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.


Kerri said...

No reason to defend it at all. The list maker is a functional illiterate who has probably never heard of Colette. Who cares what her anachronistic opinion is? It's equivalent to a mommy blog hysteric.

Vanwall said...

There is an air of hysteria about things lately, and damned if that list, of which ilk I hardly ever read because of subjective stupidity by almost everyone who makes one up, me included if I felt like making one - came with a case of the 'The Vapors' attached - lately all defenders of most any thing are called 'criminals' somehow, and I suspect we are a step away from being branded Nazis, as all the best folk seem to use that as a 'poor me' argument.

It's nice to view history with such a corrupted mindset - yes, corrupted, and in ways that are also one step away from the kind of people who prefer their history made in their own image one way or another and foist upon others, by force if required - it makes responding to criticism so easy, you don't have to use your brain, because heaven forfend historical and actually, any, facts should get in the way. Ignorance is ignorance, no matter how you slice it. The list has too many allowances for god-awful truths to be taken seriously anyway.

Lea S. said...

Wonderful defense of this beautiful, classic film that I grew up with (and many thanks for the link to the AHA article--talk about being useful). When I was in Paris two years ago, I saw the fountain that appears in the song "Gigi" that Gaston sings. I thought of the song, and thought of the movie, and it was a thrill. For me Gigi represents the quintessential "essence" of Paris (although it is just as much a look at the quintessential "stages of life").

Melissa Clark said...

I honestly cheered after every paragraph of this essay! I don't know how many times I've banged my head against a wall after hearing someone describe GIGI as a pedophile musical instead of what it really is - a touching, witty story in which love wins out over cynicism. Anyone who pays any kind of attention to the movie should be able to see that, and to hear the lyrics of "Thank Heaven For Little Girls" and realize they're not about lusting after children. It's just willful ignorance, which you have perfectly combated here. Many thanks!

Laura said...

"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?"

Thank you for so eloquently saying what I was thinking! The list-maker's problems with GIGI reminded me of a literary discussion list I was on where most of the women were incensed, really deeply angry, over SEVEN BRIDES FOR SEVEN BROTHERS. I realized I was probably in with the wrong crowd if, rather than experiencing the movie's exuberance, humor, and pure joy, they were seeing scary social messages in every frame. Oh well!

And thanks for this post in general. When I revisit this film I appreciate anew what grand work Minnelli (with a little help from Charles Walters), the composers, and cast created. I enjoyed revisiting it in my mind's eye thanks to your essay.

Best wishes,
Laura (of Miscellaneous Musings)

The Siren said...

Kerri, I know what you mean; but this is far from the only "pedophile" accusation I've seen lobbed at Gigi. I know from sad experience that there comes a point where you have to grind this stuff into the carpet, dumb though it may be.

Vanwall, I think we are tired of the same thing.

eMuse, welcome and thank you. This is a movie that breathes love of Paris in every frame. And the current fashion for denouncing it is the kind of thing that the French mock us for, and I'll say right now we deserve it.

Kerri said...

Thanks for the defense though. I'm just sorry it's necessary. We appear to have become an infantile and timorous society who live in a vacuum.

RosieP said...

Oh . . . my . . . God! Are you kidding me! Oh my God! I . . . I just don't know what else to say!

The Siren said...

Laura, thank you SO much. I agree on Seven Brides, too.

And MC, yes! The movie is the exact bloody opposite of pedophilia and I feel very through-the-looking-glass even pointing that out.

Aubyn said...

Thank you so much for this takedown. I've heard the whole "Gigi-endorses-pedophilia" thing before and it never even tries to be a serious analysis of the film. It's pretty much always, "Look at Chevalier staring at little girls--the creeper!" Hell, I'm not even that big a Maurice Chevalier fan but he does a great job in this film! He deserves better. His scene with Mamita is the emotional highpoint of the whole movie and you can't tell me that Chevalier didn't recognize the darker points of his charming character (points that have nothing to do with pedophilia). Just watch him in the final scene, when he tells Gaston, "Gigi can amuse you for months!" The film doesn't moralize but it shows you exactly what a lifetime of hedonism will cost you.

Looking at the Buzzfeed list, I can't help but wonder why in the hell Gone With the Wind is up there at Number 11. I mean, let's say that you are making the case that a creepy moral message trumps everything else good in a film, including performance, music, set design, costume, direction, and photography. Let's say that Gigi does in fact endorse pedophilia. Then how come Gone With the Wind gets a pass, despite a cinematic endorsement of slavery that is utterly, completely loathsome?

Karen said...

Siren, I saw your blurb on Facebook about "the unjustly maligned Gigi" and had to come over right away because I could not imagine how anyone could malign such a manifestly delightful film.

