Forgotten Classic: Les Girls (1957)

Les Girls is such a unique musical, I’m surprised there isn’t more out there about it. For Gene Kelly, it was his last starring musical for MGM and it was his only teaming with the wonderful director George Cukor. Cole Porter’s last film score increases its pedigree, as well as the fantastic contributions of Mitzi Gaynor and Kay Kendall. But what amuses me the most about Les Girls is its structure. It can’t be easy to create original material for one of the oldest genres there is, yet this film does a beautiful job in my opinion. You see, the narrative focuses on a trio of girls who worked in an entertainment act together, with Gene Kelly as their manager/choreographer/director/co-star (he basically does it all, like Kelly himself). However, the film is broken up into three sections, each section from a different person’s viewpoint. Let’s see if I can explain it…

We start in a London courthouse. Sybil (Kendall), or Lady Wren as she’s now known, has written her memoirs about her times with Les Girls. It’s become quite the controversial book, and one of the girls, Angele (Taina Elg), is furious that Sybil included a tale about her supposed suicide attempt, causing her to sue.
Sybil is called to the stand and so begins her account of what happened. She takes us back to 1949 when her and the other member of the group, Joy (Gaynor), first met Angele after Barry (Kelly) was forced to audition for a third girl when the original one decided to quit to get married. Barry is quite impressed with Angele, and Joy and Sybil know it’s not because she can sing and dance, although that helps.

Barry is very serious about the act, though. He immediately tells Angele his rules: “I don’t interfere with my girls’ private lives, but I don’t let it interfere with their work either. I have a few simple rules that I insist on, I call them my three P’s. My girls have to be prompt, persistent, and perfect.” Angele moves in with Joy and Sybil, and they find out that she hasn’t been entirely honest. She told Barry that she had no fiancé, but she does indeed and he thinks she’s studying to be a nurse, not a performer. (From the beginning, we see that Pierre did become her husband.) She’s also pretty excited to learn that Barry lives in the building next to them.


The new Les Girls hit the stage and they’re a success. Backstage, Angele practically throws herself at Barry and she’s about as subtle as a sledge hammer. She asks the girls if Barry is upset to be away from his wife, to which Joy responds “Barry fell in love with himself the first time he looked in a mirror and he’s been faithful ever since!” That’s one thing I love about this movie—Sybil and Joy have Barry’s number, but they’re still a strong team and accept each other as they are. It makes the film that much more fun to watch, too, because it really does feel like they have history together.


 
Anyway, Angele is learning that being in Les Girls isn’t all fun. Barry ruins her plans to go out on the town (which she implies as cheating on her fiancé—Angele is the worst) and forces her to stay after the show to rehearse for hours on a routine. It’s a little bizarre, but damned if it isn’t still a cool Gene Kelly number. Jack Cole did the film’s choreography and it’s really amazing. This number in particular involves Kelly wrapped in rope that gets pulled by Elg and then entangles them both in a seductive dance. It’s interesting to say the least, and the dance’s final clutch suddenly has Barry mixing business with pleasure.



They start dating, and although they think they’re fooling everyone with their many “rehearsals,” they’re really not. One day, Angele’s fiancé, Pierre (the dashing Jacques Bergerac), shows up just minutes after she’s left to rendezvous with Barry. Sybil and Joy are forced to lie for her, which makes you feel sorry for poor Pierre.
Especially when the scene cuts to Angele and Barry lounging in a canoe, where Angele bursts into “Ca C’est l’Amour.” Interestingly enough, they’re supposed to be on the Seine, but they were actually in the pool Esther Williams always used! And I must say, the scene is beautifully done, particularly the lighting.

Pierre brings distressing news—his parents are coming and he wants them to meet Angele. She manages to postpone the meeting until after the show, but what she doesn’t foresee is Pierre coming to the show that night. They’re performing a routine when Joy spots them in the audience. I must discuss this number, “Ladies-in-Waiting.” It’s shocking to me how risqué it is, which just shows how far censorship came, even though it’s only 1957 and the Code wouldn’t be totally dropped until the 1960’s.
The girls are 17th century ladies-in-waiting who sing about how they’re “on the spot because we have to give the king everything!” Then, one by one, they enter the king’s chambers, revealing that their dresses are cut out in the back and a little blue bow rests on their backside. When they leave the chambers, they put the bow in their hair with a shocked expression on their face. It’s amazing that this stuff got by the censors, and it gives you a sense of what Cole Porter’s shows must have been like on the stage where there wasn’t a strict censorship code. On a personal note, this song gets stuck in my head all the time.

But back to the film. Angele practically ruins the number because she sucks keeps trying to hide her face until she finally just runs off the stage. Needless to say, Barry is none too happy, especially when he goes to do the rope routine and she stays in her dressing room. In a hilarious moment, Barry, thinking Angele is under the platform to pull the rope and start the dance, says out of the corner of his mouth “Pull!” He doesn’t realize that a stagehand hears him and he yanks on the rope, causing Barry to fall on his face. He gets up and tells “her” to pull again, only to fall back on his face. Now he’s furious. He chews Angele out and kicks her out of the group, refusing to listen to her. She tearfully goes home, where Sybil finds her passed out due to gas inhalation.


