The best thing about Can-Can: the movie is can-can, the dance; a flashy, fleshy, erotic display of France’s enduring contribution to the art of terpsichorean self-expression. With its lurid history, a pre-sold Broadway pedigree, a sparkling champagne cocktail of a Cole Porter score (including such iconic standards as ‘I Love Paris’, ‘It's All Right With Me’, and ‘C'est Magnifique’), and, a roster of formidable Hollywood headliners (Frank Sinatra, Maurice Chevalier, Louis Jourdan and Shirley MacLaine), director Walter Lang’s Can-Can (1960) had everything going for it - except that elusive ember of musical magic. Alas, it proved to be everything. The resultant film, produced by Suffolk-Cummings and distributed by 2oth Century-Fox, is stage-bound and stultifying. Worse, the Dorothy Kingsley/Charles Lederer screenplay remains a badly mangled affair that in no way replicates the plot of the original stage hit.
Herein, the old adage about ‘too many cooks spoiling the broth’ seems ungrudgingly to fit. Sinatra’s inclusion is a misfire from which the movie never recovers, woefully miscast as a sort of loveable Damon Runyon-esque reprobate transplanted from of a revival of Guys and Dolls (a musical in which old blue eyes acquitted himself rather nicely). But Sinatra necessitated a considerable rewrite of Porter’s central character, François Durnais; an attorney whose patronage of a Bohemian café in the red light district of Monmatre leads to flawed flirtations with one of its dancers, Simone Pistache (Shirley MacLaine).
In the play, Durnais actually falls for another gal entirely – the chorus girl/prostitute Claudine, played with great heart, albeit in limited scenes, by Juliet Prowse. Regrettably, Prowse was not a star yet – at least, not by Hollywood’s standards. On the other hand, Shirley MacLaine’s box office clout had risen considerably. And so her character became the de facto love interest. Unable to leave well enough alone, Kingsley and Lederer further muddied Porter’s stage show by reworking its plot to justify the inclusion of Maurice Chevalier and Louis Jourdan – fresh from their significant co-starring contributions in MGM’s Gigi (1958). Herein, Chevalier is doing a cheap imitation of that grand boulevardier, Honoré Lachaille while Jourdan adds even more starch to his already brittle French aristocrat; too much, in fact, to make him loveable or even likeable.
Can-Can ought to have been a splashy spectacle, exotic, feisty and full of verve and innuendo. That it ultimately became big, bloated and leaden to boot, with Lang’s direction lacking even the slightest hint of nimbleness, remains a genuine mystery…or perhaps a telling sign the director had quite simply lost control of his mammoth assignment mid-way through: just about the time visiting Russian dignitary Nikita Krushchev was invited to 2oth Century-Fox as part of his American ‘goodwill’ tour. Reportedly, the can-can was restaged in a mock shoot for Krushchev’s benefit. Afterward, the wily diplomatist turned to one of his cohorts, muttering, “It won’t be long now, comrades” – implying the west’s decadence had eroded its moral foundations.
In retrospect, old Nikita may have had something there, given Hollywood’s present laissez faire approach to telling stories that deify aberrant behaviors as the new norm. But this isn’t Can-Can’s dilemma or its concern. The film is hampered by too many garbled scenarios; also by Fox’s decision to shoot the entire spectacle on a soundstage. Only two years before, director Vincente Minnelli had given us Paris for real in the Oscar-winning Gigi. But now audiences were expected to suspend their belief in Hollywood’s version of France as the real thing. It doesn’t work; not in lurid color by DeLuxe and expansive, crystal-clear 70mm projection, exposing all those false fronts with their rickety plywood backing for what they truly are. In fact, Jack Martin Smith and Lyle R. Wheeler’s art direction looks rather fake throughout, and not in the artifice-enhancing way, as say Guys and Dolls stylized depictions made sense of Manhattan’s skyline through artful ‘sketch-like’ representations, but in an unflattering cardboard cutout Colorforms way; the cut and paste approach extending from the screenplay’s narrative and encumbering its fairly gaudy sets.
It still might have worked if the performances had been better. Regrettably, Cole Porter’s score – arguably his finest – does not receive its due. Sinatra – at his heady best ‘chairman of the board’ mannerisms - warbles C’est Manifique as though it were part of his Vegas nightclub repertoire. Chevalier’s usual ‘talk through’ of a hit song only superficially works in his duet with Jourdan (Live and Let Live). But it is an atrocious ill fit for Porter’s sassy, It Was Just One of Those Things (memorably performed by Lena Horne in Panama Hattie (1942). Shirley MacLaine makes mush of ‘Come Along With Me’ and spends the bulk of the Apache Dance being tossed about like a rag doll. The film’s other ‘big’ production number is The Garden Of Eden in which an underappreciated and underused Juliet Prowse slinks about in gold sequined spandex through a nightmarish landscape that is anything but ‘heaven on earth’; utterly overpowered by its glitz, kitsch and super-glam run amuck. In the end, Can-Can is a film with much ambition but precious little heart.
