“In Boyer, self-belief and theatrical technique are seamlessly fused together.”
For most of Ernst Lubitsch’s Cluny Brown (1946), Charles Boyer’s refugee writer Adam Belinski has aided, abetted, and tactfully chased the titular Cluny, a low-born girl with a wild streak played by Jennifer Jones. Boyer is old enough to seem paternal with Jones; when she rolls down her stockings to take care of a plumbing problem in their first scene together, this famed seducer stares at her in a hilariously doubtful way, as if Belinski and Boyer himself had had so much experience with women that he wonders if he still has the stamina and patience required for courtship and even if he can still fully enjoy the fruits of his amorous labors. But Jones’ Cluny is such a ripe plum, and so unaware of her passionate nature, that Boyer cannot resist, just as he couldn’t resist pairing with practically all the great screen women: Colbert, Hepburn, Dietrich, Arthur, Garbo, Dunne, Sullavan, Bergman, and Davis shared the screen with him at one time or another. Like Cary Grant, who might be his younger, pricklier British brother, Boyer was happy to provide support for a complex, flashy female co-star. Also like Grant, he has been consistently underrated as an actor. At the end of Cluny Brown, watch the way he looks at Jones when he has made the inevitable decision to take her away with him: many actors would have expressed delight at a happy ending, but Boyer looks at his prospective lover with an extremely worldly mingling of lust, confusion, apprehension, and the knowledge that nothing really works out well in the end.
Boyer was born in Figeac, a provincial town in France, in 1899. He was a serious, bookish kid with few friends, knew he wanted to act very early, and spent his twenties in the theater, working a lot for the flamboyant playwright Henry Bernstein. Perpetually bemused at his later “great lover” image, Boyer commented on his early career in silent French films by saying, “I do not know when I became so nice-looking as they all say. I suppose it was when I lost my hair and began experimenting with the toupees. In silent films, I looked like a bandit who eats little children.” Indeed, his romantic image is largely a testament to two major assets: his dark, almost croaking, caressing voice and his overpoweringly sexy bedroom eyes, deep pools that ripplingly reflect light like any huge body of water, topped by eyebrows that look like two “S’s” reclining across his forehead. Again like Cary Grant, Boyer’s glamorous image is a bit of a magic act: if we look at him closely, it’s easy to see his pot belly, his unprepossessing physique, and the jowly contours of his rather potato-like head, with its large, throbbing vein in his right temple. All these physical flaws were obliterated, however, the moment he opened his mouth. In Boyer, self-belief and theatrical technique are seamlessly fused together, and the gasoline for this splendid motor is his obvious warmth and intelligence, which could shade into irony but never anger (he always had trouble with Jean Gabin-type explosions of temperament). Boyer was the only French actor to achieve real international stardom, with the exception of Maurice Chevalier and Leslie Caron, both special cases with musical abilities at their disposal (he co-starred with them in the 1961 Fanny, playing rather broadly in order to match Chevalier).
Boyer went to Hollywood originally to do French versions of MGM movies like The Big House (1930). He made little progress for a few years, playing a villain in a Ruth Chatterton vehicle, The Magnificent Lie (1931) and a bit-role chauffeur to Jean Harlow in Red-Headed Woman (1932). Frustrated, he went back to Europe to work periodically, and eventually landed the lead role in Fritz Lang’s Liliom (1933), the first of his major performances and a revelation when it was recently released by Kino on DVD. It remained his favorite role, and seeing it is very much like watching Marlene Dietrich in The Blue Angel (1930), before her Hollywood transfer; like Dietrich, Boyer in Liliom is both more and less than he would ever be in American films. In his first scenes at a carnival, Boyer wills you into believing that he has muscles by acting muscular, moving as if he has them, even though he obviously doesn’t: it’s pure sleight of hand. Liliom, a crass, lusty carny worker, is someone far away from the actual Boyer, and this distance allows him to create more freely, more openly. You can feel his enjoyment in playing this crude man as he moves his big eyes cartoonishly to emphasize Liliom’s lack of intelligence, then puts a glittery, cynical hood over them when he is angry or blocked, so that he looks like an ink-wash drawing of a hardened rake. And in his last close-up, when Liliom is abashed by the unquestioning love of his wife, Boyer offers an indelible picture of a man who knows he’s dirt and can hardly believe in anyone’s finer instincts.
