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Gigi: La petite mademoiselle

RAMNATH N PAI RAIKAR | NT NETWORK

‘Gigi’ (1958) is often considered the last great Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer musical and the final great achievement of the Freed Unit, headed by the producer, Arthur Freed, although post-‘Gigi ’he would go on to produce several more films, including the musical, ‘Bells Are Ringing’ in 1960.

Freed proposed a musicalisation of the 1944 novella, ‘Gigi’ by the French novelist, Colette to lyricist, Alan Jay Lerner during the Philadelphia tryout of ‘My Fair Lady’ in 1954, on its route to Broadway. When Lerner arrived in Hollywood two years later, Freed was battling the Hays Code – the Hollywood censor – for bringing this tale of a courtesan-in-training to the screen. Another roadblock to the project was the fact that Colette’s widower had sold the rights to her novella to Gilbert Miller, who planned to produce a film version of the 1951 stage adaptation of ‘Gigi’ by America playwright, Anita Loos. Once Freed was able to convince the film industry’s Code Office to view the story as condoning rather than glorifying a system of mistresses, he paid Colette’s widower $125,000 for the musical rights, and bought out Loos’ play version for $87,000.

When the time came to choose the director for the film, the only name that surfaced was of Vincente Minnelli, who has previously directed some of Freed’s most successful musicals for the MGM, during the studio’s heydays.

Lerner’s partner in song writing and leading composer, Frederick Loewe had expressed no interest in working in Hollywood, so Lerner agreed to write the screenplay only. He and Freed discussed casting; Lerner favoured Audrey Hepburn, who had starred in the Broadway production of ‘Gigi’, but she was making the film ‘Funny Face’ (1957) at the time and declined. Eventually Freed preferred Leslie Caron who had co-starred in ‘An American in Paris’ (1951) for him. Caron accepted his offer. Her singing voice was dubbed by Betty Wand.

Both Freed and Lerner agreed that the French actor, Maurice Chevalier would be ideal for aging boulevardier, Honoré Lachaille, while Lerner proposed the English actor, Dirk Bogarde for the role of Gaston Lachaille. Lerner agreed to write the lyrics if Freed could convince Bogarde and designer, Cecil Beaton to join the project. Both fortunately expressed interest in the film, but ultimately Bogarde was unable to free himself from his contract with J Arthur Rank of Rank Organisation, and had to refuse the role. Finally, recalling French actor, Louis Jourdan from his performance in the 1954 film, ‘Three Coins in the Fountain’, Freed offered him the role of Gaston.

By this time, Lerner decided to approach Loewe once again, and when he suggested they compose the score in Paris, Loewe agreed. In March 1957, the duo began working in Paris. “Say a Prayer for Me Tonight”, a solo performed by Gigi, had been originally written for the character of Eliza Doolittle in ‘My Fair Lady’, but was removed during the play’s pre-Broadway run. Lerner disliked the melody, but Loewe, Freed, and Minnelli voted to include it in the film. By mid-July, the composers had completed most of the score.

In late April of 1957, Freed, Minnelli and their respective entourages arrived in Paris. The weather had become unseasonably hot, and working in un-air conditioned hotel rooms was uncomfortable. Minnelli began scouting locations while Freed and Lerner discussed the still incomplete script. The film was eventually shot mostly on location in Paris, uniquely capturing the spirit and beauty of the ‘City of Romance’ during the turn of the century. In September, the cast and crew flew to California, where several interior scenes were filmed.

Following completion of the film, it was previewed in Santa Barbara. Audience reaction was overwhelmingly favourable, but Lerner and Loewe were dissatisfied with the end result. Lerner felt it was 20 minutes too long and most of the action too slow. The changes he proposed would cost an additional $300,000, the money Freed was unwilling to spend. The song-writing team of Lerner-Loewe offered to buy 10 per cent of the film for $300,000, and then offered $3 million for the print. Impressed with their belief in the film, MGM executives agreed to the changes, which included 11 days of considerable reshooting, putting the project at $400,000 over budget.

Shot in widescreen CinemaScope and rich Metrocolor, Gigi had Perspecta Stereo sound system, a ‘directional sound system’ rather than a true stereophonic sound system, invented by the laboratories at Fine Sound Inc in 1954.

‘Gigi’ premiered at the Royale Theatre, in New York City, on May 15, 1958. Critics as well as audiences hailed the film. According to MGM records, the film earned $6.5 million in the US and Canada, and $3.2 million elsewhere during its initial theatrical release, resulting in a profit of $1,983,000. Produced at a budget of $3,319,355, in total, the film grossed $13,208,725 in its initial release and later 1966 re-release.

