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In 1959 there were plenty of good reasons for Twentieth Century Fox to show off a number from one of its works in progress, Walter Lang's Can-Can (1960), to visiting Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev: The film featured a roster of international stars in its cast, chief among them Frank Sinatra and Shirley MacLaine. It was a splashy musical adapted, albeit rather loosely, from a Broadway hit. And its dance numbers were performed largely by a cast of rather lovely ladies. What could possibly go wrong?
As it turned out, Khrushchev was greatly displeased with the routine that was performed for him on the set, a rendering of the famous skirt-swirling, bloomer-exposing music-hall dance. The day after his visit, during a meeting with U.S. labor leaders in San Francisco, he used the spectacle he'd witnessed as an example of the difference between Soviet and American ideas of freedom: "When we were in Hollywood they danced the cancan for us. The girls who dance it have to pull up their skirts and show their backsides. They are good, honest actresses but have to perform that dance. They are compelled to adapt themselves to the tastes of depraved people." Khrushchev called what he'd seen "pornographic" and declared his preference for the Soviet idea of freedom: "You seem to like the 'freedom' of looking at backsides. But we prefer the freedom to think, to exercise our mental faculties, the freedom of creative progress."
Khrushchev's disapproval notwithstanding, the freedom of looking at backsides is one of the pleasures to be found in Can-Can, set in Montmartre in the decadent 1890s. The script was rather loosely adapted from Abe Burrows' original stage version, with songs by Cole Porter, which ran on Broadway for more than two years beginning in 1953: In the movie, MacLaine's character, Simone Pistache, the saucy proprietress of a Montmartre music hall, is an amalgam of two characters found in the play. The dancing was choreographed by Hermes Pan (whereas Michael Kidd devised the original numbers). And some older, familiar Cole Porter songs ("Let's Do It," "Just One of Those Things") were added to those that appeared in the original stage version (among them "I Love Paris" and "It's All Right with Me"). Also, the original was altered to provide a much larger starring role for Frank Sinatra, who plays Simone's lawyer and chief love interest, François Durnais.
The smooth-talking François has been wooing Simone for years, though he keeps refusing to marry her. When Louis Jourdan's uptight judge Philipe Forrestier falls for Simone, François finds himself competing for her affections. (Maurice Chevalier, as the older judge Paul Barriere, counsels both of the men as they navigate these tricky affairs of the heart.) Meanwhile, MacLaine's Simone high-kicks her way through life, keeping her little club afloat by staging the can-can every night, even though the allegedly improper routine has been banned in France.
MacLaine, at that point, was a quickly rising star, having recently completed Career (1959), with Dean Martin, and Ask Any Girl (1959), with David Niven. She had worked with Sinatra before, in the 1958 Some Came Running, and she jumped at the chance to appear with him in Can-Can. As MacLaine has written on her own web site, ShirleyMacLaine.com, Sinatra preferred to keep what the crew called "French hours," usually showing up for filming around noon. MacLaine didn't mind that - it allowed her to have a more normal life, with her nights to herself - and she loved working with Sinatra. She writes, "During filming I chewed gum excessively and I was always searching for a place to put my gum before I did a scene. Frank had noticed this and said, 'Hey kid, put it here behind my ear. It'll help both of us.'" Apparently, according to MacLaine, Sinatra had been a "forceps baby" and had a large scar behind one ear, which needed to be hidden with makeup for close-up shots. "So the gum would serve a dual purpose and nobody was any wiser."
MacLaine also claims credit for introducing Sinatra to Juliet Prowse, the leggy South African dancer who had a secondary role in Can-Can. (The two embarked on a romance and became engaged, though they never married.) Prowse is certainly a striking presence in Can-Can, particularly in the movie's otherwise somewhat busy Adam-and-Eve ballet number, in which she steals the show as a slithery serpent. New York Times critic Bosley Crowther had very few nice things to say about Can-Can in his review: He called the dances "tedious," noting that they were "nowhere near so naughty or bold as Premier Khrushchev proclaimed them." But he did offer some praise for Prowse, calling her "a healthy hoyden if ever we saw one." And Prowse does embody a kind of dangerous sensuality, something far more complex than the naughty silliness of the can-can itself.
It's probably a good thing Khrushchev didn't see Prowse's sensuous snake dance while visiting the set of Can-Can. Then again, if he had, he might have viewed the American version of freedom in a completely different light. It's possible, of course, that Khrushchev was just cranky on the day of his Twentieth Century Fox studio visit, particularly since a trip to Disneyland - a sight he really wanted to see - had been canceled for security reasons. And MacLaine claims that Khrushchev, whatever particular bee he may have had in his bonnet that day, eventually ended up liking her just fine. The actress says that after she finished her next film, The Apartment (1960), she saw Khrushchev at the Manhattan hangout Sardi's. The note he sent to her table read, "I have seen The Apartment and you have improved."
Producer: Saul Chaplin, Jack Cummings
Director: Walter Lang
Screenplay: Dorothy Kingsley (screenplay), Charles Lederer (screenplay), Abe Burrows (musical comedy)
Cinematography: William H. Daniels
Music: Cole Porter (music and lyrics), Nelson Riddle (conductor and arranger)
Film Editing: Robert L. Simpson
Cast: Frank Sinatra (François Durnais), Shirley MacLaine (Simone Pistache), Louis Jourdan (Philipe Forrestier), Maurice Chevalier (Paul Barriere), Juliet Prowse (Claudine).
by Stephanie Zacharek
The New York Times
Greg Linnell, "Applauding the Good and Condemning the Bad: The Christian Herald and Varieties of Protestant Response to Hollywood in the 1950s." Journal of Religion and Popular Culture, Volume 12, Spring 2006
Peter Carlson, "Nikita Khrushchev Goes to Hollywood." Smithsonian Magazine, July 2009