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.
|The famous dancer known as La Goulue doing the cancan at the Moulin Rouge, painted by Tououse-Lautrec|
|Helping Lola dress in the morning|
|Real dancers at the Moulin Rouge 1890's|
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.
|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.
|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.
|Yvette Guilbert by Toulousr-Lautrec|
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: