Tag Archives: Gigi

Adieu Louis Jourdan

Louis Jourdan head shotHis name may not be as familiar as those of other Hollywood leading men of the 1940s and 1950s, but, in just a couple of films, the dark, dashing, and devastatingly debonair Louis Jourdan, who has died at the age of 93, managed to establish himself as the definitive charming European womaniser, most famously as Gaston in the lavish, multi Oscar-winning musical Gigi. Later in life, he graduated from playboy parts to suave villains, notably as the wealthy prince Kamal Khan in the 1983 Bond movie Octopussy, and an acclaimed BBC production of Count Dracula in the 1970s.

Born Louis Gendre in Marseilles in 1919, he was one of three sons of hotelier Henri Gendre, whose work took the family abroad: Jourdan (his mother’s maiden name) was educated in France, Turkey and Britain.

Jourdan decided on a career as an actor early on and studied at the prestigious Ecole Dramatique in Paris. With his chiselled features, sallow complexion, and natural grace, he was an obvious candidate for movie stardom and was quickly snatched up for film roles. He made his debut, at the age of 20, in Le Corsaire (which starred Charles Boyer, already established as Hollywood’s original French lover) and landed leading roles in a handful of romantic comedies and dramas during the war. However, not long into the Occupation, Henri Gendre was arrested by the Gestapo, and Jourdan and his two brothers joined the Resistance.

Following the war, Jourdan was invited to Hollywood by the independent producer David O Selznick. His Hollywood debut was in a lesser role in the rather wooden courtroom drama The Paradine Case (1948), which was produced and scripted by Selznick and directedLouis Jourdan - Letter by Alfred Hitchcock. Hitchcock was opposed to the casting of “pretty-pretty boy” Jourdan as a creepy valet suspected of murdering his employer, and attributed some of the film’s failure to Selznick’s casting decision.

Jourdan’s talents were put to much better use in the sumptuous melodrama Letter From an Unknown Woman (1948), a sort of period film noir. Directed by the German-born Max Ophuls, it starred Jourdan as a self-absorbed playboy, a famous Viennese concert pianist who is idolised by a young girl in his apartment building. One of the most perfect evocations of unrequited love, the film was not widely seen when it was first released – it was fairly risque for Hollywood at the time – but has developed a cult following over the years. Playing a man learning, over the course of the film which unfolds as he reads the eponymous letter, the cost to himself and others of his reckless, self-serving lifestyle, he brought a poignancy and vulnerability to a character who starts out a stereotypical cad.

Jourdan was not kept particularly busy during his early years in Hollywood and was generally limited to the continental-lover-type roles. Decameron Nights (1952), a British film in which he played four characters, reteamed him with his Letter co-star Joan Fontaine, but with less success, while Three Coins in the Fountain (1954) raised his profile with American audiences. He also made his Broadway stage debut in 1954, receiving positive reviews for his leading performance as a secretly gay man embarking on marriage in a stage adaptation of Andre Gide’s novel The Immortalist. Unfortunately, a young supporting actor Louis Jourdan & LC in Gigi
named James Dean was reckoned to have stolen the show.

In 1956 Jourdan and Grace Kelly made a beautiful couple in The Swan, but it was his performance as the suave Gaston, the bored bon vivant bachelor nephew of Maurice Chevalier, in Vincente Minnelli’s ravishing movie version of the Paris-set Broadway musical Gigi (1958) that sent female hearts a-fluttering across the world and established him as the ultimate French lover. Not only had he never looked more handsome than in glorious MGM Technicolor, but he exuded a peculiarly Gallic ennui and revealed that he could sing – in an endearingly imperfect way (and with a seductive French accent).

However, it wasn’t long after Gigi that Jourdan began to suffer from the sameness of his roles, and he slid back into supporting parts. Between 1960 and 1990 he worked in Hollywood and in Europe, appearing numerous top TV series (Columbo, Charlie’s Angels etc) and in high-profile British TV movies, including The Count of Monte Cristo (1975) and The Count of Monte Cristo (1977). He had served as narrator on two Paris-set Billy Wilder films – Love in the Afternoon (1957) and Irma La Douce (1963) – but in the 1970s, the Jourdan voice could be heard in, of all things, Scooby Doo and Scrappy Doo, the Louis Jourdan as the Swamp Thingspin-off of the Hanna-Barbera cartoon series.

