Louis Jourdan: Not Just a French Playboy

louis jourdan 1947 - by john miehleTo many moviegoers he was the heir to the big-screen tradition of the smooth-talking French lover, epitomized by 1930s matinee idols Maurice Chevalier and Charles Boyer. But throughout his career Louis Jourdan–who passed away earlier this month at the age of 93–chafed at being pigeonholed as charming playboys and did his best to seek out more dramatic and darker roles. And so it was that the man who fell in love with Leslie Caron’s courtesan-in-training in Gigi and got into a romantic triangle with Shirley MacLaine and Frank Sinatra in Can-Can also menaced Doris Day in Julie, prowled the night as Count Dracula, threatened James Bond in Octopussy, and even fought a once-human muck monster in Swamp Thing.

He was born Louis Henri Gendre (he would borrow his mother’s maiden name for his professional surname) in Marseilles in June of 1921. The son of a hotel owner, he learned English from assisting guests and began to study acting in his late teens with René Simon at the École Dramatique. Jourdan was set to make his screen debut in 1939, alongside Charles Boyer in Le Corsaire, but production was halted due to the start of World War II. During the war he found intermittent movie work (including an uncredited turn alongside his brother Pierre in 1943’s The Heart of a Nation, which was smuggled out of Europe and later shown in the U.S. as Immortal France), spent a year digging ditches and doing road work in a German labor gang, and–after his father was arrested by the Gestapo–joined his siblings in the French Resistance, helping print and distribute underground leaflets.

LETTER FROM AN UNKNOWN WOMANAfter the war ended, his performances caught the attention of a talent scout for independent U.S. producer David O. Selznick, and Jourdan eagerly signed a contract and headed to America. His first Hollywood role came in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1947 thriller The Paradine Case. It was the final film the director would make for Selznick, and the two clashed over the casting of Jourdan as secretive valet Andre Latour (Hitchcock feeling that the young actor’s “pretty-pretty boy” looks “destroyed the whole point of the film.”).  Paired with a fellow Frenchman–director Max Ophuls–for his sophomore project, 1948’s Letter from an Unknown Woman, Jourdan was superb as an egotistical concert pianist whose life, over the course of several decades, fatefully intertwines with that of the young woman (Joan Fontaine) obsessed with him.

Key roles in the late ’40s and early ’50s included Rudolphe, the aristocratic lover of married heroine Emma Bovary (Jennifer Jones), in MGM’s adaptation of Flaubert’s controversial novel Madame Bovary (1949); Andre, the French student who travels to Polynesia and begins a domed romance with native beauty Kalua (Debra Paget) in 1951’s Bird of Paradise; and in a reunion with Fontaine in the bawdy anthology drama Decameron Nights (1953). He even managed to finally co-star with Boyer, courtesy of 1952’s The Happy Time, about a French-Canadian family living in Ottawa.

THREE COINS IN THE FOUNTAIN1954 found him cast as a womanizing prince who meets an American secretary (Maggie McNamara) on vacation in Rome in the classic soaper Three Coins in the Fountain (1954). Later in ’54, Jourdan switched from movies to the stage, making his Broadway debut in the short-lived drama The Immortalist. Based on an André Gide novel, the controversial look at a gay archeologist who marries a woman and takes her on a honeymoon in Algeria also featured Geraldine Page and James Dean (who apparently quit on opening night when Elia Kazan offered him the lead in East of Eden). Louis jumped to another medium–television–the following year, co-starring with Claude Dauphin in Paris Precinct, a French/U.S. crime series which aired stateside on ABC in early 1955.

