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Overview for Maurice Chevalier
Maurice Chevalier

Maurice Chevalier



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Also Known As: Maurice Auguste Chevalier Died: January 1, 1972
Born: September 12, 1888 Cause of Death: heart attack following surgery
Birth Place: Paris, FR Profession: Cast ... actor singer acrobat entertainer factory worker apprentice engraver


The epitome of the worldly French song-and-dance man, Maurice Chevalier was one of the 20th century's most beloved entertainers, delighting audiences the world over in a five-decade career that encompassed vaudeville, light opera, motion pictures and concerts. Perennially decked out in tuxedo tails and a rakish straw boater, Chevalier crooned love songs in a honeyed Gallic accent that endeared him to theatergoers in the teens and early 1920s before entering silent features. Hollywood beckoned in the early 1930s, and he enjoyed a string of musical hits, including "Love Me Tonight" (1932) before returning to France prior to World War II. Allegations of collaborations with the Nazis dogged his career during the 1940s, but he returned more popular than ever in the late 1950s, thanks to "Gigi" (1958), which earned him a special Oscar. Chevalier would go on to essay courtly grandfathers until his retirement in 1968. His death in 1972 marked the end of a charmed life, dedicated to spreading the gospel of love and happiness through a song, a smile and a tip of a hat.

Born Maurice Auguste Chevalier on Sept. 12, 1888, he was the youngest of nine children by his father, a house painter, and his Belgian mother. Their father often struggled to find steady work, so Chevalier left school at the age of 11 to help support the family through a wide variety of odd jobs - from carpenter's apprentice and printer to doll painter. In 1901, he entered show business with one of his brothers as acrobats, but suffered a serious injury that forced him to pursue less dangerous employment in entertainment. Chevalier began singing in cafes', where he compensated for his featherweight vocals by adding a touch of wry comedy to his delivery. He began performing in local theater revues, where he developed an ardent following.

In 1909, he teamed with the celebrated but tragic music hall singer Fréhel in a professional relationship that soon blossomed into romance. Her chronic drug and alcohol addictions forced him to sever ties with her in 1911. Chevalier then entered into a similar partnership with Mistinguett, one of the most popular French singers of the early 20th century. Their collaboration gave his career the boost it needed, but in 1914, he was sent to the frontlines to fight for France in World War I. Chevalier was wounded and captured during the first weeks of combat, and spent the next two years as a prisoner of war in Germany. While imprisoned, he learned to speak English from British fellow prisoners before he was released in 1916, reportedly through the intervention of King Alfonso XIII of Spain, who was a devoted admirer of Mistinguett. For his service to his country, Chevalier was awarded the Croix du Guerre.

Upon his return to civilian life, Chevalier's star resumed its ascent through his celebrated appearances at Le Casino de Paris. There, he created his iconic stage persona: the jaunty Gallic swain in a tuxedo and straw boater hat, singing songs of love, as well as jazz and ragtime with roguish charm and a touch of risqué humor. He was soon appearing in silent films, though none matched the success that he had enjoyed with his music hall career. In 1920, Douglas Fairbanks offered him a chance to make his Hollywood debut, but he demurred, citing the lack of overwhelming response to his films in France. Two years later, he scored one of the biggest hits of his career with the operetta "Dédé," which brought him to Broadway. Now a celebrated star in America, he signed a contract with Paramount Pictures and made his American film debut in the musical "Innocents of Paris" (1929). That same year, he starred in Ernst Lubitsch's "The Love Parade," the first of four screen collaborations with singer and actress Jeanette MacDonald. Chevalier's performance, earmarked by the overripe French accent he would assume for his English-speaking roles - off-camera, his English was more subdued - would earn him an Oscar nomination, and would repeat this personal triumph the following year for "The Big Pond" (1930). The latter film would also be noted for providing him with two signature songs, "Livin' in the Sunlight, Lovin' in the Moonlight" and "You Brought a New Kind of Love to Me," which the Marx Brothers later parodied in "Monkey Business" (1930).

Chevalier would enjoy numerous successes in Hollywood, the most notable of which was "Love Me Tonight" (1932), his third collaboration with MacDonald following 1932's "One Hour with You." The film, directed by Rouben Mamoulian and featuring songs by Richard Rogers and Lorenz Hart, was significant to the development of Hollywood musicals in that it integrated its songs and dialogue, rather than presenting its story as a framework for stand-alone music numbers. The final Chevalier-MacDonald collaboration came with 1934's "The Merry Widow," the first English adaptation of Franz Lehar's German operetta. The following year, Chevalier left Paramount for MGM and returned to France, where he resumed his stage career while appearing in movies in France and England.

Chevalier was performing his revue at the Casino du Paris when German forces occupied France during World War II. He was asked by the Nazis to sing in Berlin, which he refused, but eventually did give a performance for prisoners of war in Germany. After the Allies liberated France in 1944, rumors began to circulate in the English-speaking press that Chevalier's performance constituted collaboration with the enemy. Though a French court cleared his name, his reputation in America was ruined, and he would not set foot in the United States for several years.

Chevalier resumed his film career in 1947, appearing largely in European features. His status as persona non grata in the U.S. continued for another decade, exacerbated in part by his participation in the Stockholm Appeal, a 1950 document signed by countless scientific and entertainment figures that called for an absolute ban on nuclear weapons. His signature on the Appeal did not sit well with the growing anti-Communist movements in America, and his request for a visa to visit the country was denied in 1951. But the decline of McCarthyism in the mid-1950s restored Chevalier's reputation as a beloved entertainment on a global scale, and he would mount his first nationwide U.S. tour in 1955.

His first Hollywood featured in over two decades came with 1957's "Love in the Afternoon," a somewhat adult comedy by Billy Wilder with Audrey Hepburn and Gary Cooper as unlikely lovers. The following year, Chevalier co-starred in "Gigi" (1958) as an aging but still charming roué who helped to broker a romance between Leslie Caron's carefree innocent and his jaded nephew (Louis Jordan). Among the film's glittering array of songs by Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe was "Thank Heaven for Little Girls," which became one of Chevalier's signature tunes. So charmed was the Hollywood community by his performance in "Gigi" that the Motion Picture Academy awarded him with an honorary Oscar. The success of the film would set the tone for Chevalier's subsequent features, which saw him play wise, life-affirming elder statesmen in "Can-Can" (1960) opposite Frank Sinatra and "Fanny" (1961), which reunited him with Leslie Caron.

Chevalier maintained a breathless film schedule between 1960 and 1963, which included Walt Disney Pictures' "In Search of the Castaways" (1962). He would give his final acting turn for the company in an unremarkable live action comedy called "Monkeys Go Home!" (1965). Three years later, after a pair of substantial world tours and a special Tony Award for his contributions to theater, the 80-year-old Chevalier announced his retirement. In 1970, songwriters Richard and Robert Sherman lured him back for one more song, the title track for "The Aristocats," an animated feline feature set during turn-of-the-century Paris. Following surgery for a kidney ailment, Chevalier would die in his beloved city on Jan. 1, 1972.

By Paul Gaita

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