In Hollywood of the early 1930s, no one epitomized the romantic charm of France and continental sophistication of Paris better than Maurice Chevalier. The popular singer and nightclub entertainer had made his American film debut in the early sound era, where his boulevardier persona and lilting accent helped make him a major star in Ernst Lubitsch’s witty musical comedies.
But Chevalier was getting tired of playing what he called “the same old fellow,” the seductive Frenchman sweeping women off their feet and into bed with a smile and wink, and he was battling Irving Thalberg over his MGM assignments when Fox producer Darryl F. Zanuck offered him the lead in Folies Bergre de Paris (1935), a musical comedy that moves from the Paris stage to the world of high society and high finance and back. Zanuck had negotiated the film rights for the legendary Paris show palace and developed the film (based on the play The Red Cat) for Charles Boyer. When Boyer declined, Chevalier took the part.
The film offered Chevalier the opportunity to play two different roles: Folies Bergre headliner Eugene Charlier, a singer famed for his impersonation of Parisian millionaire Baron Fernand Cassini, and the banker and notorious womanizer Cassini himself. British beauty Merle Oberon (in one of her earliest American films) co-stars as Cassini’s wife in “the perfect modern marriage” (they each go their own way) and Ann Sothern is Charlier’s pathologically jealous girlfriend. The two men flirt with one another’s partners, of course, but the play of mistaken and swapped identities gets comically complicated as identities are swapped back and forth and the women use the confusion to play their own games.
The choreography by Dave Gould is right out of the Busby Berkeley playbook, with sets that expand back from the proscenium arch of the physical stage into impossibly epic spaces, dancers that multiply into small armies, overhead cameras that look down on a chorus forming elaborate geometric patterns, and increasingly abstract and surreal sets. The opening number sends Chevalier dancing through a downpour that covers half the stage, and the film ends with the Academy Award-winning “Straw Hat” number, an elaborate set piece built around Chevalier’s trademark boater hat, which becomes the basis for crazy props and massive sets inspired by the texture of the simple straw hat.
Plays on Thursday, March 7 on TCM