By Ed Garea
Louis Jourdan, the handsome, doe-eyed actor best known for his role in Gigi, and who to many seemed to be the epitome of everything French, died on February 14 at his home in Los Angeles, according to his official biographer, Olivier Minne.
For audiences from the ‘40s through the ‘60s, Jourdan’s good looks and sexy French purr made him the most popular French export since Charles Boyer. He specialized in playing the smooth Continental type, whether in musicals, dramas, or comedies. He became so identified with this role and such as his popularity that he was later spoofed by Christopher Walken as "The Continental" in a series of sketches on Saturday Night Live.
He was born Louis Henri Gendre in Marseilles on June 19, 1921, one of three sons of hotelier Henri Gendre, who organized the Cannes Film Festival after the second world war, and Yvonne, whose maiden name of Jourdan Louis took as his stage name. Henri’s work necessitated frequent travel, and the family followed him. Thus Louis was educated in France, Turkey and Britain, where he learned to speak perfect English, while being savvy enough to keep his slight soft French accent.
Jourdan knew from an early age that he wanted to be an actor and studied under Rene Simon at the Ecole Dramatique in Paris. While studying, he began to appear on the professional stage, where he caught the attention of director Marc Allégret, who hired him as an assistant camera operator on his 1938 film, Entrée des Artistes (The Curtain Rises). A year later, Allégre cast him in his film debut, Le Corsaire (1939), starring Charles Boyer. But the outbreak of World War II interrupted the production, and the movie was never completed.
Jourdan continued to make films, before and after the German Occupation. But when he was ordered to make German propaganda films, he refused and fled to the Unoccupied Zone, where he continued to work in film. However, when the Gestapo arrested his father, Louis and his brothers went underground and joined the French Resistance. Louis helped print and distribute Resistance leaflets during this time.
With the Liberation in 1944, Jourdan found film and stage work easier to come by, the main reason being that, as he was in the Resistance, he was not tainted by having worked for Marshal Petain and entertained the Germans, as had many of his contemporaries.
In 1946, Jourdan married childhood sweetheart Berthe Frédérique (known as Quique) and went to Los Angeles after producer David O. Selznick promised he could make more of himself in Hollywood than he ever could in Paris. Selznick cast him as the slightly sinister valet suspected of murdering his employer in The Paradine Case (1947), starring Gregory Peck. This was done over the objections of director Alfred Hitchcock, who conceived of the character as a rough, earthy type. Hitchcock referred to Jourdan as “a pretty-pretty boy,” complaining that his casting “destroyed the whole point of the film.” But Jourdan’s relationship with Hitchcock was far better than his relationship with Selznick, who put him on suspension many times for refusing roles.
Jourdan followed up with a starring role in his next film, Max Ophüls’s masterly Letter From an Unknown Woman in 1948. Based on the story by Stefan Zweig, he played the debonair, womanizing pianist who seduces and abandons Joan Fontaine. The role allowed him to make the most of his smooth charm, and to play a complex character: an empty man who comes to realize in the end how much this emptiness has cost him.
In 1949, he starred in director Vincente Minnelli’s glossy version of Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, as Rodolphe Boulanger, the lover of adulterous Emma Bovary, played by Jennifer Jones. 1952 saw him co-starring with Boyer in director Richard Fleischer’s The Happy Time, about a French family in Ottawa during the 1920s.
Jourdan returned to France in 1953 for Rue de l’Estrapade, and La mariee est trop belle (The Bride is Too Beautiful), with Brigitte Bardot, which wasn’t released until 1956 with the title Her Bridal Night. While in Italy in 1954 he appeared in Three Coins in the Fountain, playing the dashing Prince Dino di Cessi.
When not making movies, Jourdan kept busy in television, playing a police inspector in the ABC series Paris Precinct (1955). He guested on such prestigious programs as Studio One, The Elgin Hour, and Celebrity Playhouse. He also made his debut on the Broadway stage in 1954, starring in an adaptation of Andre Gide’s The Immoralist, playing a repressed gay man embarking on marriage. Although his reviews were generally excellent, he found himself upstaged by the performance of a striking young supporting actor: James Dean. He returned to the New York stage the next year in Tonight in Samarkand, letting Hollywood know that he was not getting more of the serious film roles he wanted.
In 1958 came the role of a lifetime, playing Gaston Lachaille in director Minnelli’s Gigi. The film, which co-starred Maurice Chevalier and Leslie Caron, won nine Oscars, including Best Picture, and made Jourdan an international celebrity, as he sang the title song. But Jourdan did not receive a nomination (for this or any other movie in his career). Gigi did earn him a Golden Globe for Best Actor in a Comedy or Musical.
In the ‘60s, the suave, Continental types that Jourdan specialized in began to fall out of favor with American moviegoers. He played the suave Philipe Forrestier in Can-Can (1960), starring Frank Sinatra, Shirley MacLaine, and Chevalier. He also played Continental types in 1963’s The VIPs and the 1966 Made in Paris, as a fashion designer, before the bottom finally fell out.
With each passing year, Jourdan found himself cast more as the suave, charming villain than the suave, charming hero. He also made more of a living on television than in the movies, finding himself in demand as a guest star. In 1977, he gave a memorable and seductive performance in the title role of Count Dracula, a movie directed by Phillip Saville for the BBC. It was the closest version of the venerable vampire tale to Bram Stoker’s novel. In 1983, he appeared as the villainous Kamal Khan in the James Bond opus Octopussy. He also played the evil and oily Dr. Anton Arcane in Wes Craven’s 1982 Swamp Thing and its 1989 sequel, The Return of Swamp Thing.
In the mid-80s, he would return to Gigi, this time in a touring show and in Chevalier’s role. To the frequent criticism that he lip-synched his songs, he answered: “If I sang them live, the fragile little voice I have would go.”
His final film appearance came as a suave villain in director Peter Yates’s Year of the Comet (1992), an excellent caper about a rare bottle of wine. In 2010, he was named as a chevalier, or knight, of the Légion d’Honneur.
Jourdan was well liked in Hollywood, but noted for keeping his private life private. In 2014, he lost wife Berthe Frederique after 68 years of marriage. Son Louis Henry died in 1981 from a drug overdose at 29. Pierre Jourdan, a brother who was an actor and a theater director in France, died in 2007.