This Moulin Rouge has no relation to the musical extravaganza Baz Luhrmann that would make almost half a century later, except for the fact that it’s also set in and around the world-famous Paris cabaret on the Boulevard de Clichy. In fact, it’s a biopic of the disabled painter Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, who became one of the best known Post-Impressionist periods along with Vincent van Gogh.
The film was also John Huston’s follow-up to The African Queen, and marks the beginning of his ’50s exile in Europe, often in his ancestral homeland of Ireland. Although not a communist at all, he was incredibly disgusted by the HUAC witch-hunt and left the States. Orson Welles, who was far more politically radical than Huston, did something similar. They were life-long friends as well, and sometimes collaborated. Huston, like Welles, would seek European money for much of his ’50s work. In the end Huston often was able to land British money, but it wasn’t till 1964 that he renounced his American citizenship and took up Irish citizenship. However, Huston would still end up being buried in Hollywood Cemetery in good old Hollywood, US of A.
Back to Moulin Rouge: it’s an absolutely gorgeous film shot in three-strip Technicolor, and that’s probably what the film is best remembered for Huston told Oswald Morris he wanted the film to look like “as if Toulouse-Lautrec had directed it.” Huston also requested from Technicolor a more subdued colour palette, which the company was reportedly not keen on, but they eventually relented. The film, however, would end up becoming a personal favourite of Technicolor inventor Herbert T. Kalmus.
José Ferrer plays Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, who was an average-sized human whose legs stopped growing at 14, leaving him with a normal-sized upper body while retaining child-like legs. They achieved the effect here with all the tricks in the filmmaking book, from camera angles to concealed pits and short body doubles. (Ferrer is also notable for becoming the first Latino actor to win an Academy award for best actor for the 1950 version Cyrano de Bergerac.)
The film has a real sense of time and place. It’s a perfect mishmash of Paris location shooting but also incorporates studio work from Shepperton Studios that is pretty much seamless. You really get a glimpse into what the Moulin Rouge was like, but also the bohemian atmosphere of late 19th century Paris—although it’s certainly watered down for a ’50s audience, something Huston said was a giant failing of the film. The story itself is a fascinating character study of a man who is on a crash course to oblivion, and nobody can save him from his self-destructive ways. At first glimpse, you think it may be a light-hearted musical, but it’s actually a fairly hard-hitting melodrama. Zsa Zsa Gabor appears as Jane Avril, who was the subject of many of Lautrec’s paintings, and even a very young Peter Cushing appears late in the film.
The new transfer is a restored in 4k from an original 35mm nitrate negative. The disc extras are mostly stuff from the BFI archive: they even included an animated dance film using Lautrac’s characters. Huston’s associate and script supervisor on Moulin Rouge, Angela Allen, supplies a commentary track. The first pressing includes a booklet on the film.