Before Bette Midler, before Liza Minelli, before Madonna, there was Mistinguett--"Queen of the Paris Music Hall." Born in Enghien, France, on April 5, 1875, Jeanne Bourgeois, aspired at an early age to be an entertainer. She assumed the stage-name "Mistinguett" and went on to become the toast of Paris, the most popular French entertainer of her time. Indeed, she was once the highest paid female entertainer in the world.
Although Mistinguett (pronounced miss-tin-get´) made successful tours of South America and appeared on the New York stage more than once, she is virtually forgotten in this country.
It has been remarked that Mistinguett didn't have much of a singing voice, couldn't really dance that well, and wasn't (the photo above notwithstanding) any great physical beauty either. Yet, like Ethel Merman and others that could be named, she commanded attention by the sheer force of her personality. Also, even in her '60s, she never lost that girlish, just-beyond-your-reach appeal that may be hard to describe, but is obvious when one is confronted with it in the flesh.
"She had a way of moving which was the pinnacle of grace.
MISTINGUETT -- THE INNOVATOR
Several innovations and "firsts" can be traced to Mistinguett.
Huge headdresses and ridiculously lengthy trains became the order of the day on the stages of the French Music Hall. This is not a true color photo, rather a color-tinted version of a 1925 shot by the famous photographer James Abbe. Take a look at a larger version by clicking the picture. You may also want to check the fabulous black and white photo taken by Abbe at the same session. This shot was among those shown at The Lure of the Limelight--James Abbe, Photographer of Cinema and Stage held at the National Portrait Gallery in London from December 1995 to March 1996.
These costumes and headdresses were very unwieldy and could easily weigh 40 or 50 pounds. A performer has to be in good shape just to hold up while lugging them around, all the while smiling and blowing kisses to the audience.
Speaking of being in good shape, perhaps all these feathers
served as inspiration for the relatively minimal costumes used by
the famous fan dancer Sally
Rand. You can
click the picture for a larger view of this one also.
Regrettably, almost nothing is available except on import labels. Perhaps the most readily available collection might also qualify as the best (and among the least expensive): "Mistinguett -- Nuits de Paris" (CD AJA 5314) a release in the ASV/Living Era series entitled "The Great French Stars." This collection includes 25 recordings from the period 1926 to 1938. If you only purchase one Mistinguett CD, this is the one. All of the classic numbers are here, including "Mon Homme," "Valencia," "La Rumba d' Amour," better known to American audiences as "The Peanut Vendor," "Je Cherche un Millionaire," "Qui?" (Jerome Kerns' "Who?"), and "Ca C'est Paris." Also included is the previously hard to find "Sur L'Boulevard Des Italiens," ("Let's Put Out The Lights And Go To Sleep"), a 6-minute version (featuring Andre Randall) that puts you front row center at the Casino de Paris in 1933. Frankly, only the very hardest core of Mistinguett fans will want further collections beyond this one.
Another excellent (although somewhat duplicative) collection,"Mistinguett -- The Empress of the Music Hall" (EPM Musique 995732), a 1997 French release, may still be available from online CD dealers. This one contains a selection of 18 numbers covering Mistinguett's recording career from 1922 to 1942, thus including recordings from periods not covered by the ASV disc, notably the 1942 "La Tour Eiffel Est Toujors La" and "Je Vous Ai Reconnu." Also included are several very early, low fidelity recordings that will be of interest primarily to completists. One page of notes in English is included.
I can also recommend the CD entitled simply "Mistinguett" (PMF 90.723-2 UK), also a 1997 release. The CD contains 14 selections, including "Mon Homme" and several other of our gal's most popular recordings. There are absolutely no, and I mean no, liner notes. On the other hand, there are a couple of numbers not commonly found on other collections, the sound is OK, and it's a budget-priced issue.
Not everyone will be in the mood to listen to 18 or more songs in a row by Mistinguett, but for those who are, I call your attention to two other import titles. There is a bit of duplication between these (and the three above), but both are good collections, the first being the choice for those who would want only one:"Mistinguett Anthologie" Encyclopedia (EN 512) It is possible that this collection exists under a number of other titles and "labels." It seems to have been produced in 1995, is distributed in France by "Night & Day" and is exported by Fremeaux and Associates, which issues many wonderful collections under its own name. Highlight cuts include "La Rumba d' Amour," and, of course, "Mon Homme." There is one page of notes in English.
"Mistinguett" Pharaon (125209-2) This one came out in 1994. It has a regular little booklet of notes (all in French) featuring a number of nice photographs, including a particularly delightful one of "Miss" with Maurice Chevalier, with whom she was romantically linked for many years. And were they a handsome young couple? Why not see for yourself.
