A Movie Log

A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

Saturday, March 19, 2016

Moulin Rouge (John Huston, 1952)

If Moulin Rouge had a screenplay worthy of its visuals, it would be a classic. As it is, it's still worth seeing, thanks to a stellar effort to bring to life Toulouse-Lautrec's paintings and sketches of Parisian nightlife in the 1890s. The screenplay, by Anthony Veiller and director Huston, is based on a novel by Pierre Le Mure, the rights to which José Ferrer had purchased with a view to playing Lautrec. He does so capably, subjecting himself to some real physical pain: Ferrer was 5-foot-10 and Lautrec was at least a foot shorter, owing to a childhood accident that shattered both his legs, so Ferrer performed many scenes on his knees, sometimes with an apparatus that concealed his lower legs from the camera. But that is one of the least interesting things about the movie, as is the rather conventional story of the struggles of a self-hating, alcoholic artist. What distinguishes the film is the extraordinary production design and art direction of Marcel Vertès and Paul Sheriff, and the dazzling Technicolor cinematography of Oswald Morris. Vertès and Sheriff won Oscars for their work, but Morris shockingly went unnominated. The most plausible theory for that oversight is that Sheriff clashed with the Technicolor consultants over his desire for a palette that reproduced the colors of Lautrec's art: The Technicolor corporation was notoriously persnickety about maintaining control over the way its process was used. It's possible that the cinematography branch wanted to avoid future hassles with Technicolor by denying Morris the nomination. (Ironically, one of the more interesting incidents from Lautrec's life depicted in the film involves his clashes with the lithographer over the colors used in posters made from his work.) The extraordinary beauty of the film and some lively dance sequences that bring to life performers such as La Goulue (Katherine Kath) and Chocolat (Rupert John) make it memorable. There are also good performances from Colette Marchand as Marie Charlet and Suzanne Flon as Myriamme Hayam. And less impressive work from Zsa Zsa Gabor, playing herself more than Jane Avril, and lipsynching poorly to Muriel Smith's voice in two songs by Georges Auric.