Jourdan’s career received a welcome shot in the arm when he reinvented himself as a villain – of the camp variety – for Swamp Thing (1982) and the James Bond movie Octopussy (1983). He also made a debonair Dracula in a now-cultish 1978 BBC production. He was last seen in the 1992 caper adventure Year of the Comet, which was partly filmed in Scotland. Married to his French wife (who died last year) from 1944, he had one son, Louis Jourdan Jr, who died of a drugs overdose in 1981. In 2010, he was made an Officier de la Legion d’honneur, France’s highest award. With a last dash of romantic flair, the screen’s great Continental lover bowed out, appropriately enough, on Valentine’s Day.

Louis Jourdan, actor, born June 19, 1921; died February 14, 2015

* First published in The Herald, February 17

 

 

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The Magic of the MGM Musicals

I love a musical. RKO’s Fred Astaire – Ginger Rogers films of the 1930s are masterclasses in elegance, wit and several key chapters of The Great American Songbook. Warner Bros’ Busby Berkeley musicals, which have been referenced in everything from The Producers to The Big Lebowski, combine jaw-dropping choreography with a sassy insight into life during the Depression. The Fox musicals of the 1940s are brash and gaudy like Christmas baubles and just as cheery. Even the French have contributed to the Hollywood musical genre – thanks to Jacques Demy’s cultish homage Les Demoiselles de Rochefort.

But one brand of musical towers head and shoulders above every other: the MGM musical. The mere phrase conjures up a string of iconic images – Gene Kelly ecstatically splashing about in puddles, a be-ginghamed Judy Garland skipping off down the Yellow Brick Road, Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby singing while supping at the bar, Fred Astaire and Judy Garland slumming it as tramps, Maurice Chevalier crooning his way through a park packed with pretty Parisiennes.

Between 1939 and 1959, Metro Goldwyn Mayer took the musical genre to a new level – well, several new levels, actually. They gave us the first musical with black stars in the leading roles – in the shape of Cabin in the Sky, in 1943, and six years later, they took the musical out of the studio and on location, with the groundbreaking New York-set classic On the Town.

But first and foremost, the studio gave us The Wizard of Oz (1939). The most beloved movie of all time and one of the most perfect screen musicals, it set the standard for the MGM musicals of the next two decades.

Unlike many of the 1930s MGM films, which featured such “straight” actors as Cary Grant, James Stewart and Jean Harlow trying (with varying degrees of success) to sing – and which seemed like a half-hearted nod towards the possibilities of singing and dancing on film – The Wizard of Oz threw itself behind the genre by featuring only the creme de la creme of talent in every department.

And whereas the musicals up to that point had been very self-conscious about the use of song ‘n’ dance routines – they invariably featured in “let’s put on the show right here” style plots – The Wizard of Oz blended them seamlessly into the story, just as the songs, by Harold Arlen and EY Harburg, rose organically out of Arlen’s score.

Requiring 29 sound stages, 65 sets, hundreds of costumes, 150 singing and dancing midgets and breath-taking special effects, The Wizard of Oz was typical of MGM’s opulent, no-expense-spared house style – but it was their most ambitious musical to date, and the first in colour. As a result of its success, studio chief Louis B Mayer decided to set up a musical unit at MGM with Oz producer Arthur Freed (the man who had ensured that Over the Rainbow be reinstated to the film, after it had been cut) at the helm.

And it is to Arthur Freed, says hotshot young conductor and arranger John Wilson – who thrilled audiences with his rapturously received 2009 Prom concert of MGM music – that much of the credit for these glorious  musicals is due. A passionate champion of film music, John Wilson has spent the last few years reconstructing the long-lost scores for many of the legendary MGM musicals and as a result is more intimately acquainted with every last detail of these great films than most of us.

He puts the unrivalled greatness and splendour of the MGM musicals down to the fact that “MGM had a sort of repertory company, in the shape of the Freed Unit. Their musicals were the best ever made because Freed had this extraordinary gift of assembling talent, and he had a very loyal group of craftsmen that he used time and time again – directors Vincente Minnelli and Charles Walters, composer/arrangers Conrad Salinger, Johnny Green and Andre Previn, choreographers Gene Kelly and Hermes Pan, costume designer Helen Rose etc, etc. He had the same people doing the same job year in year out  – they really knew what they were doing.” As a result, every aspect of films such as Meet Me In St Louis, Singin’ in the Rain, The Band Wagon and Gigi was absolutely first class.

And it is this, plus the fact that – as Wilson says – every moment of these movies is vital, that explains the classic MGM musicals’ enduring popularity. Wilson elaborates: “In a non-musical picture, any typical Hollywood fare, you allow for the attention to flag, you can have the odd dip in the movie. But the best of those movie musicals have no dips in them. Every line is chiselled and apposite. Even if the plots are slight, there’s never excess of anything in terms of dialogue or unnecessary music.”

