The curtain is falling on the MGM musical, and Gene Kelly’s final song and dance at the studio is for a Paris-set show biz tale about a dancing star and his trio of showgirls. Actually, the comedy and the actresses get more attention than does Kelly. The gimmick is a Rashomon– like clash of conflicting testimony, but we prefer to concentrate on the sexy dancing and Kay Kendall’s hilarious drunk act. Who thought a boozy beauty wailing opera songs would be funny?
Warner Archive Collection
1957 / Color / 2:35 widescreen / 114 min. / Cole Porter’s Les Girls / Street Date April 17, 2018 / available through the WBshop / 21.9
Starring: Gene Kelly, Mitzi Gaynor, Kay Kendall, Taina Elg, Jacques Bergerac, Leslie Phillips, Henry Daniell, Patrick Macnee.
Cinematography: Robert Surtees
Film Editor: Ferris Webster
Choreography: Jack Cole
Original Music: Cole Porter, arranged and orchestrated by Alexander Courage, Adolph Deutsch, Skip Martin
Written by John Patrick from a story by Vera Caspary
Produced by Sol C. Siegel
Directed by George Cukor
Stunningly designed and photographed, Les Girls is one of the better musical efforts from MGM after its famous dedicated musical departments closed up shop. The show is actually only partly a musical. George Cukor described it as a comedy with some music in it, and taken as such it’s not at all bad. The standouts in the cast are Kay Kendall and Mitzi Gaynor. Gene Kelly is still a good leading music man, even if the picture isn’t a genre highpoint for him personally. The new Blu-ray transfer does justice to the film’s visual beauty — the colorful lighting design seems aware that a picture about Parisian cabaret glitz needs to look as bright as Oswald Morris’s Moulin Rouge or Jack Cardiff’s The Red Shoes.
At a libel trial in London, ex- cabaret dancers Angèle Ducros (Taina Elg) and Lady Sybil Wren (Kay Kendall) cross legal swords over Sybil’s tell-all book. On the stand, both women tell completely incompatible ‘true’ stories of what happened eight years before in Paris, when they performed for the variety dance troupe of Barry Nichols (Gene Kelly), along with the American hoofer Joy Henderson (Mitzi Gaynor). Author Lady Sybil’s unapologetic version paints Angèle as a cheating lover who tried to commit suicide over a love affair with Barry. Then Angèle takes the stand to tell a conflicting tale that characterizes Sybil as an irresponsible drunk. Finally, Nichols himself testifies. In his third version of the events in Paris, the legal combatants’ former colleague Joy Henderson plays a much larger role.
At almost two hours duration and with fewer than six song and dance numbers, Les Girls is definitely more of a comedy than a traditional musical. A sprightly title tune introduces Barry Nichols’ sexy cabaret show, and some rather forgettable if pleasant songs elbow their way in later on. Jack Cole’s excellent choreography really shines in several of the numbers, enhanced by dynamic Robert Surtees camera lighting. The chorines dancing behind Kelly and his three topliners are put to good use. Kelly’s solo dances with Mitzi Gaynor are sleek and stylish, but not innovative in a way that might give the picture more distinction. Kelly is satisfied to repeat and echo moves seen in earlier love duets.
The show fares better as a straight-on comedy. The convoluted schemes between the dancers and their manager boil down to familiar comic scenes: the girls maneuvering around their boyfriends, Barry’s feigning a terminal illness and his transparent attempts to seduce Joy. In the flashbacks, the three girls room together in an elaborate Parisian courtyard set, the kind in which a male lover always wakes the neighbors by shouting from below in the middle of the night. The three female stars make a credible trio, both dancing and vying for male attention. They have fun cleverly sniping at one another … covering for each other’s gaffes even while competing for attention.
