A double-feature of Vincente Minnelli movies, “Gigi” (1958) and “The Reluctant Debutante” (1958), shows tonight (Monday, Aug. 8) and tomorrow night (Tuesday, Aug. 9) at the Stanford Theatre. “Gigi” is a chance to catch up with a man (Minnelli) who was conceivably the greatest musical director of the classic Hollywood era. And “Reluctant Debutante” is a chance to discover an obscurity that shows one of Minnelli’s many strengths as an artist: comic direction.
Though mainly known for his musicals—“Meet Me in St. Louis” with ex-wife Judy Garland, “An American in Paris” with Gene Kelly, “The Band Wagon” with Fred Astaire—Minnelli’s career showcases a consistently tasteful, jaw-dropping command of the cinematic frame in every genre he tackles. From celebrated musicals, to propulsive melodramas (“Some Came Running”), to noir-ish takedowns of the movie biz (“The Bad and the Beautiful”), to comic-book-like satire of the American Dream (“The Long, Long Trailer” — like an episode of “I Love Lucy” gone berserk), Minnelli’s done it all. The two films on display at the Stanford are Minnelli working at full-throttle.
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“Gigi” is a shrewd little musical. It convinces you it’s just pretty fluff. Then it sucks you in, it makes you care, it really swings with emotion and wit.
The plot: the titular Parisian girl (Leslie Caron, channeling Audrey Hepburn in “Roman Holiday”) is being trained by her grandmother (Hermione Gingold) to be a courtesan for handsome bachelor Gaston (Louis Jourdan). Gaston is an easily bored playboy who cares little about women’s feelings: he’ll dump one (Eva Gabor) as an arrogant display of his faux-rebellious nature. Bored of sticking with the traditions and appointments expected of him in French aristocratic society, Gaston likes to ditch his commitments in order to hang out with Gigi and the grandmother (whom he affectionately calls “Mamita”).
Their scenes together (playing cards—this teen girl gulping down champagne under the disapproving hawk-eyes of Mamita) demonstrate what it means to let a movie breathe, and to let actors use their space, naturally, as they would on the stage. It’s no wonder that we fall in love with them—and no wonder that Gaston falls in love with Gigi. The story’s concerned with how she goes from a coarse teen to a proper lady. But as it turns out, this only makes her exactly like the other girls in Paris. Is her Hepburnization a cop-out to the demands of the French high society, or just a necessary part of growing up?
“Gigi” is about two things, generally: what it means to grow up, and what it means to live in a society with rules-traditions-manners. “Gigi” maintains a sad, wistful tone throughout its 117-minute runtime. You’re constantly reminded that the good times (an amazingly mundane dance-number between two could-be-should-be lovers and a Mamita) can’t last. Eventually, people outgrow or outlive their youth, and the myriad of petty arguments along the way get lost in the haze of change. That’s what happens to Gaston’s uncle (played by Maurice Chevalier, cinema’s flesh-and-blood Pepe le Pew). He’s the symbol of everything Gaston hates (and we hate) about this Parisian aristocratic society: a blind comformity, a subtle patriarchal brutality, a fear of discomfort. But, at the same time, we realize (in Chevalier’s show-stopping solo, “I’m Glad I’m Not Young Anymore”) that the Uncle was once, too, as idealistic as the head-strong Gaston and Gigi. What happened? Will this happen to us? “Gigi’s” answer: yes, and though you should live with it, that doesn’t make it any less tragic. As Frank Sinatra said, that’s life.
Of course, this hackneyed theme gets battered into your head about two dozen times throughout the film’s runtime. But it only gains poignancy in its shattering finale: a deceptive, happy ending, where the Hepburnization and “Pretty Woman”-ification of Gigi is complete. Now a high-society lady, Gigi is no longer the manic imp we loved to hang with in the film’s earlier reels. Thus, “Gigi” is on par with Jacques Demy’s soulful musicals (“The Young Girls of Rochefort”) as having the saddest happy-ending in the world. (Or is it the happiest sad-ending?)
The most admirable thing about “Gigi” is its simplicity. Even though one is wont to criticize its lavishness, it’s actually much more low-key than first meets the eye. “Gigi” is a smashing paradox: it’s a peek into a more perfect world than ours, but the world isn’t displayed in the feverish, over-the-top tradition of fantastical dream-worlds like “American in Paris” or “Singin’ in the Rain.” No major dances in “Gigi” — there’s more sing-speaking than actual singing — people rarely move more than three inches while performing. The actors prefer various methods of sit-singing: sitting in a moving coach (“It’s a Bore”), at a café table (“I Remember it Well”), on a park bench (Jordan’s dreamy “Gigi” solo) or a garden patio (“I’m Glad I’m Not Young Anymore”). The only major dance (“The Night They Invented Champagne” — my favorite number) is a contained jig in Mamita’s blood-red apartment. The number feels totally inconsequential: all they’re celebrating is Gaston losing a game of cards (probably on purpose) and Gigi winning a bet to get Gaston to take her and Mamita to the beach (where they’ll eventually fall in love). It’s a shocking moment, both for its seeming flippancy and organic smoothness.
