The 1958 film, Gigi, is commonly thought to herald the end of the Golden Age of Musicals. Before that, however, it was a Broadway hit. Before that, it was a French film. And even before that, it was a novella by Colette. The story of wandering eyes and changing impressions is as light and airy as French champagne, leaving one happy and maybe a little lightheaded.
The basic outline of Gigi is this: Gilberte is a young girl living in Paris with her grandmother, Madame Alvarez and her second-string opera-singing mother. She’s being trained as a courtesan. Gilberte’s grandmother sends her to her Aunt Alicia’s where she learns how to tell real jewels from fake, how to wear the latest fashions, how to eat such tricky delicacies as lobster and ortolan, and how to pour tea and coffee properly.
A frequent visitor to Gilberte’s apartment is Gaston Lachaille, a rich playboy who’s known Gilberte all her life. He calls Gilberte “Gigi,” and she calls him “Tonton.” Gaston is like a big brother, bringing her sweets and letting her ride in his car. The two of them like to play cards together, with Gilberte usually winning. Outside the house, Gaston carries on his own affairs with women of suitable age as well as cougars, one of whom, Liane, teases a suicide. She always does this when she’s been scorned or caught cheating, but she never goes through with it.
As Gilberte gets older, Gaston begins to see her differently and vice versa. Gilberte isn’t content to be a courtesan, either. Already a free spirit, Gilberte rebels against her grooming, wanting something more permanent and real. It’s perfectly obvious what that is, but Colette only teases it, letting readers fill in the blanks.
The famed French writer published her novella in 1944. Colette’s inspiration was socialite Yola Letellier, who, like Gigi, was trained as a courtesan. She married Henri Letellier, who was forty years older than she was, but her chief claim to fame is that she was the mistress of Lord Louis Mountbatten, filling his time between his other, briefer dalliances.
Yola was a constant fixture at the Mountbatten abode, even getting to know the Mountbatten children, who regarded her as extended family. Edwina, Mountbatten’s wife, was frightfully jealous even though she was never faithful to her husband, but Lola and Mountbatten kept each other company until Mountbatten’s death in 1979.
Any resemblance between Gigi and Yola was purely coincidental. Unlike her real-life counterpart, Gigi marries a much younger man out of love and presumably stays faithful to him.
Gigi first came to the screen in a 1949 French production starring Daniele Delorme as the title character. It’s a cute enough movie, but it’s a little bland and the pacing is a bit funny. It felt like the filmmakers were ticking all the basic story elements while missing the point. Plus the subtitles jumped around sometimes and were impossible to read.
Who knows, it could have been the fault of the bad YouTube copy I watched, but then again, there were scenes that were definitely weird, like the one when Madame Alvarez cautions Gigi about decency. Gigi answers that she’s wearing panties. Ohhh-kay.
The film also glossed over the relationship between Gaston and Gigi; they spend a lot of time playing cards and going to the skating rink, but once she starts growing up there are a lot of false starts and no real progression. Again, I’m chalking it up to the bad YouTube copy.
On the other hand, though, Colette may not have been enthused about the film and sought to have more control over any future productions. The next time Gigi was dramatized, it was for Broadway and written by liguistic powerhouse Anita Loos. Colette cast around for Gigi, and it’s rumored that she spied potential leads everywhere she looked.
When Colette saw Audrey Hepburn, though, it was all over. She was vacationing in Monaco, where Hepburn was filming Monte Carlo Baby, and legend has it Colette said, “Voila ma Gigi!” or, “Here’s my Gigi!”
Hepburn had to be taught to speak onstage, but the play was a tremendous success, running for two-hundred nineteen performances between November 24, 1951 and May 31, 1952. The script was much tighter and more linear than its 1949 predecessor, not to mention Gigi and Tonton spent less time at the skating rink. The play brought Hepburn a Theatre World Award at the 1952 Tonys and was a great launching point for her career in America. She would go from Gigi to Roman Holiday and the rest, as they always say, is history.
When it came to making Gigi into another film, the biggest hurdle was the Production Code–Breen didn’t think the story or Loos’s script were suitable for the screen. It wasn’t until Loos hit on the idea of turning the play into a musical that things finally took off, especially once Arthur Freed was on board. Lerner and Loewe were brought on to write the book, lyrics, and music. Hepburn was, unfortunately, unable to reprise her role as Gigi, so Leslie Caron took over.
The film shows how sophisticated and sweeping the MGM musical was in the late fifties, with its opening on the Bois du Boulogne. It’s full of light and people and color, always in motion and always exciting. Some scenes look like Toulouse-Lautrec or Gaugin paintings, with extras on riverbanks or in cafes. The movie is almost like an operetta, with the songs and dialogue integrated seamlessly.
Our host, Honoré Lachaille (Maurice Chevalier) reminds us that there are only two kinds of people in the world: Those who will not marry and those who do not. Those who will not marry are men, and those who do not are women.
Speaking of Honoré, one of the unusual things about the 1958 film is that his character was filled out considerably. In all other versions, Honoré is a peripheral figure who only turns up when Gaston needs to chat, and he’s usually found having lunch in a cafe somewhere. In the 1958 version, Honoré is woven through the story, not only as a conduit for the audience, but he has a couple of sweet scenes with former flame Madame Alvarez (Hermione Gingold), including the classic song, “I Remember It Well.”
Leslie Caron’s performance as the title character is charming, although she doesn’t do much dancing and her singing voice was dubbed by Betty Ward. She has a fun chemistry with the elegant Louis Jourdan as Gaston, who sings warmly and twinkles at Gigi.
The movie really leans into the theme of little girls growing up, from “Thank Heaven For Little Girls” to “Gaston’s Soliloquy,” and it’s not shy about what being a courtesan means. Gigi says flat-out that being a kept woman means going from bed to bed and being cast off when men get tired of her.
Despite the Production Code Office’s misgivings about the subject matter, the movie was an immense success, nominated for nine Oscars and winning in every category. Film historians agree it gave Maurice Chevalier’s career a shot in the arm, suddenly making him busier than he was before. The movie was later adapted for Broadway, making its debut in 1973.
What I find interesting about Gigi is that the story hinges on the title character doing the right thing and respecting herself instead of giving into being a courtesan or a free-spirit. Colette wasn’t the most moral person herself by any means, and the idea that Gigi wants to be married instead of an object goes against the usuals of both the story and the author. Maybe Colette was wishing her life had turned out differently and was living that out through Gigi.
That’s probably why the most recent versions of Gigi haven’t done so well. While the 1973 musical won a Tony for Best Score, it only ran for 103 performances, and one of the latter-day criticisms is that Daniel Massey was a little too old to play Gaston. The 2015 revival starring Vanessa Hudgens downplayed the courtesan aspect of the story. Honoré’s “Thank Heaven For Little Girls” was sung by Madame Alvarez and Aunt Alicia, and and the prevailing opinion was that the whole thing was rather flat and tasteless. Oops. Cuteness can only get one so far.
Gigi seems to work best when the title character is allowed to be herself. While it’s a light and airy story, its effervescence can be diverting and that’s all that matters. It wasn’t MGM’s last musical, but it can’t be denied that the Golden Age went out with a high degree of class.
Hope you check back tomorrow to see my entry for the Olivia de Havilland Blogathon. Thanks for reading, everyone…
Colette. Gigi, Julie de Carneilha, and Chance Acquaintances: Three Short Novels. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Young. 1952.
Hicks, Pamela. Daughter of Empire: My Life As a Mountbatten. New York: Simon & Schuster. 2014.