Now, having read your post, I am even more confused. Really? People see the film as an endorsement of pedophilia? Do they not actually WATCH it?

I can only imagine what the reaction would have been if they'd kept Colette's ending.

Your point about Gigi's family business, and its advantages for a young woman with few other options, was completely resonant because my beloved friend Nina's fascinating dissertation about 18th-century Parisian courtesans has just been published. I read it when she was preparing for her defense, and it is a page-turner--but, more important, she makes the point that many of these young women were sold into this life by their families, since their other options were so bleak. But many others came out of the theatre/opera culture that supported the courtesan "industry," and many found love and power--much the way Mamita and Aunt Alicia describe it. (I adore Aunt Alicia's line about the family not always marrying at first, but sometimes marrying at last.)

But that Aurthur is less upset by a young girl being essentially schooled in the arts of prostitution every day after coming home from the Lycee, than by that same girl--now a woman--finding love with the quite attractive family friend who has known and liked her for years for herself, and finds himself revolted when seeing her demonstrate the skills of her trade...well, this just mystifies me.

Some people just have the nastiest and least analytic minds, don't they?

Karen said...

This, incidentally, is my friend Nina's book--I heartily recommend it.

Gloria said...

The criticism strikes me as that of someone who has been in front of the screen but clearly has not seen the movie.

"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?)."

If a personal reminiscence helps putting a similar case in context, in the seventies, I came across a lot of "big names" in film criticism or film making who trashed Laughton for no other reason that auteurs like Hitchcock or Sternberg had poked fun or made disparaging remarks at him. From this one-sided comment (and of course, without ever contrasting it), they assumed that the thing to do was indulge in Laughton-bashing. And so they did, for years.

This, of course, changed significantly once Night of the Hunter was rediscovered: Apparently, Laughton was now an directing auteur, and not merely a despicable acteur-auteur, so film critics and eminences made quite an spectacular u-turn in their opinions about him.

You see, it is not a matter of a film, actor, director being actually bad, but of people not really analysing the reasons why they consider it "bad", and responding strictly to uncogitated Pavlovian responses, or even worse, obeying blindly the mastah's commands.

La Faustin said...

In the moviehouse where I first saw VERTIGO, when Stewart snarled "It can't matter to YOU what color your hair is," a young woman in the row in front of me gasped: "I'm so glad I didn't live in the Fifties!" said...

It's clear that Kate Aurthur doesn't value musicals; she seems to rely on others' interpretations of them throughout this list, so it's not surprising she'd merely give her own spin to others' words in judging Gigi. But I'm glad she did so that I could read this wonderful rebuttal. Leah

Carrie Rickey said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Carrie Rickey said...

God -- and Colette -- bless you, Siren. I read that list and shuddered. Gigi is lovely, beautifully shot, and drolly funny. Why would a young woman raised to be a glamorous courtesan want to be a wife? Teenage rebellion, and perhaps perversity. Only Vincente Minnelli could have made what is effectively a G-rated film about such complex issues of desire.

rudyfan1926 said...

Thank heaven for you, Siren!

The Siren said...

Aubyn, that's a great analysis of the Chevalier character. Indeed, I Remember It Well is Honore looking back at a dissolute life, and realizing that while Mamita is old and has lost her looks, he could have been "getting old" with her. Not all regret by a long shot, more like the road not taken, which we all have. If I'd taken that job, or that man, etc.

Karen, I must have that book, it sounds great!

Gloria, it's true, I have read those old dismissals of Laughton. Plus Garson Kanin who really ought to have been ashamed of himself.

Carrie, Leah and Donna, thank you so much!

La Faustin, that made me laugh and laugh, but that girl is not wrong. It's a stunningly cavalier and cruel line that sort of epitomizes why no one but James Stewart (and a tiny handful of others, perhaps) could make Scotty even a teeny bit sympathetic.

Gloria said...

Never mind Garson Kanin: His wife Ruth Gordon more than made up for his account in her own memoirs, God bless her ;)

DavidEhrenstein said...

Vanwall is quite right about today's hysteria. As readers of the new York Times and "Vanity Fair" know one Dylan Farrow has not only accused her adoptive father Woody Allen of raping her, but has gone one to claim that Cate Blanchett by starring in Woody's Blue Jasmine has raped her as well.

That this slanderous nonsense has been taken seriously is vomit-provoking. But then so is the notion that her half-brother Ronan (originally Satchel)has Frank Sinatra for a Babydaddy.

DavidEhrenstein said...

Gigi is of course charming and innocent as all get out. It's interesting that Freed first approached Irene Dunne to play Aunt Alicia. But she turned him down. Too racy for the lady.

The Siren said...

