The M-G-M movie musical has become intrinsically linked with the Golden Age of Hollywood.
The rouge stained faces, silk dresses, and elaborate backdrops are all staples of MGM’s musical repertoire. Unlike their soulless modern counterpart (I don’t know why producers subject us to this mumbo jumbo) classic Hollywood musicals have a magical quality to them that could only exist in that specific era in movie history.
No other film personifies this feeling better than 1957’s Les Girls.
Directed by the legendary George Cukor and starring a talented cast of dancers, actors, and singers that include the fabulous Mitzi Gaynor, the witty Kay Kendall, the very sensual Taina Elg, and of course, everyone’s favorite hoofer Gene Kelly, Les Girls is every francophile’s dream.
Told in 3 segments, the film tells the story of three women and their experiences working in Paris as showgirls. It goes sours when, 10 years later, one of the women writes a shocking memoir detailing the unglamorous side of being in show business.
The movie begins in London at the Royal Courts of Justice where Angele DuCros (played by Taina Elg) is suing her former dance troupe member Lady Wren- formally known as Sybil Wren (played by Kay Kendall) for defamation.
Sybil’s memoirs recount the days and memories she had while working for Barry Paris (played by Gene Kelly) and his vaudeville act – Les Girls ironically, in the same city that shares his last name. In one of the book’s chapters, Sybil alleges that Angele stepped out on her then-fiancé now-husband Pierre DuCros with Barry and tried to commit suicide after he rebuffed her advances.
Ready to take the stand to defend her honor, Sybil’s testimony takes us back to Paris circa 1949, where the streets were white and the wine was dark.
Barry is looking for another woman to add to his already very successful dance group, which already has Sybil, of course, and American Joanne “Joy” Henderson (played by Mitzi Gaynor.) Being the overbearing man he is, Barry has 4 rules that each girl must abide by:
- Be prompt
- Be persistent
- Be private
and the last and most
absurd important of them all….
Angele joins the troupe and instantly break the one rule that essentially holds the group together when she reveals that she’s engaged to Pierre.
A couple of days go by and Les Girls finally make their debut as a trio with a song (whether you like it or not) that will invade your mind and become a VERY catchy earworm. After a performance that would’ve made Louis the XIV proud, the girls head to their dressing rooms where Angele makes a startling confession.
She has a bit of a crush on Barry.
Sybil and Joy attempt to warn her about Barry’s playboy lifestyle.
“But it is ze French way to ‘ave an affair!” she snaps back. Sybil and Joy can only shake their head in grief, loathing what they might have to do to keep this lie going.
Later in the evening, Barry and Angele run off to have an impromptu “rehearsal” to “go over” the new dance number they created. Back at the apartment, Angele’s fiancé unexpectedly drops by for a visit. Unwillingly to break the ‘girl-code’ Joy and Sybil comes up with all sorts of lies to cover for their friend’s lack of foresight.
When Angele returns from her rendezvous with Barry, Pierre excitedly tells her that his parents are in Paris to meet her, the final step in their courtship.
Uh, oh. There’s a problem here.
Pierre believes Angele is in Paris studying to be a nurse and is cohabitating with Joy and Sybil to save on rent costs; she’s neglected to tell him that she’s actually a dancer. Nevertheless, she still plans on performing the following night… IN FRONT OF Pierre and his parents, seeing as they have tickets for the show.
Believing that this her only chance at true happiness, before the show begins Angele pleads with Barry to confess his ‘love’ for her. Barry being reasonable, obviously rejects her efforts, Angele takes the stage a beaten and broken woman. On top of that, she also makes a fool of herself, trying to hide her face from being seen by Pierre.
In trying to conceal her face, she manages to screw up the number and ruin her costume. Assuming she’s ruined her chances with both men, Angele looks to Sybil and Joy – particularly Sybil, for comfort. Nighttime begins to fall, and Joy and Sybil go out for a bite to eat, leaving Angele in the apartment alone. When they return, they find her passed out from inhaling gas fumes.
Returning to the courtroom, Sybil explains that Angele wanted to die because of her unrequited feelings toward Barry. Pierre horrified during the duration of the testimony, is humiliated by the alleged affair that took place between Angele and Barry and raucously argues with her. The next day in court, Angele gets to right her wrongs by telling her version of events.
Back to 1949 Paris, we go….
Sybil’s fiancé London businessman Gerald Wren (of course his name is Gerald…) pays her a surprise visit (what’s with the surprise visits?) to Paris to see how’s she’s doing.
Turns out she isn’t well at all, in fact, she’s terribly drunk.
Being the good friends they are, Joy and Angele use their wit and charm to distract Gerald and cover up Sybil’s indiscretions. Barry notices Sybil’s declining status and threatens to fire her until Angele convinces him not to when she explains that her drunkenness is due her unreciprocated love for him.
Barry ego is said to have swelled 5x that day and he soon takes pity on her.
Months later, Barry asserts that he was able to convince Sybil to go sober; Oh, and they also end up having an affair as per tradition.
Touring the small Carribean country of Grenada (odd, but understandable) Gerald, again, pops up suddenly on this tiny island offering Barry a job in London. Little did he know that Gerald had ulterior motives. You see, Gerald did this with the hope that Sybil would return to London, and stay there – permanently.
