Louis Jourdan 1940s Biography
Another Start in Films
Louis Jourdan's first complete motion picture was “Untel Père et Fils” (AKA “Immortal France”). Finished in June 1940, the film became caught up in international events, and wasn't released until three years later (in the US - and in France, not until after the end of World War II).
Moreover, as with the photograph from “Le Corsaire” identified as his brother when prominently published on the back cover of the French film magazine Cinemonde in April 1940, the credit for Louis Jourdan's part as Christian (the clean-cut young doctor about to marry as war threatens at the end of “Untel Père et Fils”) was erroneously given to Pierre Jourdan (who actually played Christian's brother Jean).
May 1940 saw France experience an awesome and numbing shock to its national psyche when the Nazis seized control of the country, subjecting all its citizens to a new Reign of Terror.
Another Unreleased Film
At the time, shooting of “Untel Père et Fils” was just concluding, and Louis Jourdan was about to start another movie that was never realized, as well as getting a role in Marc Allégret's “Parade en 7 Nuits,” his first featured part. The picture, filmed in both occupied and “free” France, was a series of vignettes, in which Louis Jourdan was the center of the first, playing a star-crossed circus performer. However, release of this film was also delayed, due to the fact that final scenes were not shot until March 1941.
A Motion Picture that will Reach Cinemas
But though not yet seen by the public, Marcel L'Herbier was ready to give the young actor a high-profile part in his next film, a very special project for the director, and in the late summer, Louis Jourdan traveled to Rome to begin his fourth picture, “La Comédie du Bonheur.” The role was one of diversity that enabled him to show off strong acting talent, and was his first to get into the cinema houses, though not those of France, but only Italy (at the end of the year).
A Starring Part
On his return to France, he began his first leading role as the romantic hero of “Le Premier Rendez-vous,” the Henri Decoin movie which began shooting in Paris late in the year. A light-hearted but charming piece, the film - his first to be seen by French cinema audiences (the following August) - guaranteed major parts from then on.
By the time he finished shooting this picture in early 1941, the French movie industry was under heavy German censorship, and, as Louis Jourdan has said, “art cannot exist without freedom.” His brother Pierre, who was pursuing a parallel - if more minor - career in the cinema was of similar mind, and their solution was to return to the stage, and where possible, to run a zig-zag course of appearing in politically neutral films.
The Lead in a Classic Story
The French public finally saw Louis Jourdan for the first time at the end of the summer in “Premier Rendez-vous” and “Parade in 7 Nuits.” In the autumn of 1941 Marc Allégret managed to put together a new production in Vichy France, and invited Louis Jourdan to take the starring part in “L'Arlésienne.” The tragic role offered more scope than previous ones, and the sadness which hangs over the picture was a mirror to the actors' own emotions, traumatized as all French men and women, trying to come to terms with their country's violent occupation.
At the beginning of 1942, Louis Jourdan worked on another Allégret film in Nice, “La Belle Aventure,” his first with Claude Dauphin (who would join him a decade later in owning and starring in the TV series “Paris Precinct”). Though a purely romantic role, it kept him before the cameras into the Spring.
In the summer “La Comédie du Bonheur” reached French cinemas, and Louis Jourdan was at last on his way to becoming a star.
An Almost Masterpiece
The following month he began another film with Claude Dauphin and Marc Allégret, “Felice Nanteul,” again playing a love interest. He and the picture might nevertheless have prospered, were it not for release timing. Its banning due to Claude Dauphin's participation in the French Liberation Forces meant that the film about two men in love with an actress came out after “Enfants du Paradis” - though filmed before - and being on the same theme as the classic, “Felice Nanteul” appeared to be merely a spinoff rather than a landmark in itself.
During filming, “L'Arlésienne” was released, and Louis Jourdan was quickly becoming known across France. But furthering a career was the last thing on any actor's mind, as in November 1942, the myth of a Free France was brought to an end, and Germany took official control of the entire country.
La Bohème Without Singing
Marcel L'Herbier, who was doing what he could to keep French technicians and actors employed, was able to begin a new project in Italy at the end of the year, a non-musical version of La Bohème with Louis Jourdan in the lead, but “La Vie de Bohème” was not released until after the War ended.