DavidE, I didn't know that about my beloved Irene Dunne! I love it when people here teach me something, which happens ALL the time by the by. Dunne would have been adorable if she'd loosened up but I seem to remember she was quite religious.

Trish said...

This is one beautiful piece, Siren! Who is this Kate Aurthur and what is her age? I can pretty well guess judging by the revolving door of interns in my office. I thought of them when I read her comments. Even if her criticisms were true, using current standards to damn older movies for being inappropriate is unconscionable, ignorant and naïve. Not a word was said about the film's beauty or the way Minnelli captured the era, or his influence on future filmmakers. That tells me her agenda hasn't much to do with films.

The Siren said...

I don't know how old she is, but I do find that the issues Kate raises are a bigger deal for young people, as a general rule. That's not surprising; I was never more rabidly moralistic than I was in my early 20s.

I wonder why so few movies touch on the fact that a LOT of people get more relaxed and less judgmental as they get older. I know that was true for me.

I should add, for everyone's benefit, that Kate Aurthur responded to this "crabby dissent" on Twitter by calling the post "Incredibly well-written" and RTing it. Pretty much the nicest person I've ever picked a fight with. I haven't turned her around on GIGI, alas.

barrylane said...

I don't think Irene Dunne turned Aunt Alicia down because it was too racy but because it was in support, something she had never done in her long film career.

The Siren said...

Ah Barry, thanks. That makes more sense to me.

Vanwall said...

My 14-year-old farmgirl great-grandmother ran off with a barnstorming young motorcycle racer she met at a state fair back before the Great War, and nothing was said at the time - she allowed it was the best thing she ever did, and the family agreed with her. Times really were different back then; "They had learned nothing, and had forgotten nothing" works both ways.

testingwithfire said...

Gigi as pedophilia? Reminds me a bit of Graham Greene's fiasco re: Shirley Temple, which I hadn't heard about till the Siren mentioned it a few days back. You want to say to some people: TURN THE PROJECTOR OFF.

I'm glad to hear that Aurthur appears to have been somewhat receptive to Siren's critique... or at least gracious enough to try to drive some of that Buzzfeed traffic over here for a dissenting (and, for my money, much better informed) opinion.

surly hack said...

As always, I'm glad I read the Siren, and not the tripe on sites like Buzzkill.

The Siren said...

Vanwall, I love that story. Are your grandparents Janet Gaynor and Lew Ayres?

Testingwithfire, TURN THE PROJECTOR OFF made me laugh, a lot.

Dear inappropriately named Surly, it's always good to know you're reading. Whenever I see people who've been putting up with this haphazard place since 2005, it makes me feel like all my hard work ain't been in vain for nothin'.

DavidEhrenstein said...

Siren have you seen Stephen Frears' film of Colette's Cherie with Michelle Pfeiffer? It's quite teriffic and sadly neglected.

Kirk said...

Good defense of Gigi.

To be honest, I find the pushing of a young girl into prostitution, even the genteel form of prostitution depicted here, kind of creepy, but I always assumed the movie was, in the end, criticizing the practice. I mean, that's why Gigi doesn't become a prostitute, after all, right? Thanks for confirming my assumption.

On a different note, I always liked the scene toward the end where Gaston quietly mulls things over. Odd to see that, in of all things, a 1950s musical.

Kirk said...

Oh, one other thing. George Cukor did a well enough job with My Fair Lady, but I think had Minnelli directed the film, it would have been even better.

The Siren said...

David, yes I saw Cherie, and I think you and I are the only two people in the world who didn't see costumes and say "Oh it's Oscar bait." It was treated so dismissively, and I thought it was wonderful. Made me read the Cherie books too.

Kirk, I agree; Minnelli would have made a better My Fair Lady. I adore Cukor and he made at least two brilliant musicals (Les Girls and A Star is Born) but something about MFL (studio pressure to Make It A Big Deal, maybe?) didn't gel with him. I have to say that I rewatched it recently and it's not nearly as bad as I used to say it was; in fact there are several scenes that are absolutely lovely, like "Show Me."

Lemora said...

I loved Gigi when I first saw it in 1958. I went through a cynical period in my twenties where I didn't buy Gaston's conversion from playboy to Husband Material. I thought --and still think-- that the problem with marrying a man whose ingrained habit is to keep a mistress is that it creates a job opening. (That is, if you see it as a problem.) I recently saw Gigi for a third time, in my fifties, and I could just relax and enjoy the whole thing: People in beautiful clothes, in olden times, having romantical problems. My favorite escapist entertainment. In my lifetime, I've seen cultural attitudes about pedophilia go from obliviousness, to quasi celebration, to full-fledged witch hunt, which we are in right now. How ridiculous that Gigi has become a target of the pedophilia pedagogues. I've posted here before about how sick I think Vertigo's attitudes are, so enough on that. By the way, I've never read Colette. How does she wrap up Gigi?

