Charles Boyer: Many critics argue that Charles Boyer‘s success in Hollywood is due to the appeal of being a Frenchman. We would suppose that the appeal of Frenchmen is that they are so much like Charles Boyer.
Ever since the Marquis de Lafayette and later the pirate Jean Laffite stepped in to aid the newly formed United States, Americans have gone absolutely bonkers for Frenchmen. This was especially true during the Golden Age of Hollywood. Whenever the chips were down in a picture, the doughty Frenchman could be depended upon to flip away his cigarette butt, whisper “c’est la Guerre”, and rush headlong into the fight. When his British or even American cousins had their full attention on the trivialities of business, the Frenchman would have the savoir-faire to think “Cherchez la femme” and give any available lady the attention she needed.
American Cinema’s prototypical Frenchmen was Charles Boyer, although the case could be made that moviegoers enjoyed romantic Frenchmen because they were reminded of Charles Boyer. In the dialect of Southern France, the surname “Boyer” means cowherd. Charles was born in the small town of Figeac in 1899, his father a merchant. Young Charles was a basically shy boy who learned to express himself by watching plays and movies. During the Great War, he worked as a hospital orderly and was popular with the soldiers for performing comic sketches in the wards.
Boyer’s father helped him to get into the Sorbonne where he studied Philosophy, but he gave more attention to his budding show business career and trying to get into the Paris Conservatory. A stage manager noticed how well he memorized lines and helped to get understudy work. Charles became an overnight success when he appeared in the 1920 play La Bataille, winning more stage work as well as establishing himself in French silent cinema.
Hollywood reached out to Boyer for the first time to star in the French language version of MGM’s groundbreaking prison film The Big House (1930, the French version was Révolte dans la prison, not L’homme du large which was Boyer’s 1920 cinematic debut). He would appear in a few English language films, including Jean Harlow‘s racy Red Headed Woman (1932) before returning to France. For the next several years he worked alternately in France and Hollywood as his Star continued to shine ever brighter. His classic role of Pepe le Moko in Walter Wagner’s Algiers (1938, United Artists), costarred Hedy Lamarr and Sigrid Currie. This is the film that attached him to the line “Come with me to the Casbah”, although Boyer never uttered those words on the screen.
When France declared War on Germany in 1939, Boyer was in Nice, France, to make a pirate picture. The film was never finished, and Charles immediately volunteered with the French Army, although by November the government convinced him to accept a discharge and return to Hollywood where he would have a greater effect on the War Effort. He would receive an Honorary Oscar Certificate for establishing the French Research Foundation and became a naturalized American Citizen in 1942.
Although there is no denying Boyer’s savoir-faire, he was a small man (shorter than many of his leading ladies) with a noticeable paunch and he began losing his hair at an early age. He wore a toupee while working, but in public proudly displayed this magnificent Gallic dome. Back in 1934, he met British actress Pat Paterson at a dinner party, they fell in love and became engaged within two weeks, marrying three months later. Socially, Boyer described himself as “a stick in the mud” who would rather stay at home and read than engage in the Hollywood nightclub scene. He and Pat moved from Tinsel Town to Paradise Valley, Arizona.
Boyer’s gregarious and fun-loving demeanor made him a popular guest on several radio variety programs, and he was a popular target of Gracie Allen’s flirtations. He reprised several of his film roles for Lux Hollywood Theatre as well as other parts. In 1950, NBC gave him his own radio program, Presenting Charles Boyer.
Although he often played an unattached Continental bon vivant, Boyer’s loyalty to his wife, Pat was boundless, and they had a son, Michael Charles, in 1943. In 1960, he was honored with two Stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame for Motion Pictures and for Television. Tragedy struck in 1965 after Michael Charles broke up with a girlfriend, he committed suicide by playing Russian Roulette. Pat succumbed to cancer in 1978, Two days later, on August 26, 1978, Charles Boyer took a fatal dose of Seconal. It was two days before his 79th birthday. Charles Boyer‘s Stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame are at 6306 and 6308 Hollywood Blvd.