At its core, this Vincente Minnelli musical film is the story of an only child who refuses to join the family business; the family, all female, the business, Courtesans-R-Us. Designed with the kind of meticulous care for turn-of-the-last-century detail you might expect from Luchino Visconti, the film’s Paris is idealized enough for songs to break out, yet solidly real. Loaded with fleeting memories in image & song, it’s as if producer Arthur Freed knew it was going to be his unit’s Götterdämmerung. (Only a flop drama and a straight stage-to-screen musical transfer remained in front of him.) Gigi (Leslie Caron, suddenly no gawky kid, but a sophisticated stunner) is the flighty teenage girl who flaunts Beaux Arts society, choosing to get married rather than get laid. (Bourgeois morality looks pretty swell when your beau is the richest man in Paris!) The discussions are witty, and remarkably frank considering it’s a family musical from 1958, constantly moving into uncomfortable territories. With the old guard delighting us even as they function in the story as structural villains. It’s the secret to the pic’s staying power. Aided by a gorgeous Lerner & Loewe score that mimics their MY FAIR LADY in the nicest of ways, Minnelli (consciously or unconsciously) abets the story’s generational shift with a hidden visual coup as young lovers Louis Jordan (Gaston) & Caron scamper on a real beach with real donkeys & a real sunset while, watching from a terrace above, old lovers Maurice Chevalier & Hermione Gingold (mis)reminisce on a studio mock-up in front of a painted cyclorama sunset. Old Hollywood looking down, ever so gracefully as they’re replaced by the New Hollywood. (The idea repeats with Chevalier’s specialty number, straw hat & all, in another studio mock-up of Paris out of his days at Paramount in the ‘30s.) The current DVD has also finally laid to rest the montage of Gigi portraits which once replaced Louis Jordan’s final silent musings before he succumbs (after walking out on her for the fourth time) to Gigi’s unspoken wants. Handled in seven or eight of the most beautiful shots ever placed on film (Joseph Ruttenberg lensed): dark ochre stairway, moonlit blue cobblestones courtyard & fountains, park statuary, a rearing horse & carriage in silhouette, a return to Gigi’s apartment in that most distinctive of Minnelli reds. Then, quickly wrapped up in a strikingly advanced sound & visual jump-cut to end an entire era of musical moviemaking.
READ ALL ABOUT IT: Alan Jay Lerner’s THE STREET WHERE I LIVE, more theater than film memoir, has a chapter on GIGI that gives one of the best looks at the inner workings of the Freed Unit.