It took a while yet for Boyer to find his niche in Hollywood, but in the meantime he married Pat Paterson (right), a delectable blonde actress who remained his wife for the rest of his life. British, self-deprecating, and merry, the vivacious Paterson offered the stick-in-the-mud Boyer a contrast of mood and a stable home environment that would serve him well when he began his run of fine American films, starting with Gregory La Cava’s Private Worlds (1935). La Cava, an insightful studier of human and actorly behavior, gave Boyer an important bit of advice: he told him to think in English (before that, Boyer had been falling back on his native French in between his lines). As a result of this direction, Boyer comes through fully as an American star for the first time in Private Worlds; his misogynistic doctor is hyper-alert and quick-witted, commanding the camera and the other players with the force of his misguided but keen intellect.
Private Worlds set him up for his first encounters as a male co-star to the era’s big women, beginning with Katharine Hepburn in Break of Hearts (1935) and Marlene Dietrich in The Garden of Allah (1936). In the stale Hepburn vehicle, Boyer is already typed as a somewhat weary skirt-chaser and roué, easily bored, stilling the waters of his eyes to indicate displeasure or unhappiness (it’s clear in Break of Hearts that Boyer’s basic temperament is a melancholy one). In the absurd encounter with Dietrich, Boyer’s absolute seriousness and his co-star’s refusal to take anything seriously makes for an initially interesting contrast, and Boyer’s large head looks especially pale and moon-like in the early Technicolor. But he seems to grow irritated by being literally in Dietrich’s shadow, as all the available light is shone directly onto her mask-like face. As if in contempt of the whole enterprise, towards the end Boyer takes a close-up where he wells up with tears and seems to fling a drop of water from his right eye, as if he wants to splash us with it (later reports suggested that Dietrich was not amused when the collected sweat from under Boyer’s toupee unexpectedly drenched her as she stared up at him in a clinch).
In between these preliminary American outings, Boyer returned to France to appear as a doomed crown prince in Anatole Litvak’s Mayerling (1936), pairing up with an exquisite, teenaged Danielle Darrieux. Boyer makes you feel the desperation underneath the prince’s lengthy debauches, the boredom and restlessness of royal strictures, and the despair that leads to the double suicide with his lover; this is a star performance of real depth and confidence. Back in America, his dry sense of humor was finally brought to the fore in Frank Borzage’s beautiful genre hybrid, History is Made at Night (1937). There are always visible traces of sadness underneath Boyer’s smiles and charm, which makes his every attempt at humor in this film helplessly touching and romantic. As he embraces a dreamy Jean Arthur in the back of a car, and they thrill to the unexpected complement of her American charm and his Continental savoir faire, the expression of happiness on Boyer’s face is so fragile that it looks as if a puff of wind would blow it away; on screen, Boyer is usually a fatalist who is led back into hope one last, perilous time.
In that same year, Boyer took on a daunting acting challenge by playing Napoleon opposite Greta Garbo’s Marie Walewska in Conquest (1937, right), and won a well-deserved best actor Oscar nomination as a result. Boyer is and was the only possible screen Napoleon: only he could have looked exactly as one pictures the conqueror and still be a highly plausible lover to Garbo. With his hair combed forward, Boyer looks rougher and squatter here; he’s not afraid to be utterly homely, yet because of his peculiarly makeshift glamour, he can get away with just about any modification to his appearance. His Napoleon is a lightning-fast, impulsive thinker, witty about his own power, moving energetically through every room as if it’s a battlefield, his eyes avid and hungry; this Boyer character has no melancholy whatsoever. His Napoleon’s impatience can be unnerving, but this is a basically cheerful, magnetic man, as intelligent as Boyer’s Liliom was stupid, who sees and processes everything going on around him even when he’s at his most pre-occupied. Boyer’s performance in Conquest is about the humor of a born ruler who feels fresh possibilities everywhere; he smartly sees this despot’s manic drive as basically comic. Boyer plays Napoleon as a vital, believable man, not a profile on a coin, and he wipes Garbo, who seems tired and doesn’t have much to do, right off the screen.
