Speaking of escapist musicals, 1000 folks crammed into the Academy Theater on Friday night to escape the financial crisis and fall happily into the giddy world of the 1958 Arthur Freed/Vincente Minnelli musical Gigi, which swept all nine of its Oscar nominations. It’s the film’s Golden anniversary, and star Leslie Caron flew in from France to be quizzed by critic Stephen Farber. Warners supplied a gorgeous digital restoration. Both Minnelli’s Gigi and 1951’s An American in Paris are coming out in special two-disc editions.
At the reception beforehand, the tiny, birdlike Caron was surrounded by elderly male admirers from her MGM days, including West Side Story star George Chakiris. Dancer Gene Kelly discovered ballerina Caron on the stage in Paris; she was 18 when she arrived at Metro to test for An American in Paris, and landed the role. Her first naive act was to shear her own hair short with nail scissors, horrifying everyone and delaying the start of production by several weeks. Kelly choreographed and placed the cameras during the dance sequences, she said.
After An American in Paris hit big, Freed asked the dancer what material she liked and she mentioned Colette’s Gigi. Freed developed it for years, first as a drama, but eventually realized that the only way to get around the strictures of the Hayes Code–Gigi is in training to be a French courtesan–was to make it a musical. “I’m playing a hooker who made good,” said Caron.
[Photo courtesy L.A. Times]
Freed hired My Fair Lady’s Alan Jay Lerner to write the script and song lyrics and Frederick Loewe to write the music. Gigi was one of the last of the “original” MGM musicals–by the late 50s Broadway adaptations were the rage. Caron insists that crooner Maurice Chevalier, despite the song “Thank Heaven for Little Girls,” “always liked adult women.” As for director Minnelli, who called her “angel,” “we were accomplices, we had a great understanding,” she said.
Minnelli and production designer Cecil Beaton were both “prop men at heart, fussy about where the objects were, the colors, the place of things, the moments.” At the end of the song “I Don’t Understand the Parisians,” Minnelli shot take after take. “I couldn’t understand what I was doing wrong. After take 18 or 19 he said, ‘cut, great, print, the swans were great!'”
Caron, after nabbing Oscar noms for Lili in 1953 and The L-Shaped Room in 1962, eventually left Hollywood and returned to Europe to work for the likes of Francois Truffaut, Louis Malle, James Ivory and Lasse Hallstrom (Chocolat). She runs a popular bed and breakfast and is writing her memoirs.
[Originally appeared on Variety.com]