The greatest thing about the scene is how naturally everything flows. The number marches onward in one shot—without a single cut. Whatever camera flourishes are present (a transcendently random track-in to Mamita and Gigi’s dancing feet) are neither gratuitous nor show-offy. They seem to flow from the organic energy of these robust actors, always anchored within Minnelli’s flowery sets. The aim of Minnelli’s camera is half-documentary; that is, he wants to observe actors at work, developing character in one jazzy riff-shot. The best memories in life, as indicated by the “Champagne” number, are the minor ones with family and friends that, in the moment, stretch on for ever and ever. The specifics of the memory may fade (as the cute Chevalier-Gingold duet “I Remember It Well” demonstrates), but the good vibes and fond feelings never do.
Is that enough? “Gigi” doesn’t say.
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The tonal opposite of “Gigi” can be found in “The Reluctant Debutante,” a non-romantic romance about the fall and decline of the British Empire. This fun farce (“a cult favorite at the Stanford”) plays like a perverse parody of “Gigi”. Whereas the surface slickness of the “Gigi” sets and costumes served to enhance that film’s tragic air, in “Reluctant Debutante” that same floweriness is being brashly shown-up, in a neo-Frank Tashlin vein.
Story: A brash American teenager named Broadbent (Sandra Dee) comes to live in England with her English father Jimmy (Rex Harrison) and her dotty stepmother (Kay Kendall). The object: to learn good etiquette, to be “in” with the “In”-glish crowd and to find a man. But when she falls in love with a jazz-musician, the Broadbents hurble and burble (apparently, an MGM British person’s way of objecting). Rex and Kay both hate this kid because of some rumors they heard from their best friend (Angela Lansbury!). They think he’s some sexual deviant who did something to a girl involving a bottle of brandy, a bed, some rope and nuts. They’d rather have their baby girl go out with a “nice,” “decent,” “handsome” British bloke like David Fenner (more on this crazy cat later). Rex Harrison and Kay Kendall spend the entire movie trying to get Sandra Dee to forget the jazz-musician and to hook up with Dave “Not a Sinner” Fenner.
Like Vincente Minnelli’s underrated “I Love Lucy” spinoff (1954’s “The Long, Long Trailer”), “The Reluctant Debutante” is a bold satire about the delightful stupidity of American (and, this time, English) social climbers. Every actor plays up their respective stereotype with relish. Sandra Dee’s brassy American teen reaches the right tones of annoying, clueless and earnest. The always-interesting Dee (her eyes beaming with flash bombs of indifference amid this sad display of late-50s British decadence) is the anti-Gigi: She doesn’t give two Texan damns about the “proper” way a lady must sit, the proper procedure for setting up a phone date, the “correct” way to gossip about a upper-middle neighbor. Rex Harrison becomes funnier with each new reel: his permanent Mr. Magoo squint will suddenly, and without warning, switch on to a big, bug-eyed bombast whenever he hears talk of his teenage daughter romancing the sex fiend. Lansbury (who steals the show, as is typical of a Lansbury performance) monster-trucks her way through each scene with a strong command of scene, body and self-aware flibbertigibbet know-how. It’s the same type of bravado she displayed in her nuttiest, most memorable role: as the megalomaniac, Commie-witch-hunting senator’s wife in “The Manchurian Candidate” (1962).
The actors nail the self-absorbed narcissism demanded of these characters. They seem to only be acting for themselves, talking to dead air, never sharing a warmness with each other. There’s lots of fat, empty, dead space between Rex and Kay as they discuss their daughter’s romantic prospects. Whenever two characters need to be more than chummy with each another, Minnelli separates them even further with a tactfully-placed prop (for instance, the hideous teal lamp-shade that bulges in the middle of Sandra Dee and the jazz musician as they fall in love). There’s enough room in the ginormous CinemaScope frame for each actor to carve out a slice of the screen space for themselves, ensuring they’ll never connect to each other (not even on a landline). Furiously concerned with acting within their own given space, the actors’ self-centered approach enhances the film’s ultimate point about the communication problems between upper-crusts in high society.
The satire is broad, but gets devilishly specific when necessary. In a running joke that reveals the Brits’ and Americans’ unconscious racism, there’s only two reasons why the Brits are so opposed to Dee dating the jazz-musician. They connote jazz music to “savage rhythms”, and to them, savage=sex=no good. Their watered down conception of rock-and-roll music (a big-band rendition of the already watered-down “Rock Around the Clock”) is enough for them to jump out of their colonialist seats in alarm and dissent. The humor of each scene with the jazz-musician is in his totally unconvincing baby-face: this pop-Meursault doesn’t look like he could screw a light-bulb. (And he sure as hell couldn’t hold a candle to Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley or Fats Domino.)
