His name may not be as familiar as those of other Hollywood leading men of the 1940s and 1950s, but, in just a couple of films, the dark, dashing, and devastatingly debonair Louis Jourdan, who has died at the age of 93, managed to establish himself as the definitive charming European womaniser, most famously as Gaston in the lavish, multi Oscar-winning musical Gigi. Later in life, he graduated from playboy parts to suave villains, notably as the wealthy prince Kamal Khan in the 1983 Bond movie Octopussy, and an acclaimed BBC production of Count Dracula in the 1970s.
Born Louis Gendre in Marseilles in 1919, he was one of three sons of hotelier Henri Gendre, whose work took the family abroad: Jourdan (his mother’s maiden name) was educated in France, Turkey and Britain.
Jourdan decided on a career as an actor early on and studied at the prestigious Ecole Dramatique in Paris. With his chiselled features, sallow complexion, and natural grace, he was an obvious candidate for movie stardom and was quickly snatched up for film roles. He made his debut, at the age of 20, in Le Corsaire (which starred Charles Boyer, already established as Hollywood’s original French lover) and landed leading roles in a handful of romantic comedies and dramas during the war. However, not long into the Occupation, Henri Gendre was arrested by the Gestapo, and Jourdan and his two brothers joined the Resistance.
Following the war, Jourdan was invited to Hollywood by the independent producer David O Selznick. His Hollywood debut was in a lesser role in the rather wooden courtroom drama The Paradine Case (1948), which was produced and scripted by Selznick and directed by Alfred Hitchcock. Hitchcock was opposed to the casting of “pretty-pretty boy” Jourdan as a creepy valet suspected of murdering his employer, and attributed some of the film’s failure to Selznick’s casting decision.
Jourdan’s talents were put to much better use in the sumptuous melodrama Letter From an Unknown Woman (1948), a sort of period film noir. Directed by the German-born Max Ophuls, it starred Jourdan as a self-absorbed playboy, a famous Viennese concert pianist who is idolised by a young girl in his apartment building. One of the most perfect evocations of unrequited love, the film was not widely seen when it was first released – it was fairly risque for Hollywood at the time – but has developed a cult following over the years. Playing a man learning, over the course of the film which unfolds as he reads the eponymous letter, the cost to himself and others of his reckless, self-serving lifestyle, he brought a poignancy and vulnerability to a character who starts out a stereotypical cad.
Jourdan was not kept particularly busy during his early years in Hollywood and was generally limited to the continental-lover-type roles. Decameron Nights (1952), a British film in which he played four characters, reteamed him with his Letter co-star Joan Fontaine, but with less success, while Three Coins in the Fountain (1954) raised his profile with American audiences. He also made his Broadway stage debut in 1954, receiving positive reviews for his leading performance as a secretly gay man embarking on marriage in a stage adaptation of Andre Gide’s novel The Immortalist. Unfortunately, a young supporting actor
named James Dean was reckoned to have stolen the show.
In 1956 Jourdan and Grace Kelly made a beautiful couple in The Swan, but it was his performance as the suave Gaston, the bored bon vivant bachelor nephew of Maurice Chevalier, in Vincente Minnelli’s ravishing movie version of the Paris-set Broadway musical Gigi (1958) that sent female hearts a-fluttering across the world and established him as the ultimate French lover. Not only had he never looked more handsome than in glorious MGM Technicolor, but he exuded a peculiarly Gallic ennui and revealed that he could sing – in an endearingly imperfect way (and with a seductive French accent).
However, it wasn’t long after Gigi that Jourdan began to suffer from the sameness of his roles, and he slid back into supporting parts. Between 1960 and 1990 he worked in Hollywood and in Europe, appearing numerous top TV series (Columbo, Charlie’s Angels etc) and in high-profile British TV movies, including The Count of Monte Cristo (1975) and The Count of Monte Cristo (1977). He had served as narrator on two Paris-set Billy Wilder films – Love in the Afternoon (1957) and Irma La Douce (1963) – but in the 1970s, the Jourdan voice could be heard in, of all things, Scooby Doo and Scrappy Doo, the spin-off of the Hanna-Barbera cartoon series.
Jourdan’s career received a welcome shot in the arm when he reinvented himself as a villain – of the camp variety – for Swamp Thing (1982) and the James Bond movie Octopussy (1983). He also made a debonair Dracula in a now-cultish 1978 BBC production. He was last seen in the 1992 caper adventure Year of the Comet, which was partly filmed in Scotland. Married to his French wife (who died last year) from 1944, he had one son, Louis Jourdan Jr, who died of a drugs overdose in 1981. In 2010, he was made an Officier de la Legion d’honneur, France’s highest award. With a last dash of romantic flair, the screen’s great Continental lover bowed out, appropriately enough, on Valentine’s Day.
Louis Jourdan, actor, born June 19, 1921; died February 14, 2015
* First published in The Herald, February 17