Tuesday, December 26, 2023

The Rashomon Mishmash that is “Les Girls”

Which Hollywood film borrows something from Akira Kurosawa’s groundbreaking Rashomon and something from Marlon Brando’s biker persona in The Wild One? Give up? It’s an MGM musical comedy from 1957, titled Les Girls.

 As a longtime fan of bright, splashy Hollywood musicals, I looked forward to seeing a film directed by George Cukor, scored by Cole Porter, and starring Gene Kelly. Sadly, none of their talents are fully on display here. The words and music by Porter (for whom this was a final motion picture) are totally forgettable. The charm and precision of Cukor (I just rewatched Adam’s Rib for the umpteenth time) are only a sometime thing. Kelly, about to move on to producing and directing, still looks good and dances well, but he seems in this film to be ageing out of the romantic lead category. The three “girls” of the title do each have their moments, but the film itself is an odd hybrid of outrageous shenanigans, romantic passion, and musical comedy shtik. Still, it’s not the worst way to pass an evening at home on the couch.

  The film begins in a London courtroom, with one very posh matron suing another for libel. It seems Sybil (now Lady Wren) has published a tell-all memoir of her years in a cabaret performance troupe. In her best-seller she has detailed the suicide attempt of Angele, one of her dance colleagues, when a passionate romance went awry. Cut to Paris, where younger versions of the elegant British Sybil (Kay Kendall) and the perky American Joy (Mitzi Gaynor) are featured in a popular stage revue led by Barry Nichols (Gene Kelly). They are quickly joined, both on-stage and in a not-too-shabby Paris apartment, by a new recruit, the flirtatious French Angele (Taina Elg). Angele has a devoted French suitor back home in the provinces, but she is all too quick to make the moves on Barry, who responds with enthusiasm. Disaster strikes when Angele’s provincial (but hugely wealthy) fiancé shows up with his parents, thinking she’s in the nation’s capital to study nursing. She panics, ruins the evening’s performance, as well as—apparently—her romantic future on both fronts. Sadly, suicide seems the only way out, but she’s rescued just in time.

 Back in the British courtroom, we now get Angele’s testimony, which exonerates her completely while flashing back to Sybil’s (hilarious) drunken antics in that Paris apartment. Her condition prompts fisticuffs between the supportive Barry and Sybil’s own longtime suitor, a starchy British lord. Kendall’s uproarious tipsiness in this section reminds us what a boon she was to the entertainment world before her all-too-early death at age 37. The flashback ends with an account of a suicide attempt not by Angele but by Sybil herself.

 On Day 3 of the trial, Barry himself shows up as a surprise witness. In HIS version (this is how the Rashomon analogy fits in), neither Sybil nor Angele successfully captured his romantic attention. And the suicide attempts in each woman’s courtroom story have a very different explanation, which winds up ending the trial with good will restored all around. Or is it?

 How does Marlon Brando fit into all this? There are, of course, a number of dance numbers in the film, all choreographed by Hollywood legend Jack Cole. Some are lurid, one tries hard to be risqué, all are well danced. But the best of them features Kelly and Mitzi Gaynor. She’s a lovelorn café proprietor; he’s a biker (like Brando’s Johnny) with a black leather jacket and a gang of henchmen. Things quickly get steamy: definitely worth the price of admission. 


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