Among the Merritt Room’s holdings are several continuity scripts for classic musicals, including one for Les Girls (1957) Cole Porter’s last major work (apart from a children’s television production of “Aladdin”) before his retirement in 1958. In tandem with the DVD, it offers a unique look over the shoulder of director George Cukor (legendary for his skill with “women’s pictures”) as he assembles a movie.

It seems at first ironic that this film is billed as “Cole Porter’s Les Girls“, when Porter himself admitted the Les Girls songs were not up to his usual standard*. Suffering from the cumulative effects of a host of physical ailments and a series of heavy personal losses, Porter had been unable to summon up the sparkle and gleam of the previous year’s “High Society” score. Yet the picture itself, helmed and staffed by some of the most elegant minds in the business and starring Gene Kelly and three beautiful lead actresses (including the blazingly talented Kay Kendall), is redolent of the world of accessible sophistication conjured up by a good Porter song.

Color consultant George Hoyningen-Huene (the man behind the haunting deep blues in Cukor’s “A Star is Born”) fills the frame with glowing blacks and startling pinks and rigs up a feathery collage for the credit sequence (note how he handles the transition between the credit for Porter’s music and that of Adolph Deutsch, who adapted and conducted it); John Patrick’s screenplay offers a clever, Rashomon-like plot (Taina Elg and Kendall play former showgirls with Kelly’s troupe, one of whom sues the other over an allegedly libelous memoir) and some wicked one-liners, and Jack Cole choreographs some lively dances (performed in clothes by Orry-Kelly).  Robert Surtees’ cinematography makes the most of the multiple points of view and flashbacks upon flashbacks.

Even tired Porter is still Porter. Les Girls is set mostly in Paris, in the backstage world of crowded dressing rooms, tiny, shared flats, cheap restaurants and third-class train carriages. In the musical numbers, this tawdry milieu suddenly becomes the scene for dazzling light romance. It’s not a bad last look at the man whose music and lyrics could confer instant urbanity on anyone who sang or played them.

– Sarah Barton

*Eells, George. The Life That Late He Led: a Biography of Cole Porter. Putnam, New York, 1967. p.307