The Siren said...

Lemora, I don't remember! I read Gigi in high school and it seems to me that it was close enough to the movie that I liked it. I recall that the mother is a real character and rather tiresome; Minnelli hated the mother so much that he pushed her offstage altogether after seeing the play.

DavidEhrenstein said...

Mr. Cukor saw My Fair Lady as an exercise in Hollywood professionalism, rater than anything remotely "personal." He was exceptionally gratified that it won him the Oscar he'd so long deserved. In his files at the Academy you can find notations relating to the fact that he answered each and every congratulatory telegram he got when he won. He loved working with Rex Harrison, and saw the film as a way to "preserve his performance." I find "I've Grown Accustomed To Her Face" has real dramatic power. It's a speech, a song, and a recognition of True Self in Higgins.

Mr. Cukor did NOT get along with Cecil Beaton (talk about "When Queens Collide") who he had to put up with because he was part of the package. But he adored Audrey.

Well who in hell wouldn't?

DavidEhrenstein said...

Re Cherie: I adore ALL films featuring Anita Pallenberg.

Marilyn said...

I am acquainted with Kate Aurthur as the moderator of the New York Times Film Forum back when I was posting there (it no longer exists). She is neither unfamiliar with films or their making, as her father was a screenwriter responsible for writing All That Jazz, not exactly the most feminist film of all time. Her slamming of Gigi, one of my all-time favorite films, came as a shock to me, but I know her as a person who appreciated the uncensored hostility on the NYT Film Forum. Her championing of My Fair Lady over Gigi makes absolutely no sense, as Gigi is clearly the more knowing and inventive of the two films. I'm absolutely flummoxed by her rendered opinion, and have to imagine that she has some personal trauma associated with the musical. I'm shocked, truly.

The Siren said...

Marilyn, as I said up higher, Kate's incredibly gracious response to my "crabby dissent" (been ages since I added to that tag, guess it was time -- the Oscars brings it out) has made her Permanently a Good Egg in my eyes. I figured, when she referred to someone on Twitter who snapped "I don't care who your father is" (as though she brought that up!) that she must be the All That Jazz gentleman's daughter. I don't know, there are a lot of people out there who dislike or even hate Gigi for her reasons; I barely scratched the surface. I'm glad to hear you love it too, though.

The Siren said...

DavidE, I think Minnelli had some run-ins with Beaton too, though mild. Anyone who read Beaton's diaries (I only read excerpts) would have no trouble seeing him as someone who could be difficult to get along with.

As for Anita Pallenberg, yes X1000. The BFF of my dreams.

KC said...

I'm grateful that you have defended Gigi against those silly pedophile comments, and so beautifully too. I wouldn't take Ms. Aurthur too seriously. After all, she's also clutching her pearls because Wings is silent and "I's so long!" The woman just seems to be silly overall. Or at least she's playing that role for clicks. And she has probably succeeded.

Buttermilk Sky said...

I love "Gigi," while "My Fair Lady" always makes me wish I were watching "Pygmalion." Wendy Hiller was divine. I shall have this film and "I Know Where I'm Going" placed in the tomb alongside my mummy.

Karen said...

I don't know about Irene Dunne being considered for Aunt Alicia, but according to the AFI Catalog:
Minnelli indicated in his autobiography that he hoped to lure Ina Claire out of retirement to play "Aunt Alicia," but when she refused, Beaton (who had also worked on My Fair Lady) suggested Isabel Jeans. A modern source relates that Freed also considered Gladys Cooper for the role. Chevallier was always considered for the role of Honoré. Modern sources indicate that Lerner considered Dirk Bogarde for the role of Gaston, but the actor was unavailable. When Louis Jourdan was cast in the role, Lerner and Loewe arranged his songs to be delivered in the semi-spoken manner used by Rex Harrison in My Fair Lady.

Incidentally, I love this film like it's my own child--and I also believe the gown Gigi wears to Maxim's is possibly the most beautiful gown in cinema history.

barrylane said...

Irene Dunne Notes:
As David said, Arthur Freed made the approach. show Boat with Irene Dunne is being advertised on the Warner Archive site, and as being remastered. Well worth the wait, I hope.

Peter Nellhaus said...

I don't remember the details, but Stephen Harvey's book on Minnelli explains how My Fair Lady got away from him.
This unapologetic auteurist took advantage many years ago to see Gigi on the big screen of the Olympia theater.

Happy Miser said...

