John Huston’s 1952 film about the life of the great French artist, Henri Marie Raymond de Toulouse-Lautrec-Monfa, more commonly known as Henri Toulouse-Lautrec was nominated for seven Academy Awards including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor and Best Supporting Actress (Colette Marchand). It won two Oscars for Best Costume Design and Best Art Direction. Surprisingly, cinematographer Oswald Morris, received no recognition since one of the film’s highlights is its brilliant use of color. Today, when you talk to someone about a film called Moulin Rouge, they assume you’re referring to the 2001 Baz Luhrmann musical. Huston’s film, while maybe not forgotten, is generally not discussed much. It’s a shame because there is much to admire.
The film is definitely a romanticized version of the artist’s life. Henri Toulouse-Lautrec was born in 1894 to a family who were descendants of the Count of Toulouse and the Odet de Foix, Viccomte de Lautrec and the Viscount of Monfa. Despite all this royalty, Henri‘s life would not be a smooth one. A younger brother died at the age of one. His parents separated soon afterward. Henri’s own health was fragile. His parents were first cousins and this inbreeding may have been cause for congenital anomalies. As a young teen, Henri suffered fractures in both legs. Neither leg healed correctly. It is suspected this might have been due to the inbreeding and was the cause of his stunted growth. The rest of Henri’s body grew to an adult size, however, his legs remained short and almost child-like. He had one talent in life – art.
Henri’s mother wanted him to use his art to become a respectable painter of Paris. Henri though was drawn to the city’s Bohemian district, Montmartre, filled with other artists, writers and women of easy virtue. He would spend most of his adult his life in Montmartre until his death at the age of 36 from complications of both syphilis and alcoholism.
While Huston’s film does show Henri’s alcoholism, no reference of syphilis is mentioned. The Production Code, still in force at the time, would not have allowed it. The film is based on Pierre La Mure’s biographical novel, a form popularized by author Irving Stone in books like Lust for Life (Vincent Van Gogh), The Agony and the Ecstasy (Michelangelo), The Passions of the Mind (Sigmund Freud) and Depths of Glory (Camille Pissarro). Other authors who used this format included David Weiss with Naked Came I (Rodin) and Sacred and Profane (Mozart) and W. Somerset Maugham used it in his novel, The Moon and Sixpence. The book’s thinly veiled main character, Charles Strickland, is based on Paul Gauguin. La Mure also wrote biographical novels about Claude Debussy (Claire de Lune) and Felix Mendelssohn (Beyond Desire).
Jose Ferrer who played both Henri and the artist’s father owned the film’s rights to the novel. He originally planned to turn the book into a stage production with himself in the role of the artist. When Huston found out about Ferrer owning the book, and his plans to play the artist himself, he quickly got together with the actor with a proposal to merge their projects together. Getting the book made into a film was not a slam dunk. No one saw the film as a potential moneymaker. However, having recently won the Oscar for best actor for his work in Cyrano de Bergerac, Ferrer had the power to get a film made even though no one thought it would be financially viable to make one about a decadent artist who spent his life associating with prostitutes. Huston got together with Anthony Veiller and wrote the screenplay which is minimal in its dialogue. Huston and Veiller previously worked together on The Killers and would worked again in the future on various projects.
The story itself is somewhat clichéd; a tortured artist falls in love with a cruel prostitute (Colette Marchand) who eventually rejects him. He becomes well-known, but cannot shake his inner demons and torment, eventually sinking deeper and deeper in alcoholism and depression. Huston followed La Mure’s fictional version of Lautrec’s life more than the artist’s real depraved life, like his obsession with brothels, his time spent in a mental institution and his death partially due to his contracting syphilis.
What the movie does well and where Huston’s interests truly were was in the art. He wanted to explore the work of an artist, and the kind of art, he himself admired. He eventually became a painter working in the style of the Impressionist. In this respect, the film succeeds grandly. Moulin Rouge is visually stunning with the color and the subject interlocking. That was the essence of the film for Huston. How to transfer the look of Lautrec’s works to celluloid. He wanted it to look real and not just bright and splashy. To assist with this, the director/producer hired a visual color consultant, Eliot Elisofon, a founding member of the famed Photo League and later a photographer for Life magazine. They met while Huston was making, The African Queen and Elisofon was there on assignment for Life. Elisofon, along with cinematographer Oswald Morris, used lighting and a variety of color filters both on the camera and in front of the lights to achieve the desired effect. The Technicolor people were not impressed with the new look and thought it would ruin their product. After all, Technicolor was all about big, splashy colors that popped right off the screen. However, that was not the effect Huston and company wanted. Unlike most films, the Technicolor does not dominate the film. With the effects put in by Elisofon and Morris, a palette, a mix of layered colors, created the visual style desired. The color is one of the most engaging parts of the film.
One of the least effective parts of the film was the choice of Zsa Zsa Gabor as Jane Avril, one of Lautrec’s favorite subjects. Ms. Gabor, though her character was French, played her role with her natural Hungarian accent. That alone though is not the main problem. The biggest problem is she cannot act. She and her sisters were sort of the Kardashsian’s of their day. Flaunting themselves along with their jewelry and multiple marriages and little else in the way of talent.
As a look at the life of Lautrec, both the novel and the film are sanitized versions of the man’s life. With the Production Code still in force it was impossible to capture the true life story. What we are left with is a visual impression of his life and his work.
The film was a surprisingly big hit after its general release in 1953. The official release date was December 23th 1952, most likely in Hollywood, making it eligible for the award season. The film was nominated for seven Oscars including Best Picture but lost to what has accurately been labeled one of the worst films to ever win Best Picture, The Greatest Show on Earth.
 Meyers, Jeffrey, John Huston: Courage and Art, Crown Archetype, 2011 New York Pg. 197.
 The Photo League (1936-1951) consisted of a communal group of photographers with common social and artistic causes. Members included Margaret Bourke-White, Berenice Abbott, Paul Strand, Ruth Orkin, Morris Engel, Louis Stettner among many others.
Kaminsky, Stuart John Huston: Maker of Magic, Houghton Mifflin Company Boston 1978
This is my contribution to the Beyond the Cover Blogathon which runs from April 8th thru April 10th. Check out more entries in this series at the link below.