Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Charles Boyer

Stardust: TCM's Star of the Month

By Ed Garea

That love at first sight should happen to me was life’s most delicious revenge on a self-opinionated fool.”

Although he seems to be in the celluloid background these days, during his heyday from the mid-‘30s to the early ‘60s, fewer actors were as popular or as influential in the pop culture of their day as Charles Boyer.

Impressionists always got a knowing smile and laugh with their impression of him from Algiers: “Come wiz me to ze Casbah,” a line he never actually said in the film (although it was included in the trailer). And while other celebrities were caricatured in the cartoons of the era, only Boyer inspired a cartoon character – Chuck Jones’s always hopefully romantic Pepe Le Pew, who debuted in 1945.

Yet for all his reputation as “ze great French lovah,” Boyer was as far from his image as one could get offstage. An example of this attitude comes from his experience on the first day he reported for work on All This and Heaven Too, with Bette Davis. According to Davis, who told the story on The Dick Cavett Show, a man showed up on the first day of shooting that no one recognized. He was balding, had a pronounced paunch and was dressed in a lovely manner. Davis said she was shouting for someone to remove the intruder from the set when director Anatole Litvak sauntered over and told her that if she did that, then she just threw her co-star off the set. “I couldn’t believe it,” she said. “That is Charles Boyer?” 

Boyer, unlike many of his contemporaries, was a bookworm who preferred a night home with his family and a good book to a Hollywood party. He took great pride in his work, appearing in more than 80 films during a lengthy career, and was also a man who, despite the gossip about his collection of broken hearts, was married to the same woman, Scottish actress Pat Paterson, from 1934 until her death in 1976.

Some of his films are considered classics today: The Garden of Allah (1936), Algiers (1938), Love Affair (1939), Gaslight (1944), The Earrings of Madame de . . . (1953), Around the World in 80 Days (1956), and Fanny (1961). Several others, such as Conquest (1937), Back Street (1941), Tales of Manhattan (1942), The Constant Nymph (1943), Cluny Brown (1946), Arch of Triumph (1948), and Is Paris Burning? (1966) have their legions of fans.

He was nominated four times for Best Actor: ConquestAlgiersGaslight and Fanny, though he never won. The closest he came was in 1943 when he received an Honorary Oscar Certificate for “progressive cultural achievement” in establishing the French Research Foundation on Los Angeles.

Not bad for the son of merchant Maurice and Augustine Louise (Durand) Boyer, born in Figeac, Department of Lot, in southwestern France on August 28, 1899. He was a shy, small town boy who discovered movies and the world of the theater at the age of 11. While working as a hospital orderly during World War I he performed comic sketches to entertain the wounded. 

After the war he studied at the Sorbonne and acting at the Paris Conservatory. In 1920 he replaced the leading man in a theater production and was an immediate hit. He never looked back, going on to star in several major Paris stage productions while filling the time between plays with appearances in silent movies. 

A scout from MGM spotted him in a silent movie and signed him to a contract. His first tour of duty in Hollywood (1929-31) was uneventful, as he appeared in minor supporting roles. However, with the arrival of sound, his resonant tenor and light accent assured him of more important parts to come.

His appearance as Jean Harlow’s chauffeur/lover in Red-Headed Woman (1932) caught the eye of studio execs and moviegoers alike. His role in the French adaptation of Liliom (1934), directed by Fritz Lang, further boosted his stock, and led to his first Hollywood leading role opposite Loretta Young in in romantic musical Caravan (1934), after which he starred opposite Claudette Colbert in the the 1935 psychiatric drama Private Worlds.

Returning to France, his starring roles opposite Danielle Darrieux in Maylerling (1936) and Michele Morgan in Orage (1938) boosted him into the stratosphere of international stardom. Back in Hollywood, he made audiences swoon opposite Katharine Hepburn in Break of Hearts (1935), Marlene Dietrich in The Garden of Allah (1936, his first Technicolor film), Jean Arthur in History is Made at Night (1937), and Greta Garbo in Conquest (1937).