We’re suddenly back in the present day, where the prosecutor reveals that Pierre was not at the theater that night so Sybil must be lying. She one-ups him, though, by reminding him that it was Joy who said she saw Pierre, not her. Plus, she can’t even see 10 feet in front of her without glasses. The next day, it’s Angele’s turn on the stand. Her story starts with her and Joy hanging out at the flower market. An Englishman named Gerald Wren (Sybil’s future husband) approaches them and asks if they know Sybil. They say they do, but she’s currently out walking, although it is clearly a lie by how nervous they act.


Joy distracts Gerald while Angele goes upstairs and sees Sybil is completely drunk. Apparently it’s become quite a problem because Angele asks where she possibly found alcohol after she and Joy hid it all. It’s a hilarious scene thanks to Kay Kendall, but also a little sad when you remember that they’re saying she’s an alcoholic. The interesting thing is the film hints at a problem earlier in Sybil’s section. When Pierre meets the girls, Joy gives him a drink which he then offers to Sybil. She says she doesn’t drink, and it’s only a split second, but her eyes look away from Pierre as if she’s embarrassed. She is also shown taking a spoonful of medicine periodically to soothe her throat, which in Angele’s section, Angele says that it is what caused her to become an addict.


Barry finds out that Sybil is drunk again, and he’s ready to cut her loose. Angele and Joy plead with him, but when that doesn’t work, Angele lies and says that Sybil drinks because she’s madly in love with him and knows he doesn’t love her back. This immediately appeals to Barry’s ego and he softens towards her in hopes of her achieving sobriety. He becomes gentle and even goes so far as to have the whole group stop drinking to show support, and guess what? They become a couple. This leads us to my second favorite number from the movie, “You’re Just Too Too.” Barry is packing with the help of Sybil because the act is going on the road. They flirt like crazy and segue into their song. It’s adorable and so enjoyable to watch. Luckily you can see the whole scene here. Please do!

Everything is going great until the act is in Grenada. Sybil goes to a café to meet with Barry, but instead she runs into Gerald. Barry shows up and they all sit down to talk. Gerald piques Barry’s interest when he tells him that he can finance a theater for Barry in London—he doesn’t want Sybil to continue her performing career, but if the act moves permanently to London at least he and Sybil will be in the same city. She isn’t thrilled with this, so she lies to Barry that Gerald took back his offer after she told him that they were together. Unfortunately, this causes Barry to deny to Gerald that he has any relationship with Sybil. He then tells her the real reason why he began an affair with her, which crushes her.

Sybil breaks her sobriety and during a performance of “Ladies-in-Waiting,” her drunkenness ruins the number. Barry reluctantly fires her, and Angele discovers her passed out from gas inhalation at their apartment. Angele says that after that, she didn’t see Sybil again. The next day at the trial, Barry appears and is put on the stand. Now it’s finally time for the truth since, as Barry says, “There were bound to be misunderstandings. You see, certain things happened that neither of the girls knew anything about.”

This section starts off with quite the revelation: Barry was in love with Joy! We see just how different it really was the second we see Barry—he literally only has eyes for Joy, and when he asks her to go to dinner, she reveals that they just had this fight the night before and she’s tired of it. But Barry keeps persisting and follows her to the apartment.


It turns out that although Barry tells her that he loves her, she wants more than that, specifically marriage. As you can tell from this photo of Barry saying “marriage,” he’s not too keen on settling down. He suggests a long engagement, but Joy isn’t buying it.


She knows she can’t avoid Barry forever, but she can for the rest of the night, so she goes to “slip into something else,” only to return in a huge robe and a ridiculous hairstyle. She then unattractively groans as she soaks her feet. Barry gets the hint and leaves, but after he slams the door, he shouts my favorite line: “Someday there’s going to be a murder in this attic and it won’t be a mystery!”

He returns to his apartment and is visited by Pierre and Gerald. The two guys want Barry to essentially fire Angele and Sybil so the women will finally marry them. When they learn that Barry is in love with Joy, they persuade him by suggesting that without the other two girls, he can be in the act alone with Joy. Barry agrees to help them, but he can’t just fire them. Instead, he’ll entice them to quit themselves. How, you may ask? By faking a terminal heart condition. The next time he sees Joy, he clutches his chest in mock pain, but brushes her off to stoke her attention.

That night, the two perform my favorite, “Why Am I So Gone about That Gal?” It’s clearly a send-up of Marlon Brando in The Wild One, but it’s a lot of fun and it mirrors Barry’s relationship troubles. I love everything about this number—the set, the song, the dancing. It’s so so so good. Unfortunately, there used to be a full clip on YouTube, but now I could only find one that cuts off half of Kelly's singing. All of the dancing is intact, though, so I'll link it here. Even if you’ve seen the number, watch it again. Although Jack Cole was the choreographer, he was ill with hepatitis at the time and so Kelly created the dance himself without taking screen credit. Anyway, after their routine, Barry continues acting like he has a health problem. He asks Joy not to tell the other girls, knowing that she definitely will. The girls are distraught, with Sybil noting that his heart must have been why he stopped drinking a few weeks ago (clever, no?). Angele and Sybil decide they’ll quit, for Barry’s sake.



