Friday, February 28, 2014

Gigi (1958): A Defense

Kate Aurthur’s ranking of Best Picture winners is not the worst film list the Siren has ever seen, nor even the worst list she’s seen on Buzzfeed. Several movies the Siren reveres did pretty well with Ms Aurthur. Rebecca sits at No. 20, The Best Years of Our Lives is No. 16, It Happened One Night cracks the top 10 at No. 8 and at No. 1 is All About Eve. Any group this large must elicit a correspondingly large amount of disagreement; that is why lists are such reliable traffic-bait.

But the Siren almost didn’t make it through, because the very first item, Ms Aurthur’s choice for the worst Best Picture winner of all time, slapped her across the face like Joan Crawford on a rampage.

Yes, the creepiest, most pedophiliac movie ever to win Best Picture is this list’s worst. How to define “worst” in this context, especially when judging Gigi — a movie musical some people love now, and certainly many people loved in 1958 — against films that were barely movies as we currently recognize them? [NB: I know, I know, forge ahead, please.] This list is, of course, totally subjective: I factored in my personal feelings about each movie, along with how well it has held up, how influential it is, and what it was up against. And then there’s the ineffability of common wisdom, which I also have taken into account. No matter how I feel about Annie Hall or about Schindler’s List, for example, I know I’m in a minority view in my dislike — and that matters. Not with Gigi, though, in which Leslie Caron plays a Parisian girl being trained to be a courtesan who ends up in a push-and-pull relationship with the much older Gaston (Louis Jordan) [sic]. This is the movie that gave us that disturbing cultural artifact, the song “Thank Heaven For Little Girls.” If you want disturbing psychosexual movies from 1958, let’s agree that Vertigo, which was nominated only for Best Art Direction and Best Sound, is preferable. To reiterate: Gigi is the worst.

Pitting Vertigo against Gigi underlines the reason George C. Scott refused to pick up his Oscars: In addition to calling the ceremony “a meat parade,” he considered the idea of artists competing against one another to be absurd. He was not wrong. “Best” means something different for an Alfred Hitchcock thriller and a musical comedy from Vincente Minnelli and Lerner and Loewe. Then again, in cracking a joke, the author has accidentally made a point.

Vertigo, winner of the Sight and Sound “Greatest Film of All Time So Take That, Citizen Kane Award,” concerns a troubled ex-policeman who falls in love with the gorgeous and possibly insane woman he is hired to tail. When he attempts to save her from her demons, she winds up dead, or so he thinks. Then the ex-cop spots his lost love’s doppelganger on the street, and works to turn her into the image of that dead woman — dye job, new wardrobe, new makeup. The audience soon finds out it’s the same woman, and she’s sane, although the ex-cop is plainly not. Our two-timing woman loves this man, and tries frantically to please him, but in the end, she falls off a bell tower.

Now turn to Gigi, from Alan Jay Lerner’s screenplay, based on Colette’s story of a Parisian girl who’s descended from a line of courtesans and is being taught to take over the family business. But Gigi’s a lousy pupil, so far from considering a man’s happiness that she does not hesitate to clean his clock when they’re playing cards. The man in this instance is Gaston, a wealthy friend of the family who’s always had mistresses and enjoys Gigi’s company for the relief it brings from their demands, and from society’s. One day Gaston realizes that Gigi is no longer a little girl, and that he’s in love with her. He proposes to make her his latest mistress, although Gigi has spotted the flaw in this arrangement: It makes her disposable, and she’s in love with Gaston, and doesn’t want to be thrown away. Gaston in turn realizes that he loves Gigi too, and he doesn’t want to force her into a life that is utterly wrong for her. And so he marries her instead.

As Cosmopolitan might say, two makeovers, two very different results.

And one question: Why is Gigi, which ends with its vivacious heroine happily married to a rich man who loves her the way she is, a sick-sick-sick movie; while Vertigo, in which the lovelorn female lead tries to turn herself into a fictional character and winds up stone dead, is a “preferable” depiction of male-female relations?

