June 19th marks the 90th birthday of Louis Jourdan. I can’t imagine that Jourdan has ever been anyone’s favorite actor or biggest film-star crush, but I do think he was a better actor than most people realize. A later generation probably knows him only for his role in the James Bond franchise, memorably uttering the title character’s name in Octopussy (1983). But his most famous and enduring role is as Gaston in the multi-Oscar-winning MGM musical Gigi (1958).
Despite its many assets, both musical and visual, Gigi, set in 1900 Paris, is a highly overrated work, though Jourdan’s performance is just about impeccable. Gaston, heir to a sugar fortune, enjoys a playful relationship with the teenage Gigi (Leslie Caron), like that of a favorite uncle and his tomboy niece. Soon after seeing her in an evening gown, he wants to make her his courtesan. The film has taken a creepy turn from which it never recovers. Jourdan does, however, a nice job with the title tune, which has songwriters Lerner and Loewe stealing from themselves, turning Jourdan’s soliloquy into a none-too-subtle rehash of their “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face.” In 1960, Jourdan was reteamed with Gigi co-star Maurice Chevalier in the horrifying Can-Can, a complete travesty in which Jourdan comes up smelling like a rose, light and charming amid the wreckage.
The Swan (1956) contains my favorite Jourdan performance, possibly his finest. A romantic comedy set among fictional European royalty in 1910, the film stars Grace Kelly as a princess, shortly before she became a real-life princess. Alec Guinness is her cousin, a crown prince in search of a bride. As Kelly’s family pushes her and Guinness together, it soon becomes apparent that Kelly and Jourdan (as her brothers’ lowly tutor) have fallen in love. This wide-screen treasure becomes a tingling love triangle, superbly acted by its trio of stars: Kelly has never been so warm and luminous; Guinness is a subtle and sublime comic master; and Jourdan surpassed himself in his display of sharp intelligence and intimate feeling. Directed by Charles Vidor, this underrated sparkler is one of the best American films of 1956, a witty fairy tale with overtones of bittersweet emotion.
Jourdan had been Hollywood’s handsome new European of the late 1940s in The Paradine Case (1947), Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948), and Madame Bovary (1949), but he didn’t get to do much “acting” until the 50s. Though the glossy soap Three Coins in the Fountain (1954) is an utter mediocrity, or worse, I rather like Jourdan’s easygoing performance as a prince, despite his being foolish enough to bother romantically with the irritating Maggie McNamara. He also appeared in at least three camp classics: Julie (1956), in which he terrorized Doris Day; The Best of Everything (1959); and The V.I.P.s (1963), in a remarkably sexless love triangle, actually getting in between Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton!
Happy Birthday, Mr. Jourdan. I hope somebody somewhere is watching The Swan right now.