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In Hollywood of the early 1930s, no one epitomized the romantic charm of France and continental sophistication of Paris better than Maurice Chevalier. The popular singer and nightclub entertainer had made his American film debut in the early sound era, where his boulevardier persona and lilting accent helped make him a major star in Ernst Lubitsch's witty musical comedies.
But Chevalier was getting tired of playing what he called "the same old fellow," the seductive Frenchman sweeping women off their feet and into bed with a smile and wink, and he was battling Irving Thalberg over his MGM assignments when Fox producer Darryl F. Zanuck offered him the lead in Folies Bergre de Paris (1935), a musical comedy that moves from the Paris stage to the world of high society and high finance and back. Zanuck had negotiated the film rights for the legendary Paris show palace and developed the film (based on the play The Red Cat) for Charles Boyer. When Boyer declined, Chevalier took the part.
The film offered Chevalier the opportunity to play two different roles: Folies Bergre headliner Eugene Charlier, a singer famed for his impersonation of Parisian millionaire Baron Fernand Cassini, and the banker and notorious womanizer Cassini himself. British beauty Merle Oberon (in one of her earliest American films) co-stars as Cassini's wife in "the perfect modern marriage" (they each go their own way) and Ann Sothern is Charlier's pathologically jealous girlfriend. The two men flirt with one another's partners, of course, but the play of mistaken and swapped identities gets comically complicated as identities are swapped back and forth and the women use the confusion to play their own games.
The choreography by Dave Gould is right out of the Busby Berkeley playbook, with sets that expand back from the proscenium arch of the physical stage into impossibly epic spaces, dancers that multiply into small armies, overhead cameras that look down on a chorus forming elaborate geometric patterns, and increasingly abstract and surreal sets. The opening number sends Chevalier dancing through a downpour that covers half the stage, and the film ends with the Academy Award-winning "Straw Hat" number, an elaborate set piece built around Chevalier's trademark boater hat, which becomes the basis for crazy props and massive sets inspired by the texture of the simple straw hat.
Even though he was in Hollywood, Chevalier proved to be a major attraction for French audiences, and French language versions of his Hollywood pictures were routinely produced simultaneously with the American shoot. The overseas version of this film, titled simply Folies-Bergre, also included alternate versions of the dance numbers with the chorus girls performing as they do on the stage of the real Folies Bergre: topless. American audiences were not so privileged and had to settle for double entendres and suggestive dialogue like: "If I can't be happy with another man's wife, how can I be happy with one of my own?"
"I got a kick" out of making Folies Bergre de Paris, Chevalier told the New York Times, "and although I did not think I was a great actor or that the picture was a masterpiece, it was something new and different." But Chevalier had become frustrated with the direction of his career in Hollywood and it became his last American picture for over two decades. He broke his contract with MGM and returned to France and to the stage. He didn't return to American screens until Billy Wilder cast him in the 1957 Love in the Afternoon, the beginning of a brief American comeback.
Meanwhile, Folies Bergre de Paris was remade twice, as That Night in Rio (1941) with Alice Faye headlining and Don Ameche in Chevalier's role and On the Riviera (1951) with Danny Kaye in the double role and Gene Tierney and Corinne Calvet as the women in his life.
by Sean Axmaker
"The Good Frenchman: The True Story of the Life and Times of Maurice Chevalier," Edward Behr. Villard Books, 1993.
"Maurice Chevalier," Michael Freedland. William Morrow and Co., 1981.
"Chevalier: The Films and Career of Maurice Chevalier," Gene Ringgold and DeWitt Bodeen. Citadel Press, 1973.