Let’s see, which Oscar winners displayed sufficient rectitude to wind up near the top? Oh look, there’s Silence of the Lambs at No. 5, now there’s a movie that knows how to treat a lady. In The Godfather Part II, we have Kay Corleone getting the door slammed in her face as she tries to embrace her children; there’s The Godfather, where Talia Shire’s husband beats the living hell out of her; and let’s not mention (because Ms Aurthur doesn’t) the marital rape in Gone With the Wind (No. 11) and the speech in All About Eve about how a career means nothing for a woman if you turn over in bed and your man’s not there.

Fine movies, sure, but you see the point: Why pick on Gigi? If it were just Buzzfeed, the Siren might have shrugged and called for madder music and stronger wine. But alas, the woods are full of people saying Gigi is terrifying, the worst, chauvinist and hateful (et tu, Vadim?).

This wounds the Siren to her feminist core. She loves Gigi.

Yes, Gigi, played by 27-year-old Leslie Caron, is very young. Louis Jourdan, who plays Gaston, was 37. In the original Colette novella, Gigi is 16 and Gaston is 33, and in 2014, that is, as Ms Aurthur states, considered creepy.

Gigi, however, is set in 1900 in Paris. In that time and world, it was not unheard-of for a 16-year-old to get married, much less was it considered too young to embark on a career as a courtesan. Scowling at the sexual morals of an earlier time is fun and all, but it’s not an especially rewarding critical approach.

Let’s look at “Thank Heaven For Little Girls,” the song that freaks out Buzzfeed. These are not complicated lyrics, but the Siren’s emphasizing some salient lines anyway:

Thank heaven for little girls
For little girls get bigger every day. 
Thank heaven for little girls
They grow up in the most delightful way.
Those little eyes so helpless and appealing
One day will flash and send you crashing through the ceiling.
Thank heaven for little girls
Thank heaven for them all,
No matter where no matter who
Without them, what would little boys do?
Thank heaven . . . thank heaven . . .
Thank heaven for little girls!

Maybe you don’t want Maurice Chevalier, who turned 70 during filming, singing about little girls, period. But he isn’t saying, “Thank heaven for little girls because I want to have sex with them,” which would of course be “pedophiliac” and horrifying in many eras besides our own. The lyrics say “I like little girls because they grow up into beautiful women.” In other words this song, a frequent target of the irretrievably literal-minded, is the senior citizen who coos at your cute kid, “That one’s gonna be a heartbreaker.” If the correct response to such a sally is to smash the old buzzard over the head with your handbag and shriek “Get away from my child, you psychopath!!” then the Siren freely admits she’s been doing it wrong.

Furthermore (and the Siren can’t believe she has to point this out) there is not a single act of rape, whether statutory or not, in this film. No character shows a sexual interest in girls under 16, and that includes Chevalier as Honore Lachaille. It’s the opposite of pedophilia: People wait until they’re old enough by the Parisian standards of the time, and that’s that.

Up until the point where Gaston takes a look at Gigi in a grown-up dress and realizes she’s a young woman, he has no romantic or sexual interest in her. She’s a chum. She’s fun. And when she does show up in the dress, happy and proud as all teenagers are when they put on the trappings of an adult, Gaston’s reaction isn’t “hubba-hubba.” He yells at Gigi that she looks “like an organ-grinder’s monkey.” If a 16-year-old and a 33-year-old in love is disturbing, hey, here you go — Gaston is disturbed when confronted with a playmate who’s suddenly attractive. They have a blistering row and he stomps off, only to realize that as Gigi has grown up, so have his feelings.

Minnelli probably would have loved to direct My Fair Lady, but that film couldn’t be made until the record-breaking Broadway run was over. So he took on Gigi, which tracks the other musical so closely that dear old Bosley Crowther suggested Lerner and Loewe might want to sue themselves. (Ms Aurthur has the backlot-bound, slower and stiffer My Fair Lady at no. 15, in evident indifference both to the plot similarities and the fact that Eliza Doolittle is also a teenager, plus Henry Higgins is 20 years older than Eliza and is her teacher to boot.) Minnelli wanted to bring fin de siecle Paris and caricaturist Sem to life. Along with production designer Cecil Beaton (and despite Charles Walters, who had to take charge of some post-production reshoots), Minnelli did the impossible. He made Paris look even more beautiful than it is.

