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On Dec. 23, 1952, John Huston’s Moulin Rouge was unveiled at the Fox Wilshire Theatre in Beverly Hills, where it was described at the time as “one of the most dazzling world premieres ever staged in Hollywood.” The film went on to earn seven Oscar nominations at the 25th Academy Awards, winning for costume design and art direction. The Hollywood Reporter’s original review is below.
A tender tribute to the memory of Toulouse-Lautrec and the Paris of the late 19th century immortalized through the painter’s canvases, Moulin Rouge is a distinguished motion picture that, despite its somewhat overlong 118 minutes, holds a strange fascination and charm. How the general public will take to this affectionate account of the life, loves and tragedies of Lautrec is purely a matter of conjecture. The tempo is a leisurely one for American tastes and Jose Ferrer and Zsa Zsa Gabor are the only familiar names in the cast. But, regardless of returns, Moulin Rouge stands out as a truly artistic production flawlessly directed by John Huston and presenting superb performances by Ferrer, Colette Marchand and Suzanne Flon, and Technicolor photography of a beauty rarely achieved on the screen. The colors are exquisite, somehow capturing the flavor of Lautrec’s masterpieces.
In fact, the entire picture successfully reflects the mood of the Paris Lautrec interpreted in his work. Although it deals with the seamy side of life, Huston, who co-scripted, imbues the film with a gay, reckless abandon, a certain joie de vivre that is almost synonymous with Lautrec’s paintings. The artist is first met at the famous Moulin Rouge, which was his favorite loitering place. Here the ugly, deformed dwarf would sit nightly sketching the Can-Can girls as they romped through their celebrated routine in swirls of riotous color. Then one night he meets the streetwalker who so humiliated him, flaunting his mad infatuation for her. But out of the dredges of his sordid affair comes some great paintings and the poster which made him famous and converted Moulin Rouge from a happy-go-lucky cafe to the respected place for tourists to see.
But life for Lautrec is a race between turning out work and his quest for oblivion in the furious drinking he indulges in, hoping that in cognac he can forget the words he first heard from his childhood sweetheart who told him he was an ugly monster no girl would ever marry. The final ironic blow comes when he finally does meet a woman who truly loves him despite the crippled body which resulted from a boyhood fall. Desperately loving her, but never dreaming she could love him, Lautrec drives her from him, learning too late of her love. From then on it is a matter of drinking himself to death, a process hastened by another bad fall. But before death comes, he is honored in becoming the first artist to be shown in the Louvre while still alive — an honor which leaves his father, who had felt disgraced by what he regarded as his son’s pornographic drawings, brokenly pleading for forgiveness of his misunderstanding.
Ferrer turns in a masterful portrayal of Lautrec, playing him with a dignity and saturnine wit that denies pity while bringing sympathy. Ferrer also plays the artist’s father, making him a moving figure. Colette Marchand, playing the streetwalker, is revealed as a splendid actress, and Suzanne Flon turns in a sensitive performance as the woman who love the painter. Zsa Zsa Gabor is perfectly cast as an entertainer, looking radiantly beautiful and coming over wonderfully as a cheerful romantic who has a new emotional crisis each week. Others standing out are Katherine Kath, Claude Noller as Lautrec’s mother, Harold Gasket and Georges Lannes.
Huston’s directorial creativeness reaches its peak in a scene showing a series of Lautrec’s paintings which somehow spring into a life of their own. Also adding charm to the film is the lilting music of Georges Auric and the wonderful settings by art director Paul Sheriff. Ossie Morris’ lensing is a potent factor in the fascinating quality of the production, particularly the street scenes of Paris. Marcel Vertes designed the very attractive costumes. — Staff review, originally published Dec. 24, 1952.
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