Strokes of Genius: Moulin Rouge (1952)


Biopics can be predictable and formulaic affairs. They often rely on a checklist of theatrical high points and low points, which restrict the scope of the drama and transform the rich panorama of life into a cheap paint by numbers routine. John Huston’s Moulin Rouge (1952) is an exception to that tired rule thanks to some innovative directing choices that challenged standard Hollywood tropes at the time it was made. In turn, this stirring dramatization of French artist Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec’s brief life is a brooding contemplation of the artistic process and a celebration of nineteenth-century bohemian Paris.

John Huston (The Maltese Falcon [1941], Treasure of the Sierra Madre [1948], The African Queen [1951], The Misfits [1961], Wise Blood [1979], Under the Volcano [1984]) was inspired to make Moulin Rouge after reading a biography about the artist by Pierre La Mure. The book describes the extraordinary course of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec’s life beginning with the childhood accident that damaged his legs and stunted his growth. Afterward, we follow his foray into the art world, the development of his talents and growing addiction to alcohol and sex that would eventually kill him at age 36. Although Huston knew he would be hampered by Hollywood censors, the director was determined to bring Toulouse-Lautrec’s story to the screen in a film that would flatter the artist without minimizing his flaws.


Huston imagined José Ferrer in the role of Toulouse-Lautrec thanks to his Academy Award-winning performance in Cyrano de Bergerac (1950) so he reached out to the actor to discuss his idea. In a strange twist of fate, Ferrer had recently bought the rights to the artist’s biography in the hope he could adapt it for the stage but Huston was able to convince him that the book would make a much better movie. Together with frequent screenwriting collaborator Anthony Veiller (Beat the Devil [1953], The List of Adrian Messenger [1963], The Night of the Iguana [1964]), Huston crafted a script that would allow Toulouse-Lautrec’s expressive body of work to speak for itself.


Working with a creative team that included cinematographer Oswald Morris, photographer Eliot Elisofon and art director Paul Sheriff, Huston’s goal was to make Moulin Rouge look as if Toulouse-Lautrec had directed it himself and he succeeded. The artist’s canvases are brought to vivid life in a kaleidoscope of voluptuous color, dazzling costumes and superb set designs that replicate Toulouse-Lautrec’s best work. Shooting much of the action and drama on location was a wise choice. The gritty Parisian streets are populated by a variety of eccentric characters including high-spirited can-can dancers, shrewd prostitutes and desolate drunks that offset the film’s otherworldly beauty.

Moulin Rouge is bookended by two standout sequences. In the first, we enter the infamous cabaret and are introduced to Toulouse-Lautrec as he tries to capture the dynamic can-can dancers performing for a raucous crowd with his charcoal pencils. In these opening minutes, we are initiated into the artist’s decadent domain and we meet a cast of characters that will become Toulouse-Lautrec’s friends, foes, lovers and muses. In the film’s spectacular finale, these figures metamorphose into diaphanous phantoms while Toulouse-Lautrec lies dying in his bed. In his frail state, he can no longer paint them but they live on in his memory as jovial ghosts.


Creating the unique look of the film was not easy and involved using a number of pioneering techniques including multiple color filters, backlight experimentation and manipulating effects such as smoke and fog machines that softened the overall appearance of the film. The effect was astounding and in turn, many scenes in Moulin Rouge resemble the lithographs designed by Toulouse-Lautrec to advertise the Montmartre nightlife. Despite the groundbreaking methods Huston and company were forging, the head honchos at Technicolor were not happy with the results. After sending in the early rushes in to be developed, Technicolor complained about the appearance of the film and threatened to disrupt production. They did not want to take responsibility for its experimental look, fearing it would make other filmmakers and studios uneasy about using their product. Despite their initial concerns, when Moulin Rouge was released amid critical acclaim Technicolor realized how wrong they had been and boasted about their association.

To play the role of Toulouse-Lautrec, José Ferrer was forced to wear specially designed leg braces that made him appear much shorter than his 5′ 10″ frame. The braces were so uncomfortable that he could only wear them for 30 minutes at a time but they added an interesting dimension to his performance. Toulouse-Lautrec was often in pain due to his condition, which Ferrer was able to convey without much effort. His portrayal of Toulouse-Lautrec lacks humor and warmth, which the artist was well known for in real life, but it’s a poignant performance that presents a temperamental artist at his most vulnerable.


Despite Ferrer’s leading role, he is often overshadowed by his striking female costars including the late Zsa Zsa Gabor who is at her most lively and loveliest playing French chanteuse, Jane Avril. Katherine Kath is also exceptional as the rough and rowdy can-can dancer La Goulue, who has a fascinating character arc in the film. I must also single out the fabulous Colette Marchand as the prostitute who breaks Toulouse-Lautrec’s heart. Marchand was a French prima ballerina in real life but she’s absolutely mesmerizing as the tough, funny, scheming and ultimately tragic figure of Marie Charlet. Marchand won a Golden Globe Award as Most Promising Female Newcomer for her performance and was also nominated for a BAFTA (British Academy of Film and Television Arts) award. Unfortunately for us all, she preferred dancing to acting and only appeared in a handful of films before retiring from film in 1955, just a few years after the release of Moulin Rouge. Last but not least, fans of Hammer horror films should keep an eye out for cameos from Christopher Lee and cohort Peter Cushing.

Moulin Rouge is currently streaming on FilmStruck as part of their Strokes of Genius theme, a selection of exceptional films that focus on seminal artists including Vincent van Gogh in Lust for Life (1956), Pablo Picasso in The Mystery of Picasso (1956), Christy Brown in My Left Foot (1996), Jackson Pollock in Pollock (2000) and Francisco Goya in Goya’s Ghosts (2007).

Kimberly Lindbergs

3 Responses Strokes of Genius: Moulin Rouge (1952)
Posted By kingrat : December 29, 2016 1:32 pm

Kimberly, thank you for a wonderful appreciation of what is now a little-known film. Before seeing it on TCM, I had the vague impression MOULIN ROUGE was supposed to be something of a failure. Scarcely. Oswald Morris’ cinematography is astonishing, using filters for subtle effects, not the overdone dark browns and steel blues so unavoidable in today’s movies.

I’d like to add praise for two other fine performances: Claude Nollier as Toulouse-Lautrec’s mother and especially Suzanne Flon as the gentle Myriamme who loves Toulouse-Lautrec. Every moment Suzanne Flon is on screen is honest, illuminating. Pure gold.

Posted By EricJ : December 29, 2016 4:19 pm

While Ferrer’s character isn’t warming to the audience, and it’s a better Huston movie for visuals than character or theme, I remember trying to force this movie down the throat of temporarily cult-giddy fans (remember them?) of that, ahem, OTHER “Moulin Rouge” movie–
Not so much for Huston’s direction itself, as to remind them that Toulouse-Lautrec -wasn’t- a John Leguizamo midget in a nun costume, and that it wouldn’t hurt them to watch a few of their parents’ movies once in a while.

Although Huston’s direction does capture the wild decadent can-can flavor that inspired Lautrec’s paintings much better than Gene Kelly and Vincente Minelli’s cleaned-up version in the “An American In Paris” ballet.

Posted By George : December 29, 2016 11:06 pm

And Percy Faith’s recording of the theme song was the best-selling record of 1953!

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