Filming of Bohème continued into 1943, during which Louis Jourdan's second movie was released in the US, that first completed film, “Untel Père et Fils.”
In the Spring he began what almost seemed like the end of his film career, working with Marc Allégret in Nice on “Les Petites du Quai aux Fleurs,” another purely romantic role, but one which was at least released in a timely manner the following May.
Drawing the Line
To their credit, the Jourdan brothers had managed to make nearly twenty films between them without ever appearing in any vehicle they couldn't be proud of as Frenchmen. Not a small accomplishment considering that the German occupiers sought to inject Nazi propaganda into all media. But a time came when making non-political pictures to bring a little escape from their countrymen's despair was too passive a reaction to the Occupation.
After “Les Petites du Quai aux Fleurs” was finished, the Germans demanded that Louis Jourdan participate in propaganda films. His refusal was met by detention and a period of hard labor.
However, he managed to break away from the work gang, and fled back to Cannes, only to see his father arrested by the German authorities. A second daring escape reunited the family who all participated actively in the Resistance. It was through his Underground work in Pierre de Bresse that he became acquainted with and began to court the well-to-do young Parisian Berthe Frédérique, who recalls how immensely impressed she was with his honesty and gravitas when they first met.
Though Louis Jourdan plays down his opposition activities, he was constantly in imminent and life-threatening danger. Involved in the printing and distribution of anti-Nazi material, he also acted as a courier, his quick-wittedness usually getting him past the intense German surveillance, but the time he didn't ended in a horrific experience. As Paris had just been liberated, this difficult incarceration was mercifully brief.
After France was once again free, Louis Jourdan went back to acting, though not in films, but gradually, his unreleased efforts came before the French public, first “La Belle Aventure” in December 1944.
On March 11, 1945 he and Mlle. Frédérique were married in Paris, an event he declared to be the happiest day of his life - the statement underpinned by 66 years of wedded life together.
During that year, three more of his movies were released - “Untel Père et Fils,” “Felice Nanteul” and “La Vie Boheme” in April, June and October, and recognition was arriving from more than just France.
A Hollywood Contract
As the legend goes, David O. Selznick spotted Louis Jourdan at the Ritz Carlton in Cannes, and had a look at his film work, then offered him a contract to make movies in the U.S. Immediately after celebrating their first wedding anniversary, Louis Jourdan and his bride - known to everyone as Quique - made their way to America.
California presented a radically different world from the one they'd known, looking after one another's safety and sharing the meager food available in wartime France, but the Jourdans were an immediate social hit in Hollywood, and quickly made a series of deep friendships that would last a lifetime.
Louis Jourdan's first American motion picture was a cherished vehicle David O. Selznick had been wanting to produce since The Paradine Case was published in 1931 (while others were suggesting that the debut part should be as lead in a picture about the life of Rudolf Valentino!)
First American Movie
Everything looked promising with Alfred Hitchcock directing and a part that had substance. However, the behind-the-scenes turmoil created as the picture was constantly being re-written during production in winter of `46-`47 left the director disinterested, and Louis Jourdan's character undeveloped.
About the great director, he said, “Hitchcock knows with mathematical precision exactly what he wants. He has a complete concept for each character before filming begins. If an actor has a problem with this conception, subsequent discussions can become pretty lively! But it should be noted that often Hitchcock accepts the theories of the actor if they are valid and intelligent, and his outbursts are more a matter of passion than anger.”
"The Paradine Case" had almost been a once-off chance for Louis Jourdan to start his Hollywood career as a serious actor instead of being a matinee idol, and the opportunity was lost in confusion.
Letter From An Unknown Woman
Though his next film was one which many people have on their list of all-time favorites, it began a series of productions where his chief role was primarily to appear as a leading lady's lover - decorative characters who were anathema to him. Should we blame this on Joan Fontaine who after seeing Louis Jourdan, couldn't imagine anyone else to play opposite her in the first independent production that she and her husband Bill Dozier were making from the novel Letter From An Unknown Woman?