I cannot leave this subject without also mentioning "Souvenir de Paris - The Great French Stars," another release in the wonderful ASV/Living Era series (CD AJA 5028) which, although produced in Great Britain, is generally available in the U.S. Only two cuts are by Mistinguett, but they are representative of her best work and the CD as a whole is a particularly good introduction to a number of other terrific French artists from the same period, not the least of which are Mireille, Pills & Tabet, Damia, Maurice Chevalier, and Josephine Baker. An altogether delightful album.
Those of you with browsers that support certain music players may now click the little black right-pointing arrowhead and listen to Mistinguett singing a portion of one of her biggest hits, "Ca C'est Paris," recorded in 1926 and found on all six of the CDs mentioned above. Some of you heard it when this page first loaded. [360K -- 33 seconds]
Mistinguett recordings are not always easy to find, but the Internet's leading music shop usually has them. Clicking on the Amazon.com image will take you to a page where you can search for them. And if you buy something, there is a small rebate to yours truly that will help defray the expense of maintaining this site.
A kiss can be a comma, a question mark, or an exclamation point. That's basic spelling that every woman ought to know. -- Mistinguett
Luckily there are happy, ordinary people in the world who earn an honest living and love their wives and children. All the rest is vanity. -- Mistinguett
There have been greater comediennes, greater singers, greater dancers--but all in a single package, there has been only one Mistinguett. Complete shows were built around her, she would carry an entire revue on her lovely shoulders, the spirit of the whole evening. Truly, there is no one like her now--and if another great personality like hers should come along, she would be a star exploding across the sky. -- Maurice Chevalier
I am pleased to report that there IS a biography of Mistinguett readily available in English: "The Mistinguett Legend" by David Bret, published by St. Martin's Press in 1990. My local public library has a copy of it.
Another source for viewing more photos of our lady is "The Moulin Rouge" by Jacques Pessis and Jacques Crepineau, a coffee table size volume also published by St. Martin's Press (1989). This exceptional book could have been subtitled "Everything You Ever Wanted to Know about the Moulin Rogue." There are many, many pictures of Mistinguett, as well as poster and sheet music cover illustrations
There is also an autobiography, "Mistinguett by Mistinguett --Queen of the Paris Night," an English translation of which was published in Great Britain, in 1954, by Elak Books. As with any autobiography, you may expect to find some discrepancies in the facts as presented in the lady's own version of her life. This book is not easy to find, but is worth the search, if only for the many photographs not found elsewhere.
There is also a very comprehensive volume, for those who read French, entitled "Mistinguett - La Reine Du Music-Hall," by Martin Pénet. This hefty (750+ page) volume was published in 1995 and contains quite a number of photographs, as well as seemingly complete listings of theatre appearances, dance interpretations, films, and recordings. A treasure trove for those who can read it, this impressive tome is available from the French version of Amazon.com.
The definitive Mistinguett picture book, also available from French Amazon.com, is a very handsome oversized volume entitled "Les Années Mistinguett," by Jacques Pessis and Jacques Crépineau. Published in 2001, this glossy-paged book is everything the true fan could hope for. Once again the text is in French, but with literally hundreds of terrific photos of our gal it is well worth the effort and expense to acquire a copy. Click the little image on the right for a sample (and simply exquisite) picture of the very young Mistinguett with her gentleman? friend.
One final volume worth checking out is "Showgirls" by Andrea Stuart, published by Jonathan Cape, London, in 1996. I'm not sure if it is available outside of Great Britain, but our gal appears on the cover and has a chapter devoted to her, along with a couple of nice photos I've not seen elsewhere.
There are many collectible posters of the French Music Hall. Such posters, though intended to be disposable, were raised to high art by the work of Toulouse-Lautrec and his famous illustrations for the Moulin Rouge. Shown at left is a spectacular image by "Zig" for the show "Paris Miss" at the Casino de Paris in 1930. Such original posters bring a pretty price today. Your humble host would love to have a copy of this particular one, even in ratty condition. The original is 16" x24", relatively small by music hall poster standards. It is my understanding that a copy may be seen at the Galerie Serpente, in Paris.
In the market for such a poster? You might want to talk to your banker first. This one, from 1932, measures an impressive 62" x 46" and was sold in November 1996 for somewhere in the neighborhood of $4000. Some neighborhood! The catalog description of it follows:
There never was a performer like Mistinguett ... she was the French music hall incarnate -- delicious and dazzling. Zig, a former nightclub performer himself, had a flamboyantly showy style that suited Miss perfectly. Here, he shows her coquettishly posed in a bare-back swimsuit and sporting an enormous black cartwheel hat that serves to halo her face -- 59 and still as attractive as ever.
