Gigi Times Three

Gigi Alvar is a girl who has had many lives. She first appeared in 1944 as the heroine of French author Colette's novella, which tells the story of Gigi's progression from a mischievous tomboy to a lovely young woman as she is groomed by her Great-Aunt Alicia and Grandmama to become the mistress of wealthy Gaston Lachaille. While the premise sounds vulgar, Colette's novella manages to be humorous, romantic, and sharp, much like Gigi herself. Readers loved it, and in 1949, the first film version was made in France. Just two years later, Anita Loos adapted the story for Broadway; Gigi would return to the Great White Way as a musical in 1973 and as a short-lived revival in 2015.

But, of course, when we think of Gigi, the first thing that comes to mind is Vincente Minnelli's 1958 masterpiece. This film holds a really special place in my heart, so much so that I knew doing a regular review of it wasn't what I wanted to do. Instead, I decided to do a deep dive into the world of Gigi, Grandmama, Aunt Alicia, and Gaston by looking at the three most important versions of their narrative: the original novella, the 1951 play, and Minnelli's film. So, grab some licorice and a cup of chamomile tea, because this is going to be super long extensive.

INVENTING CHAMPAGNE

By 1944, Colette was a well-known, accomplished author whose works often focused on love and sex. Her most famous piece was Gigi, which was inspired by Yola Letellier, the wife of Henri Letellier, the publisher of Le Journal and the former mayor of Deauville.

Gigi is set at the turn of the 20th century and provides a rather frank look at the Alvar women as they prepare young Gigi for the family tradition of living life as a courtesan. Instead of experiencing a normal childhood, the girl has been isolated and is forced to attend lessons at her Aunt Alicia's house. Gigi's greatest joy in life is spending time with rich playboy Gaston Lachaille, a family friend who relieves his perpetual boredom by visiting with Gigi and her grandmother.

One day, Gaston is surprised to realize that Gigi is no longer a little girl but instead an attractive, desirable young woman. Aunt Alicia and Grandmama are thrilled with this turn of events, and negotiate with Gaston for Gigi to become his mistress. To the shock of everyone, though, Gigi refuses to enter into such an arrangement. When Gaston admits that he is in love with her, she is stunned and outraged that he would want such a tawdry life for her. However, after much deliberation, Gigi gives in, telling Gaston "I would rather be miserable with you than without you." Overjoyed, Gaston closes the book by asking for her hand in marriage.


TREMBLING ON THE BRINK

Gigi and Audrey Hepburn were meant to be, or at least it seemed that way to Colette when she first laid eyes on the 22-year-old unknown in a Monte Carlo hotel lobby. Like Colette's spirited heroine, Audrey had a beguiling presence. She was also inexperienced, having only acted in minor roles in a handful of films, including the one she was making when Colette saw her, Monte Carlo Baby (1951). It's been said that upon seeing her name on the Fulton Theatre's marquee for the first time, Audrey sighed, "Oh, dear, and I've still got to learn how to act." Despite her misgivings, Audrey's natural talent made her Broadway debut a success. Everyone fell under her spell, including William Wyler, who delayed production on his upcoming romantic comedy, Roman Holiday, until Gigi closed so Audrey could be his Princess Ann.

 
Playing opposite Audrey as Gaston was Michael Evans, who you might remember as the cultured English teacher, Mr. Paisley, in Bye Bye Birdie (1963). Aunt Alicia, meanwhile, was brought to life by Cathleen Nesbitt, a formidable actress who took Audrey under her wing. Interestingly enough, Nesbitt would later appear in the play Sabrina Fair, which was the basis for Audrey's film Sabrina. Nesbitt also originated the role of Henry Higgins's mother in My Fair Lady, another one of Audrey's major films. Today, however, she is probably best known for playing Cary Grant's kindly grandmother in An Affair to Remember.


