BIG, TUBBY, feather-footed Jackie Gleason seems to be riding high again this season as a television buffoon, and his professional prestige is still soaring as a result of the quietly authoritative screen performance he gave last year in the non-comic role of Minnesota Fats in Robert Rossen’s pool-shark drama, The Hustler. Gleason’s personal popularity among American show-folk is said to be vast. Not much in the way of eerie divination is required, therefore, to predict that the Great One, as he blandly calls himself, will be among the nominees competing next spring for a Hollywood Oscar as the best actor of 1962.
The portrayal currently focusing another spotlight on Gleason’s talents is that of a French mute, the title-role character in a film called Gigot which was made in Paris under the direction of Gene Kelly. My crystal ball is becoming cloudy now, but murkily through the mists I can even see the Great One winning that Academy Award, if his luck holds good.
Such an honor, in my opinion, would be grossly undeserved. Gleason was superb as Minnesota Fats: a dapper whale of a man, controlled and watchful, economical of gesture, and constantly disciplined by Rossen’s firm surveillance. In Gigot he is merely the latest of the endless parade of funnymen who try and fail to “do a Chaplin" by making an audience laugh and cry at the same time. Such diverse clowns as Eddie Cantor, Red Skelton and Jerry Lewis have made similar attempts within middle-aged memory, but their best efforts have simply solidified the incomparable Chaplin's uniqueness.
The screenplay of Gigot is by dramatist John Patrick, but Gleason himself wrote the original story. From beginning to end it gives him a carnival of opportunities to demonstrate his pantomimic powers. Admirable though these sometimes are, they remain doggedly on a sub-Chaplin level. Gleason also composed the film’s musical score, which is sprinkled with nice little tunes but more often erupts in tidal waves of sentimentality, submerging the yarn's serio-comic activities in a sea of tonal custard.
Gigot, speechless but evidently possessing all the other senses, is a janitor dwelling in a frowsy Paris cellar. There is nothing to indicate that he ever takes a bath. His heartless landlady abuses and exploits him. His supposed cronies on the streets and at the corner tavern make fun of him, getting him drunk and then guffawing at his antics. Small boys pin a tail on his clothing. But Gigot loves everybody, grieving only because he has no one he can really call his own. One rainy night he shelters a tuberculous streetwalker (Katherine Kath) and her woebegone child (Diane Gardner). The woman gives him nothing but snarls, but poor Gigot as usual is all-forgiving; and his cup of bliss spills over when the little girl, stony at first, finally laughs at his drolleries.
The film then deals with Gigot's decision to steal rather than lose his new companions. For reasons too complex for ready summary, he becomes an object of lynch-mob fury, falls into the river, pretends to be drowned, and with happy sobs watches his own funeral service in a scene which Mark Twain handled much better in prose almost 90 years ago with Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn as his protagonists.
“Gigot” means “leg of mutton” in French. Not mutton but ham was the meat that kept floating past my eyes while watching Jackie Gleason groping around for an Oscar in the Paris gutters.
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