Friday, December 4, 2009

Some people call me Maurice

I'd never watched any Maurice Chevalier movies until recently, and then I watched two, from the book-ends of his career: The Smiling Lieutenant (1931) and Love in the Afternoon (1957). Chevalier made his name as a suave singing comic lover on the stage before he signed with Paramount and starred in their earliest musicals. In The Smiling Lieutenant, a thin, spicy plot hangs together around Chevalier's musical numbers which are charming and often quite bawdy. He is the apex of a love-triangle with Claudette Colbert and Miriam Hopkins and in one memorable scene the two women get together to prepare notes, cooing over how handsome he looks in his signature straw boater. "Did you ever see him in...oh, no nevermind" Colbert says, blushing. She goes on to give Hopkins some musical tips about spicing up her lingerie wardrobe before leaving Chevalier to enjoy the fruits of her makeover talent. Only in a pre-code Ernest Lubitsch movie would you have such a sophisticated and nonchalant attitude toward sex. Well, perhaps in a modern French film, but then they'd all stand around and look out the window all day and no one would sing or dance or anything!

in Love in the Afternoon, Chevalier plays a private detective whose daughter (Audrey Hepburn) falls in love with one of his most notorious targets--an American playboy played by Gary Cooper. Cooper and Chevalier were both leading men at Paramount in the early 30s and it must have been a bit irksome to him to be relegated to the fatherly role, while aging Coop still clung to his male lead status. The movie is delightful and funny and while many people have a problem with pairing 56-year-old Cooper with 28-year-old Hepburn. It is well-known that director Billy Wilder's first choice for the part was Cary Grant. Now I can never deny feeling that Grant would be a superior choice in almost any film (OK, maybe not in say, A Streetcar Named Desire), but I actually think Cooper is just fine. Yes, he looks his age, as Grant did not at that point. Cooper shows a bit of vulnerability when he becomes insanely jealous over Hepburn's implied experience with men. Of course the whole thing is a big bluff, but that doesn't stop him from going completely over the top. If this weren't handled just right, I think it would be kind of creepy, which is why I'm glad Cooper finesses the situation just perfectly.

My only real beef is with Wilder who seems completely paranoid about Cooper's face. He is never shown in close-up until almost the very end and he is almost always in shadow. This very frustrating for Cooper's fans. If so much had not been made of his age by the director, I don't think it would be such a big deal.

Anyway, Chevalier and the whole rest of the cast are wonderfully charming and fun. I love the script which tries very hard at being European and sophisticated, but still comes off being pretty quaint by today's standards. Hepburn is worthy of everyone of Wilder's loving close-ups, the ones he didn't give to Coop, and she and her leading man, and her pretend father all act wonderfully together. This is really one of those movies that is kind of like comfy old slipper that you could try on any time you need to feel warm and fuzzy.

6 comments:

Andi B. Goode said...

See, I wasn't bothered by the age difference in Love in the Afternoon but I did think that Cooper was creepy. I felt very uncomfortable watching it, actually. Unfortunately, it was my first experience of Cooper...luckily I watched Mr Deeds Goes to Town not long after and fell a little bit in love with him.
-Andi x

VP81955 said...

I love "Jazz Up Your Lingerie" -- it's as adorably outrageous as any segment of pre-Code cinema. To see it, go to http://community.livejournal.com/carole_and_co/82175.html

Jennythenipper said...

Fair enough, Andi. I guess Cooper didn't finesse the creepy situation quite well enough, then.

Thanks for the link, VP. I love that you hung that clip on the flimsiest of pre-texts. A blogger (or shall I say livejournaler) after me own heart. Also bonus points for mentioning step-ins.

Irena said...

I too thought Maurice Chevalier did a wonderful job in "Love In the Afternoon".
Regarding Gary Cooper in this role I personally would be much more convinced by Audrey Hepburn's devotion to his character
if he were Cary Grant. Cary Cooper did not work for me in this role, though I was totally convinced by Audrey's attraction to Bogart in "Sabrina". Go figure. :)
I liked Maurice Chevalier in "Gigi" as well, his character was not as interesting as in "Love in the Afternoon", but that's not his fault.

Arnie Perlstein said...

What I want to know is, was Maurice Minnifield named for Maurice Chevalier? ;)

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