She wasn't the only one. Everyone wanted to borrow him from Selznick for one project or another after “The Paradine Case” was released in December 1947. (A footnote to the film was the reprising of his performance on Lux Radio Theater in 1949 (playing opposite Joseph Cotton in the Gregory Peck role.)
In only his second American picture, the Hollywood newcomer took that big lead opposite Joan Fontaine (filmed in September and October 1947 and released in 1948), and the Louis Jourdan Persona was born. “Letter From An Unknown Woman,” is not only a picture which seems to improve with time, but one in which people concede that the more they see this film, the more intriguing they find the character he molded - not simply one of a womanizer, but rather, a man as broken by the events of the picture as the woman who loved him.
Following its release, David O. Selznick had the idea of having his new contract player from France to star opposite Jennifer Jones in Romeo and Juliet - both on a stage tour and then on film. A fascinating thought, but one which didn't come to fruition.
However, the two did make a stage appearance together in the summer of 1948 at Gregory Peck's La Jolla Playhouse in “Serena Blandish,” despite the fact that the southern California smog was playing havoc with Louis Jourdan's health. Nevertheless, with things looking so promising, the Jourdans had just bought a home in Beverly Hills - one which quickly became a haven for actors, directors and writers looking for something solid in a world of fluff.
Another part Selznick campaigned for Louis Jourdan to get was in William Wyler's “The Heiress,” but he was unable to convince the director that the fortune hunter role could be changed from an American - as the original of Washington Square - to a European, and consequently, Montgomery Clift was cast.
But perhaps the most exciting prospect from this period that didn't emerge was Greta Garbo's proposed comeback film, La Duchesse de Langelais, for which Louis Jourdan was under serious consideration to play her leading man. With “Letter From An Unknown Woman” as yet unreleased, Joan Fontaine also wanted him to star with her in the next film of the Dozier's production company, “Mayerling.” He was even favored for the prince's role playing opposite Jennifer Jones in the tragedy after the couple had dropped the idea, but this potentially intriguing screenplay wasn't shot for another two decades.
There was a change of pace in Louis Jourdan's next movie, “No Minor Vices,” also released in 1948. Though the surreal comedy did indeed have him “cooing in a woman's ear” (his term for the function he unhappily saw himself fulfilling in too many films), the eccentric character offered scope for satire and spoofing of his Latin Lover type which he did with enough charm to match Lillie Palmer's effortless scene stealing.
While the Romeo and Juliet didn't pan out, Louis Jourdan did play opposite Jennifer Jones again in the winter of '48-'49 in “Madame Bovary,” a firm step towards endless reprising of the unsatisfying cliché parts as Continental lover that would be an ever-present albatross in feature films until, late in his career, the actor would start to play villains.
However, despite the critical acclaim for his performance in the movie (released in August 1949, the month after he and Mme. Jourdan had acted as witnesses at co-star Jennifer Jones' wedding to David O. Selznick in Italy), Louis Jourdan suddenly found himself off the sound stages for 19 months (save a brief appearance (promoting “Madame Bovary”) in the documentary “25 Years of Motion Picture Leadership.”
He did, however, do a number of radio dramas during the period. In addition to The Paradine Case, a half-hour version of "Letter to an Unknown Woman" for Screen Guild Players and "Camille" for Theater Guild on the Air, both with Joan Fontaine.
But many, many screen properties were considered for him. Bette Davis had hoped to get Louis Jourdan to play opposite her in “Beyond the Forest,” and he was slated to make “The Frenchman and the Bobby Soxer” with Shirley Temple (a follow-up to “The Bachelor and the Bobby Soxer” that luckily was never made) among others.
While he fought the stereotyping with every fiber - being repeatedly suspended by his otherwise friend David O. Selznick - no matter how much a character actor lived inside Louis Jourdan, Hollywood could see him only as a leading man. In a far less serious situation, it was another illustration of his belief that art cannot prosper without freedom, and the limited range he was allowed at the beginning stifled an important contribution to American cinema in the years that followed.
Sketch by Jean Cocteau in Spring 1944
with David O. Selznick