The plot, such as it is, begins in earnest with François Durnais (Sinatra); an attorney whose patronage of a particularly risqué nightclub results in a clash with the law. To prove his points – that the can-can is not a vulgar dance, and, that prostitutes are people too – Durnais invites his boulevardier buddy, the esteemed judge, Paul Barriere (Chevalier) to enjoy these decidedly decadent pleasures. Too bad the can-can is considered a notorious dance, banned under Parisian law for its lewd and lascivious exposure of the legs, garters and other undergarments. Unfortunate too that someone has tipped off the police. A raid is conducted on the establishment. By the skin of their teeth, Barriere and Durnais escape with their reputations intact. The question of self-expression regarding the can-can is now presented to the prudish underling magistrate, Philipe Forrestier (Louis Jourdan) to decipher.
The rest of Can-Can’s lengthy turgidity is basically a comedy of errors as Forrestier attempts to entrap the rather simple-minded Simone into having her nightclub dancers perform the notorious dance, thus giving him a reason to have her jailed for breaking the law. The wrinkle? Forrestier has begun to favor Simone romantically – as has Durnais. In the meantime, Claudine makes a valiant attempt to seduce Durnais. It doesn’t work…and neither does it make sense, considering how precious little Juliet Prowse’s character is given to do. In the meantime Simone, believing she has absolutely no chance with Durnais (whom she desperately loves) decides to get drunk and makes a public spectacle of herself. Barriere attempts to soften Forrestier’s heart but to no avail. Hence, in the end the entire fate of the can-can (and Can-Can, the movie) is left for Claudine to reconcile with a spectacular display of legs.
Dancer extraordinaire, Juliet Prowse is supple and scrumptious as she champions her pack of amiable chorines to victory over Forrestier’s rather pedantic middle-class morality; her high-stepping and ecstatic squeals rhythmic and infectious. Forrestier seems to have come full circle in his appreciation of the can-can, much to Barriere’s relief. But only a few moments later Durnais is delayed by Forrestier and flung into the back of a paddy wagon, discovering that his own life sentence is to be with Simone, who is already waiting for him inside it.
Despite its pedigree and luxurious trappings, Can- Can is an ignominious mutt of a movie. It teases the audience with the promise of a really sublime movie musical about to break out. But then we get into the score, rattled off without any sincerity or zeal, and suddenly realize that Can-Can – the movie – is deigning to be more faithfully the homage to its Broadway predecessor than its cinematic equivalent. Regrettably, its tribute is laced with the faint whiff of embalming fluid, imperfectly preserving the enormity of Cole Porter’s ambitions while systematically flubbing virtually all of the particulars and assets. Even when director Lang gets the moments right he adheres to an ironclad non-deviation from the Broadway original that translates into artistic ennui.
The cast are more cordial than rambunctious, deflating the necessary air of lusty, but playful debauching. We are left with the elephantitis in the exercise without any buoyancy to remind us of the decadent pleasures in Porter’s score. It just doesn’t come off as it should and this is a pity, because Can-Can had the pedigree and the potential to be a truly outstanding movie musical. That it never lives up to its anticipations is depressing, given the amount of time, money and talent poured into its gestation. But from its Sem-inspired title cards to the casting of Chevalier and Jourdan in supporting roles mimicking better work committed elsewhere, Can-Can seems to be trying too hard to recapture and bottle the magic of Gigi, failing miserably on all accounts while ever-reminding the audience what an uber chic, gay and gloriously tasteful musical Gigi was and, in fact, remains. Want to love Paris? See Gigi. Skip Can-Can.
Fox Home Video’s 2-disc DVD begins with a disclaimer that the film has been restored from the best possible surviving elements. Curious, since the transfer herein looks remarkably pristine and quite often vibrant. The DeLuxe color in expansive Todd A-O is fairly eye popping. Occasionally, a bit of light bleeding seeps in, with a built in flicker, but this is a minor quibbling. Much improved over anything Can-Can has looked like on home video before, contrast levels are nicely realized too. Blacks are deep and solid. Whites are generally clean. The audio is a 5.0 remastering of the original six-track stereo – delivering a potent kick. Occasionally, dialogue sounds slightly strident. Fox has also included an isolated orchestral underscoring track. On disc two we get 3 featurettes; on the making of the film; on Cole Porter’s contribution; and finally on Abe Burrow’s writing credits. There’s also a restoration comparison, theatrical trailer and stills gallery to consider.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)