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Maurice Chevalier

Best known for the musicals The Merry Widow and Gigi, and numerous chart topping songs in the 1930s and 1940s.

Maurice Chevalier c. 1932

Filmography
1929Innocents of Paris 
The Love Parade 
1930Paramount on Parade  
The Big Pond  
Playboy of Paris 
1931The Little Cafe  
The Smiling Lieutenant 
1932One Hour with You  
Love Me Tonight  
1933A Bedtime Story  
The Way to Love  
1934The Merry Widow  
1935Folies Bergère de Paris 
1936With a Smile  
The Beloved Vagabond 
1937The Man of the Hour 
1938Break the News 
1939Man About Town 
Personal Column  
1950A Royal Affair  
Just Me  
1953Hit Parade  
1954100 Years of Love 
My Seven Little Sins  
1957Love in the Afternoon 
1958Gigi 
1959Count Your Blessings 
1960Can-Can  
 A Breath of Scandal
 Pepe 
1961Fanny 
 Black Tights 
1962Jessica  
 In Search of the Castaways  
1963A New Kind of Love  
1964Panic Button 
I’d Rather Be Rich 
1967Monkeys, Go Home!  
Awards

Maurice Chevalier was nominated for two Academy Awards and received an Honorary Oscar in 1959.

1930NomineeBest Actor in a Leading Role – The Big Pond (1930)
  Best Actor in a Leading Role – The Love Parade (1929)
1959Honorary AwardFor his contributions to the world of entertainment for more than half a century.

An artist carries on throughout his life a mysterious, uninterrupted conversation with his public. ~ Maurice Chevalier

Maurice Auguste Chevalier was born on September 12, 1888 in Paris. His father was a French house painter. His mother, Joséphine van den Bosch, was French of Belgian descent.

Chevalier worked a number of jobs: a carpenter’s apprentice, electrician, printer, and even as a doll painter. He started in show business in 1901. He was singing, unpaid, at a café when a member of the theatre saw him and suggested he try for a local musical. He got the part. Chevalier made a name as a mimic and a singer. His act in l’Alcazar in Marseille was so successful, he made a triumphant return to Paris.

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 then started a relationship with 36-year-old Mistinguett at the Folies Bergère, where he was her 23-year-old 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. 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 (a rare drama for Chaplin, in which his character of The Tramp does not appear) and made a huge 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.

 Maurice Chevalier With Sylvia Beecher in Innocents of Paris

Maurice Chevalier With Sylvia Beecher in Innocents of Paris

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 then 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.

Maurice Chevalier and Jeanette MacDonald in One Hour with You (1932)

Maurice Chevalier and Jeanette MacDonald in One Hour with You (1932)

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 favorite 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. When filming at Paramount, he balked at parking his car in the Paramount lot at ten cents a day. After bargaining, he managed to get five cents per day. Another story is told of Chevalier (a smoker) having a conversation with someone who offered him a cigarette. He took it, said “Thank you”, put it in his pocket, and continued with the conversation. But in Hollywood he seemed to be a divided character. 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 basically was. 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).

During World War II, Chevalier kept performing on the stage in France. In 1941, he appeared in a successful revue in the Casino de Paris, Bonjour Paris, which was Nazi propaganda, reassuring the public that nothing had basically changed under the occupation. Songs like “Ça sent si bon la France” and “La Chanson du maçon” became hits. The Nazis knew that he was harboring a Jewish family in the South of France, and put pressure on him to perform in Berlin and sing for the collaborating radio station Radio Paris. He refused, but did perform for prisoners of war in Germany at the same camp where he had been held captive in World War I, and succeeded in getting ten French soldiers freed in exchange.

Maurice Chevalier and François Périer in Le silence est d'or (1947)

Maurice Chevalier and François Périer in Le silence est d’or (1947)

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 returned 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 1944, he had already 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 his own country, however, he was still popular. In 1946, he split from Nita Ray and started writing his memoirs, which took many years to complete.

He started to paint and collect and acted in Le silence est d’or (Man About Town) (1946) by René Clair. He still toured throughout Europe and other parts of the world and returned to France in 1948.

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.

Gary Cooper and Audrey Hepburn in Love in the Afternoon (1957)

Gary Cooper and Audrey Hepburn in Love in the Afternoon (1957)

 

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 the 1958 Lucy Goes to Mexico television episode of The Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour.

Maurice Chevalier, John Abbott, and Louis Jourdan in Gigi (1958) © 1958 Warner Bros. Ent. All Rights Reserved

Maurice Chevalier, John Abbott, and Louis Jourdan in Gigi (1958) © 1958 Warner Bros. Ent. All Rights Reserved

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 blonde bombshell/sex symbol, Jayne Mansfield. In 1965, at 77, he made another world tour. In 1967 he toured in Latin America, again, the US, Europe and Canada. The following year, on October 1, 1968, he announced his farewell tour.

Historical newsreel footage of Chevalier appeared in the 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 (see the “World War II” section in this entry), as rumors of his death lingered at that time, and emphatically denied any collaboration with the Nazis. His theme song, “Sweepin’ the Clouds Away,” from the film Paramount on Parade (1930), was one of its theme songs and was played in the end credits of the film’s second part.

In 1970, several years after his retirement, songwriters Richard M. and Robert B. Sherman got him to sing the title song of the Disney film The Aristocats, which ended up being his final contribution to the film industry.

He died in Paris of kidney failure, on New Year’s Day 1972, aged 83, and was interred in the cemetery of Marnes-la-Coquette in Hauts-de-Seine, outside Paris, France.

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