When I hear the name Charles Boyer, who is currently (July 2008) being honored by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) with the series “The Discreet Charm of Charles Boyer,” I immediately think of my maternal grandmother. Thirty years ago, Boyer, a couple of days before his 79th birthday, took his own life following the death of his wife, Pat Paterson. (Boyer's only son had killed himself at the age of 21 in 1965.) I still remember my grandmother's visibly saddened face as she heard of his passing. “Aaaahhh,” she sighed. “Charles Boyer…”
I was quite young at the time and knew very little about Boyer. I couldn't figure out the reason for that long-suffering “Aaaahhh.” She then went on to explain her passion Boyer to me. It went something like this:
"Charles Boyer was a great, great actor. He was Marcel Pagnol's Cesar. He was Emile Zola's Comte Muffat. He was Napoleon. He was Archduke Rudolph of Austria. He was Pepe le Moko. He was the High Lama. He was a horny monk in the desert. He made love to Greta Garbo (right, in Conquest), Danielle Darrieux, Merle Oberon, Katharine Hepburn, Gaby Morlay, Hedy Lamarr, Jennifer Jones, Michèle Morgan, Olivia de Havilland, Loretta Young, Irene Dunne, Jean Arthur, Annabella, Joan Fontaine, Lauren Bacall, Martine Carol, Claudette Colbert. He lusted after Marlene Dietrich. He intimidated Bette Davis. He got shot because of Rita Hayworth. He almost drove Ingrid Bergman nuts. He almost drove me nuts. He had those eyes. Aaaahhh, those eyes. He was a great actor … And he had those eyes…”
At the time, I wondered what my grandfather thought of all this. But however he felt about his French competitor, he was not alone.
From the early 1930s to the early 1950s, Charles Boyer, the personification of the suave, sophisticated, romantic Frenchman, tore the hearts of millions of women – and, I'm assuming, of some men, as well – all over the world. From the mid-50s on, Boyer's roles became generally smaller; his romanticism almost a send-up of the debonair-ness of his younger self. (I mean, he charmed Mildred Natwick [!] in Barefoot in the Park.) But in his heyday, Boyer was it for the non-Clark Gable, non-Errol Flynn, non-Tyrone Power crowd.
Admittedly, the young Boyer's charms have completely eluded me. Unlike my grandmother, if I see a guy with “bedroom eyes” I think he's probably sleepy and needs rest – not sex.
Watching Boyer romance Irene Dunne in Love Affair (above, 1939), I couldn't avoid comparing his style to that of Cary Grant (the star of the 1957 remake, An Affair to Remember), whose get-the-girl technique I've always found more amusing – if not necessarily more convincing – than Boyer's. I had no sympathy for Ingrid Bergman in Gaslight (1944) because I felt that only a fool could fall so blindly in love with someone so obviously untrustworthy as Boyer's psychopath. I couldn't understand Marlene Dietrich's obsession with Boyer's lustful (and gloomy) monk in The Garden of Allah (1936). And why would Danielle Darrieux want to have herself killed so as to spend eternity next to Boyer's Austrian Archduke in Mayerling (1936)? If it had been Jean-Pierre Aumont, ok, I could get her self-sacrifice – but Charles Boyer?
My lack of enthusiasm for Boyer began to waiver when I saw him playing an Indian politician in the now-forgotten thriller-cum-melodrama Thunder in the East (1951). And then my way of looking at Boyer changed radically after a screening of a restored print of Max Ophüls' The Earrings of Madame de… (1952), in which a very middle-aged Boyer plays Danielle Darrieux's cuckolded husband. (Vittorio De Sica is the third party involved in the tragic triangle.) There is absolutely nothing sleepy about Boyer's aristocratic Général André de… – cold, menacing, full of (barely) contained fury; in fact, Boyer's star turn happens to be one of the greatest film performances of all time in one of the greatest romantic movies ever made. The Earrings of Madame de…, which will be screened on July 26, is not to be missed.