His most iconic role came in 1938 when he played Pepe Le Moko in Algiers, Walter Wanger’s remake of Julien Duvivier’s 1937 Pepe Le Moko, which starred Jean Gabin as the doomed thief who gives up his sanctuary for love. This forever sealed his reputation as “ze greatest of ze French lovers.” It also became a favorite of impressionists everywhere and led animator Chick Jones to base his romantic character Pepe Le Pew on his portrayal of Pepe in 1945’s Odor-Able Kitty

In 1939 he costarred with Irene Dunne in the romantic classic Love Affair. Directed by Leo McCarey, it was a huge hit when released, and in 1957, McCarey remade it as An Affair to Remember, with Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr in the leads.

Boyer followed it up with three more love stories: All This and Heaven Too (1940) with Bette Davis, Back Street (1941) with Margaret Sullavan, and Hold Back the Dawn (1941) with Olivia de Havilland and Paulette Goddard. 

The next year, 1944, he scored his third Best Actor nomination for his role in Gaslight as a thief/murderer who tries to convince his mentally fragile wife, Ingrid Bergman, that she is going insane. The term “gaslighting,” meaning the gradual manipulation of a victim into doubting his or her own sanity, has become a permanent and popular part of our modern lexicon due to this film.

After the war Boyer cut back his movie schedule to devote more time to the stage and television. In 1952 he won Broadway’s Special Tony Award for Don Juan in Hell (the third act of George Bernard Shaw’s Man and Superman). In 1956 he guest-starred on I Love Lucy and the following year he appeared as a Mystery Guest on the popular game show What’s My Line?

In 1961 he received his final Best Actor nomination for 1961’s Fanny. He also kept busy on Broadway, co-starring with Claudette Colbert in The Marriage Go-Round (1958-60); starring in 1963’s Lord Pengo (for which he received a Tony nomination as Best Actor); and later that same year, performing in Man and Boy both on Broadway and on the London stage.

Onscreen, as the ‘60s wound down, he appeared in How to Steal a Million (1966), Is Paris Burning? (1966), Barefoot in the Park (1967) and Casino Royale (1967). He was also noteworthy as a corrupt city official in the 1969 version of The Madwoman of Chaillot, starring Katharine Hepburn. In addition he starred with David Niven and Gig Young in the ill-fated TV series, The Rogues (1965-66). The trio played related former con artists who, for the right price, would take on assignments tricking very wealthy – and unscrupulous marks. The show failed to find an audience and was canceled after only one year (30 episodes).

Boyer’s last Hollywood role was in the megabomb musical version of Lost Horizon in 1972. he closed out his film career in Alan Renais’s 1974 drama, Stavisky, based on the life of famed financier and embezzler Alexandre Stavisky (Jean-Paul Belmondo). Boyer played Baron Raoul, a friend of Stavisky. For his work he received the New York Film Critics Circle Award as Best Supporting Actor and the Special Tribute at the Cannes Film Festival. 

As fascinating piece of trivia is the fact that in 1966 Boyer recorded Where Does Love Go? An album of easy listening favorites, Boyer does not sing the songs, but rather, speaks them. Reportedly, the album was a favorite of Elvis Presley, and in the last 11 years of his life it was the one he most frequently played.

In 1960 Boyer was inducted into the Hollywood Walk of Fame and awarded adoption pictures star and a television star (both are located at 6300 Hollywood Boulevard).

As mentioned earlier, he was married throughout his life to Scottish actress Pat Paterson, who he met at a dinner party in 1934. They became engaged after only two weeks of courtship and were married three months later. Their only child, Michael Charles Boyer (born December 9, 1943), killed himself on September 21, 1965, in a game of Russian roulette after an emotional and highly charged  break-up with his girlfriend.

The Boyers left Hollywood and settled in Paradise Valley, Arizona during the ‘60s, where they lived until Pat’s death from cancer on August 24, 1978. Two days later, on August 28, and only two days away from his 79th birthday, Boyer, despondent over his wife’s death, committed suicide with an overdose of Seconal while staying at a friend’s home in Scottsdale. He was laid to rest in Holy Cross Cemetery, Culver City, California, alongside his wife and son.

Of the Boyer movies TCM is airing in January, these are our humble recommendations:

January 4

8:00 pm – LOVE AFFAIR (Columbia, 1939): Irene Dunne, Charles Boyer & Maria Ouspenskaya. Dunne and Boyer were at their best in this comedy-drama about two people who meet aboard a liner, fall in love, and agree to meet at the Empire State Building in six months. Their plans are waylaid by unforeseen circumstances, which leads to a moving finish. Director Leo McCarey remade the film, a second  time with Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr as An Affair to Remember in 1957.

