French singer, actor, and vaudeville performer Maurice Auguste Chevalier was born on September 12, 1888. His greatest hit was “Thank Heaven for Little Girls” from the movie Gigi (1958), for which film he earned an honorary Academy Award for his contributions to entertainment. He was always dapper, sporting a boater and tuxedo on stage, as in this episode of the Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour, also from 1958. He was a POW during World War II, but was released due to the efforts of his former vaudeville partner, Mistinguett, a close friend of the king of Spain. During his time as a prisoner, he learned English, which served him well when he expanded his performances to the London stage. He eventually made his way to Hollywood where he won an Oscar in 1930 for his roles in The Love Parade (1929) and The Big Pond (1930).
His success sat uneasily on his shoulders. Chevalier earned a reputation for being tight-fisted. He was friends with fellow Frenchman Charles Boyer, who enjoyed introducing the humbly-born Chevalier to art and literature. He always exaggerated his French accent when speaking English, although his accent was actually quite American. During World War II, he sang in the POW camp where he had been held and secured the release of 10 prisoners in exchange for his performance. He was accused, but cleared of being a collaborator, but a bad odor lingered, making him unpopular in England for a time. Then he marched with the Communists, making him unpopular in the United States during the McCarthy era. Yet, his biggest commercials successes were in the post-war era. In 1970, he was persuaded to leave retirement to lend his voice to the theme song for Disney’s Aristocats. He died on New Year’s Day 1972 in his home outside of Paris and the age of 83.
Today’s expression, courir les filles (coorear lay fee) literally means “to run the girls” but figuratively means to be a skirt chaser. Whenever I hear “Thank Heaven for Little Girls” I must confess that’s what I think of!