A Geezer’s Notebook, By Jim Foster
Occasionally Mary and I will binge on old movies. Quite by accident one night I stumbled on an old Maurice Chevalier black and white on AMC-TV while trying to find the results of Monday night mixed darts at the Smooth Rock Falls Legion. It was The Merry Widow starring Maurice himself, the sly old dog, and the lovely, but ear-piercing, Jeannette MacDonald.
I don’t know if you knew this but Jeannette went on to almost single-handedly save England during the Second World War by acting as an air-raid siren, which was quite a feat since she lived in New York. Unfortunately her high-pitched warbling broke every window in Buckingham Palace and levelled many of the historical buildings in downtown London, but nevertheless she saved many lives – though most people within earshot blew their life savings on hearing aids and ear trumpets.
Jeannette later teamed with Nelson Eddy to star in Rose Marie, the tragic love story of a Canadian Mountie and an opera star. The movie was filmed in Lake Tahoe and their singing of the title song is credited with driving all the moose to Northern Ontario. Even the local squirrels were affected. That summer they gathered every acorn in Nevada and stuck them in their ears.
Maurice fascinated me in The Merry Widow. The only time I had seen him before was in Gigi where he played Honore Lachaille, the kindly old boulevardier. ‘Boulevardier’ can be loosely translated as ‘dirty old man’. But he did it superbly. I would have dated him myself.
He also starred in The Smiling Lieutenant with Claudette Colbert and Miriam Hopkins in 1931 which may be the worst movie ever made. A more merciful God would have had them put down for that one.
Maurice Chevalier was a heartthrob in his early years, much like I was before the ravages of time destroyed my beauty. In The Merry Widow, the exquisite women at Maxime’s swarmed him constantly as the local ladies did to me when I was young. Unfortunately, my admirers carried cudgels, rocks and remarkably in one particularly violent incident, an aluminium baseball bat, which is remarkable since metal bats hadn’t been invented at the time.
Maurice was a huge star in the 30s. He was tall and handsome in a big-nosed sort of way, but his key to fame was his dancing and for some reason his vocal range which went all the way from ‘do’ to ‘re’. To top it off, he was French, which is important if a man wanted to be a hit with women back then, or even today if you want to get a government job in Ottawa. Maurice spoke French or pretended to. Charles Boyer was a big star in the 30s too and all he ever did to attract the ladies was whisper the Quebec version of the Snap, Crackle, and Pop adventures on the back of a box of Rice Krispies in a French accent. It served Maurice well until one night he and David Niven picked up a girl from Montreal. By the time she got finished with them they were broke, half drunk and paid-up members of the Bloc Quebecois.
But as I was saying Maurice Chevalier could waltz. If you were going to make it back then you had to be able to trip the light fantastic since dance spectaculars were big box office. They were the years when Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire danced their way to stardom in spite of the fact that Fred was skinny and bald and the movie plots asinine. What was it some critic wrote about Ginger? “She did the same steps as Fred Astaire, backwards wearing high heels.”
It was a different world in the 30s. Some of you younger folks who sit up every night watching blue movies on Netflix will be surprised to learn there was no sex at all on the silver screen. That became painfully obvious when Maurice got Jeannette alone in a private dining room. Instead of making moves on her like a proper French gentleman, he took her in his arms and waltzed. Which I’m sure was a bit of a disappointment for Jeannette. She had had a bath and everything. Jeannette was a young widow after all and raring to go. This dipstick wanted to dance; she was all set to haul him down on the couch. Of course she couldn’t, the censors were keeping an eye on her. They did it from a distance though. They didn’t want to get too close in case she started singing.
Maurice died on New Year’s Day. 1972. I suppose that’s true, but I like to think he’s very much alive, sitting in Maxime’s drinking champagne and singing, “Tank ‘eaven for leetle gulls.”