This is the movie that started me on a life-long love affair with Henri De Toulouse-Lautrec (1864-1901) and once again, it was John Huston who ignited the affair, just as he had with Sam Spade and "The Maltese Falcon" on his very first assignment as a young director. "Moulin Rouge" was a nominee the year that Cecil B. De Mille's "The Greatest Show On Earth" won the Academy Award for Best Picture of 1952, even though Huston's recreation of the Paris art scene of the 1890's is a far superior film. Jose Ferrer was also nominated for the physically painful role of the aristocratic Toulouse-Lautrec, who captured the gaiety of Montmartre night life, while moving through life with a sad, resigned dignity.
Huston got a wonderful performance out of Colette Marchand, playing Marie Charlet, an actual young model who tormented Toulouse-Lautrec, more out of personal desperation than any real malice. However, Toulouse-Lautrec's friendship with Myriamme Hayem (Suzanne Flon) seems to owe more to Pierre la Mure's novel than it does to reality. Certainly, some of the other colorful characters here played far more authentic roles in the artist's life. There really was a La Goulue (Katherine Kath), of course: Her real name was Louise Weber (1870-1929) and Toulouse-Lautrec's posters of the dancer will long outlive them both. Jane Avril (1868-1943) survived a difficult childhood to become one of the great entertainers of her day. Zsa Zsa Gabor delivers one of her better performances as the charming dancer immortalised in Toulouse-Lautrec's posters. Toulouse-Lautrec's friend Maurice Joyant (1864-1930, played by Lee Montague) wrote one of the first biographies of the artist.
Like Toulouse-Lautrec, Huston was well-born, and both artists shared a deep passion for the truth plus a strong determination to establish their own reputations quite separate and apart from the circumstances of their birth. Both succeeded, although Toulouse-Lautrec undoubtedly paid the higher price. Huston lovingly recreates the Moulin Rouge in all its garish splendor, paying meticulous attention to the Technicolor process, trying to get every detail just right. ("Moulin Rouge" did win the Oscar for art direction and set decoration that year.) It's a sad, exquisite film of an irretrievably vanished era that still has the power to lure us into its spell, if only in our dreams.
© 2005 - Monica Sullivan - Air Date: 8/3/05
Moulin Rouge (1952)
UK - 1952