‘Gigi’ won a record-breaking nine Academy Awards, however, the record only lasted for one year, as ‘Ben-Hur’ (1959) broke this record the following year by winning 11 Oscars. In tribute to the domination of ‘Gigi’ at the Oscars, the MGM switchboard answered calls the following day with ‘M-Gigi-M’. ‘Gigi’, eventually along with 1987’s ‘The Last Emperor’, held the record as the films with the most Academy Award wins in every category – nine in all – in which they were nominated, until 2003’s ‘The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King’ broke the record with 11 Oscar nominations and 11 Oscar wins.

 

TRIVIA

The title design for ‘Gigi’ uses the artwork of French caricaturist, Georges ‘Sem’ Goursat from the Belle Époque, a period of Western history.

Gaston’s walk through Paris while singing ‘Gigi’ uses camera magic to make parts of Paris which are miles apart seem adjacent to each other. This technique, called ‘creative geography’, was created and named by French filmmaker Jean Cocteau.

Director Vincente Minnelli, who reportedly lost 35 pounds during the filming of ‘Gigi’, titled his 1974 autobiography as ‘I Remember It Well’ after one of the songs written for this film.

In about 2008, ‘Gigi’ was digitally restored by Prasad Studios, Hyderabad, which removed dirt, tears, scratches, and other defects frame by frame.

 

Plot

In 1900 Paris, Honoré Lachaille (Maurice Chevalier) surrounded by members of high society in the park – Bois de Boulogne – remarks that in Paris, marriage is not the only option for wealthy youth like his nephew, Gaston (Louis Jourdan), who is bored with life. The one thing Gaston truly enjoys is spending time with Madame ‘Mamita’ Alvarez (Hermione Gingold), more specifically her precocious, carefree granddaughter, Gilberte ‘Gigi’ (Leslie Caron).

Following the ‘family tradition’, Madame Alvarez sends Gigi to her great aunt, Alicia (Isabel Jeans) to be groomed as a courtesan. To Alicia, love is an art, and a necessary accomplishment for Gigi’s social and economic future, but Gigi shows disdain for such trivial love. Remaining true to her girlish, yet charming personality, she finds herself having the most fun when she is with Gaston.

Like his uncle, Gaston is known as a wealthy womaniser. Paris watches his every move, and Parisian high society shows unrestrained judgment towards his mistresses and him. Gaston’s latest mistress attempts to run off with her ice skating instructor. In response, he publicly humiliates her, resulting in her attempted suicide. After this ordeal, Gaston wishes to retreat to the country, but his uncle insists on him staying in Paris and attending more parties.

Gigi makes a bet during a card match with Gaston, suggesting that if he loses, he has to take her grandmother and her to the sea with him when he goes on vacation. Gaston agrees, loses, and they all travel to Trouville. While Gaston and Gigi have fun together, Honoré and Madame Alvarez reveal their once-passionate relationship.

Once back in Paris, Gigi’s aunt and grandmother discuss the possibility of Gigi becoming Gaston’s mistress. Gigi accepts this as a necessary evil. Meanwhile, Gaston goes to Monte Carlo for some time.

When Gaston returns, he and Gigi has number of quarrels over various issues like Gigi’s new adult outfit and taking Gigi to tea at Le Réservoir. Gaston then starts reflecting about Gigi. He suddenly realises that Gigi has become a woman whose charms, wit, and personality have captivated him, and concludes that he has developed a romantic desire for her. Although he has doubts due to their enormous age difference, he also realises that he loves her even more than he thought, which is unheard of between a man and a mistress. He proposes an arrangement to Madame Alvarez and Aunt Alicia for Gigi to become his mistress. They are overjoyed. Gigi, wisely, is not.

Gigi is worried that Gaston may one day drop her for a new mistress. Gigi wants their relationship to remain platonic but when Gaston accidentally reveals that he loves her, she bursts into tears. Gigi later calls Gaston up, admitting she would rather be miserable with him than without him and agrees to accompany him in public. Gigi dresses in finery for their date, and when Gaston arrives, he is entranced by her beauty.

They go to a restaurant, where Gigi acts the role of courtesan perfectly. Honoré then delivers a crushing blow when he congratulates Gaston on his new courtesan and makes degrading remarks towards Gigi. Gaston, who does not want to give an appalling life of uncertainty to Gigi, leaves without a word, dragging Gigi home crying. However, he stops a little way down the street and realises his love for her is too strong, so he does something he never thought he would do and proposes marriage.

The scenario ends with Honoré Lachaille, proudly pointing out to the happily married Gaston and Gigi riding in their carriage in the Bois de Boulogne.

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