Few periods in history have prompted more Monday-morning-quarterbacking than the Nazi occupation of France from 1940 through the summer of 1944. The French, of course, were (and remain) obsessed with this difficult time.
One interesting upshot is that French star Maurice Chevalier, the gregarious song and dance man who won the hearts of Americans in two moviemaking stints in Hollywood, is still criticized by some contemporary historians for his behavior during the occupation.
Although Chevalier didn’t make a ton of movies, British film historian-critic David Thomson asserts that he still managed to exemplify his homeland by building the sort of reputation that passes off full-frontal charm as the spirit of France.
Born in 1888, Chevalier was breathing hard on 40 by the time he first embarked on a Hollywood career after appearing in at least a dozen movies in France. The youngest of nine children sired by an alcoholic house painter, Chevalier was by his late teens a cafe and variety hall singer, embellishing limited vocal talents with comedy bits of casual charm.
By 23, he was a smash hit at the legendarily naughty Les Folies Bergere as well as the dance partner and offstage lover of renowned cabaret diva Mistinguett. Chevalier’s Hollywood career didn’t begin until 1928, but in stretched off and on all the way to 1970, two years before he died.
To see Chevalier at his best, check out his early pictures for Paramount and MGM. In Ernst Lubitsch’s The Merry Widow (1934), Chevalier’s costar Jeanette McDonald provisionally assesses him with this bit of dialogue: I’ll admit you’re very funny, but not terrific…not colossal. Chevalier was best onscreen in MacDonald’s bracing company.
We are especially big fans of Rouben Mamoulian’s magnificent 1931 musical Love Me Tonight in which Chevalier plays a big-hearted tailor in love with a princess (MacDonald). The French-born star fully displays his musical and dancing skills, especially in his engaging vocal rendition of the movie’s signature song Isn’t It Romantic. Many critics believe Love Me Tonight ranks among the best musicals Hollywood ever made.
Perhaps classic movie fans today most readily identify Chevalier with director Vincente Minnelli’s 1958 musical Gigi, in which the aging French roue sings Thank Heaven For Little Girls — the infamously politically-incorrect double entredre and all. This was during Chevalier’s second Hollywood surge that included Billy Wilder’s Love in the Afternoon (costarring Gary Cooper and Audrey Hepburn), 1960’s Can Can and Joshua Logan’s 1961 film version (without the music) of the hit Broadway musical, Fanny.
World War II split Chevalier’s two Hollywood stints, and it is this period that draws fire from some historians. One is Alan Riding, a former correspondent for The New York Times whose book — And The Show Went On: Cultural Life in Nazi-Occupied Paris — was published in 2010.
Riding notes that Chevalier starred in 1941 night club revue at Le Casino de Paris despite knowing that the venue was patronized by German troops. Wrote Riding: Predictably, with his jaunty style, charming smile and twirls of his boater, Chevalier was a great success, although (a skeptical French critic) was less impressed, noting, ‘At the Casino de Paris, Chevalier takes his turn to sing before an audience of uniforms that has only come to look at the arses.’
Riding also cites Chevalier’s appearance at a “charity gala” attended by German officers, as well as concert he performed before some 3000 POW’s in Altengrabow, Germany, that served German propaganda. His Altengrabow concert was rebroadcast in Germany and by Radio-Paris in France.
In the summer of 1942, Chevalier learned that his name had appeared on a Free French list of prominent collaborators who deserved death. (Curiously, he continued to appear at the Casino de Paris after this revelation.) Charles DeGaulle’s provisional French government in Algiers even sentenced Chevalier to death.
Fearing both Germans and the French resistance, it’s no wonder Chevalier secreted himself for the remainder of the German occupation outside Paris, mostly at a rural hideaway in the rural Dordogne region. Writes Riding, he narrowly escaped being killed by (the Resistance) before fleeing to Toulouse where he was briefly arrested.
Riding notes that in her autobiography, Josephine Baker — the so-called “Bronze Venus” who ignited Paris in the Twenties, and later worked surreptitiously for the Resistance — was harshly critical of Chevalier’s wartime conduct. Maurice was one of those Frenchmen who believed that the Germans had won the war and that it was time things returned to normal — on German terms.
Chevalier was eventually exonerated (thanks to well-connected friends, suggests Riding) of charges of Nazi collaboration. The author is unsparing of explanations from Chevalier himself. He tried to persuade his American fans that he had never collaborated with the Germans by filming a special message to them in his trademark ‘Frenchie’ English.