Charles Boyer, gaslighting and elements of the Gothic

Today is Charles Boyer’s birthday. Or would be, had he lived to be 113. And who, you ask, is Charles Boyer? Movie buffs, go get a snack. You already know.


Charles Boyer was born on August 28, 1899, in Figeac, France, and died on August 26, 1978.  He met his wife, English actress Pat Patterson, at a Hollywood party, they were engaged two weeks later and went on to have a forty-year marriage. He died two days after her death from an overdose of Seconal. His son also died of suicide, some fourteen years earlier.

During his long career as an actor, he worked opposite some of the most glamorous of screen goddesses: Ingrid Bergman, Hedy Lamarr, Greta Garbo, Joan Fontaine, and Katherine Hepburn. Early in his career he was typecast as the “mysterious French romancer” and in most of his films he is playing some version of that character.

In the 1938 film Algiers, for instance, he plays notorious thief Pepe le Moko who has retreated Algiers (on the northern coast of Africa) after a spectacular jewel heist. He is holed up in the Casbah, living like a king and protected by the locals, when he meets and falls for Gaby, a French tourist.

The movie Algiers went on to inspire two other pinnacles of Western civilization: Pepe le Pew and the movie Casablanca.

In 1945, Looney Tunes cartoonist Chuck Jones based his new character on Boyer’s mannerisms and accents as Pepe le Moko  in Algiers. And Pepe le Pew was born. The amorous skunk frequently employs the pickup line “Come with me to the Cazbah,” and, although that line never appears in the movie (much like “Play it again, Sam,” frequently attributed though never appearing in Casablanca) the phrase was used on movie posters and is known to refer to that film.

Algiers was the first introduction to the romanticized version of Algeria for most English-speaking audiences. The movie was so popular that it served as the inspiration for the much more well-known 1942 cinematic venture to the area: Casablanca. Interesting tidbit: the character Ilsa Lund, that would eventually be played—quite perfectly, in my humble opinion—by Ingrid Bergman, was actually written for Hedy Lamarr. She also, coincidentally, turned down the role of Paula Alquist in the 1944 film Gaslight.

In Love Affair (1939) he played Michel, another French playboy. Cary Grant would later take that role  An Affair to Remember (1957). So in 1994, when that film was (regrettably) remade with Warren Beatty and Annette Benning, the name choice didn’t so much distance the remake from the previous version as return to the original.

In both of these films (and countless others, seriously, dude was prolific) he plays a basically moral guy, regrettable choices like burglary aside. But in Gaslight he upended the conventional “mysterious foreign romancer” that he so frequently played and it becomes ever so much more interesting.

My very favorite of Charles Boyer’s films is Gaslight (1944). I wrote (rather comprehensively) about the movie plot last October in my Favorite Halloween Movies series of blog posts, so rather than repeating myself (read the long version here) I’m going to quickly summarize and move on.

Beware! These be spoiler-infested waters…

Paula Alquist is being driven mad by her husband, who married her for her real estate. Many years ago, he murdered her aunt, Alice Alquist, for her jewels, but was unable to find the stash before the police arrived. So every night, Gregory retreats to the attic, unbeknownst to Paula, to search for the loot. And when he turns on the attic lights, the lights in the rest of the house get more dim. (Gas lights: a set amount of gas comes through the pipes, when one is turned on, it will be at one level of brightness, another turned on will divide that set amount of gas and make each light somewhat more dim than one alone would be.) She notices this phenomenon every night, but can never find outside validation for her perceptions. And since Gregory has systematically been convincing her that her perceptions of reality are invalid (he moves things, accuses her of losing things, recounts conversations they never had, makes up a tale about her mother in an asylum), she begins to believe that she is mad.

The term gaslighting is used in pop culture (and a bit in pop psychology) for when person A (usually male) convinces person B (usually female) that their perceptions are incorrect so that the actions of person A remain hidden. And since I began studying women and madness, the psychological abuse is main thing I’ve seen in the movie.  But in thinking again about the film, I realized that it’s pretty much a perfect example of the Gothic genre.

