Friday, July 3, 2020

The Rasho-men


Directed by George Cukor
Written by John Patrick and Vera Caspary

Spoiler alert: moderate

Attached to the blu-ray of Gene Kelly's 1955 film, It's Always Fair Weather, there is a historical featurette entitled "Going Out On a High Note," and that's the kind of title that, y'know, strongly implies that the film it's a companion to was Kelly's last musical with MGM.  And, yeah, they wish.  Now, Fair Weather was the last musical Kelly directed or co-directed for the studio; it was the last musical he was credited with choreographing for them, though obviously Kelly would have say over anything he ever did; and, of course, it was his friendship-breaking final collaboration with Stanley Donen, so maybe that's what they meant all along.  But the last musical he starred in for MGM is more of a footnote than a high note, and even that might be putting it too nicely.  This was 1957's Les Girls, and while I haven't seen every last Kelly musical, I have seen most, and Les Girls is the worst of them.  (And yes, I have seen Xanadu, which is easily high-tier, damn you, and certainly a far better send-off.)

Les Girls is not, of course, the worst movie ever (it's probably not even one of the twenty or thirty worst movies of 1957), but it's a nasty misfire, all the more irritating because its story is pitched at a level of pretension that neither its goofy plot nor its cringily-bad performances could possibly have supported.  And that's not even considering just how unpleasant and ugly it winds up, for Les Girls isn't just regular-bad, but slightly evil.

Which, indeed, would be a reasonable description of Barry Nichols himself (Kelly), once the leader, star, and principal masculine component of a struggling dance troupe operating out of post-war Paris, called "Les Girls."  By the time we catch up with them, Les Girls has been dissolved for many years.  Nevertheless, the memory of it has been recently revived by one of its members, Sybil (Kay Kendall)—now Lady Sybil Wren—in a lurid memoir she's written about her life on the stage before she married aristocracy (Leslie Phillips).  The present controversy, then, involves the libel suit brought against Sybil by Angele Ducros (Taina Elg), alongside her husband (Jacques Bergerac), in response to the scurrilous claims made in Sybil's book about Angele's tragic love life and the suicide attempt this allegedly resulted in.  As the trial proceeds, plaintiff and defendant alike take the stand to regale the court with their own mutually-exclusive version of the last days of Les Girls.  Finally, a certain surprise witness arrives to provide a clarifying account, and you get no points for correctly guessing who he turns out to be.  The uncontroverted facts, meanwhile, are these: in 1949, Barry hired Angele for his troupe, and had her move in with two of his veterans, Sybil and Joy Henderson (Mitzi Gaynor); and, on their last night together, both Sybil and Angele almost died in an apartment full of gas, though who turned it on and for what purpose remains mysterious.  Otherwise, there's no certainty whose story is true, and depending on which one you go by, Angele was two-timing her fiancĂ© with Barry, or Sybil was a hopeless drunk in love with Barry, or Barry was lusting after Joy.

Naturally, Les Girls is patterned laboriously and not-especially-productively upon Kurosawa's 1950 cross-Pacific hit, Rashomon.  And so, between each flashback segment, director George Cukor shoves his big honking statement of theme directly in our face (literally so, in the closing shot), by way of a man wearing a sandwich-board emblazoned with the words WHAT IS TRUTH?  What indeed.  Theoretically, John Patrick's screenplay (completely overwriting Vera Caspary's original story, which I strongly presume was much cuter and much, much simpler) wants to treat with how folks can perceive the same events radically differently, based on their own self-interest and psychological needs.  In practice, it's never anything but strictly plot-mechanical, and dysfunctionally plot-mechanical at that, insofar as our witnesses' testimony is only in conflict because apparently nobody, like a doctor or a detective, ever actually told Adele or Sybil what happened, and they never asked.  It's an exercise in structure for more or less its own sake, and other than an interesting wrinkle right at the end that, by its placement, can't possibly go anywhere, it's an arid one.

