Maurice Auguste Chevalier (September 12, 1888 – January 1, 1972) was a French actor, singer, and popular entertainer. Chevalier's signature songs included "Louise", "Mimi", and "Valentine". His trademark was a boater hat, which he always wore on stage with his tuxedo.
It was in 1901 that he began in show business at 13. He was singing, unpaid, at a café when a member of the theatre saw him and suggested he try for a local musical. He got the part. Chevalier got a name as imitator and singer. His act in l' Alcazar in Marseille was so successful he made a triumphant rearrival in Paris.
In 1909, he became the partner of the biggest female star in France, Fréhel. However, due to her alcohol and drug addiction their liaison ended in 1911. Chevalier then started a relationship with 36-year-old Mistinguett at the Folies Bergère; they eventually played out a public romance.
In 1917, Chevalier became a star in le Casino de Paris and played before British soldiers and Americans. He discovered jazz and ragtime and started thinking about touring the United States. In prison camp, he studied English and had an advantage over other French artists. He went to London where he found new success, though still singing in French.
Douglas Fairbanks offered him star billing opposite Mary Pickford. But Chevalier doubted his own talent for silent movies (in Paris, he'd made a couple that failed). When sound made its entry in the film world, he returned to Hollywood in 1928 and he became successful. He signed a contract with Paramount Pictures and played his first American role in Innocents of Paris. In 1930 he was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actor, for two roles, The Love Parade (1929) and The Big Pond (1930). The Big Pond garnered Chevalier his first big American hit song, "Livin' In the Sunlight - Lovin' In the Moonlight" with words and music by Al Lewis and Al Sherman, as well as 'A New Kind of Love' (or 'The Nightingales'). He collaborated with film director Ernst Lubitsch. While under contract with Paramount, Chevalier's name was so recognized that his passport featured in the Marx Brothers film Monkey Business (1931), with each brother attempting to sneak off the ocean liner where they were stowaways by claiming to be the singer (with terrible renditions of "The Nightingales" - which the silent Harpo performed best, due to a recording of Chevalier hidden under his voluminous coat). In 1931, Chevalier starred in a musical called The Smiling Lieutenant with Claudette Colbert and Miriam Hopkins. Despite the disdain audiences held for musicals in 1931, it proved a successful film.
In 1932, he starred with Jeanette MacDonald in Paramount's film musical, One Hour With You which became a success and one of the films instrumental in making musicals popular again. Due to its popularity, Paramount starred Maurice Chevalier in another musical called Love Me Tonight, also released in 1932 and also co-starring Jeanette MacDonald. It was about a tailor who falls in love with a princess when he goes to a castle to collect a debt and is mistaken for a baron. Featuring songs by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart, it was directed by Rouben Mamoulian, who, with the help of the songwriters, was able to put his ideas of the integrated musical (a musical which blends songs and dialogue so the songs advance the plot). It is considered one of the greatest film musicals of all time.
In 1934, he starred in the first sound film of the Franz Lehar operetta The Merry Widow, one of his best-known films. He became one of the stars in Hollywood, rare for French artists. In 1935, he signed with MGM and returned to France later that year.
During his years in Hollywood, Chevalier had a reputation as a penny-pincher. When filming at Paramount, he balked at parking his car in the Paramount lot at ten cents a day. After bargaining, he managed to get five cents per day. Another story is told of Chevalier (a smoker) having a conversation with someone who offered him a cigarette. He took it, said "Thank you", put it in his pocket, and continued with the conversation. But in Hollywood he seemed to be a divided character. When not playing around with young chorus-girls, he actually felt quite lonely. When performing in English, he always put on a heavy French accent, although his normal spoken English was quite fluent and sounded more American.
In 1937, he divorced and married the dancer Nita Ray. He had several successes such as his revue Paris en Joie in the Casino de Paris. A year later, he performed in Amours de Paris. His songs remained big hits, such as Prosper (1935), Ma Pomme (1936) and Ça fait d'excellents français (1939)
Maurice Chevalier also appeared in the Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour in 1958.
In 1941, he performed a new revue in the Casino de Paris: Bonjour Paris, which was another success. Songs like "Ça sent si bon la France" and "La Chanson du maçon" became hits. The Nazis asked Chevalier to perform in Berlin and sing for the collaborating radio station Radio-Paris. He refused, but he did perform in front of prisoners of war in Germany at the camp where he was interned in the First World War, and succeeded in liberating ten people in exchange.
In 1942 he returned to Bocca, near Cannes, but returned to the capital city in September. In 1944 when Allied forces freed France, Chevalier was accused of collaborationism. Even though he was acquitted, the English-speaking press remained hostile and he was refused a visa for several years.
In his own country, however, he was still popular. In 1946, he split from Nita Ray and started writing his memoirs, which took many years to complete.
In 1949, he performed in Stockholm in a communist benefit against nuclear arms. In 1944, he had already participated in a communist demonstration in Paris. Joseph McCarthy's anti-communist efforts in the USA made him less popular there during the early fifties. In 1951, he was refused re-entry into the U.S. because he had signed an anti-nuclear petition known as the Stockholm Appeal.
In 1952, he bought a large property in Marnes-la-Coquette, near Paris and named it ‘La Louque’, as a homage to his mother's nickname. He started a relationship in 1952 with Janie Michels, a young divorcee with three children. Being a painter she encouraged Chevalier's hobby.
In 1954 after McCarthy's downfall, Chevalier was welcomed back in the United States. He made a success in the Billy Wilder film Love in the Afternoon (1957) with Audrey Hepburn and Gary Cooper, and rediscovered his popularity with new audiences, appearing in the movie musical, Gigi (1958) with Leslie Caron and Hermione Gingold, with whom he shared the song "I Remember It Well", and several Walt Disney films. The success of Gigi prompted Hollywood to give him an Honorary Academy Award that year for achievements in entertainment. Also in Gigi, the song "Thank Heaven for Little Girls" became a signature song for him. Chevalier has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 1651 Vine Street.
In 1970, he sang the title song of the Disney film The Aristocats. During a tour in the US he decided to stay there. However in December 1971 he had to be taken to a hospital.