Maurice Chevalier (1888-1972): Parisian Music-Hall Star & Hollywood’s Singing Very-Frenchman

Kurt Gänzl
Encylopedia of the Musical Theatre
1 January, 2001

After an early career spent performing in cafés and suburban music halls, Maurice Chevalier (born in Ménilmontant on 12 September, 1888) scored his first significant success at Marseille. Soon after, he made his earliest Paris stage appearances, featuring in a minor capacity in revue at the Folies-Bergère under such stars as Mistinguett and Morton. During the war years he established himself alongside Mistinguett at the head of the Folies bill, and in 1921 made his initial appearance on the musical-comedy stage, starring as Robert Dauvergne, the irresponsible and louche best friend of the hero of Dédé, the show with which Albert Willemetz and Henri Christiné followed up their enormous hit, Phi-Phi.

A publicity photo of Maurice Chevalier from the 1930s. (Photo: Paramount Pictures / Wikipedia)

A publicity photo of Maurice Chevalier from the 1930s. (Photo: Paramount Pictures / Wikipedia)

Although his rôle was not the title one, it was made up to give the top-billed star an infinity of chances for applause, and his songs, the gently loping ‘Dans la vie faut pas s’en faire’ and the sexually generous ‘Je m’donne’ became popular hits in a hit show.

Announced by Cochran for a London version of the show and by Dillingham for a Broadway one, he did neither, but instead followed up the next year in Paris in another successful jazz-age musical comedy, Maurice Yvain’s Là-haut, in which he played the recently deceased Evariste, returning to earth and his lady under the eye of a guardian angel. Again he had songs made to measure (‘Si vous n’aimez pas ça n’en degoutez pas les autres’, ‘C’est Paris’), but he also had a co-star in the brilliant comedian Dranem who, as the angel, managed to pretty well wipe him off the stage. Chevalier walked out of the show, and ended his musical theatre career.

The Ernst Lubitsch film version of the "Merry Widow".

The Ernst Lubitsch film version of the “Merry Widow”.

Thereafter came the straw hat and the 1930s Hollywood films (The Love Parade, One Hour With You, Love Me Tonight, Folies-Bergère etc) including one or two tenuously based on stage musical shows (The Smiling Lieutenant, The Merry Widow with Jeanette MacDonald), until his popularity abruptly faded and he returned to France and the variety stage.

A mixture of music hall and movies filled most of the 1950s and 1960s, musically marked by appearances in his seventies in the films Gigi (1958, Honorine, ‘I’m Glad I’m Not Young Any More’, ‘Thank Heaven for Little Girls’), Can-Can (1959) and the non-musical digest of Fanny (1961).

He died in Paris on 1 January, 1972.

Memoirs: C’est l’amour (Julliard, Paris, 1960) in English as With Love (Little, Brown, Boston, 1960), Môme à cheveux blancs (Presses de la Cité, Paris, 1969) in English as I Remember It Well (Macmillan, New York, 1970), Maurice Chevalier’s Own Story (Nash & Grayson, London, 1930), The Man in the Straw Hat (Cromwell, New York, 1949), etc, Biographies: Rivollet, A: Maurice Chevalier: De Ménilmontant au Casino de Paris (Bernard Grasset, Paris, 1927), Willemetz, A: Maurice Chevalier (Rene Kistler, Paris, 1954), Harding, J: Maurice Chevalier (Secker & Warburg, London, 1982), Boyer, W: The Romantic Life of Maurice Chevalier (Hutchinson, London, 1937), Bret, D: Maurice Chevalier: Up on Top of a Rainbow (Robson, London, 1992) Behr, E: The Good Frenchman: The True Story of the Life and Times of Maurice Chevalier (Villard Books, New York, 1993) etc.