Musicals of the 1950’s were one of the major studios greatest weapons in their war against television. While these films contained stunning visuals and iconic musical numbers, they were all too often all spectacle and no story. One 1950’s musical stands out not only for its emphasis upon its story, but also for its controversial subject matter; 1958’s Gigi. Marketed as a family-friendly romantic comedy, the film chronicles a young girl's coming of age in turn of the century Paris as she prepares to enter…the corrupt life of a courtesan. Easily one of the most inappropriate and outlandish films that I’ve reviewed, Gigi is a film that will live on in viewers’ memories, for better or worse.
|You want me to what?! With who?!|
The story begins in 1890’s Paris as fifteen year-old Gigi (Leslie Caron) is groomed by her aunt and grandmother (Hermione Gingold and Isabel Jeans), both retired courtesans, to enter the family business. Although Gigi has been prepared for this role her entire life, she continuously rebels against her family’s expectations by maintaining her tomboyish habits and refusing to pay attention to her lessons. Meanwhile, her best friend, playboy Gaston (Louis Jordan) is leading the high life of parties, champagne, and affairs with the city’s most sought after courtesans. When he learns that his latest mistress, Liane (Eva Gabor), has begun an affair with her skating instructor he throws himself into the city’s most debauched pleasures in an effort to soothe his wounded pride. Despite his best efforts, however, his meaningless pursuits do nothing to fill his empty life, and he finds no joy except in his visits to Gigi and her grandmother. Just as he realizes that he possesses feelings for Gigi, however, she prepares to make her debut as a courtesan, leading to a conflict between lust and love.
Although it is refreshing to see a classic musical that lends proper weight to its plot, this focus only makes the story’s disturbing content all the more obvious. Even as the characters rely upon innuendo and insinuation there is no question that the film is attempting to relate a tale of underage prostitution in an entirely inappropriate manner. While many films have focused upon prostitution and too many have glamorized the sex trade, few films endorse prostitution with the brazenness of Gigi. The film’s opening scene features Gaston’s womanizing uncle Honore (Maurice Chavalier) joking about his hobby of “collecting pretty young things” before launching into the truly cringe-worthy ‘Thank Heaven for Little Girls’. Although the song’s lyrics about little girls growing up to become enticing young women would be enough to draw ire, the fact that it is sung by an aging lothario as he watches children play in the park sets a base tone for the rest of the film. Similarly while the films states that Gigi is fifteen years old, the already youthful appearing Caron is consistently shown in costumes that make her appear as young as twelve (the character’s age in the original novel). Although the young age of many women in the sex trade remains a tragic fact, the film never even implies that there is anything amiss about its underage heroine being groomed to be sold to the highest bidder. While the film could have used Gigi’s child-like innocence to highlight her heartbreaking plight, her naiveté is instead played for laughs as she struggles to make sense of the sordid world around her.
|What's a little distribution to minors gonna' hurt?|
The film portrays its supporting characters in an equally baffling fashion as Gigi’s grandmother and aunt are presented as merely misguided, rather than exploitive, guardians and Honore is regarded as lovably zany instead of predatory. Gaston fares little better as even Louis Jordan’s charm fails to disguise the character’s basic callousness. As if his interest in the significantly younger Gigi is not squirm-inducing enough, his treatment of Liane makes him a better candidate to be the film’s villain rather than its romantic hero. Instead of merely ending his relationship with Liane, he schemes to ensure that her lover abandons her and plots her public disgrace, effectively ending her career as a courtesan. In an effort to escape her bleak future as a ruined courtesan, Liane attempts suicide, prompting Gaston and Honore to laugh and toast to Gaston’s, ‘first suicide…and many more to come’, as if driving women to suicide is some sort of masculine milestone. Rather than help Gigi to escape a fate similar to Liane’s, Gaston sees her debut as an opportunity to be capitalized upon and proceeds to make an offer to become her first patron. Even after she tearfully rejects his offer and reminds him of what a future as a courtesan would mean, he sees nothing objectionable about his proposition. It is only after her family forces her to reconsider and she adopts the same vapid manner as his former mistresses that Gaston realizes his error, but even then he is more repelled by the prospect of another bland mistress than by the implications of what his offer means to Gigi. Perhaps the most damning aspect of the film is the light tone with which the film dismisses its characters' behaviors, making what could have been an indictment of the social structures and attitudes that fuel the sex trade a tasteless attempt at romantic comedy.
It is difficult to judge the performances, as all of the central players, with the exception of Caron, are playing not just unlikeable, but illogical, characters. Caron shines in her role as hardened innocent Gigi, and creates a far more engaging performance than in her previous, more famous, film An American in Paris. Eva Gabor earns sympathy in her brief role as Liane, and imbues her jilted courtesan with heartfelt vulnerability. The rest of the cast manage as well as they can with the script’s jarring material.
Perhaps the least family-friendly film in the family section, Gigi is one of the most bizarre films to come out of classic Hollywood. A dizzying display of musicals at their most decadent, the film’s light tone glosses over its dark core. More curiosity than compelling the film provides modern viewers with an unsettling look into the views and norms of the past. While Gigi may not understand the Parisians, modern viewers will have equal difficulty understanding Gigi.