  1. imgresBig, creepy house? Check. After marrying in France, Gregory convinces Paula to return to the London townhouse in which Alice was murdered. And while a London townhouse doesn’t seem quite in the same realm as, say, The Castle of Otranto, in boarding up the attic (where Alice’s stuff was kept, effectively repressing all memory of the trauma and just asking for later trouble) Gregory obfuscates the basically straightforward floor plan. Also, one could argue, if one were arguing, that the boarding up of the attic is somehow symbolically linked to his attempt to make Paula believe that she is mad—the space of the attic is literally at the top of the house, as the mind is located at the top of the human body. Gregory categorizes both as in/valid space.
  2. Ancestral drama? Check. Gregory strangles Alice. And every time Gregory kisses Paula,  he circles her throat with his hands, reminding the viewer of that earlier moment of violence enacted upon her aunt.
  3. Inexplicable events, often later proven natural phenomenon. Check. Paula sees the lights go down, Paula knows she didn’t move that damn painting, but somehow, the lights are going down and the painting has been moved. Paula doesn’t spend very long wondering about these events, as Gregory has done such a good job of making her doubt herself.
  4. gaslight-photo2_625pxA damsel in distress? Check and double check. First, Paula is basically without protector. (The assumption is that she needs a protector. Blargh.) As she is alone in the world, doubly orphaned by the deaths of her parents and then her aunt, the suave accompanist she meets abroad has no trouble sweeping her off of her feet. A protector, presumably, would have checked his references, found out who his people were and, you know, maybe found out about that wife living in Prague. Gregory specifically hires the staff (a deaf cook and an insolent maid with a crush on him) to further distance her from any support system. He gives orders that neighbors are not to be admitted. He finds a way of preventing Paula from keeping appointments. He sends regrets for all invitations they receive. And all this time, he’s work work working on her mind, telling her she’s mad, convincing her of things that are not true. Bastard.
  5. gaslight-photo1_625pxPsychological tension. Mother of god, check. I think this is one of Ingrid Bergman’s best movies, merely because she shows the tension, the self-doubt, so freaking well. Everything is threatening, the servants are colluding, she thinks she trusts her husband, but sometimes there’s this look in his eye….   Also, Gregory is quite, quite mad. Maybe. It’s suggested that he has some sort of jewel mania, and he gets all buggy-eye entranced when they visit a collection of royal jewels, but mostly he’s just a manipulative sadist. (This movie evokes an emotional response. Can you tell?)
  6. MV5BMTI5NzA2OTE1OV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwMDgxOTM1Mw%40%40._V1._SX382_SY500_Focus on boundaries? Check. After their marriage, they move back to London. In traditional Gothic literature, this move from the unknown (they honeymoon at an undefined remote location) to the known would have signaled a retreat from horror. But in traditional Gothic, horror is externalized—danger comes from outside, from something Other. The move to London actually signals a move to female Gothic, in which horror is internalized. This touches on the first point I mentioned, that of the threatening location, but is more specific to the house itself. The inside and outside of the townhouse are drastically different locations: the act of crossing (transgressing) that boundary is first accepted then, as Gregory’s power over Paula becomes more entrenched, becomes a more and more rare—and difficult—occurrence. In one particularly telling scene, Paula has decided to go for a walk. Gregory is gone, but the maid he hired (a woman working for the patriarchy—there’s a term for that…) stands in as the guardian at the gate and asks questions about her purposes until the already-fragile Paula gives up and goes back in. In another scene, Paula has successfully insisted on attending an event held by a friend of her aunt. Paula has a very noisy breakdown after a whispered accusation from Gregory. Once they get home, Gregory berates her for the occurrence:   Gregory: I’ve tried so hard to keep it within these walls – in my own house. Now, because you would go out tonight, the whole of London knows it. If I could only get inside that brain of yours and understand what makes you do these crazy, twisted things. Gregory emphasizes the boundary between inner and outer space and suggests that the interior is shameful, hidden; outside, we must keep up appearances.

Anyway (sorry, I got caught up) Gregory is played in all of his malicious glory, by Charles Boyer, whose birthday it is today.

So happy birthday, Charles!

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