With his Mistinguett, who was his partner and companion, iMAurice Chevalier is an eminent, but distant, figure of café-concert and old-fashioned song. Arte returns to the fate of the man in the boater this Sunday (at 8:05 p.m.).
More than half a century after his death, Maurice Chevalier remains, in the United States, a symbol of Paris, in the same way as the Eiffel Tower. In France, the new generation knows the song Paris will always be Paris thanks to Zaz’s cover, but often ignores even the name of an unfairly forgotten performer.
The documentary Meeting with Maurice Chevalier by Cyril Leuthy, to whom we already owe films on Barbara or Jean-Pierre Melville, gives a necessary spotlight on a unique career in the history of music hall and French cinema of the 20th centurye century.
The occupier’s trap
It begins with the Honorary Oscar which was awarded to him in 1959. An evening of triumph for the “little guy from Ménilmontant”, who grew up in poverty, and started in concert cafés with a coffee with milk as a seal. His situation improved somewhat when he became the partner of Mistinguett in the city as well as on stage, at the Folies-Bergère.
He then conquered London, where his tuxedo and boater made him a symbol of French elegance. It was there that, spotted by an agent, he took the risk of trying his luck in America. The adventure, which lasted seven years, was marked by films which figure prominently in the short list of the first successes of talking and singing cinema. The “poor kid” complexed by his origins, tormented much more than his job as an entertainer suggests, has become a huge star on both sides of the Atlantic.
In 1941, before a tour of the free zone, he said a few words in front of a microphone, unaware that it was that of Radio Paris, the official voice of the occupier. The trap set by German propaganda worked perfectly. For part of the population and the Resistance, he put himself in the service of the Nazis. The day after the liberation of Paris, a purge committee will clear him. He was the victim of “fake news”, as he could have said in English with this “Parigot” accent which, too, is part of his legend: the accent of sincerity.