Sunday, March 20, 2022

#2,726. Moulin Rouge (1952) - The Men Who Made the Movies


Baz Luhrmann’s 2001 award-winning film Moulin Rouge shuttles us back to Paris at the turn of the 20th century, brining the era to life via modern rock music and a kinetic style that absolutely blew me away. It remains, to this day, one of my all-time favorite films.

Released almost 50 years earlier, John Huston’s Moulin Rouge managed to accomplish the very same thing in its opening scene. It is evening at the Moulin Rouge, and male patrons watch as courtesans strut their stuff, dancing boisterously to the Can-Can and other tunes. Two performers in particular, La Goulue (Katherine Kath) and Aicha (Muriel Smith), have taken center stage. La Goulue inadvertently bumps into Aicha on the dance floor, and a fight breaks out between the two. The Moulin Rouge’s proprietor, Zidler (Harold Kasket), attempts to intercede, and complains that it’s impossible to control these two ladies.

As Luhrmann did with his Moulin Rouge, Huston infuses these opening moments with vibrancy, excitement, and even a little bawdiness, all in an effort to show his audience just how intoxicating an experience it was to visit the Moulin Rouge when it was at the zenith of its popularity. But despite its title, Huston’s 1952 film is not about the historic cabaret; this award-winning motion picture is actually a biopic centering on Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, the infamous artist whose risqué paintings and lithographs shined a light on the city’s dingier areas, bringing the street life of 19th century Paris and the exhilaration of the Moulin Rouge to a global audience.

Crippled by a childhood accident that prevented his legs from growing, artist Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (Jose Ferrer) spends his evenings sketching the dancers and patrons of the Moulin Rouge as he downs one glass of cognac after another. Mocked throughout his adult life due to his diminutive stature (the real Lautrec stood no taller than 5 feet, or 1.52 meters), Henri immersed himself in art and culture, while at the same time accepting the hard fact that his condition would likely prevent him from ever finding true love.

His luck seems to change, however, when he has a chance meeting with street walker Marie Charlet (Colette Marchand). Smitten, Lautrec allows Marie to move in with him, and showers her with money. Alas, the romance is short lived, sending Lautrec into a depression that doesn’t break until his beloved mother (Claude Nollier) pays him a visit.

Commissioned by Zidler to create a poster advertising the Moulin Rouge, Lautrec paints what would become his most memorable work, that of the dancer La Goulue entertaining the crowd. Now more popular than ever, Lautrec eventually befriends Myriamme Hyam (Suzanne Flon), a good friend of the Moulin Rouge’s biggest star, singer Jane Avril (Zsa Zsa Gabor). But will their friendship blossom into something more, or is Lautrec destined to live out his days alone?

Director Huston and his team, including production and set Designer Vertes and costume designer Julia Squire, do a marvelous job recreating late 19th century Paris, from the jubilant dance floor of the Moulin Rouge to the back alleys of the city’s seedier neighborhoods. The supporting cast is also strong; Colette Marchand is quite good as the shifty Marie, whose true feelings for Lautrec are always in question, as is Gabor as the flighty but talented Jane Avril (she even sings a few songs) and Suzanne Flon as Myriamme, Lautrec’s most trusted friend and the only one able to see past his deformities.

But it’s Jose Ferrer as Lautrec who commands our attention throughout. Using everything from knee pads to specialized camera angles, Huston and Ferrer managed to recreate Lautrec’s unique physical condition in a perfectly convincing manner, and because we’re witness to the torment and pain caused by his underdeveloped legs, we understand his sharp wit, his often-standoffish nature, and his occasionally short temper, all of which are matched only by his artistic talent (even when depressed, he continues to work, turning out one masterpiece after another). From the opening scene, when Lautrec is sitting at the Moulin Rouge, sketching on the tablecloth, Ferrer perfectly conveys the character’s complexities and – eventually - his failings (Lautrec was an alcoholic, a condition that worsened as the years progressed).

Nominated by the Academy for Best Actor (an award he had already won two years earlier, for the title role in 1950’s Cyrano de Bergerac), Ferrer (who also plays Lautrec’s father in flashbacks as well as a few later scenes) is stellar from start to finish, doing his part to make this early version of Moulin Rouge every bit as enjoyable as Luhrmann’s 2001 masterpiece.
Rating: 9 out of 10

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