Yes He Can: Jean Gabin and the French Cancan (1955)

FRENCH CANCAN

To view French Cancan click here.

Jean Gabin, the great French actor and star, had worked with Jean Renoir three times before called upon to play the role of impresario Henri Danglard in Renoir’s salute to the Belle Epoque, the Moulin Rouge and the theater at large in French Cancan (1955), so he was ready for anything, and seasoned enough to deliver. It’s a movie I’ve seen multiple times and written articles about elsewhere, including for TCM. Yes, it’s a favorite, obviously. But more than that, it’s a fascination. A fascination with the way its simple story, one that could have easily been a Judy Garland/Mickey Rooney “Let’s put on a show” movie, speaks to something much grander, and yet more intimate at the same time. Fascination with the way the film uses artifice and theatricality to tell a story, not so much about people or characters, but about art and history. And finally, a fascination with the way both Gabin and Renoir tell their own story in the process.

French Cancan is one of those movies that looks utterly unnatural. When characters walk outside, the backdrops are not just clearly backdrops, not just clearly painted, but actually painted in a way that calls attention to the fact that they are painted. Look at the buildings receding into the distance, and it’s clear there’s no real attempt to deceive the viewer into thinking this is being filmed outside. At the same time, it’s not as arch or emphatic as something out of German Expressionism. For lack of a better word, it’s painterly. Endeavoring to film the tale of a French impresario looking to revive the Cancan, Renoir chose to use the tools of his father, impressionist Auguste Renoir, it would seem, creating a technicolor canvas on which to paint his picture. In front of those backdrops are actors and extras in all manner of technicolor clothing. Even the poorest flower girl looks colorful and bright. All of this to tell the story of a man whose entire purpose in life is to give people entertainment with as little depth as humanly possible.

That story concerns Henri Danglard (Jean Gabin) who runs dance shows for the café society of La Belle Époque. Those shows revolve around belly dancing and evocations of the exotic East, starring his mistress, La Belle Abbesse, better known as Lola (María Félix). Danglard gets the idea in his head that the old cancan, retired and forgotten, can be revived but made more ribald, and given a new name. That new name is created by simply sticking the word “French” in front of it. It’s Danglard’s idea to pull in the English and their money. And Danglard has found a young, beautiful laundress, Nina (Françoise Arnoul), who he thinks can headline the show.

When he tracks her down and tells her mother he wants to make her a dancer, she naturally thinks it means he wants her to be his mistress. In a scene that could have never been carried off in an American movie from the same year, she and her friend discuss her sleeping with him and how she thought that her boyfriend, Paolo (Franco Pastorino), would be the first. More importantly, she doesn’t want to embarrass herself in bed with Danglard. Her friend suggests she go sleep with Paolo now and kill two birds with one stone: Paolo gets to be the first and she gets practice. When she finds out Danglard really does want her to be a dancer, she’s confused, and a little disappointed. Sure, she falls in love with him (if I have to provide a spoiler warning for that, you haven’t been paying attention to movies for the last 100 years or so) but for him, it’s all about the show. And sex, too. He takes the sex but if it becomes anything more than that, he’s gone. He even gives her a talking to at a crucial point in the film’s plot, letting her know, yes, I’ll sleep with other women and you and more after that so don’t think you can ever have me. The only thing that has Danglard, is the theater.

French_Cancan_1954_3

Does this make Danglard a cad? I guess it does but it wouldn’t in Danglard’s eyes. What he would see is simply someone who was not put on this earth for any deeper meaning other than being a master of artifice, and knowing how to translate that into entertainment and fortune. This is a movie that actively fights to be skin deep, taking one of the few emotional moments of a central character and turning it into a lecture against love, against commitment and for performing for the sake of performing.  There’s even a moment when Danglard first brings Nina to the apartment where the other dancers are rehearsing and just behind them is one such dancer, disrobed in a dressing room. She reaches forward, allowing her breasts to burst forth from the towel she is attempting to hold, and closes the door. Said door is a French door. So, we can still see her even after she closes the door. This moment seems entirely gratuitous (and, again, completely off limits in an American movie of the same year) and would fit in perfectly with a Danglard production. It’s there just to be there, to be seen. When the dancers perform the cancan in the finale, Renoir holds the camera on Nina’s derriere long enough that you’d be forgiven for thinking the camera jammed.

This is a movie that celebrates exuberance and inebriation. Not just of the alcoholic variety, but inebriation with life, and dance, and fun. As such, it both begins and ends with extended dancing and partying sequences that capture the message perfectly. The final dance of the cancan isn’t there so we can all sigh with relief that Danglard did it, and got the show up. It’s there just to watch and enjoy and be something in which the audience can vicariously take part. The Danglard story, indeed the entire plot of the movie, is just an excuse to get us there. But when we do, Renoir makes it worth everyone’s while. And Jean Gabin sits in his chair, delighted that he is entertaining the masses once again. Yes, he could.

Greg Ferrara

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4 Responses Yes He Can: Jean Gabin and the French Cancan (1955)
Posted By Doug : August 11, 2017 7:13 pm

A few years ago I picked up the Sinatra musical “Can Can”-not the same, but similar in that it was all surface, not minding a bit that it wasn’t ‘realistic’.
Lots of color and excitement,good songs-Shirley MacLaine hit all the right marks and notes…but the production was very much a sanitized, Hollywood ‘safe’ version of the Broadway play.
I may have to get with the 21st Century are give this Streamline thing a try.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : August 12, 2017 1:52 pm

Doug, this runs on TCM too. In fact, I wrote it up a couple of years back for its premiere on TCM. I just don’t know when it will run again.

Posted By Doug : August 12, 2017 5:59 pm

Greg, it was crazy-I picked up the DVD of “Can-Can” at a rummage sale in my dinky little town. Some woman had passed away and there were about 600-700 Classic DVDs for sale, many box sets plus VHS. She had loved Sinatra and John Wayne, and if I had had more money back then I would have gotten more than the half dozen titles I bought.
I also got “4 For Texas” and “Robin and the Seven Hoods”, which had a final cameo from the great Sig Ruman (SCHULTZ!).

Posted By Greg Ferrara : August 13, 2017 6:42 pm

There are plenty of movies that came out on DVD once, years ago, then disappeared. I’ve hung on to old collector’s DVDs of mine just because they have features on them that you still cannot find anywhere.

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