Art Vs Commerce: Musicals, Bible Stories, and Bad Choices (1950s)

1958

Okay, into 1958, and art and commerce are split again, but this time it’s on an unexpected question…

Which bright and happy musical do we love? We have an enduring classic of musical theatre, one that still gets performed today…

And we have the one that won Best Picture.

And The Oscar Goes To…

Okay so maybe now’s a time to talk about the tonal whiplash I’m getting from the Oscars this decade. In the current century it’s been largely clear what is or isn’t an “Oscar movie,” for reasons we’ll discuss in the 90s, but in the 50s they’re just all over the map. From the hard-hitting On the Waterfront to the melancholic but hopeful Marty, to Around the World in 80 Days, then a hard turn to the grim Bridge on the River Kwai, and now an even harder turn to light, quaint musical Gigi, what is even happening.

I shouldn’t complain, because “Oscar movie” should not even be a genre, let alone such a specific and identifiable genre, they should just nominate good films regardless of subject matter or presence of capes, but man it’s making it hard to get a grip on the Best Pictures this decade. No wonder I’ve spent so much time digging into Biblical epics, it’s the only theme I have in the 50s.

Anyway, Gigi. From the team behind My Fair Lady, and by the second song you think “Yeah, I hear it, definitely them.”

Gigi is… well it’s a manual on grooming impressionable teens, sorry, but it is.

The titular Gigi is young woman in Paris being trained by her aunt and grandmother (her mother being preoccupied in a theatrical career) in the womanly arts of pouring coffee, selecting cigars, and other dutiful mistress stuff, welcome to 1900. Meanwhile, family friend and determined bachelor* Gaston Lachaille has grown bored of the Paris socialite scene, and its rigid rules about how a Man Of Standing should deal with his mistress having another fella.

Hint: a failed suicide attempt is considered a mark of honour, this movie is messed up. (The gossips note that that particular mistress “attempts suicide” after every breakup, even saying “not enough poison” is her favourite method. It’s still a little dark, just not that dark.)

Anyway Gigi and Gaston have always been close in a surrogate uncle/niece kind of way, but Gigi has matured and Gaston starts to notice but he’s known her since she was a child so this is gross it’s gross, this is very off-putting. Because in this day and age if an older man… maybe a famous rapper, let’s call him “Drake…” keeps texting underage girls… let’s call them “Billie Eilish” and “Millie Bobbie Brown…” that is something to worry about, not find charming.

Some of the songs are good though. I mean the most famous, “Thank Heaven For Little Girls,” is very much a Groomer Anthem, as is Gaston’s number about how Gigi is a child but also hot now, so that’s unpleasant, but others work. Still… I can see why this one doesn’t get staged these days.

*Not to be confused with confirmed or avowed bachelor, 50s Hollywood euphemisms for “gay.” The best of which was “evening botanist.”

And Rotten Tomatoes Says: Down pretty far, which makes sense, at #77, right over… Going My Way!? Are you mental? That movie is like a big comfy blanket!

The Box Office Champ

Okay when I said “enduring classic” before, what I meant was “well known and somewhat well regarded for its age.” Like, this one gets staged. If Music Man is still getting done on Broadway (did it make it to the stage before society ended?) this one could in theory be revived at some future point where either live theatre or those hologram things from The Star Wars Holiday Special exist, whichever comes first.

But let’s be clear. This one is skating by on “Some Enchanted Evening.” It’s the most famous song in the musical (followed by “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Out of My Hair” and “Nothing Like a Dame”), and they must sing it at least three times.

As to story… it’s about two would-be romances on and around a US military base somewhere in the titular ocean. An American nurse and a French ex-pat, and a US marine and a native girl whose mother is trying to pimp her out to a white husband of standing. And both romances hinge on the same question: what does the American love more, their partner or racism?

Yeah.

The nurse doesn’t love that her older French beau has mixed-race kids, and the marine doesn’t think his family would approve of an Asian wife. I mean the film isn’t pro-racism, and even has a song about how hate is taught rather than instinctual, but it still ain’t a great look.

There’s also a scheming naval man played by Ray Walston, who I know as Judge Bone from the underrated 90s drama Picket Fences, and his character never managed to button his shirt up but I found myself asking, did he ever look young? Or was he born looking 53?

This movie is in colour but not Technicolor, so perhaps they didn’t have a complete stranglehold on colour pictures, but maybe Technicolor would have known not to throw some weird coloured filter over half the musical numbers. They wouldn’t make every love song for the nurse look like someone’s holding a bowl of yellow Jell-O in front of the camera. Apparently the director asked the studio not to do that but was overruled.

Anyway it’s not great, swapping problematic age gaps for racism was at best a lateral step, and the French guy’s voice was weirdly low and deep so I just found “Some Enchanted Evening” offputting.

And Rotten Tomatoes Says: 82%, but the audience score is less forgiving at 69%.

But Why Not…? How about Vertigo from Alfred Hitchcock, starring Jimmy Stewart and Kim Novak? Certainly film history cares more about this one than 50s audiences did.

Other Events in Film

  • Steve McQueen battled alien Jell-O in The Blob.
  • Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing teamed up again for Hammer’s Dracula. From here, Lee would do the Dracula sequels, and Cushing would star in the continuing adventures of Victor Frankenstein. In fact, Cushing did Revenge of Frankenstein this very year.
  • Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil, which continued to showcase Welles’ skills as a filmmaker but lamentably also has Charlton Heston as a Mexican, came out this year.
  • B-Movie King Roger Corman introduced the world to Jack Nicholson in The Cry Baby Killer.
  • John Williams scored his first movie, Daddy-O. Look, B-movies launched a lot of careers.
  • “Help me! Help me!” became an iconic phrase thanks to Vincent Price and The Fly. Its sequel, Return of the Fly, again with Price, was also out this year… but I still have to wait four damned years for a second Aquaman, who decided that was a good idea, why does WB hate me

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