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LES GIRLS

Review by Ed Nguyen

Stars: Gene Kelly, Mitzi Gaynor, Kay Kendall, Taina Elg
Director: George Cukor
Audio: English and French Dolby Digital 5.1
Subtitles: English, French, Spanish, Portuguese
Video: letterboxed widescreen, color
Studio: Warner Bros.
Features: Featurette, vintage cartoon, trailer, awards
Length: 114 minutes
Release Date: April 22, 2003

"Real love is when suddenly you sigh at someone for whom you yearn, ca, c'est l'amour,
and when to your delight, he loves you in return, ca, c'est l'amour."

Film ***

By the mid-1950's, the musical genre had effectively run its course.  Although decent musicals  continued to be made sporadically over the years, they were virtually all film translations of previously successful Broadway musicals.  The golden age of the musical was over.  The vitality and need for escapism that had fueled the genre during the Great Depression and war years had long ebbed away.  With the gradual collapse of the studio system, musicals had simply become too expensive and risky to produce on a large scale anymore.  The further emergence of television and the new musical style of rock-and-roll essentially signaled the end of the musical as a commercial art form.

There were still big stars attempting musicals, however.  Gene Kelly, for one.  He had opened the decade with some of the most memorable musicals ever.  These included the Oscar-winning Best Picture An American in Paris and Singin' in the Rain, the only musical included on Sight and Sound's list of the greatest films of all time.  As the decade progressed, he experimented more frequently with ballet, contemporary dance styles, and extended fantasy sequences.  Invitation to the Dance is a good example of such a film, but while innovative, it failed to attract a significant audience.  Likewise, Les Girls (1957) met a similar fate.

Made during the final years of musicals' viability, Les Girls certainly appeared to have a solid pedigree.  It was a Gene Kelly musical with songs by Cole Porter.  Kelly was back in Paris once again, this time portraying Barry Nichols, an American entertainer with chorus of three lovely ladies.  It was perhaps an attempt to re-capture the success of his An American in Paris.  But, Les Girls would instead mark a symbolic end to the musical era.  It featured Gene Kelly's final role as a romantic lead in an MGM musical.  It also featured Cole Porter's final score for film or stage.

The original female trio of Les Girls at one time was purported to have included Cyd Charisse, Leslie Caron, and Kay Kendall.  Charisse, however, opted to do Silk Stockings with Fred Astaire, instead.  And Caron chose not to work with the film's director, George Cukor.  Their roles were eventually filled by Mitzi Gaynor, best remembered today for her starring role in South Pacific, and Taina Elg, a pretty ballerina just getting started in Hollywood.

As for Kendall, she did not want to leave New York City initially to make the film.  In the end, she was eventually persuaded to join the cast.  Modern audiences will not remember her today, but in the 1950's, Kendall was an up-and-coming star of romantic comedies.  Kendall even won a Golden Globe award, too, for her humorous performance in Les Girls.  More infamously, she was also Rex Harrison's mistress and eventually his wife!

Les Girls opens with a short exposition scene as Sybil (Kendall) sets the stage for what will be a long flashback.  In the flashback, American trouper Barry (Kelly) is an entertainer in post-war Paris.  He is holding auditions at the Music Hall Parisien for a new girl for his revue act, which currently includes Joy (Gaynor), a blonde American girl-next-door type, and Sybil, a cool brunette from England.  During the auditions, a young French ballerina, Angèle (Elg), catches Barry's eye, and he decides to offer her a part in his troupe.  He only has three simple rules: he wants his girls to be prompt, persistent, and perfect.  What he doesn't realize is that Angèle is a bit of a gold-digger and quickly reels him in hook, line, and sinker.  Unfortunately, she neglects to mention that she is already engaged, and when her fiancé comes to Paris for a surprise visit, the situation quickly unravels!

It is only when the film returns to the present time that the story's true nature is revealed.  This is not a tale about Barry Nichols.  Rather, it is a multi-part story about the three women of his chorus.  Drawing a page directly from Rashomon, Les Girls shows three distinctively different versions on the events that transpired to eventually break up the musical act after the three women's brief year together.  In the present time, Angèle, now married to her former fiancé, is suing Sybil for libel over some chapters in her biography.  Sybil, with the first flashback, defends the verity of her biography.  For the second flashback, it's Angèle's turn to rebuke Sybil's remarks and to suggest that it was Sybil, not Angèle, who was having an affair with Barry.  While the first flashback resembles a backstage musical, the second flashback has a more screwball comedy element to it and also allows Kendall's comic performance to truly shine.  There will eventually be a third flashback, of course, this time centering on Joy and narrated by a mystery witness (I wonder who it could be?).  This flashback has a new tone as well, feeling more like an American light romantic comedy.  For a man who wants no complications, Barry Nichols certainly gets around!  Which version is the truth?  Are any of them true?  That is up to the viewer to decide, of course.  In the end, this atypical style of narration accentuates the comedic aspects of Les Girls and also keeps the story flowing with its intriguing and fresh structure.