He did the same for every woman in the movie, as Janet Flanner wrote when she reported from the Paris set for The New Yorker that the film was “peopled…with some of the most extraordinary-looking young-and-old beauties that Paris has seen in a while.” Minnelli was lavish, but never vulgar. His camera admires. It does not leer, at Caron or any other woman, no, not even the lushly leer-able Eva Gabor.

But, you protest, this girl is being trained to be a prostitute. How is that acceptable to a feminist? Well, this feminist does not have a problem with consensual sex work. Much less does the Siren have a problem with sex work as a way that two old ladies once used to make a living that probably beat the hell out of taking in laundry or whatever else was open to the average woman in 19th-century France. Tante Alicia (Isabel Jeans) earned enough to live in grand retirement in a mansion with servants. Madame Alvarez (Hermione Gingold) has a much smaller budget, but she’s still keeping Gigi in basic comfort. She’s also supporting her daughter, Gigi’s mother, who’s rejected “the life” and is heard only from off-camera as she trains to be what sounds like the worst soprano since Susan Alexander stank up the opera house in Citizen Kane.

Alicia and Mamita, as Mme. Alvarez is called, are shrewd women who have made their way through life armed with their wits, and with attractiveness that is as much cultivated as it is natural. They call their own shots. When Eva Gabor’s Liane, Gaston’s mistress (who's pretty clearly older than he is), makes a phony suicide attempt, Tante Alicia waves it off for the dumbshow it is: “The usual way, insufficient poison.” These are not, perhaps, the rules these ladies would prefer to play by. The Siren thinks in our own era, Alicia’s basilisk eyes would be trained on the CAC-40, not the next wealthy protector for her niece. But it is, let’s repeat, 1900. In any era, you play the hand you’re dealt.

Gigi, far from being “creepily” youth-obsessed, has a complex and entrancing view of the stages of life. We see the heroine going from bewilderment at the games “The Parisians” play, to trying to play them herself. Gaston sees middle age edging closer, while he’s using the same kinds of women for the same thing and wondering why “It’s a Bore.” Meanwhile, Chevalier’s big number isn’t “Thank Heaven for Little Girls.” It’s “I’m Glad I’m Not Young Anymore.”

On the beach at Trouville, Honore is pursuing a likely (adult, for crying out loud) prospect. But he spies Mamita, with whom he once had an affair, and says, “I must tell you that you upset all my plans for the weekend! I came prepared for battle, and an old wound prevents me from charging.” What follows is the movie’s most tenderly romantic song, performed by two elderly people as the sun sets.

“Am I getting old?” “Oh no, not you.” Excuse the Siren a sec, she’s got something in her eye.

The Production Code Administration, diminished in 1958 but still in there swinging, took a long hard look at Gigi, but the Siren’s sources don’t indicate that what has Ms Aurthur calling Gigi's defenders "criminals" was the obstacle. Instead, what got the PCA riled up was the prostitution angle. After the usual horse-trading over the script, the objections boiled down to a single line: “To 'take care of me beautifully' means I shall go away with you, and that I shall sleep in your bed." Minnelli pleaded to be allowed to film that as written and have the censors make their call after seeing how it played. In the end, he said, Leslie Caron spoke the line so innocently that it passed without a murmur. Bad call for posterity, it seems. If Minnelli had ended on Gigi falling off a bell tower, maybe this thing would have lived up to the moral standards of Buzzfeed.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

In Memoriam: Shirley Temple, 1928-2014

It was a day that, due to some long-forgotten domestic dust-up, required distraction, and the Siren sat her boy-girl twins in front of the computer and began to frantically search Youtube for something that would quiet them down. Here’s what she found.

The boy soon wandered off to fetch a toy. The girl sat quietly, so quietly that the Siren figured maybe she was too bored to move. When the video ended, Alida slid forward, pointed to one of the other videos on the sidebar and said, “Her. I want to see more of her.”

