Maurice Auguste Chevalier
September 12, 1888
|Died||January 1, 1972 (aged 83)|
Maurice Auguste Chevalier (French: [moʁis ʃəvalje]; 12 September 1888 – 1 January 1972) was a French singer, actor and entertainer. He is perhaps best known for his signature songs, including "Livin' In The Sunlight", "Valentine", "Louise", "Mimi", and "Thank Heaven for Little Girls" and for his films, including The Love Parade, The Big Pond, The Smiling Lieutenant, One Hour with You and Love Me Tonight. His trademark attire was a boater hat and tuxedo.
Chevalier was born in Paris. He made his name as a star of musical comedy, appearing in public as a singer and dancer at an early age before working in menial jobs as a teenager. In 1909, he became the partner of the biggest female star in France at the time, Fréhel. Although their relationship was brief, she secured him his first major engagement, as a mimic and a singer in l'Alcazar in Marseille, for which he received critical acclaim by French theatre critics. In 1917, he discovered jazz and ragtime and went to London, where he found new success at the Palace Theatre.
After this, he toured the United States, where he met the American composers George Gershwin and Irving Berlin and brought the operetta Dédé to Broadway in 1922. He developed an interest in acting and had success in Dédé. When talkies arrived, he went to Hollywood in 1928, where he played his first American role in Innocents of Paris. In 1930, he was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actor for his roles in The Love Parade (1929) and The Big Pond (1930), which secured his first big American hits, "You Brought a New Kind of Love to Me" and "Livin' in the Sunlight, Lovin' in the Moonlight".
In 1957, he appeared in Love in the Afternoon, which was his first Hollywood film in more than 20 years. In 1958, he starred with Leslie Caron and Louis Jourdan in Gigi. In the early 1960s, he made eight films, including Can-Can in 1960 and Fanny the following year. In 1970, he made his final contribution to the film industry where he sang the title song of the Disney film The Aristocats. He died in Paris, on 1 January 1972, from complications of a suicide attempt.
Chevalier was born on September 12, 1888 in Paris to Victor Charles Chevalier (1854-), a French house painter, and Joséphine (née Van Den Bossche, 1852-1929) a lace-maker of Belgian (Flemish) descent. He had two brothers, Charles (1877-1938) and Paul (1884-1969). Victor, an alcoholic, deserted the family in 1896, leaving Joséphine to feed and take care of the children on her own; forced to work much longer hours, she was hospitalized for overwork in 1898. Charles, the eldest, took over some responsibilities but was married in 1900, leaving his mother to take care of Maurice and Paul on her own.
Paul was forced to find work, and eventually secured a job at a metal-engraving factory; the brothers became very close with their mother during this time, nicknaming her "La Louque", which Maurice would later name his Marnes-la-Coquette estate after. Determined to be an acrobat, Maurice left school aged ten but was convinced to abandon this after a severe injury. He tried a number of other jobs: a carpenter's apprentice, an electrician, a printer, and even as a doll painter. Chevalier was eventually able to hold down a job at a mattress factory, and became interested in performing; while daydreaming his finger was crushed in a machine and he was forced to stop working.
While recovering, in 1900, he offered his services as a performer to the skeptical owner of a nearby cafe. Chevalier performed his first song there, V'la Les Croquants, although his performance was met with laughter as he had sung three octaves too high. Discouraged, Maurice returned home, where his mother and brother Paul encouraged him to continue practicing. He continued singing, unpaid, at the café until a member of the theatre saw him and suggested he try for a local musical. Chevalier got the part, and began to make a name as a mimic and a singer. His act in l'Alcazar in Marseille was so successful, on his return to Paris he was met by an admiring crowd.
In 1909, he became the partner of the biggest female star in France, Fréhel. However, due to her alcoholism and drug addiction, their liaison ended in 1911. Chevalier later said that he became addicted to cocaine during this time, a habit he was able to quit because he had no access to the drug as a prisoner of war in World War I. After splitting with Fréhel, he then started a relationship with 36-year-old Mistinguett at the Folies Bergère, where he was her younger dance partner; they eventually played out a public romance.
When World War I broke out, Chevalier was in the middle of his national service, already in the front line, where he was wounded by shrapnel in the back in the first weeks of combat and was taken as a prisoner of war in Germany for two years, where he learned English. In 1916, he was released through the secret intervention of Mistinguett's admirer, King Alfonso XIII of Spain, the only king of a neutral country who was related to both the British and German royal families.
In 1917, Chevalier became a star in le Casino de Paris and played before British soldiers and Americans. He discovered jazz and ragtime and started thinking about touring the United States. In the prison camp, he had studied English and had an advantage over other French artists. He went to London, where he found new success at the Palace Theatre, even though he still sang in French.
