Gene Kelly is responsible for crafting two of the most enduring musicals of the 1950s, 1951’s An American in Paris and 1952’s Singin’ in the Rain. But by 1957 Kelly was done with MGM and would close out his contract with a Cole Porter musical that relied on everything in Kelly’s musical arsenal. Les Girls is the finished product and it plays like a movie created by someone who was just done. Though directed by George Cukor, Les Girls boasts a clunky plot, uninspiring characters and even less inspiring music, all aided by gimmicks and allusions to better Kelly films. I know many who have a soft spot for this movie, but I can’t say I was “in love with Les Girls.”
Lady Sybil Wren (Kay Kendall) has written a tell-all memoir about her time in the female dance troupe known as Les Girls. When she’s brought up on libel charges from former partner Angele Ducros (Taina Elg) it forces all the women to come back together and reminisce about their time working (and loving) with hoofer Barry Nichols (Kelly).
Taina Elg has said the original cast was supposed to include former Kelly partners Cyd Charisse and Leslie Caron, and that says a lot about what Les Girls is aiming for. It’s meant to be a fond farewell to a man who had shown audiences what the musical could be. This isn’t to say the typical Kelly artistry isn’t on display here. The sets during certain dance numbers look stellar, but they always draw comparisons to other Kelly features. Case in point, the production of “The Wild One.” Outside of it making fun of the Brando film of the same name – Kelly is no Brando so all he really has is to poke fun at him – but the sketched sets look like something out of An American in Paris. Even his dance with Mitzi Gaynor as Joy was done better in On the Town (1949) and that dance didn’t even have Gaynor! There’s nothing particularly revelatory or original; Kelly just seems to be resting on his laurels. What does astound about Les Girls is Orry-Kelly’s magnificent costumes, for which the film rightfully won the Academy Award. Kelly’s costumes in moments like “Ladies in Waiting” are risque, inventive, and can actually be danced in. They do a lot towards making the songs memorable. Unfortunately this isn’t one of Porter’s stronger scores.
As far as the “girls” themselves, the actresses do a great job of working with a script that plays like a vanity project for its leading man. Kendall, Elg and Gaynor are all wonderful, creating a trio of women who are frisky, amorous, and only slightly crazy. I thoroughly enjoyed Kay Kendall while watching The Reluctant Debutante (1958) earlier this year, and as Sybil she’s a character just likeable enough to help the audience ignore her obvious drinking problem. (Sybil and Angele are both presented as suicidal, drunk, and, in Angele’s case, promiscuous, leaving the audience to judge and like them simultaneously.) Gaynor plays the straight arrow and she’s as sweet here as she was as in her previous features. I’ve never seen Taina Elg in anything prior to this, but she’s easily the weakest link in the cast. The intent is to draw comparisons to Leslie Caron, but where Caron was vibrant, Elg just comes off as cold and standoffish. I liked each of them individually, but there’s little collective unity between the trio (this isn’t How to Marry a Millionaire .) This could be a problem with John Patrick’s script which does whatever it has to in order to make the women cuckoo for Kelly. Suffice it to say the characters feel inconsistent, going from dubious friends to entitled wealthy aristocrats, and it’s unclear whether that was in their personality from the beginning or not.
Yes, much of Les Girls‘ two-hour runtime involves them discussing how they love Kelly’s Barry. In fact, the film’s Rashomon-esque narrative device of a courtroom trial with differing stories all revolves around whether Sybil and Angele attempted suicide over him. And, really, there’s no proper explanation about why they would. Too much of what the audience is supposed to love about Kelly is focused on what we know about his persona. We’ve seen Kelly be romantic in other movies, so we don’t necessarily need to belabor that point here. But we need something romantic or else he looks like a total jerk. He has no compunction about firing a woman over her drinking or replacing a woman for having a boyfriend. As he starts secretly dating Angele, he still wants the other two girls at his beck and call. The entire ordeal plays like “women just be tripping over Kelly.” By the time the film finally decides to settle him down with the kindhearted Joy it’s doubtful there’s love involved, more like she’s the only woman he hasn’t conquered.
Thankfully the new Warner Blu-ray is utterly exquisite. The colors pop and you can make out the detailing in the costumes which is really the selling point of the entire movie. Les Girls isn’t bad, but it’s far from a high point for Kelly. Everything about it feels derivative, and it’s worth watching this before watching Kelly’s other features, if only to avoid comparison. I do recommend seeing it though for Kay Kendall, a wonderful comedienne who died far too young.
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A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.