Ambassador of French gaiety and charm, Maurice Chevalier lent his unique joi de vivre to Disney live-action motion pictures including In Search of the Castaways in 1962, in which he played jocular Professor Jacques Paganel, and Monkeys, Go Home! in 1967, portraying Father Sylvain.
Born in Paris on September 12, 1888, Maurice was the youngest of nine children. He broke into entertainment at the age of 12 to help support his family, performing first as an acrobat and then as a singer and hoofer. At the age of 21 in 1909, his zestful appeal won him a stage job with the Folies Bergère, as the revue partner of legendary musical star Mistinguett. Around the same time, he debuted in silent French films, but the stage always remained his first love.
Drafted into the French army in 1913, World War I interrupted his gait. Wounded and captured by the Germans, Maurice spent two years in a prisoner of war camp. The silver lining was that he had the chance to learn English from a fellow prisoner, as well as his ultimate decoration with a Croix de Guerre.
Returning to the French stage, Maurice became a top-billed star of music halls. His trademark straw hat and bow tie, suggestive swagger and twinkling eyes, ultimately led him to Hollywood, where he became a sophisticated star of early romantic screen classics, including Ernst Lubitsch’s The Love Parade and The Merry Widow.
In 1935, he returned to France to continue his career in English and French motion pictures, including The Beloved Vagabond in 1936 and L’Homme du Jour in 1937.
By the late 1950s, Maurice returned to the United States to star in many popular motion pictures, including Billy Wilder’s Love in the Afternoon and Gigi, in which he sang the unforgettable song “Thank Heaven for Little Girls.” In 1958, he received a special Academy Award® “for his contributions to the world of entertainment for more than half a century.”
When he first stepped onto the Disney Studio lot, the actor’s career had already spanned more than 60 years, but his enthusiasm kept him young and he continued to light up the screen with his larger-than-life persona.
And Maurice, whose early career included stand-up comedy, never lost his sense of humor. As he told former Los Angeles Times film critic Charles Champlin during the filming of Monkeys, Go Home! “Since I’ve come back to Hollywood to play old men, the role of Father Sylvain is the most robust part I have. It will be the best—unless the monkeys steal the picture completely.”
In 1970, Maurice came out of retirement for Disney to sing the title song of the animated motion picture The Aristocats. Maurice passed away two years later, on January 1, 1972, in Paris.