We watched about a half-dozen more clips.

My daughter still loves Shirley Temple. When the Siren broke the news that 85-year-old Shirley Temple had died, she cushioned the blow by reminding Alida that we still have Adventure in Baltimore to watch on the DVR, and that surely TCM would be running a tribute day (they are, March 9th). At age 10, she’s seen almost as much Temple as the Siren has.

On that first day surfing Youtube, it swiftly became obvious that Alida liked the dance routines with Bill Robinson best, proving she’s the Siren’s daughter all right. Alida was only four; thus the Siren was spared the need to explain that in the 1930s, the only white partner an adult black man was going to get onscreen was a little girl, and even that caused consternation. Also, since we weren’t watching the whole film, the Siren also didn’t have to explain The Little Colonel’s treatment of its black characters, a task that even now could send the Siren to bed with a sick headache.

All the same, their dancing together was, in its way, revolutionary. When the Siren was a kid, Just Around the Corner was one of her favorites. This number still charms — Bert Lahr stretching his mouth out like an animatronic clown, and Robinson charging down that staircase is thrilling. When Robinson and Temple start to dance, their off-camera regard for each other is apparent. There are all kinds of little ways dancers have of giving each other respect. Look at how, at just before the 1:50 mark, the number’s timing goes just the merest hair off, and they steady each other so fast you could miss it, if you haven’t watched Just Around the Corner three dozen times during your childhood.

Temple represented not only FDR’s remark about a baby who could help Americans forget their troubles, but also the movie studios’ banking on wholesomeness once the Production Code came down. Financially, that was an excellent bet; in the years that Shirley Temple was the world’s biggest movie star, the box office recovered from the slump it had endured in the early 1930s. It was a good bet for Temple, too, money-wise. She’s said to have made about $3 million during her years at the top, although a lavish lifestyle and bad investments depleted that nest egg before she had kids of her own.

Temple’s mother was by all accounts the driving force behind her child’s career. Little Shirley’s first films were Baby Burlesks, the misspelled title conveying the nature of the enterprise. Made at Educational Pictures, where Buster Keaton would wash up a few years later, the shorts are relics of another time when putting kids in adult costumes and scenarios was considered cute. Worse than the Burlesks themselves were the techniques, if you can call them that, used to control the tiny players. The parents weren’t allowed on set, and Temple later recalled that if a child misbehaved, she was shut in a windowless room with nothing to sit on but a block of ice.

Once Temple moved on, her mother was a constant presence; Allan Dwan, who directed Temple in Heidi and Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, recalled that Gertrude Temple would run lines with the little girl at night. Shirley was always letter-perfect by the time the cameras rolled, ready to prompt with the right line if an adult actor blew his cue. “We hated her for that,” said Alice Faye, co-star in Poor Little Rich Girl. Adolphe Menjou complained that Shirley, age 6, was upstaging him in Little Miss Marker, and she did, although if you’re gonna steal a scene from somebody, Adolphe’s a fine choice of target.

The Siren’s said this before, but give it a rest, please, with the stuff about sublimated sex in Shirley Temple movies. It makes the Siren want to coo, “My goodness, they just can’t slip any subtext past you, you wised-up sophisticated old thing! Next thing you’ll be telling me that war movies are homoerotic and Busby Berkeley’s chorus lines remind you of fascist rallies!” It’s been done.

And Graham Greene offers nothing to explain to anyone why Shirley Temple still has the ability to stop a crabby little girl in her tracks. Admittedly, it’s not necessarily easy from a distance of 80 years for an adult cinephile to figure out what the big deal was. Her early vehicles make Busby Berkeley look like a model of narrative logic. In something like Bright Eyes or Captain January, all you do is watch everybody defer to Temple. Sometimes the Siren can swear the gnashing of adult actors’ teeth is audible on screen, and not just Adolphe Menjou’s.

The appeal lies partly in the mystery of star quality, something Sheila O’Malley describes well: "She was a phenomenal performer. It is impossible, still, to watch her movies and not get sucked into who she is being, what she is bringing to the screen." When the Siren was in acting school, the catchphrase was “give it away.” Temple gave — gives — everything in a scene.

