Maurice Chevalier and Jeanette MacDonald in The Merry Widow, 1934.
Valentine’s Day is almost here, and we wrap our series on pre-Code men with movie musical star, Maurice Chevalier. Before Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra made girls swoon crooning their way through movie musicals tailored to their pop star personas, there was the original singing lothario — Chevalier. Audiences today know him for his world-weary performance as Honoré Lachaille, who sings “Thank Heaven for Little Girls” in the 1958 movie musical, “Gigi.” But Chevalier had his own notorious past in a Hollywood that existed before the Hays Code had teeth as a mischievous lover of women who sang almost exclusively about the physical side of romance.
Chevalier playfully measures Jeanette MacDonald's assets in Love Me Tonight, 1932.
Born in Paris, France, September 12, 1888, Chevalier’s father was a drinker who abandoned the family leaving them with little money. Young Maurice left school at age 10 to be an acrobat, but a severe injury forced him to quit. He worked small jobs while daydreaming of being a performer, and by 1900 he was singing in cafes, eventually performing at the Folies Bergère.
Chevalier as a young man, year unknown.
During the first World War, he was wounded in his first weeks of combat and taken prisoner in Germany for two years where he learned English. Post war he returned to Paris, had a few hit songs, and acted in movies, including a Charlie Chaplin film. In 1920 he met Douglas Fairbanks who offered him a part in wife Mary Pickford’s new film, but Chevalier turned it down. Pickford would be instrumental in bringing Ernst Lubitsch, with whom Chevalier would make his best early films, to Hollywood. At the dawn of the first talkie, he would be in Hollywood too, just in time to sing his way into pictures.
With Sylvia Beecher in The Innocents of Paris, 1929
Chevalier signed a contract with Paramount in 1928 — the same year the first sound film, “The Jazz Singer” debuted. Every studio wanted to make their own musical and Chevalier was immediately teamed with director Ernst Lubitsch in a series of romantic comedy operettas.With only one other film under his belt, he starred with Jeanette MacDonald in “The Love Parade” earning himself an Oscar nomination. Like Lubitsch’s “Trouble in Paradise,” these films set in Europe treated sex and romance not as sinful but healthy and playful.
Maurice Chevalier (right) tries to charm his way out of trouble when he's caught in
bed with the king's wife (Una Merkel) - as a confused king (George Barbier left)
Being French allowed Chevalier to ooze insinuation while escaping judgement for a “level of sexuality that would have made any other leading man appear immoral and unsavory.”* Films like “One Hour with You” treated infidelity with nonchalance. Chevalier plays a doctor whose wife’s best friend, Mitzi, aggressively pursues him until he gives in. Mitzi’s husband hires a detective and soon Chevalier knows that his affair might be exposed. He sings a song called “Now I ask you, what would you do?” pleading his case to the men in the audience as if to say — wouldn’t you have done the same?*
Jeanette MacDonald and Chevalier in The Merry Widow, 1934.
Even before the code was enforced, all films went through some censors. Hoping Chevalier’s films would not get cut, the studio relations committee rationalized, “All of these songs seem a bit risqué, but bearing in mind that Chevalier will do them, we do not suggest any changes.” Thus, he delivered continental sophistication under the noses of those whose job it was to stamp it out.
Chevalier tries every trick in the book to get himself between Jeanette MacDonald and the "flimsy piece of cloth" she's wearing. The Merry Widow, 1934.
Jeanette MacDonald and Maurice Chevalier in The Merry Widow, 1934.
On screen Chevalier was a playful extrovert with boundless energy, but off screen he was reserved and moody. Vanity Fair described him as “taciturn, aloof, and more than a little cynical.” Around 1934 he had a passionate affair with actress Kay Francis, and while gossip columnists speculated they might marry, neither was at a place in their lives to marry. In 1935 he made “Folies Bergère de Paris” for MGM. Angry that he received second billing, and with his relationship to Francis on the rocks, he moved back to Paris. World War II broke out and his name was listed with French collaborators during Germany’s occupation of France, but he was later vindicated. Because of this he wasn’t welcome in America through the 1940s and 50s.
James Cagney, Kay Francis, Maurice Chevalier, and Joan Blondell at a nautical themed party thrown by Francis, 1934.
James Cagney (left) and Maurice Chevalier (right) help Kay Francis (center). Francis' parties were legendary in early 1930's Hollywood. This was a nautical themed party for which she created life size boat complete with slide (which she seems about to go down). Francis was reprimanded by the mayor of L.A. for throwing this party during a particularly nasty flu season, effectively creating a super-spreader event.
Lerner and Lowe wrote the character of Honoré Lachaille in the musical, “Gigi,” for him and fought to cast him. Their efforts ended his blacklisted status giving his career new life. Chevalier’s onscreen depiction of the French lover is so iconic that Lumiere in Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast ”is a tribute to him. To quote author Mick Lasalle, “On the heels of the first sexual revolution, his portrayals harmonized lust with warm humanity. He embodies the splendor of an era and much of what is wonderful about its films.”
*From “Dangerous Men” by Mick LaSalle
Chevalier in Gigi, 1958.
Gigi is,IMO, a perfect film, and it's impossible to imagine anyone but Chevalier in this role. Based on the novella Collette, there is only a small mention of the character Chevalier plays, Lerner and Lowe (who wrote the musical) expanded the part with Chevalier in mind. The battle to get MGM to agree to take him off the blacklist for this film went on for a few years before they finally agreed to hire him. In this clip he sings I'm Glad I'm Not Young Anymore. It's very difficult to sell a song while sitting at a table, and it's a tribute to Chevalier's talent that he makes it look deceptively easy.
Chevalier sang the title song for Disney's The AristoCats, 1970. Many don't know that his French accent was his own invention, he could speak English without an accent.
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