Why do movies always have to have subtext or attitudes or advocacy about/for something. Films can be just stories. Certainly, musicals especially can just be love stories with music song by characters.
If film makes you ponder the mystery of life... fine; but, does that necessarily mean the film itself is about that?
I don't know. Perhaps, I'm superficial.

Caftan Woman said...

Let me add my "thank you" to the chorus of those in the responses.

I get so everlastingly tired of the "Gigi" bashing and the need to stand up for its, to me, undeniable artistry and to decry the misinterpretation of the story.

The Metzinger Sisters said...

Here, here. This film needs no defense, but you made your point excellently regardless. Gigi has long been one of my favorites ( my grandmother's too, whom we watched it with as children growing up ). I never saw anything reproachable with the story until a neighbor of ours said he despised Gigi because of its disgusting story line. No matter how many times I watched it since then, I still don't see anything objectionable with the film. Professor Higgins told his maid to take Eliza upstairs and "tear her clothes off!". There wasn't anything like that implied in Gigi and yet My Fair Lady continues to be an all-around winner. Arthur's list is made up of a lot of films that other critics have labeled "classics" and yet fall short when compared to some really great ( and not as famous ) films such as Powell and Pressburger's work ( which never won a Best Picture award ).

Buckeye said...

One of my warmest childhood memories as a little gilt is my mother singing "Thank Heaven for Little Girls" to me. Later in life we went to see "Gigi" on the big screen, and cried together. No one will ever take that away from me.

Skimpole said...

Sorry, Siren, but I'm still skeptical. I've seen seven Minnelli musicals, and clearly this is the least impressive. And the comparison with other best picture nominees is clearly off. I recall Carlo Rizzi and Buffallo Bill not surviving to the closing credits, nor is Michael Corleone very happy. "Vertigo" is a movie about erotic obsession that ends in disaster. "Gigi" is a movie involving prostitution that ends overly optimistic. Even if one believed "sex work" should be legal, it's hard to say that this is a subject that Hollywood has treated with scrupulous realism.

Lemora said...

Marilyn, I'd like to read it if you write about how Gigi is more a knowing and inventive film than My Fair Lady. I saw Rex Harrison on the stage in 1980, when he was seventy two, with Christine Ebersole as Eliza. It's hard to top his "I've Grown Accustomed To Her Face," either on the stage or on film. Karen, I agree about that dress in Gigi. The only other dress I've seen with stuffed birds on the shoulders was Scarlett's midnight blue number with a spangled net arrangement. It was maddeningly shown in a brief glimpse on the New Orleans Honeymoon, and not completely. My fantasy is that Lerner and Lowe write Rebecca as a musical, directed by Minelli, where the unnamed heroine gets to sing "Just You Wait, Max DeWinter, Just You Wait." Anita Pallenberg could play Mrs. Danvers.


Great defense! You are basic a movie attorney!
I didn't like Gigi as much as the other musicals because I saw an odd dubbed version. But it's a charming movie with great color effects.
The list didn't make me happy. Saying Wings was something like Crash of the silents? Putting all 1930s winners in the last positions? I was actually very surprised of All About Eve in number one. I could bet it was The Godfather, the film 10 among 10 pseudo-cinephiles say is the best.

pigoletto said...

Thank you. Context appears to not be a word the list maker is aware of, nevermind reading through the lyrics of 'Thank Heaven...' and every other point you make. People just fixate on a thing and blow it up into hysteria without actually looking to make sure there is something to get hysterical about in the first place....or then ignoring every other instance of where you might actually have a point about getting upset over something disturbing.

Unknown said...

Thanks for this post! As recently as last week, I was backpedaling on my own love for Gigi (allowing it to be "inherently icky" while still enjoying it for its music and visual style), but I was wrong to do that. You are right, as usual.

That said, I will say that I hated Gigi the first time I saw it (at about age 11 or 12) because growing up in a conservative Christian home, I had no concept of courtesans, and I assumed throughout the film that everyone was preparing Gigi for marriage to a rich gentleman all along, and when marriage was presented at the end as the alternative to what they were actually preparing her for, I was confused and dismayed. Watching it later, I realized it's actually quite adult and nuanced in its acceptance of what the societal situation were at that time and place. Musicals are often seen as bright and juvenile diversions, but I simply wasn't ready for Gigi at age 12.

Thank you again for this post that I can now use as ammunition to argue for how I actually feel about the film, rather than defend it in some half-assed and capitulating manner.

tomassocroccante said...

Your piece above is on the money and pretty well brilliant.

A question that several, including Siren, the listmaker, and some respondents have offered answers to is: what is Gigi "about?"

It is not about prostitution, or the role in life of women who attach themselves to married (rich) men (what are called in come societies "second wives".)

