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Les Girls

Les Girls
Warner Home Video
1957 / color / 2:35 anamorphic 16:9 / 114 min. / Street Date April 22, 2003 / 19.98
Starring Gene Kelly, Mitzi Gaynor, Kay Kendall, Taina Elg, Jacques Bergerac, Leslie Phillips, Henry Daniell, Patrick Macnee
Cinematography Robert Surtees
Costume Design Orry-Kelly
Art Direction Gene Allen, William A. Horning
Film Editor Ferris Webster
Choreography Jack Cole
Orchestrations and arrangers Alexander Courage, Adolph Deutsch, Skip Martin
Original Music Cole Porter
Written by John Patrick from a story by Vera Caspary
Produced by Sol C. Siegel
Directed by George Cukor

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Stunningly photographed and designed, Les Girls is definitely the MGM musical on the downslope. It works quite well as a comedy, while coming in a bit short in the music and dance department. As Cukor is said to have claimed, it actually is a comedy with some music in it, and taken as that, it's not bad at all. Standouts in the cast are Kay Kendall and Mitzi Gaynor, and Gene Kelly is charming as a leading man, even if the picture isn't a genre highpoint.


At a libel trial in London, ex-performers Angèle Ducros (Taina Elg) and Lady Sybil Wren (Kay Kendall) cross legal swords over Sybil's tell-all book. On the stand, the author unapologetically tells how Angèle was a cheating lover who tried to commit suicide over their handsome employer/headliner Barry Nichols (Gene Kelly). Then Angèle tells a conflicting tale of Sybil's alcoholism. Finally, Nichols himself takes the stand, and relates a third version of events where the combatants' partner Joy Henderson (Mitzi Gaynor) plays a larger role.

At almost two hours and with fewer than six songs, Les Girls is definitely more of a comedy than a traditional musical. There's a sprightly title tune to introduce Barry Nichols' sexy cabaret show, and some rather forgettable songs that elbow their way in later on. The choreography by Jack Cole is direct and unfussy, without any ballets or other efforts to challenge anything done before. Even in his dancing with Mitzi Gaynor, Kelly is satisfied to repeat and echo moves seen in earlier love duets. It's all handsome, but it isn't top-flight musical material.

The show fares much better as a straight-on comedy, set in Paris and including the obligatory scene of the lover waking neighbors while calling up to his girlfriend's flat in the middle of the night. Taina Elg is a bit subdued next to the sharper playing of ace comediennes Kendall and Gaynor, but they make a credible trio. The fondly remembered Kendall gets most of the attention in reviews. Her drunk act is so good, she makes singing Carmen badly a funny schtick, and she has the ability to get goofy while retaining a character's pride and poise. Most reviewers use Mitzi Gaynor for critical target practice, but those who've seen her only as a whiney WAVE in South Pacific will be surprised to find her sexy & sharp here, a good dancer and a funny comedienne. Her baiting of Gene Kelly by dressing in frowsy garb when he's angling for a seduction, is a lot funnier than it should be.

The script is okay, but not tops. The Rashomon idea is an okay plot engine that witholds the predictable story surprises until needed, but it raises expectations of romantic insights that don't surface. The three testimonies barely overlap, and completely contradict one another, so there are no clever 'spins' of the same events. All three tales are obviously lies, and it's only a matter of whose lies the judges will believe. Since none of this gets beyond the mechanical stage, the man who walks around with a sandwich board asking, "What is truth?", seems out of place.

Beyond the main structure, the character humor is much better. The three showgirls have fun personalities and cleverly snipe at one another ... covering for each other's gaffes even while competing for attention. They're attractively vain and actually rather frisky for the times. It's interesting seeing an MGM musical, all perfect hues and costumes, where the girls handle the sex jokes, even getting away with some risqué responses to Cole Porter's suggestive lyrics in the Les Girls number.

Savant doesn't notice clothes in films unless they're bad. The late 50s were big fashion years, when a lot of movies, including MGM efforts, stuffed their actresses into unlikely gowns in a bid to compete with the glossy magazines. Only Audrey Hepburn seemed born to this double role as actress-fashion model. But the clothes in Les Girls are really beautiful and interesting, and fit the characters well. The tall Kay Kendall doesn't look like a horse next to her more petite cohorts. As Barry Nichols' Parisian revue would presumably be a really racy affair, the designer gets away with a funny nude look in a set of backless dresses that appear to only have a green bow decorating the girls' rear ends. It's just teasing enough to match the rest of the show's MPAA-stretching seductions and sex talk.

Some of the comedy defuses common stereotyping. The French showgirl is capricious and flighty, the English girl tends toward snobbery, the American is a hick at heart, etc., but each gets a second level of sophistication: Gaynor's American abroad knows the score, even though she's holding out for marriage. As the script barely acknowledges such fine points, the deciding element must be the input of George Cukor's direction, or the actresses themselves.

When the jokes get broader, they tend to go a little flat. An elaborate gag where Kelly gets yanked off his feet by a rope during his act isn't very good. Neither is Kelly's celebrated song 'n dance takeoff on The Wild One, which tries to pretend that Marlon Brando's method modernism is just a fad in comparison to Les Girls' real deal. It's too defensive, as if 'The MGM Musical' had to assert its identity in a changing world. Kelly's imitation of Brando is way off target - take away the leather jacket and we wouldn't even get the connection, If it weren't for Mitzi Gaynor's half of the comedy, nothing much would be going on. Harvey Lembeck's pitiful Brando riff in AIP's Beach Party movies actually comes off better than this.

Critics like to laud It's Always Fair Weather as a downbeat tale of soured friendship and curtailed hopes, but Les Girls has its own interesting undercurrent of melancholy. A decade has passed here as well. Only Barry Nichols is still in show business, and he second-guesses that with a chain of Orange Juice stands. The girls know that their dancing days are limited, and the tale feeds on a faint hysteria that explains their extreme behaviors & romantic desperation. It's not exactly Showgirls, but the conflict does revolve around an incident that might be suicide. If the final Rashomon testimony covers it up, it's not some attempt to whitewash a lifestyle, but to just let ex-performers get on with their lives in peace. I think that Les Girls is unbalanced because these difficult-to-control elements were downplayed in favor of straight farce - Fair Weather's depression wasn't boxoffice. Three years later, Billy Wilder would be roundly criticized for making a suicide attempt a central factor in his bittersweet The Apartment , so it's possible that all concerned didn't think the public was ready for the material.

Warners/Turner's DVD of Les Girls is immaculate. The color is excellent, from the very Almodóvar - like titles to the flashy stage shows. The enhanced picture replicates the original CinemaScope framing, which thankfully doesn't leave much room for interpretation. The remixed 5.1 audio captures the finely nuanced music & underscoring, as well as Kay Kendall's screechy singing when tipsy.

The Classic Musicals Collection featurette this time has Taina Elg hosting a scripted overview of the show that gets across a lot of needed backstory, while glossily praising Kelly and the MGM musical machine. A second short harks back to a 1980s VHS habit by adding a Tex Avery Cartoon, Flea Circus, about flea performers who quit when they find a dog to infest. If the inclusion of the cartoon is a comment on the showbiz situation in Les Girls, it's pretty cynical!

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Les Girls rates:
Movie: Good
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: featurette, cartoon
Packaging: Snapper case
Reviewed: April 26, 2003

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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