How Charles Boyer Died for Love

A theme begins to emerge on Travalanche this week which I was about to call coincidental, though it surely isn’t, for undoubtedly it’s more a reflection on the predilections of the author of this blog. This lofty subject for reflection is “cartoon characters based on real people”. For just as Bert Lahr provided inspiration for Daws Butler’s characterization of Snagglepuss, French-American actor Charles Boyer (1899-1978) was the model for Mel Blanc’s amorous (some might say even “rapey”) Gallic skunk Pepe Le Pew.

The character also draws a little from Boyer’s friend and countryman Maurice Chevalier, but mostly from Boyer, as even an elementary familiarity with both stars, who were quite different from one another, confirms. Both embodied the “French lover” ideal for international audiences. But Chevalier was above all a song and dance man, a guy who kept it light. He starred in musicals and farces and sang in cabarets. Boyer didn’t sing (in fact, when he released a popular record album of long songs in 1966, he speak-sang them like Rex Harrison or Richard Harris. Both men had thick accents, but it was Boyer’s deep, rich tones that Blanc emulated. “Come wiz me to the Casbah! We will make beautiful music to-gez-air!” In matters of the heart, Boyer’s characters were darker and more serious. If Chevalier was about flings and playing the field, Boyer was about obsessive passion. He too was a seducer and a heart throb, but there was more of a tragic dimension to his overtures. When he fooled around he wasn’t fooling around!

Boyer’s character in Algiers (1938) had been “Pepe le Moko”, the clear and obvious model for Pepe le Pew. I dwell on this of course because the cartoon has eclipsed the source in popular memory. Now that the connection is established we can begin to widen the picture. As with fine dining, it was all about the pairings. Boyer appeared opposite Hedy LaMar in Algiers, just as he had co-starred with Dietrich in The Garden of Allah (1936), Garbo in Conquest (1937), and Loretta Young in Shanghai (1935) and would appear with Irene Dunne in Love Affair (1939), Bette Davis in All This and Heaven Too (1940), and Joan Fontaine in The Constant Nymph (1943). There were tons more like this. Ironically one of his better remembered team-ups, Gaslight (1944) with Ingrid Bergman was against type, much as Hitchcock had done with Cary Grant in Suspicion. Later stuff from the classic period included Confidential Agent (1945) with Lauren Bacall, Lubitsch’s Cluny Brown (1946) with Jennifer Jones, and Arch of Triumph (1948) with Bergman.

Naturally Boyer was initially (and ever after) a star in his home country both on stage and screen. Some of his first work for Hollywood had been in French language versions of their American films, as was common practice in the early days of talkies. He played the Chester Morris character in the French version of The Big House and the H.B. Warner character in The Trial of Mary Dugan, both for MGM in 1931. He was in both the French and English versions of Caravan (1934). Red-Headed Woman (1932) with Harlow was one of his first English language movies. But he periodically returned to France to act in pictures there, including Fritz Lang’s Liliom (1934), and Nana (1955).

In 1952, he became one of the “Four Stars” in CBS television’s Four Star Playhouse along with Dick Powell, David Niven, and Ida Lupino. Later roles included things like Vincent Minnelli’s The Cobweb (1955), Around the World in 80 Days (1956), DeMille’s posthumous The Buccaneer (1958), Joshua Logan’s Fanny (1961). In his mature years, a lot of the fare was lighter and not unlike the sort of stuff Chevalier was doing at the same time, things like How to Steal a Million (1966), Casino Royale (1967), and Neil Simon’s Barefoot in the Park (1967). Sadly, a couple of his final films were famous musical bombs, Lost Horizon (1973) and Minnelli’s A Matter of Time (1976).

But there was developments far sadder to plague Boyer’s last years, both of them not unrelated to this great theme of romantic love. Contrary to his image (and the way things typically happen in Hollywood) the great love of his life was none of his famous leading ladies, but his wife, English actress Eliza “Pat” Paterson, whom he’d married in 1934. The best remembered of Paterson’s 21 films is her last one Idiot’s Delight (1939) with Clark Gable and Norma Shearer. War broke out in Europe shortly after that. The Boyers devoted themselves to the war effort first in Europe, then back in the states. Boyer became an American citizen in 1942, a natural step in those days when France had fallen into the Nazi sphere of influence In late 1943 the Boyers had their only child, Michael Charles Boyer.

Michael was only 21 years old when he fatally shot himself in the head in fall of 1965 after being dumped by his girlfriend. Did he take his father’s films too seriously? It’s certainly the kind of thing Boyer’s characters would threaten to do, although Hollywood films seldom went that dark. At any rate, that unimaginable sadness had to have cast a shadow over the couple’s last years. Then, in 1978, one last sadness for Boyer when Pat, his wife of 44 years, died of cancer. Overcome with grief, Boyer took a fatal overdose of sleeping pills two days later.

L’amour c’est mieux que la vie!