I'd also particularly recommend the Ernst Lubitsch-directed Cluny Brown (1946), in which Boyer co-stars with Jennifer Jones; Marcel L'Herbier's little-seen Le Bonheur (1934); Douglas Sirk's The First Legion (1951), with Boyer as the head of a Jesuit seminary dealing with what looks like a miraculous healing; and Richard Fleischer's nostalgia-filled The Happy Time (1952). Co-star Marsha Hunt, as perky as ever, will be present at the screening. (See full schedule below.)
The series “The Discreet Charm of Charles Boyer,” which runs until July 26, was developed in collaboration with the Film Society of Lincoln Center with the support of the French Ministry of External Affairs and the Los Angeles Film and TV Office of the Consulate Generale de France.
The Discreet Charm of Charles Boyer
Schedule and synopses from the LACMA website
July 11 | 7:30 pm
This classic tale of a shipboard romance that ends when the lovers fail to rendezvous at the top of the Empire State Building is beautifully played by both Boyer and Dunne, shrouded in atmosphere by master cinematographer Rudolph Maté, and sensitively directed by McCarey, who years later remade the film as An Affair to Remember.
1939/b&w/87 min. | Scr: Delmer Daves, Donald Ogden Stewart; dir: Leo McCarey; w/ Charles Boyer, Irene Dunne
July 11 | 9:10 pm
As the down-and-out gigolo stuck in a Mexican border town, Boyer employs his trademark charm in a calculated effort to marry naive school teacher de Havilland and gain entry to the United State s. Nominated for six Academy Awards including Best Picture and Best Actress.
July 12 | 7:30 pm
At the age of thirty-five, Boyer confirmed his status as a romantic lead with a dark side by taking on the role of Liliom, a carnival barker who is shot during a robbery and who is allowed to return to earth for one day to make amends to his wife and child. Fritz Lang's adaptation of a play by Ferenc Molnár is the German director's only film in French, and features a great early score by Franz Waxman (Rebecca, A Place in the Sun).
New print courtesy Fox Archive
1934/b&w/118 min. | Scr: Robert Liebmann; dir: Fritz Lang; w/ Charles Boyer, Madeleine Ozeray
A Woman's Vengeance
July 12 | 9:40 pm
The anguish of unrequited love is the real subject of this taut courtroom drama about a dislikable British squire (Boyer) sentenced to hang for the murder of his sickly wife. A wonderful film with a marvelous cast and a brilliantly written screenplay by LSD guru Aldous Huxley.
July 18 | 7:30 pm
In this gossamer-light romantic drama, a wealthy American woman (Arthur) falls in love with a charming Parisian headwaiter (Boyer), only to be thwarted by her insanely jealous husband. “A profound expression of Borzage's commitment to love over probability.” – Andrew Sarris.
1937/b&w/97 min. | Scr: Gene Towne, Graham Baker; dir: Frank Borzage; w/ Charles Boyer; Jean Arthur
July 18 | 9:20 pm
Cukor called this gothic chiller about a greedy Victorian husband trying to drive his wife insane in a gaslit London mansion “a movie in the best movie tradition … the scenario seems to move up and down and around.” Among the film's seven Oscar nominations were Best Picture, Best Actor, and Best Actress, which Bergman won.
1944/b&w/114 min. | Scr: John Van Druten, Walter Reisch, John L. Balderston; dir: George Cukor; w/ Charles Boyer, Ingrid Bergman, Joseph Cotten, Angela Lansbury
July 19 | 7:30 pm
Boyer is superb as an educated anarchist who attempts to kill a music hall chanteuse (Morlay) whose repertoire includes “Le Bonheur,” a.k.a. “Happiness.” For his crime he is given eighteen months' jail time and on his release discovers that his story will be turned into a movie. An enigmatic and complex film from one of the prominent figures of the French avant-garde of the 1920s, featuring a comic turn by Michel Simon, as a limp-wristed art director, and an early appearance of Jean Marais.
