A darling of the French audiences in the 20th century, Maurice Chevalier was a multi-talented star who had female fans swooning over his debonair good looks. He was an actor and a cabaret singer who started out on his career as an acrobat. His venture into the world of show business began quite early on as he along with his brother found job as circus acrobat. However, the young Maurice met with an accident that put an end to his career as an acrobat. Since the boy was naturally talented, he started singing. Initially he was not even paid for his work, yet he performed at a café. As luck would have it a member of the local theatre recognized his talent and advised him to join a musical. He got the part and thus began his momentous journey to stardom. Soon he began gaining fame as a mimic and a singer. A chance encounter with night club singer Mistinguett changed his fortunes. The two formed a partnership which became a popular act in Folies-Bergere. Eventually he tried his hand at acting where too he found success. He became a famous performer not just in his home country but also achieved international fame.
Childhood & Early Life
He was born to a French house painter, Victor and his wife, Josephine van de Bosch in Paris. He had two older brothers.
His father was an alcoholic who deserted his family when Maurice was eight and the family struggled in poverty. His mother worked as a lacemaker to support her children and herself.
Maurice and his brother found work as acrobats in a circus to be able to add to the family income. However he was injured in an accident had to leave this job.
Even as a young boy he tried his hand at several jobs. He had worked as a carpenter’s apprentice, electrician and printer. He also began singing at the local cafes. Initially he was not even paid; all he got in return for his singing was a free cup of coffee.
Young Maurice improved his act by adding elements of humor to his songs, and by performing skits and pantomime.
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Once a local theatre employee saw him perform at the caf� and told him to try his luck at the theatre. He was selected for a musical and soon made a name for himself as a singer and mimic—all this while he was still in his teens.
He got his big break in 1909 when he was paired with Mistinguett, the leading female performer at the Folies-Berg�re music hall in Paris. The duo proved to be a hit on-stage couple and soon Maurice was popular all over Paris. The two also became involved in a real-life romance.
After the World War I broke out, Maurice joined the French Army in 1914. While serving in the frontline he was wounded by shrapnel and was taken a prisoner of war by Germany.
For two years he was kept in the German prisoner of war camp where he learned English from the other prisoners. Mistinguett’s admirer, the King Alfonso XIII of Spain intervened to enable his release in 1916.
He retuned to Paris and started working as a performer again. By 1917 he was a star in le Casino de Paris. The fame and success he achieved in his hometown motivated him to try his luck at other parts of the world.
Since he had learned English in the prison camp in Germany, he went to London looking for opportunities. He found work at the Palace Theatre where he sang in French.
He started to create songs and play music for films. He found great success with the operetta ‘Dede’. Along with the American composers George Gershwin and Irving Berlin he brought ‘Dede’ to Broadway in 1922.
He ventured into Hollywood and made his film debut in 1929 in the black and white musical film, ‘Innocents of Paris’. The movie was a film adaptation of the play ‘Flea Market’ directed by Richard Wallace.
He starred in the 1930 romantic comedy ‘The Big Pond’ which was based on a play of the same name. His role in the film was much appreciated and he also sang the song, ‘Livin' in the Sunlight, Lovin' in the Moonlight’ which became a huge hit.
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In 1934 he starred in the film ‘The Merry Widow’ which had been adapted from the operetta of the same name. He played a playboy, Captain Danilo, who is paid by the king to court and marry a rich widow. This film was a success.
The World War II started in 1939 and he did not appear in many films over the 1940s though he continued performing live in front of audiences. He returned to movies during the 1950s. His films for the decade included ‘Love in the Afternoon’ (1957) and musical ‘Gigi’ (1958).
One of his best remembered films in the 1930 romantic comedy ‘The Big Pond’ in which he played the role of Pierre Mirande, a poor tour guide who falls in love with a rich woman. He was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actor for his performance.
Awards & Achievements
He was awarded The George Eastman Award by the George Eastman House in 1957 for his distinguished contributions to the world of films.
Hollywood honored him with an Academy Honorary Award in 1958 for his several great achievements in cinema, especially for the success of the film, ‘Gigi’.
Personal Life & Legacy
Handsome, talented, and rich, Maurice was a ladies’ man and was involved in numerous love affairs. In 1922 he met Yvonne Vall�e, a young dancer and married her in 1927. However the marriage was troubled and the couple later divorced.
He married again in 1937. His second wife was a young Jewish actress named Nita Raya. This union too did not last forever and the couple split.
He died on New Year's Day in 1972, at the age of 83.
This charming and highly successful French actor was known for his trademark straw hat and cane.