Later that night, Sybil and Barry head to a Flamenco club where they discuss the proposition Gerald gave them. However, when Barry brings up the subject Sybil tells him that Gerald canceled his offer after he learned about the affair that they’re having. Befuddled at this statement, when Gerald show up at the club a few moments later, Barry disavows Sybil’s statement.
Gerald, naturally, shocked that his fianceé would cheat on him, starts a good ole’ fashioned barfight with Barry. After that whole ordeal, Sybil tries to apologize to Barry with no luck. He comes clean saying that he only showed interest in her intending to curb her habit of alcoholism.
Shocked and saddened, Sybil relapses.
The group returns to Paris where Sybil’s nasty habit starts to bleed into her performances.
Barry ends up firing her in a fit of rage.
Back at the apartment later that night (there are sure a lot of night scenes in this movie) Angele finds Sybil unconscious from inhaling gas fumes and comes to the conclusion that she tried to commit suicide, thus ending Angele’s “side” to the story.
We return to the courtroom where the session has been adjourned. Sybil confronts Angele claiming she invented every word of her story.
Well, Sybil’s accusations aren’t enough for her husband Gerald, and he ends up telling her that their marriage is over.
The next day, Barry is called into court to make sense of all of these conflicting testimonies.
Perhaps my favorite of the 3 stories (mostly because I identify with Joy so strongly here) Barry admits that he wasn’t in love with Sybil or Angele; as matter of fact, he had he eyes set the quieter more conservative, Joy.
His attempts to court her fail – repeatedly. Joy doesn’t want to dirty her unblemished reputation by dating a man with Barry’s womanizing history.
One night after rehearsals, Barry offers to drive a very tired Joy back to her apartment. Fully aware that he’s trying to take advantage of her, Joy allows him upstairs and tells him she’s going to slip into something “a little bit more comfortable.”
Fully believing that he’s got his way, Barry takes off his shoes, looses up his tie and makes himself comfortable only to have his dream crushed when Joy returns looking like she’s ready to travel to the spa, pinned up hair and all!
Barry storms out of the apartment in
sexual frustration. A couple of days later, Pierre and Gerald ask Barry to fire Sybil and Angele so they could marry them (how ridiculously selfish!), Barry doesn’t think so, however. Intrigued at the prospect of being alone with Joy, he plots a plan that would disband the group forever.
That night after performing the greatest and most sensual musical number I’ve ever witnessed, Barry collapses backstage feigning a heart condition prompting Joy to console him. He tells Joy that even though he’s been diagnosed with a terminal heart condition, “the show must go on.”
“Absolutely not!” she retorts back.
Barry’s plan appears to have worked.
Joy charges back to the apartment where she tells Angele and Sybil the ghastly news.
A few days later, the girls and Barry have an anniversary party celebrating the group’s existence. It’s at this gathering that Sybil and Angele agree to quit the group due to Barry’s health (among other things.) He accepts their resignations and asks Joy if she could kindly take him home.
When they get to his apartment, Barry falls on top of Joy still pretending to have a heart palpitation. She desperately wants to succumb to his advances, but she fears if she gets his heart rate up, he could be in worse shape than he already is.
Barry gives up this shtick that he’s doing and tells Joy that it’s all a facade. This clearly does NOT go over well with Joy and she races out of his apartment while Barry runs after her. In a very Say Anything… type of moment Barry gets to Joy’s apartment (really the apartment she shares with the girls) and essentially screams out that he loves her. Jokes on him, if he only knew that Joy was standing a few yards away from him, he might’ve never done that.
Disappointed that he didn’t get the response he wanted, Barry sulks up to her apartment where he finds Angele and Sybil passed out from gas fumes from a wonky water heater.
Back to the present day, Barry explains that both girls were taken to the hospital and Les Girls never performed as a group again.
Both Sybil and Angele were troubled that the cause of their asphyxiation was never made clear to them, but that doesn’t matter anymore! Sybil accepts Angele’s motion to drop the case and all is right with the world, except for Pierre and Gerald.
Insulted by their husband’s scheme to end their careers Angele and Sybil embrace like old friends as they walk off to their cars.
As for Barry? Well, he and Joy got married.
I guess everyone did get what they wanted in the end.
Now, Les Girls is a film that stands out above the rest.
Released in 1957, just as the musical craze in Hollywood was starting to die down due to 1960s obsession with rebellion and counterculture, Les Girls brings back that old Hollywood flavor to musicals that harken back to the day of Busby Berkeley.
That’s what I love about this film.
It’s absolutely heavenly.
It makes you want to fly to Paris find the nearest bistro order a café au lait while smoking Virginia Slims with a cigarette holder.
Kay Kendall, Mitzi Gaynor, and Taina Elg gave this move an extra *umpfh* that the original cast of Leslie Caron, Jean Simmons, Cyd Charisse probably couldn’t.
Gene Kelly was positively charming (and kind of scummy) playing the egomaniacal, fame-hungry Barry Paris.
This is definitely a movie that I cherish. When I first viewed it, I was enchanted. The lights, the dresses, the sets, the costumes by Orry Kelly, all of it sucked me in. I supposed this a lesser-known musical that doesn’t nearly get enough attention – it’s a shame because it should. Without it, I never would’ve never known who Kay Kendall was; trust me, folks she lived a crazy life, an unfortunate one at that.
All in all Les Girls is my second favorite musical (behind Seven Brides for Seven Brothers of course.) It deserves that spot because it’s truly in a league of its own and I’m glad it is.