Print courtesy the Bureau du cinema, Paris
1934/b&w/98 min. | Scr: Michel Duran . Marcel L'Herbier; dir: L'Herbier; w/ Charles Boyer; Gaby Morlay, Michel Simon
The First Legion
July 19 | 9:20 pm
Boyer gives one of his best performances as the head of a Jesuit seminary and a former lawyer who questions the miracle that occurs when a crippled priest suddenly rises from his bed and walks.
1951/b&w/86 min. | Scr: Emmet Lavery; dir: Douglas Sirk; w/ Charles Boyer, William Demarest, Barbara Rush
July 25 | 7:30 pm
The last film with the fabled “Lubitsch touch” is a bubbly satire-romance, set in pre-World War II England, that pairs Czech writer-refugee Boyer with plumber's daughter Jones, the maid at the genteel country manor where he is staying. Lubitsch takes shots at the insular upper-class British world of gardening, tea parties and gossip, until Jones and Boyer upset the apple cart and bring some spirit into the household.
1945/b&w/100 min. | Scr: Samuel Hoffenstein, Elizabeth Reinhardt; dir: Ernst Lubitsch; w/ Charles Boyer, Jennifer Jones
The Happy Time
July 25 | 9:20 pm | Special guest: Marsha Hunt
This fine film version of a stage hit portrays a warm, fun-loving, French-Canadian family living in Ottawa and captures the coming of age of the innocent twelve-year-old boy Bibi. In one of his favorite films, Boyer plays the boy's father, a kindly man who sees his son through his first romantic crisis. Richard Fleischer directs with elan.
1952/b&w/92 min. | Scr: Earl Felton; dir: Richard Fleischer; w/ Charles Boyer, Louis Jordan, Marsha Hunt
The Earrings of Madame de…
July 26 | 7:30 pm
As the earrings of Madame de… travel a circuitous route from one owner to the next, an entire world comes to life – the world of the French aristocracy during the Belle Èpoque, particularly the interior world shared by Madame de…, her proud husband, and her soft, charming lover. Ophüls' masterpiece, easily one of the greatest films ever made, has all the trappings of romantic cinema, but its fluid camera takes us beyond the film's glittering surfaces (“only superficially superficial,” as Boyer so aptly puts it) to the raw feelings surging beneath – and ultimately into the spiritually redemptive territory of grand passion. Darrieux, Boyer and de Sica did their greatest work in this towering film. “The Earrings of Madame de… glitters and dazzles… The film is famous for its elaborate camera movements, its graceful style, its sets, its costumes and of course, its jewelry. We sit in admiration of Ophüls' visual display, so fluid and intricate. Then to our surprise we find ourselves caring. His films are one of the great pleasures of the cinema.” – Roger Ebert.
1953/b&w/105 min. | Scr: Marcel Achard, Max Ophüls, Annette Wademant; dir: Max Ophüls; w/ Charles Boyer, Danielle Darrieux, Vittorio De Sica
July 26 | 9:25 pm
Politics trumps love in the on-again, off-again affair between Napoleon Bonaparte and Polish countess Marie Walewska, who bears him a son he never knew. For his uncanny portrayal of Napoleon, Boyer received an Oscar nomination, becoming Garbo's first co-star to steal her thunder.
1937/b&w/113 min. | Scr: Samuel Hoffenstein, Salka Viertel, S. N. Behrman; dir: Clarence Brown; w/ Charles Boyer, Greta Garbo
Tickets are $10; $7 for LACMA members, seniors (62+), and students with valid ID. Price includes both films in a double bill except where noted. Tickets to the second film on a double bill are $5 and are only available at the museum box office prior to the screening. Tuesday Matinees: $2; $1 seniors (62+). Please note: Many programs sell out. Tickets are on sale now and may be purchased at the museum box office (323 857-6010). All films and guests are subject to change and many films are unrated and may not be appropriate for younger viewers. For more information or to check current programs, call the museum box office at (323) 857-6010, visit www.lacma.org or subscribe to the Film Department's e-newsletter by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.