Hooray for Hollywood—Not
In the 50s, it wasn't rare to shoot an entire film on the studio's lot, scenery made with care by a large team of artists, designers, and craftsmen. It didn't matter if the movie was set in outer space, or a Brooklyn neighborhood: they'd build it in Hollywood.
And while Gigi does have more than a few interior locations shot at MGM studios, much of it was shot in Paris at places a tourist could still check out today. Part of this is because Frederick Loewe, who only agreed to do the project once producer Arthur Freed agreed to film far away from the dealings and gossip of 1950s Hollywood.
The Bois de Boulogne, the famous Paris park, is the setting for "Thank Heaven for Little Girls" at the beginning and end of the movie. The site, once an ancient oak forest, was declared a park by none other than Napoleon in 1853. He insisted there be water features, "to give life to this arid promenade." Sounds good, Napoleon. In the late 19th century, it hosted painters like van Gogh and Manet, as well as the 1900 Summer Olympics.
Here are a few other exteriors (and interiors) they used in the City of Lights:
- Pont Alexandre III is a bridge that spans the River Seine, the famous Parisian waterway. This is the bridge that Gaston crosses, moving from his "Soliloquy" to the title song, finally confessing to himself how much he loves his little gal pal. The bridge works as a kind of literalized transition, from frustration to adoration, moving the story along quite nicely.
- Parc Monceau is green space built in the late 18th century and known for its weird collection of structures, including a pyramid, windmill, and a semicircular ruin-like stand of pillars. Interestingly, it worked as the set for Gigi's "I Don't Understand the Parisians" and a portion of Gaston's "Gigi." In some ways, it's the place these characters go to get in touch with their overwhelming emotions and sing about it...obviously.
- The Ice Palace may have been re-made into a theatre, but Maxim's (which opened in 1893) is still a vibrant destination cafe for blue-bloods and tourists alike. Do its diners sing-whisper with each new entrance to the place? Probs not. But you can certainly go try the veal sweet breads (75 euros) or a hot chocolate soufflé (26 euros). The restaurant was also used a location in Woody Allen's 2011 Midnight in Paris.
At the turn of the 20th century, big things were going down in Paris. It was what's now called the Belle Époque, or, the Beautiful Era, which ran from the end of the Franco-Prussian War to the beginning of WWI. It was a fun breather in between wars, when the people of Paris (and elsewhere in Europe) got busy and partied down. Because everyone was feeling at ease, there was plenty of leisure time to enjoy culture. As a result, literature, painting, dance, and theatre flourished.
But while society gentlemen like Gaston and Honoré were in the pink, the people living in the slums and working class neighborhoods of Paris were doing their best to stay afloat. It's serious business that Madame Alvarez has to support both Gigi's flailing opera singer mom and Gigi herself, (and it's never revealed how she does it.) That makes Gigi's future career as a courtesan all the more important: they want a better life for her.
Interior Set: Private Chambers
For each major character, (except Madame Alvarez, whose apartment's living room is more public social space than intimate chamber), we're treated to a wide-shot tour of private spaces. Let's look at three examples:
Gaston's home office, grand in golds and ivories, hosts not one but four assistants: a car salesman, a valet, a butler, and an accountant. The high-ceilinged chamber has columns and gilded frames, portraits of ancestors (we bet) and a cloud-like bouquet of purple hydrangea. It's almost as if poor Gaston's being crowded out, and we wonder what this has to say about his relationship to his own wealth.
Across town, Honoré 's home has a clubbier, Richie-rich rumpus-room style as his valet Manuel chides him gamely while shaving his face. The colors are copper, bronze, and ochre, a room made only for the purposes of our permanent bachelor. The carved wood paneling, the subdued stained glass, and the whiskery fringed lamps? It's a fin-de-siècle French man-cave.
Aunt Alicia's chambers come in whites and pinks and golds, everything draped and gilded. Maybe the most memorable scene in her abode is one in her bathroom, as she scrubs imperiously in a tub the size of a small boat, draped in lace. Madame Alvarez is on a nearby settee, as they discuss the terms of Gigi's upcoming agreement with Gaston. Alicia must have made some good investment decisions during her time as a courtesan. Her digs are pretty lush.
Remember that Gigi's director was a stage designer long before he became a movie director out in Hollywood. As a result, many if not most of the shots (as with the scenes in private spaces) are wide, as if they take place on the stage. The set is always ornamented within an inch of its life (thanks, Cecil Beaton), and the screen's edges take on a kind of picture frame effect.
And they're gorgeous pictures. When Gaston's pondering his decision about Gigi, e.g., it's a framed shot of him in silhouette in the darkened park, the dancing water of the fountains cascading over the statues of the horses.
There's one exception to this style, and that's Gigi's bedroom, where the camera sways dreamily to follow her as she sings "Say A Prayer for Me Tonight" and cuddles with her totally checked-out pet cat. (See our "Trivia" for more on Mister Kitty.)
The scene begins with the camera set on a window opened to Paris-at-night, illuminated dreamily with a high-angle light meant to mimic the moon. Gigi looks out, and then, as she begins to sing, the camera tracks her melancholy movements, revealing beyond her a tiny room with an unmade bed and lace cloths askew on the dresser.
Gigi's room is lit moodily with a gas lamp here and there, a prominent mirror where Gigi can reflect (yeah, both literally and figuratively) on her life as she prepares to go on her first date with Gaston. It's the final moment of her life as a girl.