Maurice Chevalier - Biography
BY J Poet
Maurice Chevalier was an all round entertainer – singer, dancer, actor, comedian, and bon vivant – and the most popular French export to the U.S. since champagne. In his 70 years in show business we was a pop singer and movie star, the epitome of the sophisticated European male. He was an active performer until his death in 1972 at 83.
Chevalier was born in Paris in 1888. He was a precocious performer and by 13 had made his professional debut in a musical comedy. He was popular for his uncanny ability to imitate other singers and actors. By the time he was 20, he was selling out venues with a one-man show featuring songs and comedy routines. In 1909 he performed as a duo with Fréhel, the most popular female star in France, but the broke up after two years. Chevalier then partnered professionally and personally with Mistinguett, a star at the Folies Bergère who was known for her risqué comedy, sultry vocal style and many flamboyant affairs.
Chevalier was drafted just before that start of WWI, serving on the front lines. The Germans captured him and he was in a POW camp for two years, until King Alfonso of Spain, worked out a deal for his release. (Alfonso was another admirer of Ms. Mistinguett.) He learned English in the POW camp, and when he returned to Paris he played to stand room crowds of French, British and American soldiers at le Casino de Paris. He incorporated jazz and ragtime into his chansons and became a star on the London stage by 1919. He started his French recording career with a huge hit “Valentine,” which he sang for the rest of his life. He made several successful films and met George Gershwin and Irving Berlin who brought Dédé, Chevalier’s greatest stage success at the time, to Broadway. His early French hits are collected on Maurice Chevalier, Vol. 1: 1919-1930 (2003 Fremeaux & Assoc. France) and Maurice Chevalier: Valentine (1997 Arkadia Chansons France).
In 1928, with the advent of talking pictures, he moved to Hollywood and was twice nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actor for The Love Parade (1929) and The Big Pond (1930). He made One Hour With You with Jeanette MacDonald in 1932 and The Merry Widow, another big hit, in 1934. His songs from his American films are found on Mr. Paree, Himself (2004 Collector's Choice) and Louise (ASV Living Era, England). He always felt like an outsider in America and returned frequently to France, making films there as well. Songs he sang in his early French films are available on Early Movie Hits (1998 DRG France). In the late 30s he returned to the French stage in Amours de Paris and continued making hit singles like “Prosper,” “Ma Pomme” and Ça fait d'excellents français.” Many of them appear on Maurice Chevalier, Vol. 2: 1930-1949 (2003 Fremeaux & Assoc. France).
During WWII, Chevalier moved to Cannes with his Jewish girlfriend, Nita Ray, and kept performing. During the occupation of France, the Nazis asked Chevalier to perform in Berlin. He refused, but performed for POWs when the Germans agreed to pay him by releasing 10 French prisoners. After France was liberated, many accused Chevalier of collaborating with the enemy, but he formally acquitted. Still, the US refused to grant him a visa for many years. When a visa was finally granted he made a successful US tour. In 1949 he performed in Stockholm at an anti-nuclear benefit where he signed the anti-nuclear petition known as the Stockholm Appeal. Once again, he was refused entry into the US.
Now in his 60s, he bought an estate near Paris and began painting and working on a biography. In 1954, he returned to the US and starred in two films Love in the Afternoon, with Audrey Hepburn and Gary Cooper, and Gigi with Leslie Caron and Hermione Gingold. Two songs from the soundtrack of Gigi (1996 Rhino/WEA) “I Remember It Well” and “Thank Heaven for Little Girls” were big hits for Chevalier. In 1959 he was given an Honorary Academy Award for his achievements in entertainment.
He toured the United States again in the early 60s and made eight more films including Fanny with Leslie Caron, Charles Boyer and Horst Buchholz. In 1968, he announced his farewell tour. His last Paris show was captured for Exclusive Recordings of His Last Show: October 1968 (2005 Fremeaux & Assoc. France). In 1970, he sang the title tune for the Disney film The Aristocats, and decided to move to California, but he died on January 1, 1972 before he could complete his relocation.
Chevalier has a large back catalogue, especially in France, where he is an icon. Titles in a recent reissue series include Heritage – 60 Ans de Chansons, Vol. 1, 2 and 3 (Universal France), Heritage - Florilège - 1948-1965 (Universal France), Heritage - Sur L'Avenue Foch - 1950 (Universal France), Heritage - Paris, Je t'Aime d'Amour - 1951-1952 (Universal France), Heritage - Ma Pomme - 1954 (Universal France), Heritage -Rendez-Vous A Paris - 1954-1969 (Universal France), and Heritage - Le Twist Du Canotier - 1962-1963 (Universal France).