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02 December 2017

Gaiety Parisienne: French Cancan (1955)

Even today, when scantily clad women adorn every advertisement, every magazine cover, and every television show, the sudden fluttering of lacy white petticoats lifted to reveal black stockinged legs still provides a thrill. It's just primal. The cancan, the inspiration and subject of this delightful musical, is not a suggestive dance; it evokes joy and high spirits more than sexiness -- except that, as a music hall act, it was (and is) performed by women for an audience of men.

The original cancan -- Paris, 1890's

There are movies I never get tired of, that I can turn to and watch at least part of almost any time; most of them are American Hollywood movies, but certainly not all; Ninotchka, Ruggles of Red Gap, Yankee Doodle Dandy, Top Hat. Battling Butler, The Sea Hawk, Desk Set, Advise and Consent, Sanjuro, Perfect Strangers, Major Barbara -- there are more, not necessarily the greatest movies ever made but ones particularly meaningful and familiar to me. French Cancan is one of them. 

French Cancan is the great director Jean Renoir's post-World War 2 re-assertion of French popular culture. It was also his response to the glorious Technicolor American musicals of the 1950's -- On the Town, An American in Paris, The Band Wagon, Singin' in the Rain, and so many more. Renoir adapted the form to make it more -- French. 

Set in 1890's Paris, the playground of the most famous of French artists, the Impressionist (including the director's father, Pierre-Auguste Renoir), the look of French Cancan is stylized. Like most of the Hollywood musicals referenced, it was shot in the studio, in part because the original locations no longer existed. But it looks and was intended to look designed, not realistic; the sidewalks are bizarrely clean, and there are nothing but sunny days and clear nights. The streets, buildings, and costumes are carefully coordinated in clear, glowing, high-50's colors, with lots of pink, red, and pale green, as shown in famous paintings of the interior of the Moulin Rouge by Toulouse-Lautrec. Posters for the film were based on the posters of the 90's. This went against the grain somewhat at the time, when French cinema was leaning towards noirish gritty black-and-white, and this original yet pop culture centered picture caused a bit of controversy -- some critics loved it, but some hated it, apparently because it was too much fun. But fortunately we don't have to concern ourselves with contemporary tempests.
The famous dancer known as La Goulue doing the cancan at the Moulin Rouge, painted by Tououse-Lautrec

The star upon whose shoulders the whole film rests is Jean Gabin, the ultimate French movie star. Gabin was beyond versatile; he could simply do anything, including sing and dance. He began his career in music halls, starred in some of the greatest French films of the 1930's - Grande Illusion, La Bete Humaine, Pepe Le Moko - and during World War 2 joined De Gaulle's Free French and was with them when Paris was liberated. After the war he resumed his career with even more strength and power in his acting than before, even in something as lighthearted as this. Not very tall but stocky and strong, he made no attempt to look younger than his years. He really didn't need to. While everyone sparks and fizzes all around him, he effortlessly controls every scene by staying cool and caln, using his deep, flexible voice to dominate. And what a voice! What speech! Remember when Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady says, "The French don't care what they do, actually, as long as they pronounce it properly"? Gabin pronounces it properly. If you understand even a little French it's a joy just to listen to him speak.
Danglard sings La Complainte de la Butte

Here he is Henri Danglard, a Parisian impresario with a habit of discovering talent wherever he goes. Especially, though not always, feminine talent. The plot is pretty straightforward, with lively performances and plenty local and historical color. We are introduced to Danglard when he visits Lola's de Castro, known as "La Belle Abesse" (Maria Felix), a beautiful and talented -- really -- exotic dancer whom he has trained and promoted. (Joking with the audience, she asks them to come and see her in the Casbah -- which is an in-joke, because in 1938 Gabin originated the role of Pepe le Moko in the worldwide hit film of the same name set in French North Africa, from which the exotic 1940's come-on line "Come with me to the Casbah" was derived.) After the performance, he, Lola, and a group of friends go for an evening out, ending up in an inexpensive dance hall, where they join the working-class crowd dancing to traditional tunes. The floor is crowded with young men in caps and corderoy jackets and young women (called "gigolettes") in frilly bonnets and layers of ruffled white petticoats that show when they kick up their heels, all enjoying themselves after their workday is done. Danglard dances with Nini (Francoise Arnoul). a pretty, energetic young laundress who is an excellent dancer. Nini's handsome, sulky boyfriend Paolo (Franco Pastorino) resents this, but Nini pays no attention. On the way home -- or at any rate, home to spend the night with Lola -- Danglard gets an idea.

