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When comedians do Charles Boyer imitations, it is invariably with a bad French accent and a line from Algiers (1938): "Come wiz me to ze Casbah". But here's the catch: like Humphrey Bogart's oft-quote "Play it Again, Sam" - Boyer never said, "Come with me to the Casbah." He also hated it. As Larry Swindell wrote in his biography of Boyer, "He believed that the parody demeaned his integrity as an actor, even creating the supposition that he was not a serious actor. He believed the whole thing had been carried altogether too far when one of the best-known Boyer imitators proved to be that American original, Mr. Bugs Bunny. To the bogus impersonation he also attributed the myth, as he called it, of the great lover - or "lovair". 'Mostly I've played other parts, but even when I've played other parts people see me differently. In America, when you have an accent, in the mind of the people they associate you with kissing hands and being gallant. I think this has harmed me, just as it has harmed me to be followed and plagued by a line I never said.'"
He also did not enjoy filming Algiers. The film was a remake of Julien Duvivier's acclaimed French film Pepe le Moko, starring France's biggest star, Jean Gabin. Boyer justifiably complained, "An actor never likes to copy another's style, and here I was copying Jean Gabin, one of the best." Director John Cromwell used sequences of the Casbah from the original picture and much of the French musical score. This, too, bothered Boyer, "[Cromwell] would run a scene from the original and insist we do it exactly that way - Terrible, a perfectly terrible way to work." Cromwell felt differently, "Boyer was the unhappiest man in Southern California. He felt doomed to imitate a Jean Gabin performance, and never appreciated how different his own Pepe was from Gabin's. Boyer showed something like genius to make it different. It was a triumph of nuance. The shots are the same, the dialogue has the same meaning, but Boyer's Pepe and Gabin's Pepe are two different fellows but in the same predicament."
For Boyer's love interest, Ingrid Bergman, Dolores Del Rio, and Sylvia Sidney had been considered before the role went to the woman who would be proclaimed as the most beautiful ever to appear before a camera - Hedy Lamarr. As Hedwig Kiesler, she had appeared fully nude in the 1933 Czech film Extase, then married a millionaire who unsuccessfully tried to buy up and destroy every print of the film. She was questioned about this by MGM publicity head Howard Dietz "Did you appear in the nude?" "Yes." "Did you look good?" "Of course!" "Then it's all right, no damage has been done."
In her controversial autobiography, Ecstasy and Me, Lamarr remembered meeting Boyer for the first time. "It was a rainy evening and I was painting greys and blacks - yes, I paint as well as collect - feeling very good. Reggie [actor Reginald Gardiner, who she was dating at the time] dropped in to ask me to go to a party with him. It was the last thing I wanted to do. Furthermore a change from paint clothes to a formal gown was no casual zip-up....So reluctantly I went. I wasn't at the party more than ten minutes when a deep voice said from in back of me, 'I have not seen your face but from the back your hair and your figure assure me you are a beautiful woman.' I detected a warm French accent in the words. I turned to find the gentleman was Charles Boyer. I thanked him for the compliment. 'Ah,' he said smiling, 'I was right. It is so heartening to have snap guesses confirmed. You are truly beautiful. Now, 'he went on, 'give me a list of your credits, I will give you my list of credits and we will get that out of the way.' I told him, 'It will not take me long. Though I am under contract to MGM I have not made a picture here yet. I made a few minor films in Vienna.' 'Ah,' he said, 'Hedy Lamarr.' He rolled the name beautifully in his throat. 'They told me you'd be here.' He took me by the arm, and looked into my eyes, 'Would you consider making a film with me?' When I nodded, he led me across the room to a distinguished looking gentleman whom he introduced as Walter Wanger. 'Well, what do you think?' asked Boyer. I, of course, had not the slightest suspicion of what they were talking about. Wanger stared at me. 'Say a few sentences.' 'I was happy painting at home in the rain,' I improvised, 'and now I am wondering whether it was wise to leave. I am very bad at small talk and my English is still difficult to handle.' Wanger nodded. 'Yes, it could be. Could be.' Boyer clarified it all. 'Walter just purchased the American screen rights to Pepe le Moko from MGM. I have promised him I would star in his version.'"
MGM was still looking for an appropriate vehicle for Lamarr's first film and Algiers seemed to be it. Production began on April 1, 1938. The date was significant: things did not go smoothly, according to Cromwell. "[Hedy] was a nice girl, or she was then. Hedy didn't make trouble, didn't have an ego problem. The problem was, she couldn't act, and we knew it before we started shooting or even rehearsing. After you've been in the business for a time, you can tell easily enough right when you meet them. I could sense her inadequacy, Wanger could sense it, and I could see Boyer getting worried even before we started talking behind Hedy's back...Sometimes the word personality is interchangeable with presence although they aren't the same thing. But the principle applies, and Hedy also had no personality. How could they think she could become a second Garbo?...Hedy Lamarr had a more discernible presence from picture to picture, call it a persona if you will, and she also learned to act. Sort of...Hedy always got star billing, but she wasn't a star. She was a beauty. Well, we got the picture going, and we did all right. The critics saw she couldn't act, but she got by, and they sold the picture by gushing how beautiful she was. I'll take some credit for making her acting passable but can only share credit with Boyer fifty-fifty. I rate my accomplishment with Lamarr in Algiers above what I did with [Bette] Davis in Of Human Bondage  because Bette could have done it on her own without me. Hell, all I did was cast her and say roll 'em. So I'll say Boyer's was a finer accomplishment than mine. I didn't have to act with her; he did. He proved himself a gentleman of grace and courage and excellent poise. If you were in a group of people and saw an atomic bomb falling down on you, Charles Boyer would be the one not to panic. He pulled Hedy through so delicately. He sensed a lack of confidence but was more concerned about the little confidence she did have, which was sometimes revealed in the slightest arrogance. He didn't want to destroy that, but he never lied to her. He didn't tell her she was bad, and he didn't say she was good. He acted with sincerity and with integrity and she responded to it. Any actor, good or bad, responds to another actor's level...In Algiers Hedy plays off Boyer and he's incredible. The love scenes are so strong that you don't see it's all him."
While Boyer himself may have disliked being thought of only as a "great lovair", Algiers certainly cemented his reputation. And it would serve as the inspiration for another romantic star: animator Chuck Jones based the character of the love-sick French skunk Pepe Le Pew on Boyer's character. Charles Boyer must have been thrilled.
Producer: Walter Wanger
Director: John Cromwell
Screenplay: Henri La Barthe, John Howard Lawson, James M. Cain
Cinematography: James Wong Howe
Film Editing: Otho Lovering, William Reynolds
Art Direction: Alexander Toluboff
Music: Vincent Scotto, Mohammed Igarbouchen
Cast: Charles Boyer (Pepe le Moko), Sigrid Gurie (Ines), Hedy Lamarr (Gaby), Joseph Calleia (Inspector Slimane), Alan Hale (Grandpere), Gene Lockhart (Regis).
by Lorraine LoBianco
Ecstasy and Me by Hedy Lamarr
The Reluctant Lover, Charles Boyer by Larry Swindell
Walter Wanger: Hollywood Independent by Matthew Bernstein