After this acting triumph, Boyer did his most famous picture, Algiers (1938), an effective but rather unfortunate remake of Pepe le Moko (1937), which had been a big French success for Jean Gabin. At first, Boyer grabs at the role lightheartedly and plays it for fun, crooning, “You’re mah-velous,” into Hedy Lamarr’s ear. He does not say, “Come with me to the Casbah,” of course, but the film was such a success and so basically silly that nightclub impressionists began doing their caricature of Boyer based on this performance. Having proved himself as an important and serious actor, Boyer was always put out by these impressions, and surely he must have cursed making Algiers, which, in a few scenes of anger towards the end, contain probably the only really bad acting Boyer ever did on screen: he widens his eyes to show us he’s mad, but he can’t seem to work up the rage that Gabin displayed so naturally and vividly in the role.
From this cul-de-sac, Boyer emerged triumphantly for Leo McCarey’s Love Affair (1939, right), his own favorite of his films, co-starring the actress that was probably his most simpatico leading lady, Irene Dunne. Boyer admired her McCarey film with Cary Grant, The Awful Truth (1937), and even kept a print of it in his house, so it doesn’t come as a surprise when Boyer tries out all sorts of funny, Grant-like grimaces and takes when he first meets up with Dunne aboard a ship. As Dunne prays to a statue of the Virgin Mary at his grandmother’s home, Boyer discreetly communicates that he doesn’t quite understand her religious devotion by making a hurried, perfunctory sign of the cross when they exit the room. Finally, though, he looks at Dunne with tired contentment: “Ah, yes,” he seems to be thinking. “She’s the one.” It’s kismet, and Boyer, with his happy marriage to Pat Paterson, understands kismet and its contentments intimately. Some of Boyer’s thought processes here are fascinatingly inscrutable, as if he’s cheating every once in a while and thinking in French, but his image is clarified by this movie. Like Marcello Mastroanni in the sixties, Boyer is the satiated male, stimulated by the charm of certain women to make one more effort past simple pleasure-seeking to create a more mature coupling. Dunne later reflected, “Charles had a real and genuine warmth, like a fire that starts slowly. He was the kind of log that was difficult to ignite, but then would burn so beautifully.”
As a roué in chains in the ponderous Bette Davis epic All This and Heaven, Too (1940), Boyer’s mind seems to be elsewhere (on the start of World War II, to be precise); he looked at the tempestuous Margaret Sullavan with interest, even alarm, in Back Street (1941) and Appointment for Love (1941); and he encouraged Joan Fontaine’s most heartfelt palpitations in The Constant Nymph (1943). But he also remained alert to more challenging roles, like the stranded gigolo in Mitchell Leisen’s terrific Hold Back the Dawn (1941), a bitter opportunist at the end of his rope that Boyer never softens. To get into America, he seduces gullible schoolmarm Olivia de Havilland, telling her in his best Pepe le Moko voice that she’s like “a sudden breeze on a stifling day.” As this desperate, aging user, Boyer lets us see the mechanics of heartless seduction, then slowly starts to show this tough man’s infinitesimal twinges of conscience as he realizes just how sweet and sexy de Havilland is.