After the war, Chevalier went back to Paris and created several songs still known today, such as "Valentine" (1924). He played in a few pictures, including Chaplin's A Woman of Paris (1923), a rare drama for Chaplin, in which his character of The Tramp does not appear, and made an impression in the operetta Dédé. He met the American composers George Gershwin and Irving Berlin and brought Dédé to Broadway in 1922. The same year he met Yvonne Vallée, a young dancer, who became his wife in 1927.
When Douglas Fairbanks was on honeymoon in Paris in 1920, he offered him star billing with his new wife Mary Pickford, but Chevalier doubted his own talent for silent movies (his previous ones had largely failed). When sound arrived, he made his Hollywood debut in 1928. He signed a contract with Paramount Pictures and played his first American role in Innocents of Paris. In 1930, he was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actor for his roles in The Love Parade (1929) and The Big Pond (1930). The Big Pond gave Chevalier his first big American hit songs: "Livin' in the Sunlight, Lovin' in the Moonlight" with words and music by Al Lewis and Al Sherman, plus "A New Kind of Love" (or "The Nightingales"). He collaborated with film director Ernst Lubitsch. He appeared in Paramount's all-star revue film Paramount on Parade (1930).
While Chevalier was under contract with Paramount, his name was so recognized that his passport was featured in the Marx Brothers film Monkey Business (1931). In this sequence, each brother uses Chevalier's passport, and tries to sneak off the ocean liner where they were stowaways by claiming to be the singer—with unique renditions of "You Brought a New Kind of Love to Me" with its line "If the nightingales could sing like you". In 1931, Chevalier starred in a musical called The Smiling Lieutenant with Claudette Colbert and Miriam Hopkins. Despite the disdain audiences held for musicals in 1931, it proved a successful film.
In 1932, he starred with Jeanette MacDonald in Paramount's film musical One Hour With You, which became a success and one of the films instrumental in making musicals popular again. Due to its popularity, Paramount starred Maurice Chevalier in another musical called Love Me Tonight (also 1932), and again co-starring Jeanette MacDonald. It is about a tailor who falls in love with a princess when he goes to a castle to collect a debt and is mistaken for a baron. Featuring songs by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart, it was directed by Rouben Mamoulian, who, with the help of the songwriters, was able to put into the score his ideas of the integrated musical (a musical which blends songs and dialogue so the songs advance the plot). It is considered one of the greatest film musicals of all time.
In 1934, he starred in the first sound film of the Franz Lehár operetta The Merry Widow, one of his best-known films, though he felt his role was too narrow and repetitive. He then signed with MGM for The Man from the Folies Bergère, his own favourite of his films. After a disagreement over his star-billing, he returned to France in 1935 to resume his music-hall career.
Even when he was the highest-paid star in Hollywood, Chevalier had a reputation as a penny-pincher. He later admitted that he was hesitant to spend money on things such as changing the blade of his razor as he had grown up in poverty, remarking that "poverty is a disease that can never be cured." When not playing around with young chorus-girls, he actually felt quite lonely, and sought the company of Adolphe Menjou and Charles Boyer, also French, but both much better educated than Chevalier. Boyer in particular introduced him to art galleries and good literature, and Chevalier would try to copy him as the man of taste. But at other times, he would 'revert to type' as the bitter and impoverished street-kid he was at heart. When performing in English, he always put on a heavy French accent, although his normal spoken English was quite fluent and sounded more American.
In 1937, Chevalier married the dancer Nita Raya. He had several successes, such as his revue Paris en Joie in the Casino de Paris. A year later, he performed in Amours de Paris. His songs remained big hits, such as "Prosper" (1935), "Ma Pomme" (1936) and "Ça fait d'excellents français" (1939).
Chevalier continued performing for as long as he could freely, retreating to the free zone in the south of France with his Jewish wife and her parents as well as some friends following the 1940 invasion by German Nazi troops. During this time, patriotic songs such as "Ça sent si bon la France" and "Paris sera Toujours Paris" became popular, and he held charity balls and performed to raise money for resistance efforts. Chevalier consistently refused to perform for the Vichy France collaborators, and feigned illness, but eventually, out of fear for the safety of his wife and her parents, he reluctantly agreed to a deal. He refused to perform on the collaborating station Radio Paris, but agreed to perform for prisoners of war at the very camp in which he had been incarcerated during World War I. The performance was given in exchange for the release of ten French prisoners.