When transforming the novella into a play, Anita Loos stayed relatively faithful to Colette's words. Both properties are risqué and blunt about their subject matter. For example, when talking to Grandmama (or, as Gaston calls her, Mamita) about his latest girlfriend, Liane, Gaston says outright that he caught Liane in bed with another man, something the 1958 film could only allude to. The book and play also clear up why Grandmama has the Spanish last name of "Alvarez," explaining that she adopted it from a past lover who was "a saint...with a wife who was a devil."

Something else the novella and the play have in common is Andrée, Gigi's mother. Unlike her mother and aunt, Andrée didn't become a great courtesan. After having Gigi out of wedlock, she followed her passion of singing and spends all of her time practicing or performing in the chorus of the Opéra-Comique. This decision disappoints Grandmama and Alicia enormously, and they never hesitate to let Andrée know it. She ignores their criticisms, though, and lives in her own little world, forcing Grandmama to look after Gigi herself.

Like any adaptation, the play does make changes to the source material. Aunt Alicia, for example, is made more prominent. Loos also added two characters: Alicia's butler Victor and the Alvars' maid Sidonie. (I have to wonder if the maid's name was a nod to Colette, whose first name was Sidonie-Gabrielle.) Since a play's structure is different than a novel's, it makes sense that Loos needed to create some secondary characters who could explain things in dialogue that you'd otherwise read on the page in a novel.

The best addition Loos made, though, is Gigi's confrontation with her great-aunt and grandmother. Having learned that they expect her to be Gaston's mistress, Gigi is dismayed and insists that she must speak with "Tonton" alone before accepting such a lifestyle. The older women are uneasy about this and try to discourage her. Gigi's reproach astonishes them:

"You think you know so much, Aunt Alicia! You think you've done so brilliantly in life! Well, do you know what I think? I think that you're a failure! ... What have you got out of that elegant career of yours, except a houseful of silly knick-knacks? Why, you're so bored, you have to trump up headaches, just to keep yourself company! ... And you, Grandma! You've sided with her about Tonton -- you know you have! ... We've always been poor, you and Maman and I -- and has it been so bad? Why, Tonton himself has to come here for a decent cup of chamomile! Both of you! -- with your plans and schemes, and your advice -- maybe I can work some way out myself, that will be better!"

When I graduated high school, instead of giving me things for college like everyone else, my boss gifted me with original Playbills for Sweet Bird of Youth with Paul Newman, As You Like It with Katharine Hepburn, and Gigi. I still get chills every time I look through these programs. Below are scans of my favorite pages from Gigi's Playbill. Keep an eye out for advertisements featuring Celeste Holm and Ginger Rogers!











WHEN SPARKLE TURNS TO FIRE

When it comes to the 1958 film, you'll find a lot of discrepancies in its production history. Some sources say that in 1956 producer Arthur Freed went to My Fair Lady's Philadelphia tryout with the intent of asking Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe to furnish the score and screenplay for a musical version of Gigi that was to be directed by Vincente Minnelli. According to Leslie Caron, however, the idea of making Gigi into a film came to her in 1952 on the set of Lili. Worried that Lili's dark tones and cynical characters were going to ruin Caron's career, Freed asked the actress what project she wanted to do next to restore her "glamorous" image. "I was so convinced about the quality of Lili that I dismissed his worries," Caron recalled, "but I did pay attention to his offer of doing another film. After one or two bad ideas, I finally came up with Gigi. Audrey Hepburn was doing the play on Broadway, and I certainly knew and loved Colette's novella. He paused, looking thoughtful. 'I'll get back to you on that' was his comment as he walked away. It took him a year and a half to get the rights and have the first script written -- not as a musical but as a straight comedy."

Freed faced two obstacles in developing Gigi: getting the Hays Office's approval and securing the rights from Gilbert Miller, a theatrical producer who planned on turning Loos's adaptation into a film. As for the film starting as a comedy, this could be true -- Frederick Loewe refused to work in Hollywood, so Alan Jay Lerner committed to writing just the screenplay. It wasn't until later that Lerner convinced his partner to co-write the score by promising that they'd compose it in Paris.

