Paris: Hotfooting to the Moulin Rouge
By Theadora “Twinkle Toes” Brack
Embracing restorative #summertimegoals, let’s revel in some retro merrymaking, shall we? For the occasion, we’ll hoof on over to the Moulin Rouge in Montmartre. Up my sleeve, I’ve got some new postcards, illustrations, and scrapbook clippings, along with a swell cinema-related tale about the venerable dance hall.
But first, let’s also salute the recent World Theatre Day! Created in 1961, writer Jean Cocteau wrote the International Theatre Institute’s first message: “Nations, thanks to these World Theatre Days, will at last become aware of each other’s treasures, and will work together in the high enterprise of peace.”
I completely agree. It’s what the world still needs.
Now, let’s do an old school prance back in time. Step by step, I’m with you.
On the Bright Side
Winding it back to 1923, the name of the movie is “Woman to Woman.”
Staged in the City of Light, the lead actor’s name was Betty. But she wasn’t Mayor Jimmy Walker’s petite amie. See, that was another “Betty” with a similar rising star and last name.
“Jolly, effervescent, and practical,” was this jazz baby’s reputation. And her heroine characters possessed street smarts and a heart of gold. An early advocate for equal pay, she even created her own production company.
Betty Compson also had a proven drawing power. Plus, she was a press corps favorite.
“That girl has guts!” wrote Liberty Magazine.
Graham Cutts directed. Michael Balcon and Victor Saville were the producers. Well aware of Betty’s previous box office hit parade, they got her on the horn.
“I am worth it!” the plucky “home girl” from Beaver, Utah told the production team during the telephone tête-à-tête.
They agreed. Betty was offered a “freak” salary of 1000 pounds per week. Along with a two-picture deal and solo star billing. Nobody put Betty in a corner.
The silent moving picture was launched in August 1923. Critics adored the starlet’s performance, writing, “Oh, Mother of Pearl! Aglow when she appears! The incomparable Betty has outdone herself!”
Master of Suspense
Now, the Assistant Director was an unknown. At the time, that is. One Alfred J. Hitchcock. Just 23 years old. And this was one of his first real film breaks.
He also agreed to co-write the screenplay, based on Michael Morton’s stage play. A love affair between a soldier and a Moulin Rouge dancer!
Hitch would design the sets, too. To prepare, the future “Master of Suspense” made several scouting trips to Paris.
In the Name of Love
Each time he went, it was first to mass at L’Église de la Madeleine. Then off to the Moulin Rouge! Which had just re-opened, after its 1914 fire.
But the dance scenes were shot on a sound stage in Joinville, a distant suburb. For the big chorus number, dancers were brought in from the Casino de Paris.
“An exact replica is what I was after!” said the assistant director.
And authentic is what he got—to a T. Following suit with the Moulin Rouge’s décor, Hitchcock dressed his stage in windmills and chats noire with the newly built Sacré Coeur in view.
Dolly Tree, a Folies Bergère designer, created the costumes. Her confections were gossamer-fine and shiny, too. It was Paris, after all. By the 1920s, prancing in the buff was the norm in most clubs. But this film was for English and American audiences.
“No French breast could be exposed on the screen!” said producer Saville.
Just One Night
Seamstresses outfitted the costumes with hidden brassieres on the spot. With full support systems in place, the finale was shot in a single night so the dancers could get back to Paris in time for Sunday’s matinee.
Even with muted titillation, the film still swayed. A crowd pleaser so popular, the production team brought the “love saga” back to the screen again as a talkie in 1929. With Betty, of course.
In the words of Betty herself, “Sing it like you mean it! The music gives you the heart and the courage to conquer!”
Keep on Singing. Keep on dancing. Keep on exploring the globe.