Now, it's still a good hook, and hence Les Girls does manage to remain intriguing for longer than it deserves on a first viewing (a second, I'm afraid, offers very few compensations whatsoever, and it's quite easy to get bored with it).  Mostly, this is because Sybil's testimonial segment manages to etch something resembling real characters out of these vague figures, if mainly through the occasional sharp line that gives the women some semblance of backbone.  One's attention isn't rewarded in the end, or even for too long: by the second act, Les Girls enters its terminal decline, with Adele's tale prosecuted as a laughlessly-bad comedy revolving mostly around Kendall's terrible cartoon rendition of Sybil's lovelorn alcoholism.  After Adele's segment, Barry's somehow winds up even worse.  In truth, as much as Les Girls becomes substantially more buffoonish as it goes along, even the first stretch doesn't really have any stronger idea for Adele than "tiresome French stereotype," and this is the real theme of the thing, with each piece of testimony tending to have the same basic effect of grinding down whatever woman is allegedly in love with Barry this time.  This does serve the film's purposes, sadly, but clashes hard with any goals it ever had of saying the slightest thing about actual humans, and while "genuine insight" is hardly a necessity in a film like this, its absence doesn't leave us with much else besides the least-satisfying mĂ©lange of sub-par musical dramedy, phony narrative experiment, and hyper-misogynistic sex farce that I can imagine.  Or, at least, that I can imagine being made at MGM in the 1950s.

So, yeah, the misogyny that becomes the film's abiding mode around one-third of the way through is by far the biggest reason it stops being any fun; ultimately, the plot hinges upon a conspiracy aimed at destroying the women's careers so they'll agree to get married to people that they don't seem to like all that much.  The final straw for me—though it could easily come earlier for you, and Les Girls, the contemptible thing, is why my girlfriend won't watch Golden Age musicals with me anymore—is a latecoming scene where Barry, after what is implied to be some weeks of harassing his employee, finally just straight-up proposes to Joy.  Deciding to test him, Joy goes to "change into something more comfortable," returns in a bathrobe and hair curlers, is still immensely hot because she's still Mitzi Gaynor, and proceeds to soak her feet in hot water.  And for about thirty seconds, this little provocation could go either way.  It could reorient a film that's been getting worse for about an hour towards a more sincere romance, with Barry living up to the challenge of what marriage actually is; or it could go full-tilt shitty with Barry flying into a tantrum.  Perhaps needless to say, it chooses full-tilt shitty.

Les Girls, then, is one of the few films where Kelly plays something like the heavy (whether this was recognized by its screenwriter, director, or star is unclear, and Les Girls is structured to side with him), and while this evidently had a non-negligible basis in his real life, even someone as on-screen charming as Kelly has noticeable trouble threading Barry's needle, and his usually-effective but always-limited bag of tricks were never likely to maintain him as a charismatic lead when he has such a petty, horny, hypocritical tyrant to play.  (This isn't even a Rashomon effect, either: he's the same basic dick in everybody's recollection—including his own—and the half-hearted attempts to differentiate each version of Barry only make him more incoherent, a creepier character, or both.  I'm not enchanted by the stalker shrine he's made for Joy, I can tell you that much.)  It's never clear that, by the time it finally made it to film, Kelly still much believed in this project, which is sad, because at one point he had to have thought it could serve as a career summation: the three actresses originally sought for the picture were Cyd Charisse, Leslie Caron, and Carol Haney, that is, arguably the three most important dance partners Kelly ever had (well, Haney's rotoscoped Scheherazade was important to him).  Likewise, the scenario nods to his European years and his Francophilia; it alludes to his well-attested jerkishness as a star; there's a rehearsal for an artsy-fartsy number that doesn't seem like it would fit in with Les Girls' crass showgirls crap, but we never get to actually see it in full bloom anyway due to backstage ineptitude, conceivably mirroring Kelly's intense resentment over MGM's treatment of Invitation to the Dance; and, in Barry's current straits as a TV show host and juicestand proprietor, it maybe even suggests Kelly's willingness to fade away.  And that's something, I guess, though it's depressing that "fading away" is precisely the process that Les Girls began.