 
By 1956, the script was still a work in progress. While waiting for it to be finished, Caron took a break from Hollywood and went to London, where she decided to do Loos's play as preparation. The production was directed by Peter Hall and co-starred the marvelous Estelle Winwood as Aunt Alicia. Hall soon became Caron's second husband; they would have their first child and be pregnant with their second one by the time Gigi was finally ready to start production, the film now a musical.

Caron has long maintained that the role of Gigi was always hers, even though Audrey Hepburn had originated the role and was a huge star by the late 1950s. In her autobiography, Caron writes that Freed told her Audrey and husband Mel Ferrer asked for Audrey to play Gigi. After breaking the news to them that the part was written for Caron, Freed softened the blow by calling Fred Astaire, who was preparing Funny Face at Paramount. I don't think this is what actually happened because Caron's book is the only place where I've come across this story. Most sources say that Funny Face was Audrey's project and she was the one who chose Astaire -- even Astaire backs that one up! Many books and articles that I've read recount that Audrey was the first choice for Gigi and Lerner was sent to Paris to convince her to take the role to no avail, making Caron the studio's second choice.

The only actor that was ensured a part from the very beginning was Maurice Chevalier. For Gaston, the studio eyed Dirk Bogarde, who was then a British matinee idol. When Bogarde was unable to get out of his contract to J. Arthur Rank, Louis Jourdan was given the role instead. Hermione Gingold was primarily known as a revue comedienne when she was cast, while Isabel Jeans was a stage actress who occasionally appeared in films, such as Hitchcock's Downhill, Easy Virtue, and Suspicion.


The film's production was stressful. Although everyone was glad to be shooting most of the movie in Paris, the summer heat was atrocious and many days were cloudy, making cinematographer Joseph Ruttenberg's job difficult. Vincente Minnelli had a terrible cold at one point, and in Caron's opinion he was usually "in a trance" the whole time because there was so much to oversee. Minnelli tried his best to film as much as he could in Paris, including inside the real Maxim's, but budget constraints forced the cast and crew to finish the movie at MGM and Santa Monica for the beach scenes set at Trouville.

After Gigi's first preview, retakes were ordered, but there was a slight hitch -- Minnelli and Ruttenberg were both in Europe working on The Reluctant Debutante. Freed asked the ever-reliable Charles Walters and cinematographer Ray June to step in. Walters had already crafted the choreography for "The Night They Invented Champagne," which gave the number its buoyancy. A few people try to minimize Walters's contributions to Gigi, including Caron: "History has now inflated his participation beyond the truth. Much as I loved Chuck Walters, I have to insist that the rumor is wildly exaggerated." The director's biographer, Brent Phillips, however, illustrates that Walters did more than he is given credit for, or as sound advisor Lela Simone explained, "He smoothed all the rough edges in the picture."

Take the song "She is Not Thinking of Me" for example. Sitting at Maxim's with Liane, Gaston sings this tune in his head as it dawns on him that Liane has been unfaithful. According to Lerner, "The [Minnelli-directed] dailies looked beautiful. There was only one disturbing omission: there were no close-ups of Louis singing. And how can an audience know a song is being sung in someone's head if one cannot see the head?" To fix this, Walters filmed Jourdan in close-up, allowing the audience to see the actor's hilarious facial expressions. Walters also choreographed Eva Gabor's movements to highlight how Liane's behavior makes Gaston suspicious. The whole number ends with Gaston nonchalantly pouring wine down Liane's dress, a Walters ad-lib that outraged Freed until Lerner convinced him that it wasn't in bad taste.

Walters also did work on "Gaston's Soliloquy," "I Don't Understand The Parisians," and the film's final scene, where Gaston proposes to Gigi. Phillips notes that there are a lot of conflicting stories about Walters's involvement. There were no retakes done with Chevalier, for instance, even though Lerner believed that Walters shot "I Remember It Well." "Gaston's Soliloquy" was edited multiple times, the final version being completely Minnelli's. Despite clear evidence that Walters worked on "The Parisians," Caron doesn't remember that happening.

