SMACK DAB IN THE MIDDLE OF DRAB
Did director Walter Lang, cinematographer William H. Daniels, art directors Lyle R. Wheeler and Jack Martin Smith and costume designer Irene Sharaff deliberately set out to sabotage TODD AO when they made Cole Porter’s Can-Can? What other way is there to explain how everything ended up this claustrophobic and downright ugly? After the red velvet overdose of Vincente Minnelli’s Gigi, they apparently believed audiences needed an ultra-dreary Paris as leveler. This indictment is reinstated in the 2007 restoration, confirming that the musical isn’t widescreen, it’s television, with confining sets, paltry appointments, moldy apparel and coma-inducing colors. Shirley MacLaine’s Café Le Bal Du Paradis is a dingy orange pink dump and her living quarters a pukey grayish green. When Louis Jourdan is in his magistrate’s office singing “You Do Something to Me,” we’re fighting off even more revolting choices of green on the walls and near-turquoise curtains; we’re in that hideous office so often that we’re smack dab in the middle of suffocating drab and can’t find an exit fast enough. (Have handy your oxygen tank.) There aren’t but three bright spots in the entire debacle—the gay 90s Paris credits with their deep Toulouse-Lautrec color spectrum, Sharaff’s blue jobbie for MacLaine when she’s on the witness stand, and the lighting for the “Garden of Eden.” Beyond the cost of rights, where did the budget of $6,000,000 go? For Frank Sinatra’s dance lessons? After his clumsiness during “Let’s Do it (Let’s Fall in Love),” Fox might have wanted to have sue but it turns out Sinatra’s production company financed a substantial part, explaining why he’s in the picture when his character never existed in the original musical. When, without a hint of believable romance, Sinatra starts to sing to Juliet Prowse, or later professes his love to MacLaine, the “regrets” and “passions” expressed are skinny; it’s like he’s playing to his sisters. He must have sensed we weren’t going to buy him as the French lawyer type because he slips on a fedora inside the café and the only thing missing from the album cover touch is the wink. (The stunt helped him win the Harvard Lampoon’s 1960 Worst Actor of the Year citation.) MacLaine is S.O.P., this time lifting sans attribution Judy Holliday’s banshee voice and Lucille Ball’s gift for mimicry. The necessity to make her a tiresome simpleton—she rips up a Toulouse sketch, calling it trash—is a dumbed-down miscalculation and extended to the “Come Along With Me” number, in which she wears a golden yellow gown with a train designed to trip over. (The embarrassment, including a dip in the Seine, is a plot device tho it’s the audience who feels soaked by the cheap degradation.) Maurice Chevalier hasn’t much to do, and that smoothie Jourdan never means to yet manages anyway to give us a case of the creeps. Because Paris is pivotal to the narrative—proprietress MacLaine keeps getting into legal trouble because she dares to allow her dancers to perform the banned can-can—we expect to “see” the City of Light via TODD-AO. Just two measly tourist shots on the Seine are inserted that look to be afterthoughts; there are much better atmospherics, as well as dancing, in John Huston’s 1952 Moulin Rouge. Can-Can isn’t the first time Hollywood has virginized Cole Porter to take the risk out of his risqué, but it may be the most offensive: it’s about as suggestively bawdy as a Disney animation, with the use of the word “boudoir” the racy max. Sinatra and company aren’t quite finished with giving Porter the shaft: though eight numbers written for the musical were dropped and three from other sources added, the crooner and Maurice filmed the signature “I Love Paris” that was edited out and reportedly its footage lost. Their version is on the album soundtrack. The song is in the movie as a chorus vocal during the credits and conclusion, and instrumentally heard during the entr’acte and exit music. Perhaps inappropriately, the song is also intertwined in the Hermes Pan-choreographed ballet of Adam (Marc Wilder), Eve (Shirley) and the Snake (Prowse). Full screen, the pas de trois barely works, with much of the stage business panned and scanned away. Restored to proper aspect ratio, it’s somewhat classy, moderately sexy (Prowse slithers down a tree toppingly) and concludes as a triumph for the temptress long scorned. Not a trace of Sinatra interfering. (Opening 4/19/1960 at the Palace, running 28 weeks.)
Oscar nominations: best color costumes, best scoring of a musical picture (Nelson Riddle).
ROLL OVER IMAGES
Text COPYRIGHT © 2001 RALPH BENNER (Revised 2008) All Rights Reserved.