Then again, it's not hard to comprehend why.  It's a poor platform for Kelly, and a fairly terrible delivery device for the pleasures of its genre, and for all that Les Girls is a bad story poorly told, it doesn't even pursue its dubious ends with much stamina as a musical, either.  It has original songs by Cole Porter, and every last one of them is disappointing; the numbers were choreographed (or co-choreographed) by Jack Cole, and are "better" only in the sense they hit higher highs, but also lower lows.  The objective best from both men, I suppose, is the titular song, presented in a diegetic number about how much Barry loves all the women of the world, from white women to white women in blackface.  The song is arguably less lyrically sophisticated and definitely less enjoyable to listen to than the Beastie Boys song on the same theme, but at least it's peppy and comparatively graceful about it.  On the other end of the spectrum, there's some vaudevillian comic bullshit entitled "Ladies in Waiting," based on the styles of the court of Louis XIV and, more importantly, the ladies' butts.  In between, Les Girls often seems to forget entirely that it's a musical; half-hours pass without any number at all, or with songs so indifferently tossed off that it's hard to remember if they were really there.

Only one number is legitimately memorable, and even that might be because it's borderline embarrassing.  Yet "Why Am I So Gone About That Girl" at least represents Les Girls actually trying, even if whether it's actually succeeding is an open question.  Even so, it's still probably my favorite part of the film.  (Well, my favorite part of the film is Cukor's deployment of some tricky transitions into the flashbacks, panning seamlessly from the courtroom to the girls' attic apartment without any visible edit.  Then again, this only sets one's expectations a bit too high for his direction of everything else, given that the majority of the movie's story plays out in cluttered, unattractive, and mostly-meaningless frame-within-a-frame compositions within the attic apartment, and any shot in any other location is even less dynamic.)

But I was saying "Why Am I So Gone" is, for better or worse, the film's whole legacy.  As  a parody of The Wild One, it throws Kelly into a leather ensemble that suggests he might be more interested in les boys; thus it grabs your attention pretty readily.  And it earns it for the most part: besides being the only number to exploit Kelly's balletic skillset, it also has the good fortune to take place in the one piece of crazed spectacle to be found here, a "restaurant" rendered as an expressionistic sketch of white walls, blood-red swathes of paint, and the black-clad figures of Kelly and Gaynor themselves.  It's in the finest tradition of The Red Shoes and An American In Paris's direct descendants, that is, it's aggressively pointless.  What it reminds me of most keenly is just The Band Wagon's "Girl Hunt," which I don't like, and makes me blush on Fred Astaire's behalf.  But "Why Am I So Gone" feels more like a lark, and so not humiliating.  Or "less humilating," anyway; for it's still dumb and the song sucks even if the dancing is intermittently great and the art direction is searingly bold.  But, on balance, it elevates Les Girls above "complete worthlessness," which it desperately required.

Kelly still had a career after Les Girls, but it signaled the end of his genuine stardom; as the 50s became the 60s, he contented himself with director's gigs on non-musicals, supporting actor roles, and choreographer jobs on other people's films.  He still had important projects in his future.  One was another sojourn to Europe for Jacques Demy, and frankly you can keep it there: The Young Girls of Rochefort isn't even the okay one, and prefigures Xanadu by mostly just exploiting Kelly as a symbol of nostalgia, but in a much less focused way.  The other project was the final musical feature (indeed, the next-to-last feature period) that Kelly ever directed, Hello Dolly!  And when I talked about "worst Gene Kelly musicals" back at the start, perhaps I ought to have mentioned, I haven't seen that.

Score: 4/10

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