What Gigi is about is the end of an era. (Ah, yes, we remember it well.) Not the end of mistresses and the men who keep them (which even today we don't call "sex work.") Colette wrote Gigi in 1944, from the 20/20 rear-view vantage point that knew exactly the wave of change that lay ahead - the jazz age, modernism and 2 world wars included. (1944 was also the year women in France got the vote.) In 1958 the filmmakers were in the speeding post-war years and, along with their audiences, could look at the turn of the century as a time equally quaint, romantic and clearly over. (Minelli's Meet Me In St. Louis was another loving portrait of a time when many girls married as teenagers, both the working class and the well-to-do. The electrification of the Exposition at the film's end is a portent of a changing world, too - as is the scary prospect of moving to the big, fast New York City.)

Gigi is not the last of her kind ... she is the first of a new kind. She is a Cinderella who rises from a certain working class to marriage with a businessman - not an aristocrat, but a high-falutin bourgeois. As S-SS points out above, Gigi and Gaston are basically co-conspirators in usurping his old way of life - and creating their own kind of happiness (at least at the point of the story where the camera pulls away.)

Gigi asks her Aunt Alicia if no one in their family every marries. We sometimes marry "not at once", she responds, "but at last." Gig and Gaston reverse that prescription, and you can't help but feel that the author (and filmmakers) want us to believe that this is an improvement over the poignant memories of the previous generation.

BTW, Camille - that most famous story of a courtesan who indeed meets an early death - was written almost 100 years before Gigi. Contemporaneous to its writing, the story is, like many others of the mid 19th century, moralistic, if romantic. Gigi, though, is a romantic comedy, and a damn sight more innocent than Pretty Woman; lechery free, unlike American Beauty; no more corrupt than Summer of '42. On top of that it's gorgeous, with brilliant songs.

Alan Jay Lerner seems destined to write the Gigi screenplay and libretto. Serially married, Lerner was one of those men who LOVE women, possibly to a degree that made him a failure at loving one woman. When Gaston sings "What miracle has made you the way you are?" he marks a sea change: he is on his way to thinking of one woman (yes, a young one) rather than womankind. Seems pretty wholesome to me.

The Siren said...

I'm always amazed and so pleased when a post draws out new, brilliant commenters, as this one has. Thanks so much all of you.

" Serially married, Lerner was one of those men who LOVE women, possibly to a degree that made him a failure at loving one woman." Love that; it's worthy of Honore, and enormously plausible to boot.

Blakeney said...

I was introduced to Kate Aurthur when I read her article I applaud her then, as now, for not letting darker issues slide in the limelight of Hollywood glamour and aggrandizement.

Yes, Gigi is a feast for the eyes and ears. Many of the songs are charming, even touching. The costumes are gorgeous. The production values are sumptuous. And the realities behind all this window dressing are decidedly seedy.

Wrong is wrong – regardless of the time, culture, or mindset the wrong takes place in. Willingly engaging in sex work is not “living by your wits”, but allowing yourself to be sold at a price - the very act of which lowers the value of a human being. Raising a young girl to live this way is reprehensible, no matter how many catchy tunes or lovely costumes it’s dressed up in. Gigi’s redeeming feature is that she independently realizes there is something more meaningful than being a plaything.

Maurice Chevalier singing “Thank Heaven” has always had a way of making my skin crawl. It may not be a testament to pedophilia. But it certainly seems a testament to what women are viewed as being good for. As well as suggesting the idea that little girls’ only value is that they will grow up to offer more of the same.

Aurthur is upfront that hers is a subjective criticism. She may prefer the disturbing (her own word) Vertigo, but probably because at least all parties are adults.

tomassocroccante said...

Compare Colette's Gigi to Edith Wharton's Lily Bart, or any number of other heroines of the general period. The Mildred of Of Human Bondage. Lily from the upper echelon but without income. Mildred grasping for an escape from drudgery. Even if these women were dowered they would still be legally and socially limited according to their marriage or lack of it. As for Gigi's upbringing, it's clear that her elders know that life and feel it was "rewarding" and also know the unlikelihood of escaping the familial past. Again, it's a societal change that is on the way, as well as the romantic notion of the prince who makes a princess of a commoner.

Just one other thought: Colette also created Cheri, a young man from the same class as Gigi, who is kept as a plaything by an older woman - until he moves on to a conventional relationship. Being a man, he can do that.

Unknown said...

First time poster here. Amazing post. A bit late to this one, bit this debate intrigued me because only recently did I see Gigi for the first time, and until reading this article was oblivious to any ‘controversy’.

I enjoy classic musicals, with some of Minelli's among my favourites, but I've always employed the rule that the closer a musical gets to the 1960s the more likely it is to be bad (I find most of the big American 60s musicals unwatchable). Made in 1958, Gigi seemed borderline.

