Yvette Guilbert (1865 – 1944) was a French cabaret singer and actress of the Belle Époque. Her ingenuous delivery of songs charged with risqué meaning made her famous. She also appeared in some classic silent films.
French postcard. photo: Caubin / Paul Berger.
Yvette Guilbert was born as Emma Laure Esther Guilbert into a poor family in 1865. Her parents settled in Paris shortly before her birth. Her mother Albine owned a boutique, while her father, Hippolyte, was a bon vivant who liked spending money in cabarets and enjoyed the company of women. He sometimes brought his daughter with him to the café-concerts, where she showed a precocious singing talent. At age sixteen, she worked as a model at the Printemps department store in Paris. She was discovered by journalist Charles Zidler, who later became director of the Moulin Rouge, and he introduced her to the world of show business. Guilbert took voice and acting lessons and by 1886 she appeared on stage at smaller venues. In 1888, Guilbert debuted at the Varieté Theatre. In 1890 she sang at the popular Eldorado club, then at the Jardin de Paris before headlining in Montmartre at the Moulin Rouge. She stayed there for a long time and later succeeded at the Folies-Bergère for nine years. For her act, she was usually dressed in bright yellow with long black gloves and stood almost perfectly still, gesturing with her long arms as she sang. An innovator, she favored monologue-like ‘patter songs’ and was often billed as a ‘diseuse’ or ‘storyteller.’ The lyrics were raunchy; their subjects were tragedy, lost love, and the Parisian poverty from which she had come. Taking her cue from the new cabaret performances, Guilbert broke and rewrote all the rules of music-hall with her audacious lyrics, and the audiences loved her. During the 1890’s she appeared regularly alongside another star of the time, Kam-Hill, often singing songs by Tarride. Guilbert owed much of her success to Xanrof (Léon Fourneau) and to Aristide Bruant, who wrote songs for her. She is also remembered for a famous poster of her, showing her in her characteristic yellow dress and long black gloves, by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. He made many portraits and caricatures of Guilbert and dedicated his second album of sketches to her.
French postcard by Vin Désilés. photo: Paul Berger / S.I.P.
Gaunt Decadent Appearance And Risqué Lyrics
At the beginning of the twentieth century, Yvette Guilbert was noted in Europe and the United States for her songs and imitations of the common people of France. She had made successful tours of England and Germany, and the United States in 1895–1896. In 1897, she married Max Schiller, a Viennese biologist whom she met during one of her tours in New York, where she even had performed at Carnegie Hall. Encyclopædia Britannica writes: “Fascinating to French audiences, she scandalized the English with her gaunt decadent appearance and risqué lyrics.” Even in her fifties, her name still had drawing power. She shared a friendship with Sigmund Freud, based on mutual admiration. Once she gave a performance for the Prince of Wales, later King Edward VII, at a private party on the French Riviera. Hostesses vied to have her at their parties. Yvette Guilbert appeared in several silent films. In the US she appeared in the short drama An Honorable Cad (1919, George Terwilliger) for the Stage Women's War Relief Fund. In France she co-starred in the successful serial Les deux gosses/The two kids (1924, Louis Mercanton) with Gabriel Signoret. The highlight of her film career was a star turn in Murnau's classic Faust (1926, Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau) starring Gösta Ekman. Hal Erickson at AllMovie writes: “Faust was the mammoth German production which F.W. Murnau won his contract with Hollywood's Fox Studios. Emil Jannings glowers his way through the role of Mephistopholes, who offers the aging Faust (Gösta Ekman) an opportunity to relive his youth, the price being Faust's soul. Though highly stylized, the film is unsettlingly realistic at times, especially during the execution of the unfortunate Gretchen.” In Germany she also starred opposite Lya Mara in the comedy Die lachende Grille/The Laughing Cricket (1926, Friedrich Zelnik aka Frederic Zelnik), based on the novel by Georges Sand. Another silent classic was the French film L’argent/Jazz-Bank (1928, Marcel L’Herbier) starring Brigitte Helm. At IMDb, Trent Bolden reviews: “L'Argent is a beacon of modernity, an over-sized hymn to music of light, where everything is rhythm, movement, and a fantastic spiral of financial manipulations. Even today, the subject is astonishingly relevant.”
Lya Mara. German postcard by Ross Verlag, Berlin, no. 1608/6, 1927-1928. Photo: Zelnick-Film.
Writing About The Belle Époque
Yvette Guilbert also appeared in sound films. Her first sound film was the melodrama Les deux orphelines/The Two Orphans (1933, Maurice Tourneur), a remake of D.W. Griffith’s silent masterpiece Orphans of the Storm (1921). JB du Monteil writes at IMDb: “Best performance comes from Yvette Guilbert, the hateful shrew, La Frochard, who forces poor blind Louise to beg on the street. Tourneur's directing and pictures are better than the incredible story which accumulates the coincidences all along Henriette's (Renée Saint-Cyr) and Louise's (Rosine Deréan) martyrdom: La Frochard rocking her dead son (a giant), Louise teaching André to pray in a church, and the (female) prisoners leaving for the colonies are scenes which can still grab today's audience, provided that they love melodramas of course.” The following year, she played a grandmother in Pêcheur d'Islande/Iceland Fisherman (1935, Pierre Guerlais). Her final role she did with friend, Sacha Guitry in his comedy Faisons un rêve.../Let Us Do a Dream (1936). Her recordings for Le Voix de Son Maitre include the famous Le Fiacre as well as some of her own compositions such as Madame Arthur. She accompanied herself on piano for some numbers. In later years, Guilbert turned to writing about the Belle Époque. She wrote the instructional book L’Art de chanter une chanson/How to Sing a Song (1928), two novels, La Vedette (1920) and Les Demi-Vieilles (1920), and an autobiography, La Chanson de ma vie/Song of My Life: My Memories (1929). Guilbert became a respected authority on her country's medieval folklore and in 1932 she was awarded the Legion of Honor as the Ambassadress of French Song. Yvette Guilbert died in 1944 in Aix-en-Provence, aged 79. Twenty years later her biography, That Was Yvette by Bettina Knapp and Myra Chipman (1964) was released. Since then her songs were sometimes used for film soundtracks. You can hear her song Madame Arthur in French Cancan (1954, Jean Renoir) and Le Fiacre in Love in the Time of Cholera (2007, Mike Newell).
Yvette Guilbert sings Le Fiacre in 1930. Source: Le Grand Chene (YouTube).
Yvette Guilbert sings Madame Arthur . Source: Msouvais (YouTube).
Sources: Hal Erickson (AllMovie), Encyclopædia Britannica, Psychoanalysis Dictionary, Wikipedia and IMDb.