Saturday, September 12, 2009

Happy Birthday, Maurice Chevalier

Katie nominee, singer/actor Maurice Chevalier, is 121 today, and given the frequency with which long-dead actors such as Lon Chaney and Douglas Fairbanks pop up in the comment section, he's no doubt still out there somewhere, partying like it's 1899.

I mention Chevalier because looking ahead I see it's unlikely I'll otherwise have occasion to write about him and I think that given most people only remember him now, if they remember him at all, for a rather creepy rendition of "Thank Heaven For Little Girls" in the 1958 Oscar winner Gigi, that would be a real disservice to a man who in his youth was really quite a remarkable talent.

Chevalier was born in Paris on this day in 1888 and by the age of thirteen was already a professional singer and acrobat. He was wounded in combat during World War I and taken prisoner by the Germans; during his two years in a POW camp, he learned English from his fellow prisoners and despite what you hear in the movies, actually spoke the language fluently and without an accent.

After the war, he worked on the stage in Paris and London, and yearned to tour America, but he turned down an offer from Douglas Fairbanks to work in silent movies, fearing he wasn't actor enough to succeed without benefit of his singing voice. He worked in France, occasionally making movies there, until the premiere of The Jazz Singer, then finally left for Hollywood.

He made his best movies with legendary director, Ernst Lubitsch, who starred Chevalier in four musical comedies, The Love Parade, One Hour With You and The Merry Widow with Jeanette MacDonald and The Smiling Lieutenant with Claudette Colbert and Miriam Hopkins. The movies are light, naughty sex comedies and very funny, with Chevalier invariably playing a randy army lieutenant who winds up chasing (and being chased by) a virginal member of royalty who is about to discover what she's been missing.

Jeanette MacDonald is more famous now for her pairings with Nelson Eddy, and I'll write about that Hollywood screen team at a later date, but frankly her pre-Code musicals with Chevalier are much more interesting. The two didn't get along very well, though, Chevalier calling MacDonald a "prude," and MacDonald calling Chevalier "the quickest derriere pincher in Hollywood," and despite making four successful pictures together (including Rouben Mamoulian's Love Me Tonight), the two went their separate ways.

Chevalier's Hollywood career suffered after censors began to enforce the Production Code and he returned to France in the late 1930s. After World War II, he was accused of collaborating with the Nazis and although acquitted, he was wasn't allowed to return to the U.S. until 1954. He worked in a dozen films after his return, including Love in the Afternoon and Gigi, and continued working until his death in 1972 at the age of eighty-three.

Personal Note: My own introduction to Maurice Chevalier came not from Gigi but from the movie Annie Hall during the scene where Woody Allen and Diane Keaton are watching Marcel Ophuls documentary The Sorrow and the Pity. "Boy, those guys in the French Resistance were really brave," says Woody, "you know? Got to listen to Maurice Chevalier sing so much."


L. F. Chaney said...

Did someone mention me?

My ears were ringing.

Mythical Monkey said...

Welcome back, Lon! I hope you noticed that you picked up a second Katie Award, for your performance in The Phantom Of The Opera -- well deserved.

Who Am Us Anyway? said...

MY first frightening encounter with the great Frenchman occurred on a Firestone Christmas LP that my parents dug out every holiday season when i was a helpless tyke -- it really did freak me out, Maurice's demented cover of Zha-lee Olde Saint Neek-O-Lawsh.

Mythical Monkey said...

By the way, I encourage those of you with a penchant for blood-curdling horror to zip over to Who Am Us Anyway's blog and listen to Maurice Chevalier's rendition of "Jolly Ole St Nicholas." Guaranteed to put you off Christmas forever.

Douglas Fairbanks said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Mythical Monkey said...

I thought I'd mention that our old pal Douglas Fairbanks stopped by earlier to say howdy and extend a laurel, and hearty handshake to Lon Chaney, who has been missing in action lately. Some excerpts:

So a quick question unrelated to Maurice Chevalier (the dude from Monkey Business. . . .):

Is Sheriff John Chance not going to enforce the "talentless, ugly [expletive deleted]" clause and keep off comments by that lumbering sack Lon Chaney?

I mean, NOW I understand why people feel afraid to walk these virtual streets -- they're afraid his ugly mug will pop up again. I felt like those nice young boys in the Delta house when they saw Kent Dorfman's picture.

Please, Sheriff -- spare us.

Douglas has been taking lessons in How To Win Friends and Influence People from Rep. Joe Wilson of South Carolina and they are beginning to pay off! As we all know, Kent Dorfman is an indispensable component of that classic comedy Animal House, and while it's true he isn't pretty to look at, I think I speak for all the fellows at Delta house when I say I can't imagine a world that doesn't include his chipper reading of the immortal line "May I have ten thousand marbles, please?" Ten gallon hats off to D.Fairbanks for recognizing that fact and noting that he is equally happy to see L.F. Chaney's mug in the comments section.

As for the rumor of a "'talentless, ugly [expletive]' clause," like the so-called death panels in the proposed health care legislation, it simply doesn't exist. So our esteemed pal, Doug Fairbanks, need not worry. He's welcome anytime and despite being 126 years old, no government bureaucrat is going to take him out back and shoot him.

Mz. Louise Brooks said...


tapping foot impatiently


Uncle Tom said...

"He's welcome anytime and despite being 126 years old, no government bureaucrat is going to take him out back and shoot him"

heck, he's almost old enough to be a Senator from West VA or South Carolina

Mythical Monkey said...

Nobody is as old as Robert Byrd ...