Maurice Chevalier – the French lover and the modern movie musical

by Jennifer Kellow-Fiorini

Valentine’s Day is almost here, and we wrap up 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, as a mischievous lover of women who sang almost exclusively about the physical side of romance. 

Born in Paris, France, on Sept. 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. 

During World War I, 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, Chevalier would be in Hollywood too, just in time to sing his way into pictures. 

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 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. 

Being French allowed Chevalier to ooze insinuation while escaping judgment 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 played a doctor whose wife’s best friend, Mitzi, aggressively pursued him until he gave in. Mitzi’s husband hired a detective and soon Chevalier knew that his affair might be exposed. He sang 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? 

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.

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. 

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 embodied the splendor of an era and much of what was wonderful about its films.” 

*From “Dangerous Men” by Mick LaSalle 

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Jennifer Fiorini holds a bachelor’s degree in advertising from The Fashion Institute of Technology where she minored in film studies, Italian film and language. Originally from Toledo, Ohio, she divides her time between New York City and Torino, Italy. She is part of Creative Oxygen’s New York team, writes for eCurrent Magazine, and contributed to Troy Howarth’s book, Murder By Design – The Unsane Films of Dario Argento.

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