Charles Boyer - Thursdays in January
In TCM's first-ever tribute to Boyer as "Star of the Month," we offer a comprehensive look at his career as an international film favorite, which encompasses five decades. "He was romance!" That succinct description of Charles Boyer comes from my 98-year-old friend, Ruth Viscioni, who lives in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and is a big fan of both Boyer and TCM. Ruth remembers the days of her youth in the 1930s and '40s as a romantic time principally "because of the movies, and all the beautiful ladies and handsome men. We could dream!"
For female audiences of the period, nobody inspired more ardent dreams than Boyer. His debonair good looks, resonant speaking voice and those hooded "bedroom eyes" made him perfect casting for the role of romantic lover--although his talent was such that he could also be convincing in roles ranging from villain to farceur. That dashing charm, a facility with sophisticated comedy and a certain sardonic streak led some to refer to him as "the French Cary Grant."
Boyer was born August 28, 1899, in Figeac, a country town in Southwestern France. The only child of a merchant and his amateur-musician wife, Charles was a shy and precocious boy who felt more comfortable with adults than with other children. He would later describe himself as "a very old man with a strong resemblance to a little boy, with whom other children had difficulty in forming friendships." When he was 10 years old, his father died suddenly from a stroke.
The young Charles found his escape in movies and in plays his mother took him to see in Paris. His academic career suffered from his preoccupation with theatrical matters; he read every theatre book he could find and acted in school productions. During World War I, with wounded soldiers returning home, he became a volunteer orderly at a local hospital and organized entertainment for the convalescing troops.
Enrolling as a student of philosophy at the Sorbonne in Paris, Boyer departed the town of his birthplace and would not return for some 30 years. With the blessings of his mother, he studied acting at the prestigious Paris Conservatoire. In 1920, because of a photographic memory that allowed him to learn lines quickly, he became an emergency replacement for another actor in the play Les Jardins de Murcie. That same year, he made his film debut in the silent L'homme du large (1920) playing an "evil" character who lures a fisherman's son into bad behavior.
Boyer quickly became one of the most popular young actors in Paris. A play could be produced on the strength of his name alone, and he continued to appear in French silent films. Hollywood soon beckoned in the person of MGM producer Paul Bern (soon to become the husband of Jean Harlow). For a time, Boyer crossed the Atlantic repeatedly as he worked in both France and the U.S., where his early roles included a minor one in MGM's Red Headed Woman (1932), starring Harlow.
He found that he loved America and as soon as he had mastered English sufficiently, Boyer settled in California. In 1934 he married Pat Paterson, a starlet at 20th Century-Fox, and they bought a house in Beverly Hills where they would enjoy what was considered one of the film world's most devoted marriages. (Later, for health reasons, the couple moved to Arizona, which had been the site of their wedding.)
After the American musical Caravan (1934), opposite Loretta Young, and a French adaptation of Liliom (1934, TCM premiere), he had his first real break in Hollywood. Fellow countrywoman Claudette Colbert requested him as her leading man in Paramount's psychiatric drama Private Worlds (1935), which really caused female moviegoers to take notice of this seductive Frenchman.
Boyer would continue to make films in Europe, notably Mayerling (1936) with Danielle Darrieux, which helped make him an international star. But he quickly became a fixture in Hollywood movies starring opposite such glamour queens as Katharine Hepburn (Break of Hearts, 1935) and Marlene Dietrich (The Garden of Allah, 1936). Costarring in Conquest (1937), Boyer plays Napoleon to Greta Garbo's Marie Walewska and was said to be the only actor ever to dominate one of her movie vehicles. His portrayal earned him the first of four Academy Award® nominations.
1938 was the year of Boyer's signature role as Pepe le Moko in Algiers, which established him as a leading heartthrob and led to a second Oscar nomination. The line "Come wiz me to ze Casbah" (although Boyer never says it in the film) became a popular catchphrase of its era. Comedians and impressionists had a field day with the line, and the character's notoriety even spread into the world of cartoons, where animator Chuck Jones created a series featuring a romantic skunk called Pepé Le Pew.
The comedy-drama Love Affair (1939) was a hit for Boyer and Irene Dunne that became the basis for the even more successful 1957 remake, An Affair to Remember. Boyer continued to burnish his romantic image in such popular films as All This and Heaven Too (1940), opposite Bette Davis; Hold Back the Dawn (1941), with Olivia de Havilland and Paulette Goddard; Back Street (1941), again opposite Sullavan; the anthology Tales of Manhattan (1942); and The Constant Nymph (1943) with Joan Fontaine. Together Again (1944) reunited Boyer yet again with Irene Dunne.
