The Power of Zsa Zsa

Bert Menninga
Jul 2, 2013 · 3 min read

YouTube, the ultimate enabler for any number of questionable habits, is surely the mother lode for nostalgia junkies. I wouldn’t describe myself as a nostalgia junkie exactly, I’m more of a recreational user really. But I still get a melancholy satisfaction listening to an eerie recording, made circa 1900, of Alessandro Moreschi, the last living Italian castrato singer. Or watching a silent clip of Loïe Fuller doing her famous Serpentine Dance, hand-colored by the Lumière brothers in 1896.

As any other good enabler, YouTube is all about encouraging you to indulge; in YouTube’s case to get lost in a viewing haze as one recommended clip leads to another. Which is how I ended up finding a clip of Zsa Zsa Gabor singing “It’s April Again” from the 1952 John Huston-directed Moulin Rouge, a song that later made the charts in an altered version, one my mother used to sing in fact (Zsa Zsa starts singing at 10:27 in the clip, although the beginning is worth watching as well).

As a ten-year-old gay-man-to-be, Moulin Rouge captivated me when they broadcast it as an afternoon matinee on TV in early 1970s suburban Chicago. It has none of the showy glitz, elaborate set-pieces and smooth slickness of Baz Luhrmann’s version, which channels the idea of the time rather than aiming at any accuracy. John Huston’s version is an earnest, deeply flawed and ridiculous movie – Jose Ferrer spends the movie with shoes attached to his knees, stumping around as Toulouse-Lautrec, need I say more? But it has a firecracker of an opening that attempts, with some success, to recreate the Moulin Rouge of Lautrec’s posters, sketches and paintings. Well, Hollywood’s idea of Lautrec’s Moulin Rouge.

Still, Hollywood’s idea of Lautrec’s Moulin Rouge swept me off my feet in 1972. It was a double-nostalgia piece – a costume drama cum musical about a time 50 years before the movie was made, and when I watched it, the movie was 20 years old already. I was transported by the chaotic dancing above all, despite the awful prosthetics on Walter Crisham playing Valentin le désossé. And it still holds up – the dancers in their Elsa Schiaparelli costumes look like the drawings, and they evoke a sense of place that feels right.

But what moves me most, 40 years later as I watch the clip, with its sketchy sound and abrupt cut in mid-sentence, isn’t the dancing or the atmosphere. It’s Zsa Zsa Gabor, descending a staircase and singing a so-very French song in a full mezzo voice. This is Zsa Zsa, not all that long off the boat from war-torn Hungary, exotic and elegant in her most significant movie role, before she became a parody of herself, with her marriages and TV cameos.

Watching now, it almost breaks my heart to see her wave her arms, that song so close to the edge of being too sweet, sung in a style that’s for the most part restricted anymore to opera singers and the very rare Broadway star. Written by Georges Auric,who was too young to have written anything for the Moulin Rouge but was nonetheless part of a group of musicians that included Erik Satie, who did write cabaret music in the 1890s.

I can’t help connecting dots that add authenticity to the song and the scene for me.

And really, why should 1950s Hollywood’s idea of 1890s Parisian bohemians be any less true than the Hollywood of today’s idea of 1960s New York mad men (how’s that for a complicated set of plurals and possessives)?

But who can say?

As for authenticity, when it comes to Hollywood – or YouTube for that matter – it’s viewer beware. The fact is, it isn’t Zsa Zsa singing at all, she’s lipsyncing to the voice of Muriel Smith, who plays the dancer Aicha in the movie (Muriel Smith is worthy of her own essay ).

And that YouTube clip of Loïe Fuller? That isn’t her either, but merely a dancer dancing in the Loïe Fuller style.

    Bert Menninga

    Written by

    American editor in Stockholm working for the media company Bonnier (my tweets are my own opinions and not Bonnier's. Just so you know.)

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