Les Girls had all the hallmarks of a great MGM musical. The screenplay was written by John Patrick, who had won the Pulitzer Prize for Teahouse of the August Moon. Producer Sol C. Siegel, who had a spectacular career at both Paramount and 20th Century Fox producing musicals, had just come off High Society, his maiden effort at the studio. He hoped to get Leslie Caron, and Cyd Charisse to play two of Les Girls. Kay Kendall was always the first choice to play the third. Vera Caspary of Laura fame was credited with the original story, although she later joked, ‘I was paid $80,000 for just two words,” the title. When it finally went into production, Gene Kelly and Kay Kendall remained with the project, but the other roles were assigned to Mitzi Gaynor and Taina Elg.
Sadly, this would prove to be Kelly’s last musical, after 15 glorious years at the studio. Despite its Golden Globe recognition, the movie was not a success, and some say deservedly so. The director was the estimable George Cukor who would go on to direct the film version of My Fair Lady, but don’t blame him. Advertised as Cole Porter’s Les Girls, it has a score many consider below his high standards, a pastiche of songs he had previously composed for Broadway’s Can Can, which three years later went on to become a successful Fox musical.
Also nominated that year was Silk Stockings, which ironically had one of Cole Porter’s best scores, and which some say should have won. The one saving grace of Les Girls is Kay Kendall, who won the Golden Globe for Best Actress in a Comedy/Musical that year. She is absolutely delicious in this role, a screen natural, and a beauty beyond compare. Sadly she was dead of leukemia three years later.
Kelly was reportedly not happy working with the film’s choreographer, the brilliant Jack Cole, who had worked with Betty Grable, Rita Hayworth, and of course with Marilyn Monroe. Kelly has a ballet sequence in the film, a parody of Marlon Brando’s The Wild One, but it’s no match for the Fred Astaire’s Mickey Spillane parody in The Band Wagon. The one surprise element of that sequence is Mitzi Gaynor’s dancing - she goes toe to toe with Kelly, and you can see why Rodgers chose her to play Nelly Forbush in the following year’s South Pacific.