This is Finnish actress Taina Elg’s best-remembered role. Although she seems a bit subdued when compared to the sharper playing of ace comediennes Kendall and Gaynor, Elg comes through in the romantic scenes. The fondly remembered Kay Kendall gets most of the attention in reviews. Borrowed from Rank for the role, her excellent drunk act is a comic standout. Kendall makes singing Carmen badly into a funny routine, retaining Lady Sybil’s pride and poise even while getting goofy.
Some contemporary reviewers used Mitzi Gaynor for critical target practice, but those who’ve seen her only as a whiney WAVE in South Pacific will be surprised to find her sharp & sexy here, a good dancer and a funny comedienne. Gaynor’s best moment is when Joy makes Kelly’s Barry understand that she won’t fall for a vague marriage proposal, that’s really a long engagement with privileges. She defuses his ardor by dressing in a frowsy bathrobe, with her hair up in curlers. It’s quite funny when Barry registers disgust — he clearly thinks it unfair that Joy isn’t content to play dumb and be an easy . . . conquest.
Unfortunately, Gene Kelly’s character overall has few surprises for the audience, and the girls’ other two boyfriends are even more lackluster. Former child star and later major TV comedian Leslie Phillips is stuck playing a straight sap, the kind that gets rudely brushed off and then apologizes as if he deserved it. Sybil deserves better. Jacques Bergerac is best known for his real-life amours, marrying both Dorothy Malone and Ginger Rogers (not at the same time). Sort of a poor man’s Louis Jourdan, Bergerac showed up in some big musicals, but is much more fun as a madman who makes women mutilate themselves in the horror oddity The Hypnotic Eye.
The film’s sex angle is actually rather frisky for the time. It’s interesting seeing a fancy MGM musical, all perfect hues and gorgeous costumes, in which the girls are the ones dishing out the sex jokes. They even get away with some risqué responses to Cole Porter’s suggestive lyrics in the Les Girls number. The girls’ national origins are not stereotyped. Angèle’s is a coquette, Sybil is something of a snob and Joy’s hick roots show from time to time, but these qualities do not become major factors. They instead have distinctive individual characters.
The movie is not really a musical Rashomon, despite the dueling courtroom testimony. The conflicting flashbacks work well enough to delay important story surprises, but comparing the differing versions of events doesn’t generate telling insights. The three flashbacks barely overlap, and completely contradict one another, and only one event, the suicide attempt, is given three contrasting spins. The three accounts differ so much that it would seem simple for the police to check official records documenting police calls and hospital cases. All three flashback accounts are clearly self-promoting lies, so it’s only a matter of whose lies the judges will believe. Since nobody bothers to cross-examine the three witnesses, the idea that a puzzle will be solved is just dropped. Although we see a man with a sandwich board asking, “What is truth?” the story has no real interest in the question.
Savant doesn’t often notice clothing in films. The late 1950s were big fashion years, led by Audrey Hepburn’s elegant example. She seemed born to a double role as actress-fashion model. This encouraged studios to stuff actresses into designer gowns in a bid for space in the glossy magazines. But the clothes in Les Girls are really beautiful and interesting, and fit the characters well. Kay Kendall is taller than her fellow dancers, yet doesn’t look like a horse next to her more petite cohorts. Barry Nichols’ Parisian revue would presumably be a really racy affair, and the designer gets away with an appropriate nude look with one set of classical dresses, worn with powdered wigs. The costumes appear to be entirely backless, and have only a single green bow decorating the girls’ rear ends. It’s just teasing enough to match the rest of the show’s MPAA-stretching seductions and sex talk.
Gene Kelly was formerly the King of MGM. Just two years before he still had the power to get his blacklisted wife Betsy Blair into a couple of film roles. In this show he’s given much less attention than his female co-stars. The physical jokes set aside for him are also not the best, especially an elaborate gag where Barry Nichols is yanked off his feet by a rope right in the middle of his act.