After all of the retakes were done, Gigi was previewed again and the results were much more favorable. "The reaction of the audience dramatically changed from appreciation to affection," Lerner noted. According to Walters, Lerner and Loewe wanted to send a flowered horseshoe to give him their thanks, "but they were afraid it would get back to Vincente." It's never been known what Minnelli thought of Walters's work on Gigi. While the film has Minnelli's fingerprints all over it and it was definitely his project, I can't help but feel a little sad that Walters wasn't recognized for his help, especially since Minnelli would go on to win the Best Director Oscar for the film.

Minnelli wasn't the only winner come Oscar night. Gigi collected a then-record-breaking nine statuettes for Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay (Lerner), Best Art Direction - Set Decoration (E. Preston Ames, F. Keogh Gleason, Henry Grace, and William A. Horning), Best Color Cinematography (Ruttenberg), Best Costume Design (Cecil Beaton), Best Film Editing (Adrienne Fazan), Best Musical Score (André Previn), and Best Original Song ("Gigi").


It isn't an overstatement to say that Louis Jourdan was the perfect Gaston. Incredibly handsome with an aloof air and a beautiful voice, Jourdan seemed to inhabit Gaston with ease. The character is a tough one -- he is cranky and temperamental, and his endless boredom with life could make the audience bored as well. But Jourdan infuses Gaston with kindness, humor, and vulnerability, and his scenes with Leslie Caron are a joy to behold. My heart swells every time I see Jourdan sing "Gigi," as Gaston comes to realize that the bratty little girl he has always adored is now the enchanting woman he loves.

Caron admits that things weren't exactly harmonious between them, but she came to appreciate him: "Louis Jourdan, one of the handsomest men in Hollywood, was not comfortable with his image, yet his wit and self-deprecating humor were rare and unique. ... He tended to express his angst with constant negative comments about Minnelli's staging, but instead of having it out with Vincente, he poured his grudges out on me. I was quite exhausted to hear, every time the camera stopped, his litany of grievances. Alan Jay Lerner confessed that he had tailored the song 'It's a Bore' to Louis's personality. That being said, fifty years later I now stand in admiration of his charm and his melodious voice."


Colette and Loos both wrote Grandmama as strict and judgmental, but Lerner softens the character, making her more empathetic to Gigi and thus more endearing to the audience. She still takes care of Gigi and reprimands her often, but she is also her friend. With a twinkle in her eye, Hermione Gingold plays Grandmama superbly. "Hermione Gingold was nothing like her stern character in the film," Caron writes. "[S]he had a great appetite for life, like a cat lapping up a bowl of milk. During the long waits while Joe Ruttenberg was adjusting the lights, she would pull up her skirts and start kicking up her legs like a can-can girl."

Whereas Grandmama is Gigi's confidante, Aunt Alicia is her tormentor. To Alicia, everything must be done a certain way, yet nothing ever seems good enough for her, either. She is the relative you dread seeing, the one who clucks her tongue and brusquely criticizes you. Isabel Jeans is a wonderful Aunt Alicia -- whenever I watch her lessons with Gigi, I feel like I need to sit a little straighter and exit a room more gracefully for fear of disappointing her.


While finding all of the right actors is of course imperative, for Gigi it is especially important that the right actress plays the title role. Leslie Caron was certainly the right actress. Her Gigi is playful, clever, imaginative, funny, and wholly her own person. She follows what's in her heart, regardless of what others say, and she learns to live her own life, not Aunt Alicia's or Grandmama's. In one moment, Caron can be wonderfully feisty, such as when Gaston insults Gigi's new dress and she gives him an acid-tongued reply. In the next moment, Caron is achingly vulnerable as Gigi struggles with her newfound feelings for Gaston.