John Wilson conducting

Of course the perfect example of that – and much else besides – is Singin’ in the Rain (1952), the ultimate Freed Unit production (not least because he also co-wrote the title song!). As Wilson points out, “you could watch that and enjoy it even without the music”.

But, oh, what music. Pick any legend of American popular songwriting and you’ll find he worked for MGM during the glory years. Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, Richard Rodgers, Harry Warren – they all wrote songs for MGM – and in some cases, the songs outlived or outshone the films. And it wasn’t just the songwriters whose music enchants.

When John Wilson conducts this stuff it is thrilling for a number of reasons, among them the fact that you’re hearing the exact arrangement of whichever song as you know it from the film, and the rare treat of also getting to hear the incidental music which leads in and out of those very familiar songs. This was another area where MGM excelled, thanks to its master arrangers who wrote for a peerless in-house orchestra which was reckoned to be as accomplished as any symphony orchestra.

At the end of the day, the MGM movies endure because they are meticulously crafted works of art which offer pure unadulterated escapism and complete and utter joy. As Gene Kelly sang in the 1951 MGM extravaganza An American in Paris, “who could ask for anything more?”!

* A Celebration of MGM Film Music, with John Wilson conducting The John Wilson Orchestra plus singers Curtis Stigers, Kim Criswell, Sir Thomas Allen and Seth MacFarlane, is at the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall on Sunday, November 28.

MGM Musical Highlights

Sir Michael Parkinson, chat show host extraordinaire
Favourite film? “Singin’ In The Rain (1952) – the best-natured movie ever made. The MGM musicals are, in my view, maybe Hollywood’s greatest contribution to the cinema. They stood for perfection in every department and set new standards in music, dance and arranging.”

Favourite number? James Stewart singing Easy To Love in Born To Dance (1936).

“Nowadays, when so much we see from the music industry in TV and movies is frankly mediocre it is salutary and uplifting to the reminded of a time when genius reigned in Hollywood.”

* Parky’s People – The Lives – The Laughs – The Legend (Hodder & Stoughton) is out now, and The Michael Parkinson Collection (BBC DVD) is out now.

Allan Hunter, co-director of the Glasgow Film Festival (February 17-27 2011)
Favourite film? Meet Me in St Louis (1944), maybe because it’s an idealised vision of America that you hope and think maybe did exist – but probably never did. It’s got great songs, Judy Garland probably never looked happier or healthier, the cinematography is wonderful – there’s a kind of warm glow to it – and I think the cast throughout are perfect.

Favourite song?: “Fred Astaire and Eleanor Powell doing Cole Porter’s Begin the Beguine from Broadway Melody of 1940.” 

“It’s the most amazing display of tap dancing and harmony between two performers. Eleanor Powell later said that they spent an entire day just rehearsing hand movements. It’s amazing to watch the two of them in that perfectly synchronized tap dancing routine, and they both seem to be really enjoying themselves.”

Pauline McLean, arts correspondent for BBC Scotland
Favourite film? “Singin’ in the Rain. I never tire of it. It works on so many different levels – part Hollywood history, part romance, spectacular dancing and great music.”

Favourite song? “True Love (by Cole Porter) from High Society (1956).” 

“Bing Crosby and Grace Kelly exude such effortless cool while singing and sailing!”

Nick Varley, managing director of Park Circus film distribution
Favourite film? “Kiss Me Kate (1953). “It might look a bit hammy today but the writing is fantastic – those wonderful Cole Porter lyrics! It was also the only musical to be filmed in 3D.”

Favourite song? “I Remember It Well (Lerner and Loewe) from Gigi (1958), sung by Maurice Chevalier and Hermione Gingold.” 

“Gigi was the last great musical to come from the Freed unit and MGM. The song is a poignant reminder of that great period of MGM production.”

ALISON KERR, journalist Favourite film: “Singin’ in the Rain. It’s just the tops in every way – the songs, the dance, the comedy, the costumes, the colour, the brilliant way it tells the story of the birth of the talkies. There’s something for everyone in it.”

Favourite number: “Well, it’s one of many but it gets forgotten because it’s a five-star number in a three-star film – On the Atcheson, Topeka and the Santa Fe, from The Harvey Girls (1946). Judy Garland and co singing Johnny Mercer lyrics, Harry Warren tune – I love how the tune gets passed from singer (and non-singer) to singer, and the scale of the production. Like Singin’ in the Rain, it’s a number I’ve enjoyed sharing with my young children.” 

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