Boyer’s hints of darker urges in Hold Back the Dawn were encouraged to flower into full evil bloom by George Cukor in Gaslight (1944), where the shell of standard Gallic charm conceals a haughty, cold sadist, tormenting his wife Ingrid Bergman so he can get at her dead aunt’s jewels. It’s really an unlikely story, but Boyer makes you believe he could hold a woman in his thrall by abusing her; he makes his face into a mask that gives away almost nothing, only glimmers of wounded pride escape under the cover of his condescending concern. This is a man who is incapable of remorse, a sociopath, and Boyer uses his hypnotic voice to stab at his wife: every time he says her name (“Paula” comes out as “Po-la”), it feels like another blow landing on some soft part of her anatomy. In the last scene, when he is being led off to jail, Boyer’s murderer speaks of his obsession with jewels, his eyes moving to the side and glinting, as if he can see them sparkling in front of him. Gaslight rivals Conquest and Liliom as an example of Boyer’s finest work on screen.
More fine work was to come: Boyer, looking puffy and tired, made a very moving burnt-out but still lightly smoldering case in a Graham Greene adaptation, The Confidential Agent (1945). Eventually, he gave up his Great Lover masquerade, so that in Otto Preminger’s grim, clinical The Thirteenth Letter (1951), Boyer is without toupee, scruffy, bearded, well into middle age, and never better as an actor and even a moral presence. “Humanity I love, but not crowds,” Boyer says, as a wise priest in Douglas Sirk’s superb and still under-seen The First Legion (1951), providing a steady center for Sirk’s outrageous investigation of religion. And Boyer’s general good luck with auteurs reached its height when he was reunited with Danielle Darrieux for Max Ophul’s justly famed The Earrings of Madame de . . . (1953, above), playing a conventional, even likable man who tries and fails to cure his wife’s romantic longings with official, military methods, the one-time great lover movingly perplexed by the specter of love and the devastation it leaves in its wake.
The Earrings of Madame de . . . is the height of Boyer’s career, capping almost twenty years of treasurable work. After that, his opportunities grew limited, and he appeared in many films that were beneath his stature, dreck like Love Is a Ball (1963) and The Day the Hot Line Got Hot (1969). Boyer retreated for a time, re-emerging to steal Alain Resnais’ elegant Stavisky (1974), and finishing his career with a small scene in Vincente Minnelli’s A Matter of Time (1976). In the midst of that misbegotten project, Boyer brought enormous dignity and reflectiveness to his sketchy role, where he offers support to a peacock-like woman (Ingrid Bergman) one more time. He’s clearly elderly and physically weak here, but plays all kinds of deep, disappointed emotions under and around his clichéd lines, then sadly takes leave of both women and movies, which, to him, and to us, were often the same thing.
Boyer’s personal luck deserted him in 1965 when his beloved only son Michael killed himself over a break-up with his girlfriend. He and his wife Pat never recovered. One of the couple’s friends later said, “Pat, who was always winking and beaming and laughing, and flashing those pretty teeth. Now years could pass and she wouldn’t smile.” When Pat developed cancer, Boyer told her doctor, “She must never know,” as if he was repeating a bad movie line he remembered. Pat died without realizing she was really ill, and on August 26, 1978, two days after her funeral, Boyer killed himself by taking an overdose of barbiturates. Thus, a happy and productive personal and artistic life ended in uncomfortable melodrama, more Mayerling than Love Affair. It’s what his fatalism had always been waiting for, perhaps.
His death showed his essential calm and seriousness, too; John Cromwell, his director on Algiers, said, “If you were in a group of people and saw an atomic bomb falling down on you, Charles Boyer would be the one not to panic.” At Boyer’s funeral was his best co-star, Irene Dunne. In a late interview, Dunne recounted a time she had been talking to Boyer about seeing Love Affair again. She said, “You know, Charles, you were really good.” In reply (and you can imagine his face as he said it, his eyes shining with irony), he joked, “Ah, so you finally looked at me.” It’s time we all finally did look more closely at Charles Boyer, the best partner so many actresses ever had, and a performer whose dedicated work shows his impeccable taste, his admirable discretion, and the kind of range that can make for a scheming third-rate musician or Napoleon and every other man in between.