Louis was a dedicated royal tutor who is used by his charges’ beautiful older sister, princess Grace Kelly (soon to become a princess in real life), in a ploy to make a would-be suitor jealous in 1956’s The Swan. A decidedly less sympathetic Jourdan appeared next in the implausible yet irresistible suspenser Julie, where he was the insanely jealous second husband of former airline stewardess Doris Day, who rightfully fears for her life when she figures out who was responsible for her first spouse’s death. Later that year he went back to France and teamed with continental sex kitten Brigitte Bardot in the racy comedy Her Bridal Night.

gigi 2In 1958 Jourdan got the role for which he is probably best remembered: fin de siècle Parisian playboy Gaston, who is schooled in the art of finding a good wife and a good mistress by his worldly uncle Honoré (Maurice Chevalier) but along the way becomes enamored of Leslie Caron’s title gamin, in the classic MGM musical Gigi. 1959’s The Best of Everything, a “trio of BFFs learns hard lessons about love” sudser in the tradition of Three Coins in the Fountain, had Louis as a callous, womanizing stage director who beds then abandons typist/would-be actress Suzy Parker, with tragic consequences. He was a judge who becomes smitten with “scandalous” nightclub dance Shirley MacLaine in Can-Can (1960), and was a suitably swashbuckling Edmond Dantes in a 1961 French remake of The Count of Monte Cristo (he would later play the villainous de Villefort in a 1976 made-for-TV version starring Richard Chamberlain).

BEST OF EVERYTHING, THEA fog-bound Heathrow Airport was the setting for 1963’s The V.I.P.s, where Jourdan is a sophisticated rake who convinces his latest conquest, an actress (Elizabeth Taylor), into leaving her millionaire husband (Richard Burton) and running off with him…or at least tries to convince her (darn that fog!).  He was a Parisian fashion designer who sets his sights on naïve American gal Ann-Margret when she comes to France on a buying trip for her clothing store employer in the 1966 comedy Made in Paris, co-starring Edie Adams and Chad Everett. The City of Lights was also the setting for another romantic romp, 1968’s A Flea in Her Ear, in which Jourdan gets mixed up in the suspicions and misunderstandings of married couple Rex Harrison and Rosemary Harris.

Jourdan’s big-screen appearance were less frequent in the late ’60s and ’70s, while he was becoming a familiar presence on American TV. He guest-starred on such series as The F.B.I., Columbo, Charlie’s Angels and Vega$,  and even lent his voice to an episode of the cartoon Scooby-Doo and Scrappy-Doo! Meanwhile, he headlined such telefilms as Run a Crooked Mile (1969) with Mary Tyler Moore, The Man in the Iron Mask (1977) as  D’artganan, and most memorably as Bram’s Stoker’s undying, bloodsucking nobleman in a British production, Count Dracula (1977). He also returned to Broadway in 1978 in the comedy 13 Rue de l’Amour (Jourdan would re-team with his Gigi co-star Caron in various road productions of the play.).

SWAMP THINGAnother dip in the horror genre came in 1982, when Louis got the chance to camp it up as the sinister scientist Dr. Anton Arcane in director Wes Craven’s Swamp Thing, a bayou-based shocker based on the popular DC Comics series. He must have enjoyed spending time in the marshes, because Jourdan was back as the malevolent Arcane in the 1989 follow-up, The Return of Swamp Thing. Another key villainous role was courtesy of the long-running James Bond film franchise, when he appeared as exiled Afghan prince Kamal Khan, who is working with a renegade Soviet general and to smuggle a nuclear device into West Germany and detonate it, in the 1983 Roger Moore entry Octopussy. Jourdan, in fact, was a good friend of series producer Albert “Cubby” Broccoli and had been considered for the role of Drax in Moonraker four years earlier.

Following a performance as yet another nasty scientist–this time one trying to possess a priceless bottle of early 19th-century wine believed to hold the key to rejuvenation–in the unsuccessful 1992 comedy/thriller The Year of the Comet, Jourdan retired from the movies and lived a relatively quiet life in Beverly Hills with his childhood sweetheart Berthe Frédérique. The couple were married from 1946 until her death in 2014; their only child, Louis Henry Jourdan, died from a drug overdose at the age of 29 in 1981.

It’s a little ironic that the suave ladies’ man who once said “I don’t want to be perpetually cooing in a lady’s ear. There’s not much satisfaction in it.” would wind up passing away on Valentine’s Day, but that’s what happened earlier this month. In another interview, the actor explained that he never watched his own films when they appeared on television, saying “I click them away. Hollywood created an image and I long ago reconciled myself with it. I was the French cliché.” As his body of work shows, Louis Jourdan was indeed much more than that.