In 1942, Chevalier was named on a list of French collaborators with Germany to be killed during the war, or tried after it. That year he moved to La Bocca, near Cannes, but returned to the capital city in September. In 1944 when Allied forces freed France, Chevalier was accused of collaboration. The August 28, 1944, issue of Stars and Stripes, the daily newspaper of U.S. armed forces in the European Theater of Operations, reported in error that "Maurice Chevalier Slain By Maquis, Patriots Say". Even though he was acquitted by a French convened court, the English-speaking press remained hostile and he was refused a visa for several years. In a review of the 1969 Oscar-nominated documentary film about French collaboration Le chagrin et la pitié (The Sorrow and the Pity), Simon Heffer draws attention to “a clip of Maurice Chevalier explaining, entirely dishonestly, to an anglophone audience how he had not collaborated.”
In his own country, however, he was still popular. In 1946, he split from Nita Raya and, at the age of 58, began writing his memoirs, which took many years to complete.
He started to collect and paint art, and acted in Le silence est d'or (Man About Town) (1946) by René Clair. He toured throughout the United States and other parts of the world, then returned to France in 1948.
In 1944, he had participated in a Communist demonstration in Paris. He was therefore even less popular in the U.S. during the McCarthyism period; in 1951, he was refused re-entry into the U.S. because he had signed the Stockholm Appeal.
In 1949, he performed in Stockholm in a Communist benefit against nuclear arms. Also in 1949, Chevalier was the subject of the first official roast at the New York Friars' Club, although celebrities had been informally "roasted" at banquets since 1910.
In 1952, he bought a large property in Marnes-la-Coquette, near Paris, and named it La Louque, as a homage to his mother's nickname. He started a relationship in 1952 with Janie Michels, a young divorcee with three children.
In 1954, after the McCarthy era abated, Chevalier was welcomed back in the United States. His first full American tour was in 1955, with Vic Schoen as arranger and musical director. The Billy Wilder film Love in the Afternoon (1957) with Audrey Hepburn and Gary Cooper, was his first Hollywood film in more than 20 years.
In 1957, Chevalier was awarded The George Eastman Award, given by George Eastman House for distinguished contribution to the art of film.
Chevalier appeared in the movie musical Gigi (1958) with Leslie Caron and Hermione Gingold, with whom he shared the song "I Remember It Well", and several Walt Disney films. The success of Gigi prompted Hollywood to give him an Academy Honorary Award that year for achievements in entertainment. In 1957, he appeared as himself in an episode of The Jack Benny Program titled "Jack in Paris". He also appeared as himself in an episode of The Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour, titled "Lucy Goes to Mexico".
In the early 1960s, he toured the United States and between 1960 and 1963 made eight films, including Can-Can (1960) with Frank Sinatra. In 1961, he starred in the drama Fanny with Leslie Caron and Charles Boyer, an updated version of Marcel Pagnol's "Marseilles Trilogy". In 1962, he filmed Panic Button (not released until 1964), playing opposite Jayne Mansfield. In 1965, at age 77, he made another world tour. In 1967 he toured in Latin America, again, the US, Europe and Canada, where he appeared as a special guest at Expo 67. The following year, on October 1, 1968, he announced his farewell tour.
Historical newsreel footage of Chevalier appeared in the 1969 Marcel Ophüls documentary The Sorrow and the Pity. In a wartime short film near the end of the film's second part, he explained his disappearance during World War II, as rumors of his death lingered at that time, and he emphatically denied any collaboration with the Nazis. His theme song, "Sweepin' the Clouds Away", from the film Paramount on Parade (1930), was one of the film's theme songs and was played in the end credits of the second part.
In 1970, two years after his retirement, songwriters Richard M. and Robert B. Sherman convinced him to sing the title song of the Disney film The Aristocats, which ended up being his final contribution to the film industry.
Chevalier suffered from bouts of depression throughout his adult life. On March 7, 1971, he attempted suicide by overdosing on barbiturates. Rushed to the hospital, Chevalier was saved but suffered liver and kidney damage as a result of the drug. In the following months, he suffered memory lapses, chronic tiredness, and spent much of his time alone. On December 12, he fell ill and was taken to Paris's Necker Hospital and placed on dialysis. By December 30, doctors announced his kidneys were no longer responding to dialysis. Too frail for a transplant, he underwent surgery as a last-ditch effort to save his life. It was unsuccessful; Chevalier died from a cardiac arrest following kidney surgery on New Year's Day 1972, aged 83.
He is interred in the cemetery of Marnes-la-Coquette in Hauts-de-Seine, outside Paris, France with his mother, "La Louque".
Chevalier has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 1651 Vine Street.
Author Michael Freedland later claimed in his 1981 biography of Chevalier that the actor Felix Paquet, who became close to Chevalier during the 1960s, cut off contact with all of his friends and family in hopes of securing access to his fortune. Freedland alleges that Paquet, eighteen years Chevalier's junior, intercepted mail and withheld information about Maurice's health in the months before his death.