In 1943 Boyer was presented with an honorary Oscar® "for his progressive cultural achievement in establishing the French Research Foundation in Los Angeles as a source of reference."
Gaslight (1944), an adaptation of the stage thriller Angel Street, brought him a third Academy Award® nomination as the treacherous husband of Ingrid Bergman, who won the Oscar® itself. Boyer starred in the suspenseful Graham Greene story Confidential Agent (1945), then got to show off his light touch in Cluny Brown (1946), a charming romance from Ernst Lubitsch with Jennifer Jones in the title role.
Most of his leading ladies adored the gallant Frenchman. Irene Dunne chose Love Affair as her favorite of all her films, while Joan Fontaine picked Boyer as her favorite acting partner: "A man of intellect, taste and discernment." In her autobiography, Ingrid Bergman described Boyer as "widely read and well-educated," and the most intelligent actor she had ever worked with.
Bergman, who worked in three films with Boyer, became one of his best friends in Hollywood. After several attempts, the Boyers welcomed their only child, Michael Charles Boyer, during the filming of Gaslight. An amused Bergman recalled: "He had a son! Champagne! Everybody had to have champagne and Charles' tears were falling into every glass. You'd think no one in the world had ever had a son before."
As he aged, Boyer was wise enough to give up seductive roles and devote his considerable acting skills to character parts. Ironically, even in younger years his romantic image had been challenged by his unimpressive height (5'9"), premature loss of hair that demanded a toupee and a paunch that had to be corseted or concealed. There was a story that Bette Davis saw him in his natural state during the making of the film they did together and, failing to recognize him, asked that the unprepossessing "stranger" be removed from the set!
In the gentle family comedy The Happy Time (1952), Boyer played the paternal role. In the charming The Earrings of Madame De... (1953), shot in France by director Max Ophüls, he is one-third of a mature romantic triangle also involving Danielle Darrieux and Vittorio De Sica. In Vincente Minnelli's The Cobweb (1955), Boyer plays the self-effacing head of a mental institution where a younger doctor (Richard Widmark) is assuming control. Periodically returning to France, Boyer made such films as Une Parisienne (1957), a Brigitte Bardot comedy in which he plays a handsome older prince with whom her character flirts to make her boyfriend jealous.
Boyer was very active in episodic TV of the 1950s and '60s, particularly as one of the originators of CBS-TV's Four Star Playhouse (1952-56), which also featured Dick Powell, David Niven and Ida Lupino. The series spotlighted Boyer in some 30 episodes. He costarred with Gig Young in NBC's The Rogues (1964-65). He also worked on Broadway during this period, costarring with Mary Martin in Kind Sir (1953) and Claudette Colbert in The Marriage-Go-Round (1958). Notable critical success came for an appearance in Shaw's Don Juan in Hell (1951), which also starred Charles Laughton, Cedric Hardwicke and Agnes Moorehead.
Coming into his own as a mature character actor in films of the 1960s, Boyer earned his fourth and final Oscar® nomination for Fanny (1961), as a Marseille barkeeper who is the father of leading man Horst Buccholz. Key supporting roles of the period also included those of Glenn Ford's father in Minnelli's The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1962) and a matchmaker on the Riviera whose plans are foiled by an American (Ford again) in Love Is a Ball (1963).
Boyer appeared to have fun kidding his image as an aging Lothario in the film version of Neil Simon's Barefoot in the Park (1967); and played one of the conspirators plotting against Katharine Hepburn in The Madwoman of Chaillot (1969). He looked frail as the white-haired High Lama in the musical remake of Lost Horizon (1972), and even more so in his brief appearance as a decrepit lover from Ingrid Bergman's past in A Matter of Time (1976), the final film for both Boyer and director Minnelli.
After decades of married serenity as a bookish homebody, Boyer experienced tragedy in the final phases of his life. His son died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound at age 21 in 1965 and Boyer's wife died of cancer in 1978. Two days later - on August 26, two days before his own 79th birthday - Boyer committed suicide with an overdose of Seconal. He was taken to a hospital in Phoenix, Arizona, and later interred in Holy Cross Cemetery, Culver City, Calif., alongside his wife and son.
By Roger Fristoe