Moulin Rouge (1952): Huston’s Innovative Biopic of Toulouse-Lautrec, Starring Jose Ferrer (in Dual Role)

John Huston directed Moulin Rouge, a visually spectacular British biopic, produced by Huston and James Woolf for their Romulus Films company and released by United Artists.

Grade: B+ (**** out of *****)

Moulin Rouge
Moulin rougeposter1952.jpg

French theatrical poster

Set in Paris in the late 19th century, the tale centers on artist Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, living in the city’s bohemian subculture in and around the burlesque palace the Moulin Rouge.

The screenplay is by Huston, based on the 1950 novel by Pierre La Mure. The cinematography was by Oswald Morris.

Screened at the Venice Film Fest, Moulin Rouge won the Silver Lion, and went on to score great critical and commercial success.

The film stars José Ferrer as Toulouse-Lautrec, with Zsa Zsa Gabor as Jane Avril, Suzanne Flon, Eric Pohlmann, Colette Marchand, Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, Katherine Kath, Theodore Bikel, and Muriel Smith.

Narrative Premise:
In 1890 Paris crowds pour into the Moulin Rouge nightclub as artist Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec finishes a bottle of cognac while sketching the club’s dancers. The club’s regulars arrive: singer Jane Avril teases Henri charmingly, dancers La Goulue and Aicha fight, and owner Maurice Joyant offers Henri free drinks for a month in exchange for painting a promotional poster. At closing time, Henri waits for the crowds to disperse before standing to reveal his four-foot six-inch stature. As he walks to his Montmartre apartment, he recalls the events that led to his disfigurement.

Near death, Henri is brought to his family home. After a priest reads the last rites, his father informs Henri he is to be the first living artist to be shown in the Louvre, begging for forgiveness.

In the last scene, Henri turns his head and watches as phantasmal characters from his Moulin Rouge paintings dance into the room to bid him goodbye.

Jose Ferrer

Jose plays both Henri and his father, the Comte Alphonse de Toulouse-Lautrec. The transformation of Ferrer into Henri was based on the use of platforms and concealed pits as well as special camera angles, makeup and costumes; short body doubles were also used.

Ferrer used a set of knee-pads of his own design allowing him to walk on his knees. He received high praise for his performance and brave gesture to have his legs strapped.

Huston instructed cinematographer Oswald Morris to render the color scheme of the film to look “as if Toulouse-Lautrec had directed it.”  Thus, Moulin Rouge was shot in three-strip Technicolor, created by dye transfer from three primary-color gelatin matrices. This technique allowed for great flexibility in managing the dense contrast and saturation of the print. Huston asked Technicolor for a subdued palette, rather than the gaudy colors “glorious Technicolor” it was famous for.

The film was shot at Shepperton Studios, Shepperton, Surrey, England, and on location in London and Paris.

Bob Fosse acknowledged Huston’s filming of the can-can in Moulin Rouge as being very influential on his own style.

Oscar Awards

Moulin Rouge received 7 Oscar nominations, winning two.

Best Picture
Best Director – John Huston
Best Actor – José Ferrer
Best Supporting Actress – Colette Marchand
Best Film Editing – Ralph Kemplen
Best Art Direction – Paul Sheriff, Marcel Vertès (winner)
Best Costume Design – Marcel Vertès (winner)

Oscar Snub

The film was not nominated for its color cinematography, its main quality, a snub noted by many critics.

José Ferrer as Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec / Comte Alphonse de Toulouse-Lautrec
Zsa Zsa Gabor as Jane Avril
Suzanne Flon as Myriamme Hyam
Katherine Kath as La Goulue
Muriel Smith as Aicha
Colette Marchand as Marie Charlet
Theodore Bikel as King Milan IV of Serbia
Peter Cushing as Marcel de la Voisier
Christopher Lee as Georges Seurat
Michael Balfour as Dodo
Eric Pohlmann as Picard


Directed by John Huston
Produced by Huston and James Woolf
Written by John Huston and Anthony Veiller, based on Pierre La Mure (Novel)
Music by Georges Auric
William Engvick
Cinematography Oswald Morris
Edited by Ralph Kemplen

Production company: Romulus Films

Distributed by United Artists (US)
British Lion Films (UK)

Release date: December 23, 1952 (US)

Running time: 119 minutes
Budget $1.1 million
Box office $9 million