I finally saw Gigi on account of a song released in 2013 – Maxim’s, by Julia Holter, an LA musician who specialises in a kind of avant-garde pop, and who has a penchant for the theatrical. That description reads as so unbearably hipster, but her music is really good.

Julia Holter must be about in her late 20s, pretty much my age, and in Maxim’s she's been able to draw direct inspiration from Gigi (mainly from what the scene where everyone is watching everybody else in the eponymous nightclub), presumably without getting unduly hung up about Chevallier’s ode to “little girls” in the process.

When I finally watched Gigi I thoroughly enjoyed it. I agree there’s definitely there's that fin de siècle sensation (gently) emanating from it - all the individuals who defend the old ways are, well, old. With movies set in this era there’s always that knowledge that you’re looking back on a (heightened?) reconstruction of something soon to be irretrievably lost.

Belle Epoque-set classic movies are so often laden with this sense of acute nostalgia, even when they do portray male behaviour which is callous (think Letter from an Unknown Woman, Madame De), or just detached from any prevailing bourgeois morality (Gabin at the end of French Cancan giving his girl a dressing down for being all sulky and clingy).

In this floating world, things may have been in many respects worse relative to even the 40s or 50s, especially for women, but this world was still beautiful. What was lost can never be reclaimed. The fact that I can feel such a strange nostalgia for this age I never remotely knew, through movies made 30-40 years after that world was extinguished forever, (movies which are themselves artifacts from a world now forever gone) is surely something to be cherished?

Gigi aside, the same Buzzfeed article also featured a trite, insulting blurb on the Lost Weekend – a movie which, while admittedly a bit heavy, is stylistically a brilliant collision of realism and expressionism, and sports the wonderfully ambivalent, likeably unlikeable, always underrated Ray Milland. Still, it obviously doesn’t hold a candle to A Beautiful Mind.

monescu said...

I agree with your defense of GIGI, but I don't find the comparison with VERTIGO valid. The male-female relationship in VERTIGO is clearly shown to be unheathy and treated as such... the tragic ending is presented as a consequence of Scotty's sickness. Though I wouldn't agree with her, I believe the author of that article was suggesting that GIGI is pervaded by a similar perverse sickness... the difference being that this mindset is rewarded with a happy ending.

barrylane said...

Re GuitarBrothers comment, most of which I though fine, insightful and even soulful until he came to Ray Milland being underrated. If you mean by that forgotten by the people you know, say I t. He won the Academy Award, when that was a really bid deal, and made a lot of money. Not at all underrated, highly valued.

Suniverse said...

Ah, thank you. I love Gigi, unabashedly, and very much enjoy your defense.

Plus, Louis Jordan, HUBBA HUBBA.

Unknown said...

Thank you so much for this lovely article in defense of Gigi. I feel the same way!!! Such a beautiful movie.

And I would like to point out that the very popular "Twilight" series of today, while not nearly as strong in terms of filmmaking as "Gigi" - features a lovestory where a just turned 18 year old girl marries a man (well, a vampire) who is like 100 years old!!

P.S. if you like Gigi you might enjoy "Dangerous Beauty" - a 1998 gem of a movie about 16th century Venetian courtesans - it has a great lovestory, about a man who loves a brash, headstrong, smart, funny young woman coached into the family courtesan business, only to realize even after her "grown up and sexy" makeover, that he loves her just for who she really is. And it is based on the true story of the poet Veronica Franco, and is beautifully shot with amazing costumes and set design.

Crocheted Lace said...

That's why I don't pay attention to those types of lists and ignore the revisionist critics who see a dark message in everything. Don't they ever just see a movie and enjoy a story? And why always so dirty minded? Ms. Arthur appears to be over-educated and unliterate.
What is really sad about all this is that you had to write such a long post explaining the OBVIOUS. Don't these critical people actually hear the dialog and lyrics?
Ironically, the story is very conventional. The demi monde have codes of behavior just as strict as the respectably bourgeois married people. They are aiming for security (money) just as much as the respectable middle class Maman hoping to arrange a suitable marriage for a suitably raised and sheltered daughter. I guess Ms. Arthur was too busy seeing the "dirty story" to notice the bourgeois irony!
And if the Ms. Arthur is upset about Gigi, wasn't she upset about "Daddy Long Legs", where Caron marries a relatively ancient Fred Astaire. (Although in the original book, the age difference is the same as Gigi & Gaston.)
And just to remind people how common this type of story is, remember the charming novel "Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm", another adolescent girl sponsored by a man, who marries her when she grows up.
Always... they treat the child with affection and love the woman she grows into.
And back when the story takes place, young people grew up faster, got down to the serious business of adult life. People couldn't afford the ever expanding adolescent and teenage years young people enjoy now.

