And Here's Your Host
Honoré Lachaille is a jolly, wealthy old fellow, full of zest for life and bemused by all the goings-on in Paris society. He's absolutely charming—an incurable Paris-in-the-spring romantic. His "Thank Heaven for Little Girls" is an affectionate reflection on the adorable little girls who'll someday grow up to be the glamorous women he loves to entertain.
Honoré Lachaille is a jolly, wealthy old fellow with a creepy interest in young girls. His charm masks a contempt for women that's reflected in the fact that he treats them like playthings and disposes of them when something better (i.e., younger) comes along. He's in it for the chase, and he brainwashes his nephew to be the same way. His "Thank Heaven for Little Girls" is the creepiest, most perverted song in the history of the American film musical.
We report. You decide.
Honoré hasn't changed—he's frozen on celluloid—but times sure have. In 1958, no one saw anything amiss. Now, there's an entire IMDb discussion thread titled, "Is it just me, or is Maurice Chevalier so PERVY?" (Chevalier played the role in the film.) This character is one of the reasons that Gigi landed at the #1 spot on the Worst Best Picture Winners of all time, provoking an immediate and spirited defense.
Shmoop's take on this controversy? It's complicated. We'll get to that in a bit.
Definitely Not Bored
In Colette's novella, Honoré Lachaille is a minor character; in the film he's our tour guide. He tells us about Paris and Parisian society, especially the little girls who grow up to be beautiful women. He winks and laughs straight into the camera, and we know: he's having the best time of anyone.
Honoré is styled as a proto-Hugh Hefner and, tellingly, the role was written only four years after the launch of Playboy Magazine. (In fact, when Hefner hosted Saturday Night Live in 1983, he sang Honoré's most famous song "Thank Heaven for Little Girls" during his monologue.)
Honoré as he tells us directly at the start of the film, is "a lover and collector of beautiful things. Not antiques, mind you. Younger, definitely younger." Unlike his bored-to-death nephew Gaston, he's charmed by every young (young being the important word here) woman in Paris, and hosts a party for one on one night, and another party for her sister the next. As the gossips at Maxim whisper-sing:
DINNER GUESTS: Honoré Lachaille/Honoré Lachaille/With another twinkle in his eye/Isn't it a shame?/Isn't it a crime?/Seeing him so happy all the time?
Having left behind the insecurity of his own youth, he's free to revel in the energy of the young people around him without worrying about all the drama of relationships:
HONORÉ: No more frustration/No star-crossed lover am I./No aggravation/just one reluctant reply/"Lady, goodbye!"
He's glad he's not young anymore, filled with self-delusion and thinking his girlfriends believe his lies. Now, even if, perish the thought, he does fall in love and has to promise to be faithful "forevermore,"
HONORÉ: Forevermore is shorter than before./Oh, I'm so glad that I'm not young anymore!
As a young man, Honoré dated Madame Alvarez. Seeing her again on the beach at Trouville, it's an occasion to remember the time he almost had true love. He may not remember it perfectly, but for a moment, the two sit at a table high above the shore and you can almost see a flicker of regret at what might have been. Just a flicker, that is. Back then, when Honoré realized he was falling in love with her, he had an affair with someone else instead.
There's no denying it, Honoré does have some seriously warped ideas about women, at least from the perspective of the 21st century.
For one thing, the younger the woman, the better. May-December romances are a movie cliché, but this is more like beyond January-December. Second, his attitude towards women, as much as he professes to love them all, is very condescending and dismissive. Here are a few examples:
GASTON: You're still young, uncle, aren't you?
HONORÉ: But I must say, I am compared to you. Maybe it's the women you go with. How old is Liane?
GASTON: About 30.
HONORÉ: That may be it. Youth is the thing, Gaston. Youth!
OK, so we've established that 30 is too old. Just wanted to mention that Honoré looks to be about 70.
After Gaston breaks off with Liane, here's what Honoré advises:
HONORÉ: Try Michie. I saw her last night. She looks heavenly.
GASTON: I'll call her at once.
HONORÉ: You should. She doesn't have many good years left.
Gaston wants to break up with Liane by letter, but Honoré insists, that for maximum effect, he has to do it in person:
HONORÉ: But think of the bliss/of the pleasures you would miss/when she topples in a heap/and you leave her there to weep/on the floor!
Most charming of all? When Liane tries to kill herself, Honoré says to Gaston:
HONORÉ: Congratulations! Your first suicide. What an achievement. And at your age!
Honoré is aghast that Gigi at first turns down Gaston's offer to keep her as his mistress, but when he sees them together at Maxim's, he's very happy for Gaston. All his other girlfriends were boring, but,
HONORÉ: With Gigi…she can amuse you for months!
Well, at least he's consistent. Get them while they're young, have your fun, then get rid of them ASAP.
It's been said in Honoré's defense that this was just how things worked in his world. It wouldn't have been all that unusual for an older Parisian man in 1900 to seek the favors of very young women, and to play the field like he was 25. OTOH, wealthy men like him, unlike the mistresses they kept, had the option to marry. Honoré could have done that, but he would have missed too much—the weeping! The suicides! Better not to settle down.
Young? How Young?
Most people agree that Honoré gets around and isn't the most sensitive guy in the world. But it's "Thank Heaven for Little Girls" that sends most people over the edge and, as Playbill puts it, "puts a mildly creepy spin on the film's theme that female youth can reinvigorate the male spirit, with a steady supply of little girls coming up to replace those being "aged out."
One reviewer commented that, "When Honoré opens the film with […] the song, […] it might be too much for the younger generation to stifle chuckles at the monstrously pedophiliac undertones that plague the lyrics of this once innocent song." (Source)
It probably was innocent when it was written, but people have different sensitivities today. We pay closer attention to even the appearances of inappropriate behavior. And you gotta admit that he is staring at little girls in the park while he's singing this song. And that naughty smile…
But can we give Honoré a pass because, as another critic sarcastically noted, "But you see, he is charming and not at all a cradle-robbing pedophile because he is French and the French are shameless romantics. In France" (source).
Our verdict? Honoré's not really into little girls, but he's definitely into young women because it makes him feel young. He objectifies girls and women in the worst way and doesn't see a thing wrong with it. Unfortunately, that was business as usual for many wealthy men in 1900, whether in Paris or anywhere else. Women had few rights and their value was measured by the men in their life. Was it much different in 1958, when this movie was made?