While everything about Caron's performance feels genuine, there is one thing about it that isn't: Caron's singing. Similar to what happened to Audrey Hepburn with My Fair Lady, Caron found out that all of the hard work she had put into her vocals was for nothing -- she was being dubbed by Betty Wand. "I was destroyed by this piece of news," the actress said. "It is true that I didn't have a trained voice, but my pitch was very true, and I had worked hard at improving my control in 'Say a Prayer for Me Tonight.' My straightforward boyish harshness in 'I Don't Understand the Parisians' and 'The Night They Invented Champagne' was intended to show a girl in adolescence -- a little tomboy. ... To this day, the childish cuteness of Ms. Wand and her artificial French accent hurt my ears. The filming of the musical numbers (always done on prerecordings) had been done on my voice, and it didn't occur to me that Freed might dub me."

You can listen to Caron's versions of "Say a Prayer," "Champagne," and "The Parisians" here, here, and here. Personally, I think most of Caron's vocals work; there are just a few rough spots here and there, which could have possibly been fixed with a key change or something. (Oddly enough, this is also how I feel about Audrey's singing for My Fair Lady.)


Lerner's script differs in a lot of ways from what Colette and Loos did, but all of his changes are understandable. For one thing, there are many more locations. It would have been silly to keep the action in just the Alvars' apartment and Alicia's house when there is all of Paris to explore. Minnelli wisely doesn't show us the clichéd images of Paris, though. Instead, we're taken to decadent places like Maxim's and the Palais des Glaces, the park Bois de Boulogne, the Musée Jacquemart-Andre (Gaston's house), and more. Thanks to these locations, the audience is taken into the vibrant, refined atmosphere of Gigi's world, a world where every home is lovingly designed by Cecil Beaton and every detail is perfectly placed.

Something that Minnelli asked Lerner to do was eliminate Gigi's mother, believing her to be a redundant and unnecessary character. (He's not wrong.) Andrée never appears onscreen, but can still be heard singing off-key in another room in a few scenes. Liane, meanwhile, is someone we never meet in the novella or play, probably because there are only two locations and it wouldn't make sense for Liane to be at either of them. However, since the film moves around a lot more, it stands to reason that we would see the woman -- and her handsome skating instructor, played by Ginger Rogers and Dorothy Malone's ex-husband Jacques Bergerac.


Perhaps the best change Lerner made was the addition of Gaston's uncle, Honoré, a role that came from the 1949 French film. Seeing as how Colette contributed to that film's screenplay, Lerner thought the author would approve of the character. (Colette, unfortunately, died in 1954 and never got to see the success of Minnelli's movie.) Honoré serves many functions. He interacts with the audience, often speaking and singing directly to the camera, and provides some of its comedic relief. His existence also lets us spend more time with Gaston, which enables us to get to know him better and makes us invest in him more. Gaston and his uncle's dynamic works as a reflection of the relationship between Gigi and Grandmama. While Grandmama is teaching Gigi to become a courtesan like she was, Honoré is encouraging Gaston to follow in his roguish, womanizing footsteps. What makes Honoré even more interesting is his connection to Grandmama, who years ago used to be his mistress until Honoré's wandering eye became too much for her. Their duet, "I Remember It Well," is too adorable.

For Lerner, there was only one man who could play Honoré: Maurice Chevalier. Gigi was somewhat of a comeback for the actor. The previous year, he starred in Billy Wilder's Love in the Afternoon after a long absence from Hollywood. While I adore him in that movie, Gigi is the better showcase for Chevalier and demonstrates that the man could still dazzle you. With his signature boater hat and impish grin, Chevalier is charm personified. His casting is fascinating because Honoré is essentially who Chevalier's 1930s characters were: irreverent, naughty roués who live off champagne and pretty girls. Honoré has no regrets, though, and even relishes being an older gentleman because life feels so much easier ("I'm Glad I'm Not Young Anymore"). I don't care what anyone says, Maurice Chevalier was a treasure.

