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Louis Jourdan 1920s - 1930s Biography

1940s      1950s

Idyllic Surroundings

A century before mass tourism began, many hotels had already started springing up on the shores of the Mediterranean, aristocratic Continentals having been lured there by the gentle climate and scented air. As a hotelier, it was the business of Louis Jourdan's father to offer hospitality to this demanding elite.

But following the Russian Revolution and World War I, political and economic changes in Europe brought a dramatic end to the lifestyle of many who had vacationed on the French Riviera. Henry and Yvonne Jourdan Gendre may have wondered if their first son Louis was being born into a dying industry. In fact, they left the country at this point, and for a time, the family was attached to hotels in London and Istanbul before returning to southern France.

There, fortunately, a whole new clientele discovered the paradise where Alps meet the sea. They were the arty, fascinating and wealthy Americans - characters who might have stepped out of the pages of a Scott Fitzgerald novel (a number actually did) - from the celebrated ones who built their own homes on rocky cliffs to the less obtrusive, but equally interesting men and women  who enjoyed their abundant leisure time in the hotels that graced the Côte d'Azur.

Along with the remaining Continentals, these were the individuals who created a panorama of international glamour and sophistication that was the theatre set before Louis Jourdan - and the first stage on which he shone himself - growing up in Cannes and Nice in the 1920s and 1930s.

A Fascination for People Watching

Freely mixing with these American guests (who were surely as charmed by the boy as their children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren - into infinity -were by the man), young Loulou, as he was affectionately known, acquired a wider perspective than any ordinary upbringing might have offered, and is even quoted as saying that he heard a music in their speech.

(Quite ironic, when one considers how beautiful he's made the English language sound with his own melodious way of speaking it. Though a gift in the eyes of most, his lilting accent also proved to be quite an obstacle in his career, something which prevented him from getting the sort of parts he preferred to play.)

It was in this setting that, as a boy, he first developed his interest in food and its preparation via the hotel kitchens. But his appetites went beyond fine cuisine.

To one with an inquisitive mind, the diverse and changing clientele offered a picture window on the whole world, and as such, it was probably in his earliest years that Louis Jourdan began to develop his life-long interest in observing and analyzing human behavior.

And what behavior there was to observe! During his youth, he met some of the greatest artists of the century - Picasso, Matisse, Poulenc and so many other inspiring figures who channeled his tastes and interests growing up.

However, the guests and substantial travel provided only supplementary knowledge, as the future actor was beautifully educated in a formal sense as well, leading to a deep-rooted appreciation of music, literature, philosophy and ethics that became a second skin.

One could easily imagine him having become an academic, quite comfortable standing behind a professor's lectern. But despite being well prepared to begin at the university, the only profession Louis Jourdan wanted to pursue was acting. As far back as he can recall, “there has never been life without the notion of acting, playing, make believe.”

Thus, followed by his brother Pierre, he traveled to Paris, where he was accepted into the prestigious École Dramatique, studying under René Simon.

It was there in 1938 that he met Marc Allégret who took the aspiring actor on as an apprentice, making it possible to learn every aspect of cinema under the distinguished director's guidance. That summer, Louis Jourdan served as an assistant camera operator on the film “Entrée des Artistes” (English title “The Curtain Rises”), which was shot at multiple locations.

The Innate Elegance

Despite the minimal visibility of such a position, he nevertheless caught the eye of the film's star Louis Jouvet, who was amply impressed by the young crew member's charm and elegance.

Incredible! Here was someone still in his teens, dressed in working clothes, concentrating on his camera equipment rather than in any position to draw attention, and nevertheless the renowned actor perceived That Special Something - the classic grace and style which are Louis Jourdan's hallmark - and that propelled him to Hollywood a decade later.

With such “star quality,” Louis Jouvet believed that this technician should be working in front of, rather than behind the camera.

The Almost Making of a Star

The great director was in full agreement about his protégé, and Louis Jourdan was on his way back to Nice, given his first cinema role in  Marc Allegret's next vehicle, “Le Corsaire” (“The Pirate”), one that was already causing excitement and anticipation prior to going into production due to the fact that Charles Boyer, long since an international leading man, was returning from America to star in the picture.

While the rapid move forward was a most enthralling career development, the times were foreboding, with war clearly imminent. “Le Corsaire” had only been shooting for a few weeks when German troops marched into Poland, and cast members were called to national service. Production ceased with only some 30 minutes of random footage left to posterity.

But the five weeks working on “Le Corsaire” were not merely the stuff of forgotten memories for Louis Jourdan. The acquaintance he made with Charles Boyer turned into a life-long friendship (and even business partnership) which lasted until the legendary actor's death in 1978.

And there was something else. A photographer, Raymond Voinquel, was active on the set, taking pictures which documented the never-finished movie. His iconic images of Louis Jourdan from the set were published on the back cover of France's leading cinema magazine the following year - and continue to be still today in the age of the internet.  With that kind of impact, it's highly likely that had the film been completed and released, it well might have made Louis Jourdan an overnight star.

Nevertheless, despite the setback, it wasn't long before Julien Duvivier had cast him - and brother Pierre - in the monumental “Untel Père et Fils” which began filming in the last month of the decade.