alvarez often entertains Gaston (Louis Jourdan), a charming but bored young bachelor; he and Gigi socialize and play like beloved siblings. Gaston has been convinced by his old and wealthy uncle Honoré (Maurice Chevalier) that marriage is for fools, and that the right path for a gentleman is to keep a mistress. Yet Gaston is unhappy with his present paid female companion. He takes a vacation from his Paris recreations and invites Gigi and her grandmother to come along. Gigi's redoubles her lessons with the idea of attracting Gaston's eye, but both she and Gaston become confused in their chosen roles. Madame Alvarez doesn't want Gigi to be seen socially with Gaston, as her status as a respectable woman will be compromised. Gigi refuses a formal offer to become Gaston's consort because she doesn't want to spend her life being unloved and passed from man to man. Yet, when she finally gives in, Gaston realizes that he wants something different as well.
Gigi is the consummate romantic fantasy for girls chafing in lives with limited options. Social conventions in male-dominated 19th century Paris allow few opportunities for women from common backgrounds, but Gigi stays true to her heart and prevails. Every 13 year-old schoolgirl must form a crush on an older relative or family friend at one time or another, and Louis Jourdan has to be the best-looking young rake ever to come to dinner.
The Lerner/Loewe songs express both emotions and points of view. Old Honoré now seems something of a pedophile, but his song "Thank Heaven for Little Girls" is meant to communicate the mindset of a privileged man able to sample life as if at a smörgåsbord. "I Remember It Well" at first seems a comic comparison of the memories of an old gentleman with those of one of his lovers from long ago. But it also shows how romance for the discarded courtesan has been a completely different experience. Madame Alvarez is luckier than most, having gathered the many gifts of her lovers into a comfortable retirement. Gigi slowly makes us aware of the possibilities for unhappiness in Gigi's future. Because Leslie Caron is so lovingly vulnerable, we cheer when Gaston begins to formulate a less selfish personal viewpoint. In short, he becomes liberated and empathetic, arriving at a more modern (anachronistic?) definition of love. The terrific romantic finish utilizes the show's emotional title song. Prince Charming grows a heart, capping a fairy tale with another fairy tale.
Gigi is a glossy MGM musical given a polish that makes MGM's normal high standard look shabby -- Silk Stockings and Les Girls simply can't compare. The extra care taken with design really shows. In scene after scene, the lush interiors and truly eye-catching costumes make us feel like we're seeing something special. It's easy to verge into fussy accolades about Cecil Beaton's just-so visual taste, but the fact is that more than a few scenes have us reaching for superlatives. When Gigi and Gaston glide into Maxim's the visual is simply breathtaking ... I wouldn't have believed anyone could look good wearing a dress decorated with what look like several large black birds. Caron is such a knockout that even Audrey Hepburn must have been envious.
Minnelli's dramas sometimes overheat the décor; I usually fall back on jokes about his overwrought The Cobweb. aka "The Drapes". The direction, camera angles and visual design of Gigi transcend clichés about Paris, especially in the film's final minutes. The views of Gaston sorting out his feelings as he walks in silhouette over shiny cobblestones and past colored fountains lift us into the film's illusion of romantic grace. The expression "Thank Heaven!" seems appropriate, as the movie has raised our spirits. The supremely tasteful Gigi's ecstatic endorsement of conventional marriage surely convinced the MPAA to let Minnelli and company do most anything they wanted.
Maurice Chevalier's perpetual smile sometimes gets on our nerves but he's certainly charming. Isabel Jeans is amusing as Gigi's teacher but Hermoine Gingold is the show's heart. Milk-complexioned Eva Gabor and lacquered Jacques Bergerac are effective as the fashionable alternatives to Gigi and Gaston. Gigi deserved and won a bushel of Academy Awards, but wasn't honored for its special miracle -- taking Louis Jordan's ice-cold screen persona and making him seem like a warm human being!
Warner's Blu-ray is the first video presentation I've seen of Gigi that replicates the experience of a good theatrical print. The film is dominated by bright reds, which in the old NTSC system either bleed or distort into ugly orange hues. In 1080 progressive they're as sharp and bright as can be. The added resolution enables us to make out fine changes of facial expression in the film's many wide shots. Leslie Caron delivers several important lines from a downstage position. On TV we had to wait to hear her words, as we couldn't make out her face that well. The audio is a punchy theatrical mix with more dynamic range than before; the orchestrations and mix have more depth and coloration. Frankly, Betty Wand's vocals sub for the non-singer Leslie Caron far more effectively than Audrey Hepburn was replaced in My Fair Lady.
Choosing the extras menu brings up an inviting selection of options. The 1949 French Gigi, a nonmusical, is presented in its only surviving copy. Film historian Jeanine Basinger delivers a pleasant commentary track, aided by Leslie Caron, who appears in many of the extras. The long-form making-of documentary avoids empty praise to place Gigi's accomplishment in a realistic frame. The payoff is that we appreciate it even more -- Hollywood's old guard came through with a superior entertainment. Vincente Minnelli appears through archived interview footage, along with several others of the original filmmakers. Frankly, we appreciate the long-form approach over today's norm of docus broken up into scores of stand-alone featurettes.
Although the disc certainly doesn't need it, the presentation includes a short subject about the U.S. Mint The Million Dollar Nickel and a Tom & Jerry cartoon, The Vanishing Duck.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Gigi Blu-ray rates:
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