(On Cable TV, February 2019) From a twenty-first-century perspective, looking at the totality of an actor’s filmography at once certainly has a different impact that chronologically living through it one movie at a time. As much as I like Audrey Hepburn, for instance (and I do!), it’s hard not to notice that in between 1954 and 1967, she made no less than seven movies at least partially set in Paris, and at least four of them with significantly older men. While Sabrina was partially set in Paris but obviously not filmed there, Funny Face and Love in the Afternoon (both 1957, shot a month apart) get the subgenre properly started. In the latter film, Gary Cooper plays an aging playboy who sets his sights on an inexperienced young daughter of a detective. The remarkable difference between the two characters (in age, in social status, in understanding the world) is enough to make any viewer uneasy, and it’s a measure of writer/director Billy Wilder’s skill and both stars’ charm that the film (barely) holds together. Hepburn is up to her usual self here, although if you want another Paris movie in which she calls her father an ebullient “Papa!”, you’ll be better served by How to Steal a Million Dollars. Cooper is a bit less bland than usual here, with a character that does service to his stature in the industry at the time. Maurice Chevalier rounds up the marquee names with an on-target role as a wise, compassionate and knowing private investigator to the stars. There’s no avoiding that the material here is tricky, and that Wilder steers his movie through material that would instantly doom other directors. (Although much of the same can be said about Funny Face and Charade.) There are, fortunately, quite a few laughs along the way, my favourite being the gypsy band following Cooper’s character around, mixing diegetic and non-diegetic musical cues. But while the film does have its strengths (seeing Hepburn, Cooper, Chevalier and Wilder working together being the best of them), its place in a well-defined sub-sub-genre of “Hepburn with older men in Paris” also invites unfavourable comparisons. Funny Face has Astaire dancing and Hepburn keeping up, while Charade plays far more smoothly with the romance with the far more charismatic Cary Grant. If Love in the Afternoon makes you queasy despite its old-school Hollywood charm, you’re not alone.
(On DVD, January 2018) I’m annoyed that I don’t like Gigi more than I do. After all, at first glance, it should work much better than it does—it’s a big-budget musical that manages to affect a cynical view of romances before going back to classical values right in time for the ending. Set in early-20th century Paris, Gigi takes on the courtesan culture and makes it shine as an entirely acceptable alternative for young women who can’t be bothered by traditional life paths. In other hands, it could have been a playful, insightful way to poke fun at the conventions of musicals. Alas, this Oscar-award-winning movie makes a few missteps along the way and really doesn’t leave a good impression. Things get off on a now-terrifying wrong foot as the movie begins with an older man signing “Thank Heaven for Little Girls,” essentially making a case that young girls are awesome because they’ll grow up to be sexy women worth sleeping with. Eeeeeeeeek. (Contemporary restaging of Gigi wisely give the song to the elderly courtesan character, which is only marginally less icky but still an improvement.) Too bad for Maurice Chevalier, who’s otherwise quite charming and likable as an older playboy who’s come to his senses—thematically, his “I’m Glad I’m Not Young Anymore” is the kind of topic I wish was covered more often in pop culture. Other bad touches abound, such as a jocular way of looking at the male protagonist earning his “first suicide attempt” from a jilted ex-lover. Given this far more adult take on romantic musicals, what’s perhaps most damning about Gigi is the way it may present itself at an edgy film but ultimately (and predictably) fall back on rote values in time for its ending. It simply doesn’t have the guts to follow its early contrarian impulses. As a result, it ends up as a muddled piece of work—too cynical to be mindlessly enjoyable, but ultimately unsatisfying for not forging its own path. Taken as individual musical numbers, it’s still often visually spectacular and impressive in the way only classic MGM musicals could be. (My favourite anecdote about the film is that the day following Gigi’s Best Picture Oscar win, MGM receptionists answered the phone with “M-Gigi-M”) But—wow—has the film aged badly in some crucial ways.
(On-demand Video, November 2012) Thirty-some years and countless more animated features later, this semi-classic hand-drawn Disney effort (“semi-classic” as in: not as favourably reviewed or best-known as many other Disney animated films, but still widely recognized) is still an impressive piece of work. Never mind the inconsistent inking: The Aristocats is an astonishing piece of work, the animation of the lead characters fluid and expressive enough to impress even at the digital age. The script may be straightforward, but the character work is impressive, and a pair of catchy songs give a lot of extra value to a film that is scarcely more than 75 minutes long. This is a kid’s film (the slapstick alone proves it) but the kitten protagonists are cute enough to melt anyone’s heart into a giggle of awwws. Extra points are to be given for a Maurice Chevalier song, and a cheerfully anachronistic sequence featuring jazzy cats with psychedelic lighting. The Aristocats is a very cute film, and that’s pretty much all the charm it needs to succeed even today.
(Second-through-fiftieth viewings, toddler-watching, In French, On Blu-Ray, January 2014) Here’s a new bit to add in the critical lexicon: “toddler-watching” a movie, or, what happens when you end up seeing a movie fifty times alongside a toddler. This does not mean sitting through a film fifty times entirely: it means catching the film in bits and pieces are the toddler wanders off, needs something from the kitchen, wants to see the same musical numbers five times in a row, or needs to skip over the scary parts. While the cinephile in myself is overtly horrified by this collage approach to watching a film, the parent with his finger on the remote is pretty happy that background movie-watching exists. So it is that endlessly revisiting The Aristocats remains a fun experience even the fiftieth time in. By the time I can hum even the incidental musical cues, the flaws of the film are obvious: the story meanders, some set-pieces exist in their own universe, the Paris-1910 setting is practically useless, there are a few unfortunate stereotypes, the animation is sub-standard by Disney standards (despite the gorgeous restoration work on Blu-Ray, the key-frame lines suddenly appear and disappear… to the point where the film is almost better seen on DVD) and the best musical numbers are a bit too short. On the other hand, it’s a film practically devoid of any kind of scary content, the animal characters are just adorable and the musical numbers are, indeed, quite enjoyable. (I particularly like the title song, the end of “Scales and Arpeggios” and, of course, the floor-shattering climax of “Ev’rybody Wants To Be A Cat”) If my daughter’s happy watching the cats sing and make their way home, then who am I to argue?