Of all performers classic Hollywood imported from France over the years, only two managed to become genuine stars.
One was Charles Boyer, a subtle actor who embodied in both voice and appearance the suave continental, the sophisticated aristocrat. (There he is above with Rita Hayworth.) The other was Maurice Chevalier, whose lightweight comedy style personified to American audiences the cheeky Parisian.
But Boyer was the far bigger star.
A country boy born in Figeac in south-western France’s Cahors wine district of the Lot, he made his first movie (L’Homme du Large or roughly The Broad Shouldered Man) in 1920. By the time he finished his last picture in 1976, Vincente Minnelli’s A Matter of Time, Boyer was a renowned and highly paid international star with some 90 film and tv credits under his belt.
You’d think that Boyer’s hometown would shout his local origins from the rooftops. But a recent visit by Frank to the Lot area near Figeac in France indicates otherwise.
With the exception of a local movie house (dubbed the Cinema Charles Boyer) the actor’s roots in the town seem ignored today. Born there in 1899, he grew up as the precocious only child of Louise and Maurice Boyer, living above their general merchandise store on Boulevard Labernede.
From early boyhood Boyer displayed astonishing gifts of retention, memorizing and remembering pages of text at a swallow. His performing gifts were displayed early, and he entertained at hospitals for wounded World War I vets in Figeac. After leaving for studies in Paris, Boyer drifted into live theater and then silent films.
But back in Figeac, his memory is not especially honored. Today, the name of Charles Boyer finds little good resonance in the region, according to French author Elia Sabathie’s interesting book about the area, The Mysteries of the Lot (2009).
The reason, according to Sabathie, is that Boyer exempted himself from the long, anguishing period the locales endured during the German occupation of World War II. By the late Thirties, just before the Germans arrived, the actor had already left for Hollywood and stayed there. He became a U.S. citizen in 1942, quickly becoming one of Hollywood’s top five best paid screen performers.
Although Boyer worked hard to promote the Free French cause in the U.S. — setting up a French Research Foundation, making Voice of America broadcasts and donating big chunks of his salary to the French Red Cross — the French may well have resented what they felt was an actor living the good life in a free country while they suffered.
It seems to have mattered little that no other personality from France had so reigned in Hollywood. Boyer costarred with classic Hollywood’s most notable leading ladies including Marlene Dietrich in 1936’s The Garden of Allah, as Hedy Lamarr’s continental opposite in 1938’s Algiers and as Napoleon opposite Greta Garbo in 1937’s Marie Walewska (or Conquest).
The actor was memorably paired with Ingrid Bergman in three films including, of course, George Cukor’s 1944 period drama, Gaslight, in which Boyer gives a bravura performance as a svelte London nasty determined to convince his young wife (Bergman) that she is insane.The picture won Bergman a best actress Oscar and a best actor nomination for Boyer.
Boyer proved his versatility in his many roles, adapting when film noir came in the Forties and early Fifties. Check him out in Otto Preminger’s 1951 suspense drama with Linda Darnell, The Thirteenth Letter, in which Boyer portrays a revered doctor at a French Canadian hospital.
Remarkably for an internationally recognized movie star, Boyer married just once — to former child actress Pat Paterson. The couple doted on their only son, who committed suicide in the mid Sixties. Boyer’s British-born wife was diagnosed with a brain tumor, and she died in 1978.
Two days later in Phoenix, Arizona, Boyer committed suicide. He was two days shy of his 79th birthday. He’s remembered today in Hollywood with a spot (number 6304) on the Walk of Fame but all-but-forgotten back home.