12:30 am  – LILIOM (Fox, 1934) Charles Boyer, Madeleine Ozeray & Alexandre Rignault. After fleeing Nazi Germany in 1933, Fritz Lang landed in France and made this version of Ferenc Molnar’s famous fantasy about carousel barker Liliom (Boyer), who is in love with Julie (Ozeray). When Julie becomes pregnant, Liliom decides to commit a robbery for money necessary to support her. He is killed in the course of the robbery and sent to Purgatory, Years later he is allowed to return to Earthier one day in order to perform a good deed for his now-teenaged daughter, Louise (also Ozeray). If he succeeds he will be admitted into heaven. A previous American version made by Fox in 1930 starred Charles Farrell and Rose Hobart. Rogers and Hammerstein adapted it into a musical in 1945 and this version was made into a film in 1956. This is one of the few Lang films I haven’t seen, so I’ll be tuning in.

4:45 am – ALGIERS (UA, 1938): Charles Boyer, Hedy Lamarr. Walter Wanger produced this remake of Jean Gabin’s Pepe LeMoko with Boyer as the notorious jewel thief and Hedy Lamarr as the woman for whom he gives up his sanctuary and freedom. Boyer is fine as LeMoko, although he pales in comparison to Gabin, while Lamarr does a good job of standing around and looking beautiful. The film is aided by a strong supporting cast that includes Joseph Calleia as Inspector Slimane, who has been after Pepe since he arrived in Algiers, Sigrid Gurie as Ines, the Casbah woman who loves Pepe, Johnny Downs as Pierrot, Pepe’s young admirer, and Gene Lockhart as Regis, the police informer. When Wanger bought the rights to remake the film he also tried to buy up all existing copies for destruction. Thank God he failed, for the original is one of the gems of cinema. Algiers was turned into a musical by Universal in 1948 with Tony Martin (of all people) as Pepe, Yvonne DeCarlo as Inez, and Peter Lorre as Slimane. As mentioned earlier, Chuck Jones based the cartoon character Pepe Le Pew on Boyer’s portrayal of Pepe LeMoko. In Jones’s 1954 cartoon, The Cat’s Bah, which is a spoof of the movie, Pepe Le Pew declares to Penelope the Cat, “Do not come with me to ze Casbah … We are already here!” And a final bit of trivia: Casablanca is a very loose remake of Algiers.

January 5

8:15 am – RED HEADED WOMAN (MGM, 1932): Jean Harlow, Chester Morris. This is Harlow’s film, as she stars as a gold-digger who busts up her boss’s marriage among other sins on her way to financial success. Boyer has a supporting role as Albert, Harlow’s chauffeur and boy toy. Though his screen time is limited, he made enough of an impression for MGM to keep him around. When, at the end of the film we see that Harlow’s character, Lil, has re-established herself in Paris and has a wealthy old sucker on her hook, we also see that driving them back to her apartment is none other than her boy toy, Albert. 

January 11 

8:00 pm – GASLIGHT (MGM, 1944): Ingrid Bergman, Charles Boyer, & Joseph Cotten. Along with Algiers, probably Boyer’s most renowned film. The charming Gregory Anton (Boyer), who has married Paula Alquist (Ingrid Bergman), is a man with a secret. He is really a thief named Sergius Bauer who killed Paula’s aunt, world-renowned opera singer Alice Alquist, but has fled without the jewels he sought. He knows the jewels are hidden the in townhouse she bequeathed to Paula, and in order to get his hands on them he decides to drive his bride insane. Gaslight is a wonderful period paranoic noir, with Boyer and Bergman perfect in their roles and young Angela Lansbury as Paula’s disdainful maid.

10:15 pm – HOLD BACK THE DAWN (Paramount, 1941): Charles Boyer, Olivia de Havilland. Boyer shines as Romanian-born gigolo Georges Iscovescu, stuck in Mexico while waiting for permission to enter the United States. After six months there he is broke and losing hope. His fortunes change when he runs into former squeeze Anita Dixon (Paulette Goddard), who informs him that she obtained US residency by marrying an American, who she then quickly divorced. Now a man with a plan, Georges goes looking for a suitable sucker to gain him entry into America, He soon finds her in the person of naive school teacher Emmy Brown (de Havilland), there on a field trip. He bowls her over completely and they marry the same day. But there’s a fly in the ointment: immigration inspector Hammock (Walter Abel), who is specifically looking for con artists like Georges who are using unsuspecting lonely women to get into the U.S. Things get more complicated from here, as Georges falls in love with his new wife and Anita, still in love with Georges, returns to gum up the works. 