Any Avengers fans out there?  The present-day British barrister attempting to fit the pieces of this jigsaw puzzle together is none other than Patrick Macnee!  He looks and sounds very much here as he would a decade later in the TV cult classic.

While Les Girls is an enjoyable and light-hearted film, it is easy to understand why the film was not a great success with audiences initially.  For one, it often feels like a throw-back to the glory days of the MGM musical, conveniently ignoring the shifting changes in American pop culture taste towards rock-and-roll.  There is certainly nothing wrong with this cheerful, romantic comedy approach, but young audiences simply were not as interested in these sorts of films anymore.  Furthermore, Gene Kelly's character is not always given a sympathetic portrayal, and he seems at times harsh and business-like.  Of course, the very nature of the film suggests that this may or may not actually be the truth, but such mind-twisting logic was probably too much for audiences seeking just simple-minded entertainment.  Also, as a musical, Les Girls strangely has very few songs, and most of the numbers are not as well-integrated into the plot as in Kelly's earlier films.  It is perhaps more accurate to consider the film as a romantic comedy with incidental musical numbers.

The musical sequences are fairly decent, though.  The first is a classic revue-style number to the song "Les Girls."  It has a French flavour, with a twist of jazz at the end.  There follows an unusual, avant-garde rope dance between Kelly and Elg; it looks interesting but doesn't last very long.  Its reprise later in the film is even shorter and played strictly for laughs.  The "Ladies in Waiting" routine is also played for laughs but features some jaw-dropping, risqué costumes worn by the three ladies.  Hey, I'm not complaining!  Surprisingly, Taina Elg gets the film's only solo for "Ca, C'est l'Amour," which she serenades to Gene Kelly!  Well, that's a switch.  Next is "You're Just Too, Too," a comic duet between Kay Kendall and Gene Kelly that showcases Kendall's talents as a comedian.  Lastly, there is "Why Am I So Gone About That Gal," a ballad sung in a manner that parodies Marlon Brando's The Wild One.  The backdrops are painted in a style reminiscent of the fantasy sequence for An American in Paris.  If the choreography seems similar as well, it is because Gene Kelly served as choreographer for both sequences, although this time the object of his affections is a sexy Mitzi Gaynor, not Leslie Caron!

After Les Girls, Gene Kelly only did a few more musicals.  Among these were the French New Wave homage film Les Demoiselles de Rochefort and the Olivia Newton-John roller derby musical Xanadu.  Let us not forget Hello, Dolly!, either, which he directed.  That's quite an eclectic group of musicals!  But while his career inevitably slowed down as musicals lost their appeal, Gene Kelly still had to his credit an impressive legacy comprised of some of MGM's most memorable musicals.  Les Girls may not be his finest work, but as a musical in that classic MGM mold, it is a worthy tribute to one of the studio's most beloved stars.

Video *** 1/2

Les Girls is presented in a letterbox widescreen format that preserves the original aspect ratio of its Cinemascope release.  Color is provided by Metrocolor.  This is quite a pleasing transfer, with no discernible artifacts or defects.  The source print is quite very nice, without much debris or any discoloration.  Warner Brothers has done a solid job here, and I only wish older musicals would always receive this degree of care.

Audio ** 1/2

Les Girls has a new 5.1 Dolby Digital audio but probably does not really need the upgrade.  The film's audio sounds alright, but dialogue seems to have a slight echo effect to it.  It isn't very noticeable, but it is there.  Fortunately, it will not interfere with your enjoyment of the film.  The musical numbers spread the sound around nicely, even if there are not many musical numbers.  Coincidentally, Cole Porter had originally written twelve songs for the film, of which only five eventually made it into the final picture.  I wonder what happened to those other tunes?

Features **

The cover mentions a behind-the-scenes section which doesn't appear on the DVD.  Ooo-kay.  The DVD does have a Les Girls trailer, which promotes Les Girls as "rhymes with playgirls."  Ooo-kay.  There is also a one-page section on the awards won by the film.  It's not too terribly exciting.

The only significant features are a cartoon and a short featurette.  That's not very much, but c'est la vie.  The cartoon is Flea Circus, an obscure 7-minute cartoon about a French flea circus, a clown flea, and a can-can flea.  It's mildly diverting, and I was actually surprised to realize that I'd seen it somewhere before.  The featurette is hosted by Taina Elg as she takes a nostalgic look back at Les Girls and its production.  The most notable comment she provides concerns Kay Kendall, whose promising career was sadly cut short by leukemia only a few years after the premiere of Les Girls.

Summary:

Les Girls may not be as famous as some of Gene Kelly's earlier musicals, but it still captures a lot of the gaiety and fun of those films.  There are plenty of laughs to be had here, as well as a few Cole Porter tunes, too!  If you're looking for a family-friendly romantic comedy with music, dance, and girls, girls, girls, give Les Girls a spin!