OK, so none of us can afford one of these posters, at least not if the spouse is watching. There is an alternative, albeit still expensive, manner in which to secure one. This poster of Le Miss smoking a cigar (Boy, was she ahead of her time!), is available as a bigger-than-a-movie-poster serigraph from certain reproduction poster dealers for those cigar aficionados who can cough up $300.
These magnificent posters are, by far, the most desirable of all Mistinguett collectibles. And, unlike Micky Mouse (or Micky Mantle for that matter) there just were not that many merchandising spinoffs related to our lady. There were, however, a few.
When is someone going to send me one of these great Mistinguett figurines as a "thank you" gift for the work I've been doing on this page? This item probably dates from the late 1920s.
Sheet music is another area in which the would-be collector may venture. Examples are hard to come by in the United States, but Le Miss appeared on the front of many colorful and highly collectible pieces of sheet music, printed in Europe.
There were a number of film appearances many, if not all, of which were in the silent era. David Bret reports in the aforementioned book that Mistinguett appeared in no fewer than fourteen films between May 1913 and the end of 1916. Mistinguett played Eponine in an early version of Les Miserables. So far as I know, none of these films are available in the United States.
Mistinguett once summed up the matter thusly: "I don't much like making films. On stage I can seduce the public or make them cry. It isn't so easy trying to do that to a machine with a glass eye!"Titles of those early films (in English) included: "Pavement Lily," "The Eyesore," "The Lawyer's Mistake," and "The Trap." There were also two that I know a little more about:
The only "motion picture" appearance that I have actually seen (the following three images are from the tape) may be found in Volume 8 (Song and Sentiments), of the series "Montparnasse Revisited" a public-TV-like series issued in 1992 by Public Media Home Vision. Look for it at your local public library.
This is a 55 minute tape, all of which is worthwhile. A few minutes devoted to Mistinguett and Maurice Chevalier will be found beginning at about the 23:30 mark. My best guess is that the footage was taken sometime between 1935 and 1940, which means that our gal would have been between 60 and 65 years of age at the time.
MISTINGUETT IN THE UNITED STATES
A revue entitled "Innocent Eyes" opened at the Winter Garden in New York City on May 20, 1924. It was mounted to showcase the famous French cabaret entertainer Mistinguett. The picture at left is a publicity shot for the appearance. [Gosh, those eyes don't look so innocent to me.] According to the review in the volume "American Musical Theatre" by Gerald Bordman (Oxford University Press, 1992):
It was a major disappointment. Mistinguett made her entrance in a dress trailed by a twelve-foot train of ostrich feathers. In her most applauded scene she portrayed a French maid sold by her callous father to a brutish Parisian apache. He throws her in the river (out of which she emerges dripping wet). She kills him and runs off with the barge man she loves. Cleo Mayfield and Cecil Lean headed the supporting cast. Unfortunately, Mistinguett had no better luck than Delysia, and she too was soon aboard an eastbound liner.
The reference is to "the ballyhooed" Alice Delysia, whose show at the same Winter Garden had been a failure some months earlier. It is interesting to note that Mistinguett's show opened on the night following the opening of "I'll Say She Is!" at the Casino which featured the four Marx Brothers. The show was a great success, the review in that same book concluding:
Apart from the clowning the hit of the evening was a French-style apache dance done by D'Andrea and Walters in the opium den scene.
In her autobiography, Mistinguett recalls the results of her efforts to learn English for this engagement:
My pronunciation was a great success. "Innocent Eyes" on my tongue became "Innocent Asses." I was begged not to improve on it.
Mistinguett returned to the United States more than once, but she was never as well received by American audiences as she would have been by me. Her final appearance in New York City was in 1951, still showing off her legs at the age of 75.
(...and finally) THE LEGS
There are few decent photos of this sort to be found. I know of none in color. "Miss" was at the height of her popularity in the '20s and '30s, before the development of advanced photo equipment. Still, this shot serves to illustrate why this young lady was known for her appendages. I say "young" but, she was probably 50 years old when this shot was taken. No less an authority on human anatomy than the famous sculptor Rodin once wrote "If I had to personify the Muse of the Music Hall, I would give her your legs, Mistinguett." [Editors Note: Hey, just because we haven't located any color pictures of our gal, doesn't mean we couldn't make one of our own.]
Also, and at the risk of burning up my scanner, I have located and prepared for viewing something really special. For those of you who have paid the appropriate fee to me, here is the rare (one and only known to exist) nude photo of the exquisite Mistinguett.
I am always looking out for Mistinguett items. Further information about her film appearances, particularly any that may be available on videotape, will be greatly appreciated.
"You have been the beauty, the spirit,
the magic, the symbol
of the city of women."-- Maurice Chevalier
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This page created and maintained by Jim Lowe
First appearance: May 18, 1997
Last updated: May 18, 2002