12:30 am – BACK STREET (Universal, 1941): Charles Boyer, Margaret Sullavan & Richard Carlson. A remake of the 1932 film that adheres closely to both its predecessor and the Fannie Hurst novel on which both films are based. It’s a great soaper about woman named Rae Smith (Sullavan), whose great love is a man she almost married years ago, banker Walter Louis Saxel (Boyer). They lose touch, and when they meet again after the passage of years she finds he is now married with two children and an extremely successful banking career. She loves him so much that she gives up her career in dress design to become his kept mistress. as such she sees him only when it is convenient for him to get away. For his part, Walter keeps up his guise of a happy married man,  and never considering divorcing his wife. A strong reason for this is the loss of social and economic standing that would follow, especially as his father-in-law is his boss at the bank. Noting the film’s superb mix of melodrama with pathos, critic Bosley Crowther called it “the quintessence of what is known as the woman’s picture” in his review for The New York Times. I can’t say it any better.

2:15 am – TALES OF MANHATTAN (Fox, 1942): Charles Boyer, Rita Hayworth. A delightful  five-episode film about a formal tailcoat and the effect it has on those who come to own it. Boyer plays famed actor Paul Orman, for whom the coat is fitted by his tailor. The tailor nervously confesses to Orman that the coat was cursed by a dismissed cutter and will bring misfortune to anyone who wears it, but Orman does not care. A following series of events sees him killed and the coat begins to pass hands, bringing nothing but grief to those who possess it. Besides Boyer and Hayworth, the film also stars Ginger Rogers, Edward G. Robinson, Henry Fonda, Charles Laughton, Paul Robeson, Ethel Waters, and Eugene Pallette. It’s a fitting example (forgive the pun) of an episodic film done well.

January 18

10:00 pm – THE EARRINGS OF MADAME DE (Franco London Films, 1954): Charles Boyer, Danielle Darrieux & Vittorio De Sica. Easily the best of the month’s offerings, this is a sublimely made film about the consequences of Louise (Darrieux) a married woman who sells a pair of costly heart-shaped earrings to Mr. Remy, the jeweler who made them (Jean Debucourt) to settle debts she accrued. Unfortunately, the earrings were a gift from her husband, Andre (Boyer). When he notices them missing, he wants to know where they are. She makes up a story of losing them at the opera, and this is the beginning of a series of misfortunes. Remy sells them back to Andre, who gives them to his mistress, Lola (Lia Di Leo). She later sells them to settle gambling debts, Eventually Louise regains possession, but this in turn leads to further tragedy. Directed by Max Ophuls, The Earrings of Madame de . . . is now considered a masterpiece of French cinema. Critic Andrew Sarris cited it as “the most perfect film ever made.” For those who are seeing it for the first time, it will awe and delight. And those who have seen it know that it still retains its magic, no matter how many times it’s viewed.

January 25

8:00 pm – FANNY (WB, 1961): Leslie Caron, Charles Boyer & Maurice Chevalier. While this film, based on the first two volumes of novelist and filmmaker Marcel Pagnol’s trilogy, Marius and Fanny, is not among Boyer’s best, it has retained its romantic magic due to the inspired paring of French actress Leslie Caron and German star Horst Buchholz, who were at the height of their international popularity. Set in Marseille, Fanny (Caron) works selling fish with her mother down at the waterfront. She has been in love with Marius, (Buchholz), the son of barkeeper Cesar (Boyer) her whole life, and after a one night stand, after which Marius ships out to sea, she finds she is pregnant. Fanny decides upon a marriage of convenience with the elderly Panisse (Chevalier), a wealthy merchant who also loves her. She gives birth to a boy, to whom César is godfather. Knowing his son is the boy’s true father, Cesar persuades Panisse to name the child Cesario Marius Panisse. When Marius returns from sea years later, he fights to win back the family he never knew he had. 


  1. I have always loved Charles Boyer. Thanks for the review.

  2. Thank you, Karen. And I agree with you. Charles Boyer is one the few actors I'll watch in anything. I've always found him interesting, and it's about time TCM honored him.