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Should Classic Films Be Judged By Today’s Cultural Standards?

We can no longer "thank heaven" for little girls.

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Thank heaven for little girls. Jesus! You can’t say that anymore – or sing it with Maurice Chevalier’s Parisian bachelor self-satisfied smirk in the delicious opening number of Vincente Minelli’s lavish 1958 musical masterpiece Gigi, which won nine Oscars in 1959 including Best Picture. So what happens when we revise our outlook toward classic works of the cinematic canon?

It’s a big cultural question that demands examination. But let’s avoid rushing for answers while tempers are still high – and will remain so in the foreseeable future, with each news cycle’s latest revelations sending out another queasy wave of too-much-information. Censorship is not an option, evoking Ray Bradbury’s book-burning book Fahrenheit 451. And I wonder who’s going to decide which art to ban – will it be a Ruth Bader Ginsberg or a Roy Moore?

So, I lounged with my cats and Amazon Prime to revisit MGM’s Gigi for the first time in decades. And, as Chevalier pranced right up, the very model of a white and privileged gentleman of 1900, it shocked me how bald that signature song really is. In brief, the movie follows bored-but-dashing playboy Gaston (Louis Jourdan) and his man-about-Paris Uncle Honore (scene-stealer Chevalier), as the former inadvertently grooms Gigi (a teenaged Leslie Caron). Meanwhile, the awkward beauty’s scheming grandmother and great aunt (Hermione Gingold and Isabel Jeans) school the virgin in the man-pleasing womanly arts for the family’s ultimate financial gain. Love and happiness ensue.

As film critic and historian Carrie Rickie confessed over email: “I do think movies like Gigi, the world’s only G-rated movie about the training of a courtesan…look really different today than when I first saw them. And ‘Thank Heaven for Little Girls,’ a song I first heard when I was five and loved (because it was about me, of course!!!) now sounds like the Pedophile’s Anthem.”

I can’t help but imagine (and insert) Republican Senate candidate Roy Moore swaggering through Alabama malls crowing: “Thank heaven for little girls, because little girls get bigger every day,” while the Penney’s saleswomen guard the entry to the dressing room in the junior section. Or, as Moore’s Democratic rival, Doug Jones declared this week: “I damn sure believe and have done my part to ensure that men who hurt little girls should go to jail — and not to the U.S. Senate.”

Let’s put aside the fact that in an era when women don’t cotton to the term girls, we really are discussing female juveniles: our daughters, or perhaps our past selves. In fact, as we watch Chevalier stroll through the sumptuous sets of the Bois de Boulogne, the Alan Jay Lerner lyrics are even worse than I remember: “Each time I see a little girl; Of five or six or seven; I can’t resist a joyous urge; To smile and say; Thank heaven for little girls.” Just wow – and how can this guy sing and smile at the same time? Pedophilia has never looked, well, so gleefully appealing.

Because let’s face it, the musical, based on the Colette novella, centers on the unsettling practice of grooming. I didn’t even really have that concept in my awareness until recently. It’s the ritual of adults fixating on youngsters (male or female) and ‘spoiling’ them with the object of taking advantage of them sexually. Or, to quote the Urban Dictionary, “The act of luring another with gifts, favors, promises, praise, or bbq ribs with the intent of gaining sexual favors. The perpetrator of ‘grooming’ must have a significant advantage of emotional intelligence, financial independence, intelligence quotient or simply perpetrating against a minor.”

The musical’s contemporary reception was effusive, with Kate Cameron of the Daily News bubbling over the wonders of the Lerner and Loewe score, the Minnelli direction, the Cecil Beaton costumes and the universally winning cast, praising the “charm, cleverness, wit and melody” before adding the proviso: “The film has only one drawback and that is the frank and shocking talk in one scene between the adolescent girl and her prospective lover who is a man of the world. It is strictly Colette, but it limits the film’s appeal, making it an entertainment for a special, worldly-wise type of audience and not for people of all conditions and ages.”

While current awareness taints the sexual subject matter, Minnelli’s musical remains a masterpiece in a way that last year’s La La Land wasn’t. There is a brilliant fluidity of narrative and lyrical storytelling, a sensuousness of costumes and sets that serve the overall luxurious mood, a dance of camera movement by four-time Oscar-winning cinematographer Joseph Ruttenberg – and a sophistication about the push-pull of the battle of the sexes that is as memorable as Caron’s gorgeous Galatea. And one leaves the theater – or, in my case, the couch – singing as one should after a musical, even if the words exiting my mouth are “Thank Heaven for Little Girls” in a cheesy French accent.

And, so, how do we solve a problem like Gigi? And, certainly Gigi doesn’t exist in a vacuum – consider Brooke Shields’ breakout in Louis Malle’s Pretty Baby (she was 12 when the movie premiered in 1978), that director’s 1971 Murmur of the Heart with a teenaged male protagonist and Luc Besson’s 1994 Leon: The Professional with Natalie Portman, (13 upon release) playing a 12-year-old adopted by Jean Reno’s hitman.

We must separate the notion that art can and must explore the profusion of human desire (including the taboo) from the necessary legal censuring of actual abuse by adults of minors. In her article on the film Gone with the Wind, the film critic and author Molly Haskell noted that our views of films must and need to evolve over time. She wrote: “Films change, we change, context changes and that’s all part of the ongoing and vital fascination of movies.”

We can’t throw the Pretty Baby out with the bathwater. Similarly, we can be seduced by the genius of Gigi while acknowledging that ogling girls “of five or six or seven” is universally cringe-worthy.