Charles Boyer was thought of as retro and a subject of satire when I was young. He was somewhere between the worlds of my parents and grandparents, and most of us knew that he was the model for Pepé Le Pew, the “French-striped” cartoon skunk with over-the-top romantic inclinations. I knew him primarily as the aging and wicked manipulating husband of Ingrid Bergman’s character in the 1944 American version of Gaslight. To my young understanding, he was the epitome of suave Continental charm for an earlier time.
Enjoying some of his film after his early work in silents, I found a better-than-expected actor who was unlike any other of his time, and really can’t be compared to anyone today. Yes, he was suave and sophisticated at times, and oh that preternaturally deep and resonant voice. But apart from the face and the voice, these three performances were not alike at all.
Liliom was fascinating for several reasons. It’s the third film based on the 1909 Hungarian play that formed the basis for the Oscar and Hammerstein musical Carousel. (The first film version, directed by Michael Curtiz in 1919 Hungary, was never completed.) The second was a 1930 American film directed by Frank Borzage and starring Charles Farrell. The Boyer version is the one French film directed by Fritz Lang between his early life in Berlin and his later life in America, standing as a transitional film for those who like to compare and contrast his German and American films.
Boyer is wonderful in the role. His passionate performances, here and in the others discussed today, were at odds with his more introverted, quiet natural personality. But here, there is no coating of gracious urbanity that we find in the other two films. He is superficially charming, but also lazy, self-centered, and abusive. He takes a character that borders on the despicable, yet he retains our interest and even concern.
The film is also of interest because much of it doesn’t take place on earth, and the move to that new place, and the place itself, are a study in special effects, very questionable theology, and early sound film perspectives on otherworldly issues.
Just a few years later, Boyer was paired with relatively new Hedy Lamarr in Algiers, making her American film debut four years after a scandalous appearance in the Czech-Austrian film Ekstase (Ecstasy). She was often referred to as the most beautiful woman in film at the time, and while nowhere near the actor Boyer was, her mysterious beauty helped make the two something of a balanced team.
Boyer plays a notorious jewel thief who both rules and is imprisoned in the Casbah region of Algiers. And yes, this is the famous “Come with me to the Casbah” film where that line, like “Play it again, Sam,” is never really said (though it reportedly was quoted in the trailer). Boyer plays Pépé le Moko, as did Jean Gabin in the previous year’s Pépé le Moko (1937), and the film is a virtual shot-by-shot remake of the original. (Producer Walter Wanger bought the film rights to the French version and tried in vain to get his hands on all the copies. Thankfully, he failed.)
Yet Boyer and Gabin are two different animals, and Boyer, while foolishly directed to imitate Gabin’s work here, brings a fresh energy and different rhythm to this and his other performances that make them original and unique. Unlike in Liliom or in Love Affair, here he is intense and wound up; watching him react and think as the caged creature he is, is a special pleasure. The film was nominated for four Oscars, including Boyer, James Wong Howe’s cinematography, and for supporting work by Gene (father of June) Lockhart. The film was also something of an inspiration for Casablanca, with the idea of using Lamarr as the female lead in that film. We can only be grateful that MGM refused to release her.
Most of the current generation knows the plot of Love Affair for its remake, 1957’s An Affair to Remember with Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr. Many remember that this is the film so soundly mocked by Tom Hanks and Victor Garber in Sleepless in Seattle as Rita Wilson so tearfully recounts the plot. But most have forgotten that the original was released in the “great year of Hollywood movies”—1939.
Boyer brought all his charm and insouciance to the role of a French playboy who falls in love with an American nightclub singer. Here is the debonair Boyer that is perhaps best remembered—and certainly most imitated. He was unlike any other actor with Continental charm—or who tried to have it—as he wore it lightly and naturally without striving. The multi-talented Irene Dunne is the female lead here, and their banter is perhaps the strongest part of the film, save possibly for the “visit to grandmother” scene. The film was nominated for six Oscars, including Best Picture and Actress. Boyer was not, however, though he was nominated four times between 1937 and 1944, and then again in 1961. The film lacks the production values and gloss of the 1957 version, and is all the better for it. It’s probably best to see the film in the light of 1932’s One Way Passage than as the precursor to the classic ‘50s version.
Boyer is largely forgotten today, and is possibly more remembered as a romantic cliché and the inspiration for an admittedly funny cartoon character than as the excellent actor he was. Just these three films alone show a range and talent that if not standing above others, certainly stood apart.