Children learn quickly and painfully that the world does not revolve around them. A kid watching a Shirley Temple movie gets a much sweeter version of life: A little girl who stops the show every time she sings or dances, and when the orchestra lays down its instruments, she runs around straightening out the adults. It was enchanting to the Siren, when she encountered Temple on TV; it shouldn’t have been surprising that Alida, and a very young acquaintance of David Cairns, were also ensnared.

As Temple got older, the musical numbers became less frequent and often less elaborate. But the essential elements are still there. There’s always a little girl facing off against people who are not truly evil, they are just in an extremely bad mood. Shirley knows how to fix that, through the all-conquering might of her childhood pizzazz. After singing and tapping her way through the early Fox musicals, Temple was ready to get a paralyzed child walking again in Heidi and to make a dour farm family sparkle in Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm. In the wonderful Technicolor The Little Princess, Shirley could even call someone back from the afterlife, as her father (emphatically dead in the Frances Hodgson Burnett novel) reappears in a hospital, a mite banged up by the Boer War but otherwise ready for his closeup.

Is it the least bit surprising that in Wee Willie Winkie (still the Siren’s favorite) Shirley handily solves an Indian diplomatic crisis? No wonder the adult Temple could sail through Czechoslovakia’s Velvet Revolution as the American ambassador.

David Cairns also mentions that Mark Cousins, in his Story of Film, alleges (David's paraphrasing) "that Temple is too performative, not natural enough." The Siren doesn’t understand that at all. Critiquing Shirley Temple for being too performative is like yelling at Lassie for shedding. It’s what she does. How long, oh lord, how long must we suffer the notion that the best acting, child or adult, is always “natural” or “realistic”?

Cousins’ point, however, is an explanation sometimes offered for why Shirley didn’t make it as an adult actress, aside from the fact that she grew up. But the Siren disagrees with those who say Shirley grew into a bad actress. She glows in Since You Went Away, playing a 13-year-old with a crush on (of all God’s earthly people) Monty Woolley. John Ford thought well enough of her, years past Wee Willie Winkie, to give Temple a key role in the magnificent Fort Apache. In The Bachelor and the Bobby Soxer, her comic timing is on a par with that of co-stars Myrna Loy and Cary Grant, and the number of actors who can claim that is vanishingly small.

Temple faced three much bigger factors as she aged (and yes, that’s a mighty strange thing to write about an actress who basically retired when she was 22). The first was poor script quality; Ronald Reagan all but apologized for That Hagen Girl in his autobiography. And that problem probably stemmed from this one: Nobody knew what to do with Temple. She was still lovely, but the movies that made her name were already associated with a vanished time. There was a war on, and then it was over, but people still remembered the Temple of lollipops and animal crackers. Mickey Rooney, one of but a handful of child stars who ever experienced Temple’s level of fame, managed to make some highly credible noirs. When Deanna Durbin tried that in Christmas Holiday, even decent box-office receipts couldn’t persuade anybody that here was her future.

Hence factor number three: On some level Temple, like Durbin, had had enough.

Who can blame her for that? There’s something sad about such professionalism at a young age, the idea of a little girl crying when the director calls “Action,” instead of over spilled ice cream or a playroom squabble. (Dwan said if you wanted Temple to cry, all you had to do was tell her to imagine never seeing her mother again.) But Mrs. Temple, ambitious though she was, somehow kept Shirley grounded. The greatest testimony to that is how the little girl handled adulthood when it finally arrived.

In 1998 Shirley Temple Black, looking gorgeous, was a Kennedy Center honoree. In part one, look at the ovation she gets! The joy, the affection in that audience is glorious. And when every tap-dancing kid in America comes out to perform “The Good Ship Lollipop” in part two, watch for when they cut to her in the balcony — and Shirley Temple Black, almost 70 years old, is singing along and bopping to the music, happy to still be giving happiness. That’s it right there, what made her a star, and why she’ll always be one. Her. I want to see more of her.