Crocheted Lace said...

That's why I don't pay attention to those types of lists and ignore the revisionist critics who see a dark message in everything. Don't they ever just see a movie and enjoy a story? And why always so dirty minded? Ms. Arthur appears to be over-educated and unliterate.
What is really sad about all this is that you had to write such a long post explaining the OBVIOUS. Don't these critical people actually hear the dialog and lyrics?
Ironically, the story is very conventional. The demi monde have codes of behavior just as strict as the respectably bourgeois married people. They are aiming for security (money) just as much as the respectable middle class Maman hoping to arrange a suitable marriage for a suitably raised and sheltered daughter. I guess Ms. Arthur was too busy seeing the "dirty story" to notice the bourgeois irony!
And if the Ms. Arthur is upset about Gigi, wasn't she upset about "Daddy Long Legs", where Caron marries a relatively ancient Fred Astaire. (Although in the original book, the age difference is the same as Gigi & Gaston.)
And just to remind people how common this type of story is, remember the charming novel "Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm", another adolescent girl sponsored by a man, who marries her when she grows up.
Always... they treat the child with affection and love the woman she grows into.
And back when the story takes place, young people grew up faster, got down to the serious business of adult life. People couldn't afford the ever expanding adolescent and teenage years young people enjoy now.

The Siren said...

Hi Crocheted Lace - (exc. name) - As I said waaay up in this long thread (so not it's buried at this point), Kate Authur couldn't have been more gracious about my passionate disagreement with her piece. Her sensibility may be (well, I think is) very modern but she has beautiful old-fashioned manners. In any rate, I do agree that there is a very pervasive fashion in criticism right now for assuming that anything worthwhile must take a dark, or at a minimum cynical or ironic view of human nature. Even comedies are subjected to that POV. So with older movies, you get frequent cases of people either treating a subtheme as the main point, or misinterpreting the film altogether. I read both Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm and Daddy-Long-Legs growing up; I agree with your take on those books.

It's odd how our vaunted modern sophistication actually makes us less accepting of certain things. Another example was the recent film "The Invisible Woman," which painted Dickens' affair with Nelly Ternan as joyless exploitation and unrelieved shame. The filmmakers refused to countenance the idea that there was any pleasure in the relationship for Nelly, an attitude more Victorian than the Victorians.

danyulengelke said...

Great review!

We're linking to your article for Academy Monday at

Segal NYC said...

I am so appreciative of this post about GIGI. I grew up loving it since I was six. So much so that I am producing it for Broadway and it has been taken back into female hands by Heidi Thomas of Call the Midwife. There is no question Heidi and I are both feminists. We both also grew up feeling empowered by GIGI as did Leslie Caron who at a speaking engagement for her book THANK HEAVEN told the crowd that she was in a bad place when she played GIGI and the character "elevated her."

When I began working on GIGI and was confronted by the pedophile angle I was shocked! I was adored by the men in my family and never in a tawdry way. It has saddened me to realize some view the song THANK HEAVEN through a different lens.

Fortunately, Colette understood that the world changes and adapts. She wrote the book on moving the needle. So like Anita Loos in 54 and Lerner and Loewe in 58 then again in 73, we have adapted GIGI to move with the times rather than die with the haters. I hope you will love it and one day will be my guest when we make it to the stage at the Kennedy Center this January.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for defending my favorite movie. The sort of criticism to which you've responded is as scary as it is irrational.

The blue-nose is nothing if not self-righteous. Christianity -- and I am not a Christian -- at least offers the principle "none is righteous, no not one," "all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God," and "let him who is without sin cast the first stone." Self-righteousness without thoughts like these is unrestrained; and that's what we see everywhere today.

I think this may have been what Chesterton was talking about, when he said that, when a religion is shattered, the virtues that are set free to run wild do more damage than the consequent indulgence in vice.

Grainne Swann said...

Gigi is probably one of my favourites and it's so stupid that people get so worked up about something that was so standard just a century ago. I mean, I get where they're coming from but seriously, take a history lesson and deal with the fact that sometimes life isn't all sunshine and rainbows and unicorns. There's this thing called progress people - look it up in a dictionary!
If they have a problem with the concept of 16 year olds having sex then they need to grow up because here in the U.K. our age of consent is 16, the same age Gigi is in the film - we can even get married at 16 if parents consent to it. Besides, look at the number of real teen pregnancies in first world countries and then tell me that it's inappropriate for the implication to appear in films.
If it's the age gap, why don't they just do some productive like raising awareness and support for all those poor girls in the world who get married off to grown men as soon as they have their first period instead of getting outraged at the relationships between and events surrounding fictional characters!