The big surprise is the final musical number. Instead of one of Kelly’s expensive ballets, we’re treated to a song ‘n dance takeoff on the movie The Wild One. As with Fred Astaire’s put-down of Rock ‘n’ Roll in the same year’s Silk Stockings, Kelly’s musical skit takes the position that Marlon Brando’s method modernism is just a fad to be ridiculed. The number feels far too defensive — the MGM Musical wasn’t in a position to act so superior. Worse than that, the Brando spoof is just plain hollow. Unlike Astaire’s astute critique of Mickey Spillane in The Band Wagon, all Kelly has to offer is a weak Brando imitation. Take away Kelly’s leather jacket and we wouldn’t even get the connection. Harvey Lembeck’s pitiful Brando riff in AIP’s Beach Party movies actually comes off better than this. Without Mitzi Gaynor’s comic reactions, nothing much would be going on until the actual dancing begins, a choreographed piece that (to non-expert eyes) recycles many of its moves from Kelly & Vera Ellen’s ‘Slaughter on Tenth Avenue’ ballet in Words and Music.
Partly redeeming the musical Brando skit is art direction than conceives of the spacious diner as a line drawing splashed by impressionist splashes of red paint. The number looks like one of those arresting animation backgrounds in classic UPA cartoons, like Rooty Toot Toot.
Critics usually point to It’s Always Fair Weather as the official melancholic swan song for the MGM musical, but the rather good Les Girls has details that point a similar nostalgic theme. A number of years have passed for its characters as well. Only Barry Nichols is still in show business, and he second-guesses that with a chain of Orange Juice stands. In the flashbacks, the girls are aware that their dancing days will not continue forever. The knowledge that time and life are fleeting explains their romantic desperation and extreme behavior. It’s not exactly Showgirls, but the conflict does revolve around an incident that might be suicide. The final testimonty changes that particular event, but doesn’t clear up who did or didn’t get together with whom, and in what order. The finale instead offers a reprieve to let ex-performers get on with their lives in peace. Fair Weather’s depression proved to not be good box office, which why I think that Les Girls was steered in the direction of uncomplicated farce.
I also wonder if the suits at MGM worried whether the public was ready for a story that makes light of a possible suicide scenario. Three years later Billy Wilder would come up against considerable critical flak for making a suicide attempt a central factor in his bittersweet The Apartment. I’d think that MGM would be even more wary of story elements ‘in bad taste.’
The Warner Archive Collection Blu-ray of Les Girls is a dazzler thanks to a terrific transfer — the film’s color design really pops, for both the stylized musical numbers and the lighting in and around the main Paris apartment set. Cukor’s visually dynamic show is designed and directed much better than MGM’s other big musical from the same year, the drab and static Silk Stockings. The only odd note with this encoding is that it retains the odd warped field of early CinemaScope lenses. The occasional close-up of Kelly has the C’Scope Mumps, and certain shots betray the distortion in the format’s first-generation lenses. In the pans that time-transition us from the courtroom to eight years into the past, woodwork and shelved books compress as they reach the left hand extreme of the frame.
A featurette produced in 2003 brings back star Taina Elg to host a scripted overview of the show. She gets across a lot of needed backstory, while glossily praising Kelly and the MGM musical machine. Included as well is the Tex Avery Cartoon Flea Circus from 1954. Its subject is also show business, as the flea performers quit when they find a dog to infest. If the cartoon selected is a comment on the showbiz situation in Les Girls, it’s pretty cynical.
The film’s original trailer goes out of its way to tell us un-kulchured Americans how to pronounce the title. I can see where the title might raise concerns. Say it one way, and one might think, ‘Lesbian Girls.’ On the other hand, the correct pronunciation will likely encourage the horn-dogs to snicker about LAY girls. What? Excuse me? I’m talking about important film history here, honest I am.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Movie: Very Good + Plus
Supplements: Making of featurette with Taina Elg, Tex Avery Cartoon Flea Circus, original trailer.
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: April 12, 2018
Final product for this review was provided free by The Warner Archive Collection.
Text © Copyright 2018 Glenn Erickson