Added irony comes in the fact that the parents actually approve of a lad who’s the spitting image of rape culture. David Fenner (Sandra Dee’s aggressive, cowardly British suitor) is like the womanizin’ Maurice Chevalier without the charm. Fenner is like Son of Terry-Thomas, that wonderful British character actor with the gap tooth and the smorgasbord of excessively English phrases like “Su-per!”, “Rah-ther touching, really,” and “I should say not!”. Dave “Not Brave” Fenner loves to say these stereotypical phrases, maintaining “Debutante’s” broadly satirical look at British mannerisms. A typical scene with the British boy wonder: standing next to a fully-upright Rex Harrison, the “eleven” he creates with Rex make them both look like bland martini toothpicks (two teas in a pot). His method of “seduction” is to manhandle Dee (who never gives consent, which doesn’t stop Boy George) with aggressive kisses. The parents, in a telling point of irony, think this is fine behavior simply because the boy comes from an okie-doke background. But our jazz musician? Get out of town; he’s one of those common folk, not good enough for the daughter, no sir-ree.
At one point, Boy George, daring to criticize Dee’s nasal American in the misguided hope of winning her over, bluntly tells her, “I say, wotta funneh ack’sant you’ve got!” It’s the classic clashing of two worlds—the hipster American versus the refined English. Only here, it’s been spiced up by three factors:
- A cast of eccentrics who are in no way representative of the general population. Behavior that wouldn’t normally catch your eye in a dead DVD setting becomes even funnier in the grandeur of the Stanford’s CinemaScope. (Choice example: the moment when Kay Kendall, thinking she’s calling Dave “Never Been to a Rave” Fenner, accidentally ends up calling the sexed-up jazz musician instead. In a scene that doesn’t last for longer than a minute [i.e., a blink-or-miss moment of pure termite acting], Kay displays a masterful command of voice-arms-eyes as only the best actors can. Playing the coolly confident mom and the white British colonialist who thinks the “savage” world is comfortably away from her (i.e., playing specifically and broadly), Kay elongates her body in a series of wild, passionate poses across her sofa and the living-room. Turning briefly into a knockoff brand of Russian gymnast, Kay lays her British accent on thick to the jazz musician (lots of elongated “rah-thers”), contorting it to ever-greater heights of ridiculousness. She takes command of the CinemaScope space like a mama lion stalking an impala’s body after the sweet hook-bait-and-kill. For the hell of it, she even decides to straighten a Raphaelle Peale-like silhouette of a Greek goddess that’s slightly crooked. Futzing and fussing over the most insignificant details of her Minnelli-fied house, Kay Kendall goes on her own solo, riff-acting marvelously in the short time she’s given.)
- An intelligent use of wide-screen CinemaScope, courtesy of the master Minnelli. From the Greek trinkets (busts, the aforementioned silhouette, mock-Ionic columns), to the rubbery flower bouquets, to the red- and yellow-lamp-shades, decorous chairs, and “Umbrellas of Cherbourg” matching dress and wallpaper: Minnelli’s actors swim around in a stream of cramped, imperialist decadence. They can never seem to escape the strong currents; they can only swim to the bank and wonder, “What if, today…?”
- An overall truthfulness to the observations made about British and American culture. From an American perspective, the sound of a Brit giving driving directions (“we took the coast road through Williton and got all the Taunton traffic on the A358 from Crowcombe and Stogumber…”) is nigh incomprehensible. Likewise, the use of Rex Harrison and Kay Kendall (two supreme British actors) adds a believable level of old-English arrogance to the proceedings.
All in all, “Reluctant Debutante” is a masterful tale from Minnelli and company about the highs and lows (mostly lows) of high British culture. It’s so subtle, you wouldn’t even think it was skewering anybody or anything on a first viewing. Along with “Gigi”, “Debutante” takes a long, hard look at the traditions, systems and role-models that limit us, but which (if we recognize them) can also free us. They don’t free the people in “Gigi” or “Debutante,” naturally. There’s an inevitability to the limitation in “Gigi” that isn’t present in “Debutante”, but both of their happy endings say a lot more under the surface than one would think. And they both do so without losing sight of its primary goal: telling a rich, engaging story, filled to the brim with believable actors and scenes that breathe with a naturalistic, Cukor-like earthiness.
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“Gigi” plays tonight and tomorrow night at the Stanford Theatre, at 7:30 p.m. “The Reluctant Debutante” plays at 5:40 p.m. and 9:35 p.m. Both films play in wide-screen CinemaScope and MetroColor.
They are also available on DVD at the Media & Microtext Center in Green Library on Stanford’s campus. “Gigi’s” call number is ZDVD 18860. “The Reluctant Debutante’s” call number is ZDVD 25615.
Contact Carlos Valladares at [email protected]