They throw a party for their one-year anniversary as Les Girls, and the girls can’t help but show how upset they are. (Look at those dresses, though!) Sybil and Angele gently break their news to Barry, which he slyly accepts, leaving the two to commiserate to each other that their professional and personal lives are in ruins since they hadn’t heard from their suitors in weeks (the guys
trying to play hard-to-get). Joy takes Barry home and he milks his “condition” as much as he can. However, when he tries to get intimate with her, she tells him she doesn’t want to excite him and be responsible for something going wrong. He’s so frustrated, he finally blurts out the truth. She’s only a little upset...


She runs out and hides behind a column. He goes after her and, thinking she’s upstairs, yells repeatedly that he loves her. His shouts wake up one of the apartment tenants, who opens the building’s gate and lets him in. Barry runs upstairs only to smell gas. He busts into the apartment and sees Sybil and Angele unconscious. Back in the present day, the judge asks Barry which girl had attempted suicide. Neither had! The gas heater had unconnected itself, and each girl assumed the other had done it on purpose. Outside the courthouse, Sybil and Angele finally reconcile. Meanwhile, Barry gets into a car and sits beside his wife, Joy. She’s glad he was able to clear up what happened, but why would Sybil and Angele make up affairs with him? Barry claims his innocence as the camera cuts to a man walking outside wearing a sandwich board that says “What is truth?” What is indeed?


This movie's structure is so great because you find yourself with a lot of questions once it ends. Did Barry really romance Sybil and/or Angele? Did Pierre and Gerald ask him for help, or was he just trying to resolve everything and it worked? Did Sybil actually have a drinking problem? What about the gas leak--was it an accident? The questions could go on.

Les Girls was originally going to star Cyd Charisse, Leslie Caron, and Kay Kendall, which would have been really interesting to see. As you probably noticed, I’m not a fan of Taine Elg. She plays her part a bit too broadly, and Angele is really my least favorite character. It would have been very different to have Caron play it instead, but apparently she had “creative differences” with George Cukor. Charisse turned down the film to do Silk Stockings with Fred Astaire, and I think it was the right choice. Mitzi Gaynor does a marvelous job as Joy.


Kendall originally didn’t want to do the movie because her husband, Rex Harrison, was on Broadway doing My Fair Lady. The two had met and fallen in love in 1954 when Harrison was still married to Lilli Palmer. His wife knew of the affair, and when Kendall’s doctor told Harrison that she had leukemia, Palmer told Harrison that they would divorce and he would marry Kendall so she could live out her life with him. Palmer, however, expected Harrison to remarry her after Kendall passed away, which he didn’t do. Kendall wasn’t told about her condition, but she knew her health was slowly failing. By the time Les Girls came along, the Harrisons were determined to spend as much time together as they could so leaving Rex in New York wasn’t an option for Kay. She relented, however, when MGM offered to fly her to New York every weekend. Unfortunately, Kendall died in 1959 at the age of 32. She was really a magnificent actress. She could be laugh-out-loud funny one minute and then heartbreakingly serious the next. I’ve only seen this film and The Reluctant Debutante (with Rex Harrison), but I highly recommend seeking her out. And if you know of any good movies of hers, please let me know!

George Cukor did a great job at directing. This movie reminds me a lot of a Vincente Minnelli film, actually. The lighting, the sets, the bursts of color--it all just seems very Minnelli to me. That being said, it also bares a resemblance to Cukor's My Fair Lady, which was released 7 years later, so maybe the Minnelli touch is just in my head. Anyway, I hope this inspires you to check out Les Girls! It’s such a great musical and it deserves appreciation.



With love,
Michaela

Comments

  1. Fun, sexy movie. The girls are gorgeous and Gene Kelly is devilishly attractive. Worth purchasing.

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    Replies
    1. I agree wholeheartedly! Thanks for reading!

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  2. Kay Kendall's best film, in my opinion, is Genevieve (1953), a very funny British comedy with Dinah Sheridan, John Gregson, and Kenneth More. She's never been more beautiful or more funny. One of Kay Kendall's highlights in the film is her 2 trumpet solos (although the trumpet was performed by a real trumpet player, but she's still great). This gem of a film has so many great moments: the dialogue, the English humor (which ruffled the feathers of the Production Code in the U.S.), all the funny moments during both days of the two couples' road trips in antique autos (especially their race on the second day). The women (Kay Kendall and Dinah Sheridan) were memorable in their reactions at how silly & competitive their men were behaving (of course, at other times the women were angry - justifiably - at their men's behaviors). Filmed in gorgeous 50s British Technicolor. I'd be be glad to know your thoughts about this film. You can look it up on IMDB.com:

    http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0045808/?ref_=fn_al_tt_1

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    Replies
    1. This sounds like an amazing movie! Thank you so much for bringing it to my attention! I adore Kay Kendall and I love finding more films from her.

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