One thing I appreciate about the '58 film is that it gives you time to breath. In the novella and the play, everything happens so fast. Lerner, however, lets us live a little more with the characters, particularly Gaston and Gigi. This is especially important if we are to root for them to come together. In my opinion, there are three crucial scenes Lerner added that he should be praised for, the first being Gaston, Gigi, and Grandmama's trip to Trouville. Gigi's uniqueness is highlighted as she is shown to be in sharp contrast with all of the other women around them. We also see just how much fun Gigi and Gaston have together and how sweet their friendship is.

The second scene is when Gaston discovers he wants more from his relationship with Gigi. After an ugly dispute with her, he goes for a walk and sings about his frustration ("Gaston's Soliloquy") until he is hit with the idea that Gigi is no longer "the funny, awkward little girl I knew." It's a glorious scene, made all the more magnificent by Lerner and Loewe's music. In the play, we notice Gaston's changing feelings when Gigi fixes his hair and tie. "Their eyes meet," Loos writes, "and for a moment there is silence." Gaston then nervously thanks her and leaves. In the novella, there is nothing like that. Gaston tries to take Gigi out to tea, but Grandmama stops them and tells Gaston in private that Gigi can't be seen in public with him because she would become "compromised," meaning everyone would assume Gigi is his new mistress. Gaston becomes furious and leaves, returning a week later to discuss with Grandmama the conditions for Gigi to become his companion. All of that is in the film, too, but without the music, which gives us insight into Gaston's thinking, it feels abrupt.

The third vital scene Lerner crafted is when Gigi and Gaston go to Maxim's after she has agreed to be with him. She does everything Alicia has ever taught her -- selecting Gaston's cigar and lighting it, sipping her wine politely, gasping in delight when Gaston gives her a diamond bracelet -- but none of it is true to who Gigi really is, and Gaston knows it. He is visibly uncomfortable throughout the whole evening and he soon drags a crying Gigi home, having realized how wrong he was to make such an arrangement. Slowly walking home in deep thought, Gaston decides to go back to Gigi's and proposes. This entire sequence is essential because it shows that Gaston truly loves Gigi for who she is. The play and the novella make this clear, too, but it just doesn't feel the same -- it isn't as romantic or grandiose.


In the end, what makes Minnelli's Gigi my favorite Gigi is the music. Lerner and Loewe's score is simply gorgeous, from the joyous "The Night They Invented Champagne" to the wistful "I Remember It Well" to the sublime title song. Every single tune enhances the story and makes the characters all the more vivid. I've been in love with this score from the moment I first heard it and it still makes me sigh with admiration at every listening.

Considered by many to be the last great MGM musical, Gigi is captivating from start to finish. Not only does it succeed as a brilliant adaptation of Colette's work, it stands on its own as a towering achievement of MGM's Freed Unit. After studying Colette's novella and Loos's play, my devotion and respect for Minnelli's film has increased tenfold. I already can't wait for my next viewing.

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This is my third and final contribution to the Broadway Bound Blogathon. Check out the incredible roster of posts here!

Comments

  1. I adored your extensive journey through the lives of Gigi, especially the marvelous Playbill excerpts. I saw Louis Jourdan as Honore in the mid-1980s tour of Gigi here at Toronto's Royal Alexandra Theatre. He was a delight.

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    1. SO JEALOUS. I'm in love with Louis Jourdan. I bet he made for a great Honore.

      Thanks for reading! :)

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  2. I. Love. This. Review. It's so interesting, and it was great seeing your graduation presents! Your boss knew you well. Thanks for joining the blogathon--all your posts have been fantastic. :-)

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    Replies
    1. Well, thank you! I loved writing all of my entries for this blogathon, but I think I had the most fun with this one. I've always adored Gigi (1958) and it was great digging into its history and reading the works that came before it.

      Delete
  3. Fantastic article, Michaela! Although Gigi isn't one of my favourites, I very much enjoyed reading your excellent, and very interesting article about how it came to the screen.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thank you! Although I adore it, I know Gigi isn't everyone's cup of tea, so it's great to hear that you still enjoyed reading its history!

      Delete

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