Helping Lola dress in the morning

Real dancers at the Moulin Rouge 1890's
The next day he obtains the site of a recently closed nightclub and plans to rebuild it as a replica of a building often seen  in the country, but not in this working class area of the city -- a red mill, or "Moulin Rouge." 

He posts a notice of tryouts for young dancers, and seeks out an older lady who remembers a certain country dance that was a fad in her youth -- the Cancan. To make it stand out, he decides to use an English word, and call it "French Cancan." Girls flock to the audition and Nini is the first one hired.
Learning the cancan -- Francoise Arnoul as Nini

The story is filled out with various romantic entanglements -- Paulo loves Nini, but Nini falls for Danglard, Lola also loves Damglard, but a wealthy baron is mad about her, and a very nice young Middle Eastern Crown Prince (Giani Esposito) falls for Nini. But the main plot emphasized the creation of the brand new venue and the training of the performers of the extremely athletic  dance. 

Cancan dancers by Jean-Louis Forain

At one point Danglard almost goes broke; Paulo attacks Danglard and causes him to fall and fracture his arm; a huge fight breaks out at the groundbreaking ceremony for the new building; Prince Alexandre attempts suicide because Nini doesn't love him. And all of this is accompanied by a lot of yelling and screaming and Gallic epithets (which are not accurately translated in the subtitles, by the way). But in the end divisions are forgotten as the community of performers and audience members anticipate the opening of fhe exciting new venue.

An excited crowd flocks to the opening night of the Moulin Rouge
No one could imagine for a minute that this movie is anything but French. For one thing, the many romances are carried with a sophisticated realism that no American film in 1955 was able to match. Nini is a very young girl (she'd have to be to perform this acrobatic dance!) but she's not an innocent; she has clearly been sleeping with Paulo, and when she falls in love with Danglard, she sleeps with him, too. No one thinks this makes her a bad girl.

Nini and Paulo

Danglard has obviously been having an affair with Lola, and when he turns his attention elsewhere, she picks up a handsome guardsman for comfort. The guardsman accepts this with a shrug.

Prince Alexandre adores Nini, and offers to set her up as his mistress, shower her with jewels, and give her anything she wants, and everyone thinks it's very nice of him -- in an American movie it would be a horrible insult.

Nini and Danglard

Also, the specific naughtiness of the cancan dance, beyond the fact that young women show their undergarments, is rather lost on us. In the 1890's, the fact that these were lower-class working women provided an extra thrill of social transgression to the largely middle and upper class audiences; this is mentioned in the script but it pretty much goes over most of our heads. But the "little laundresses" who became performers showed an energy and physicality that was not generally expected from "ladies" at the time; these girls are athletes.

The music, by Georges Van Parys, is very French; there's a charming ballad in waltz time that is sort of a love theme, playing or being sung in the background whenever something romantic is happening, and it is finally presented at the big opening night of Moulin Rouge.
There are also several cameo appearances by French stars portraying stars of the 1890's: Edith Piaf is Eugenie Buffet, Andre Claveau as Paul Delmet, Jean Delmet as Paulus, and Patachou is Yvette Guilbert. 

Yvette Guilbert by Toulousr-Lautrec
The main dance music does indeed rely on the traditional "Gaite Parisienne," which was actually from an operetta from the 1860's, because it's just so perfect backing up the final huge production number. It conveys the thrill of something vital, new and vigorous on the scene. Suddenly dozens of girls appear, jumping, kicking, and laughing, swarming the dance floor, dropping from balconies, and swinging on ropes from the ceiling. They line up in formation and a sea of ruffled petticoats, black-stockings, and smiling faces dashes up and down, side to side, flashing bits of anatomy seldom seen in the 1890's. But really, that's not what's exciting about it -- their dance is complex, demanding, difficult, and very well done indeed.

Which leads to my favorite scene -- as the girls perform, we see Danglard alone backstage, humming along with the music, and you can see that, having trained the dancers, his attention is totally on them, running through the choreography in his mind, and even kicking a little. He smiles as he hears the ecstatic cheers of the crowd. He has succeeded again; this is what he lives for.

As the film ends, Danglard at last passes through the ecstatic crowd and stops to watch, proudly. He catches sight of pretty blonde singing along with the music. After listening to her for a few moments, he says invitingly, "Would you like to go on the stage?"

The Moulin Rouge by Frederic Payot

A waltz tune  La complainte de la butte, performed by Esther Georges, with the voice of Cora Vaucaire

The trailer for the film (above)

Cameos by French stars portraying 1890's stars:

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