Two golden-age musicals get the deluxe treatment
How intolerant we are of musicals these days, as if June Allyson is less appealing than anything Robert De Niro has done in the last twenty years. When Chicago met with freakish acclaim in 2002, so rare was a successful film musical that a loud chorus declared the return of the genre. But the occasional hit, Mamma Mia! most recently, hardly signals a resuscitation of the genre.
Still, an audience is out there, ready to be transported on the wings of a melody. Warner Home Video has simultaneously released two two-disc special edition DVDs of MGM’s musical fables An American in Paris (1951) and Gigi (1958), titles ripe for the kind of digital repolishing their cousins Meet Me in St. Louis, Singin’ in the Rain, and The Band Wagon have already enjoyed. Revisiting the All Singing All Dancing classics sometimes feels like a walk among dinosaurs, which is not always a bad thing. In fact, it may invite contemplation on the very devolution of society. Did movies once really have this much grace, craftsmanship, musical wealth, gentle wit, devout elegance?
A shared release date compounds the impression that An American in Paris and Gigi have much in common. Both carry the name Arthur Freed, a producer with impeccable instincts for talent. Both were directed by Vincente Minnelli, probably the best purveyor of music, color, drama, and story that the musical film has ever seen. Both shared art directors, editor, and screenwriter. Both glorify the French capital, though in distinct ways. Apart from a few establishing shots, An American in Paris was filmed on 44 sets on the backlot, recreating a city that exists only in memory, myth, and romance. Gigi, in contrast, makes generous use of Parisian locations, enhanced by the widescreen format introduced in 1953. Both star French charmer Leslie Caron, and both were Best Picture Oscar winners. An American in Paris toddled off with six statuettes, and Gigi with a record-breaking nine.
An American in Paris‘s very raison d’etre is to showcase George Gershwin’s 1928 symphony of the same name, with additional contributions from such evergreens as “Our Love Is Here to Stay,” “‘S Wonderful,” and “By Strauss.” If you love Gershwin, you’ve come to the right place: the film’s title refers as much to him as it does to star Gene Kelly. Many have carped about the story, and it creaks as charged. But this is no slapdash scenario; there is darkness beneath the film’s lustrous sheen. Oscar Levant makes a vaguely repellent sidekick, and Kelly as a bohemian expatriate comes off as opportunistic and unctuous. All the brilliant tap dancing in the world can’t hide his over-ardent pursuit of the delicate Caron in her trepidatious film debut, nor his cruelty to smoky-throated Nina Foch, playing a sugar mama eager to patronize him in more ways than one. (Kelly never successfully camouflaged his ego on screen, a topic addressed in the biographic Anatomy of a Dancer documentary on disc two.)
Where An American in Paris excels, and nearly merits the affection of its most passionate admirers, is in its exuberant celebration of technology and aesthetics. Minnelli and company pulled out all the stops, with split screens, process shots, and a roborant color scheme. The gaudy, indulgent 17-minute ballet that concludes the film still has the power to inebriate all these CGI-riddled years later. As Gershwin transitions from car horns to a wailing trumpet to gliding strings, Kelly and Caron play cat and mouse among sets inspired by painters inspired by Paris, including Dufy, Renoir, Utrillo, Rousseau, Van Gogh, and Toulouse-Lautrec. Perhaps An American in Paris was the upset Best Picture Oscar winner because of the ballet. With its merging of high and middlebrow art, it was cinematically progressive in ways that front-runners A Place in the Sun and A Streetcar Named Desire weren’t. Academy voters may have seen in An American in Paris the future of movies.
Despite surface resemblances, Gigi is a whole different kettle of poisson. Based on a saucy novella by Collette, it tells the story of a 1900s Parisian girl being groomed as a courtesan. It succeeds on multiple levels, to be savored as a sparkling romance, buoyant musical, startling fashion parade and design expo, or as a muted screed on the realities of fin de siècle social custom. For anyone who squirms at the apparent retro mores, just how much has changed? Men objectify women, women negotiate for power, and, if all goes well, youthful ardor gives way to the serenity of experience. So can’t old Maurice Chevalier thank heaven for little girls without being arrested?
Gigi‘s very existence is a bit shocking. First, in praise of Minnelli’s shrewd balancing of sordidness and sanitization, there is the firewall of American censorship. Second, it was an original musical made at a time when such beasts were believed to be extinct, conceived for the screen by the formidable duo of Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe, who had just set Broadway ablaze with My Fair Lady. (As movies go, Gigi aces Lady, and its sexual politics age more palatably, but that’s another essay.) Third, Gigi stands alone — it came, dazzled, and disappeared without any discernible influence or imitations.
The songs are appropriately intimate, each advancing character development, and nearly all of them either duets (“It’s a Bore,” the wistful “I Remember It Well”) or solos (“The Parisians,” “Gigi”). All dancing serves the needs of the story, a conservative artistic choice too rare in musical films. The cast is near perfection, though Minnelli sometimes comes up empty in the passing work of featured extras or walk-ons. Chevalier, Hermione Gingold, and Isabel Jeans are alternatively warm, wise, and very funny as the seniors who have a more casual attitude to sex than do their charges. Jeans in particular is a scream, giving a rapturously haughty performance that drag queens would be well advised to study. Louis Jourdan as wealthy Gaston is occasionally stiff, but his quiet yearning for simple happiness and his growing acquaintanceship with true love are subtly touching. In the seven years since An American in Paris, Caron matured tremendously as an actress. She plays Gigi as a sly insurrectionist, while her transformation from girl to woman is a magnificent act of effortless physicality.
Both films come with extras aplenty, including two worthwhile new “making-of” documentaries and a collage of various commentaries by participants living and dead. Gigi extras include the 1949 French nonmusical version. Ample charm can still be detected beneath its advanced surface damage, while radio interviews and additional musical tracks lard the American in Paris extras disc. The transfer for both films is so good that technical deficiencies, including some odd sound mixing and obvious rear projections, evaporate amidst so much loveliness.
Buy. Watch. Revel. Time spent with these two, especially Gigi, makes for an experience not unlike sampling the world’s finest chocolate.