Before the French developed a fascination for the low-brow diversion they found along the Sunset Strip that was depicted in Ben Gazzara’s classic indie Hollywood film “The Killing of A Chinese Bookie”, boulevard theatre provided popular entertainment for the masses.
The clubs, theatres and bôites along the Boulevard Montmartre whose neon gave Paris its nightlife and served as its Great White Way, segued into radio and TV shows.
King of the boulevard was Sacha Guitry, the actor-writer who ran into problems after supporting the Pétain crowd in Vichy and was looking for new faces to help with a post-war rebrand. The aging Guitry found Cowl (born André Darricau) working on the boulevard, and their collaboration gave both men new life.
Cast by Guitry in the 1956 hit Assassins et Voleurs (Assassins and Robbers), Cowl gained overnight success and doubled down on the French silver screen with Le Triporteur (The Tricycle) in 1957, at age 32.
Captured by the camera of Dambier, Darry Cowl, a joker whose off the cuff improv was the antithesis of Guitry’s scripted approach to laughter, became the town topic in the City of Light.
Thanks to Cowl (charade hint.. sounds like “Derry Cole”) the spirit of le boulevard provided postwar France with a ration of laughs that no longer required husbands to take their wives out on the town. Times were tough and the government was paying for moms to stay at home and have a third child pour la France anyhow.
Like bad wine, Cowl — himself a heavy drinker and smoker — didn’t travel well. But he did master the possibilities of making people laugh, with and without the aid of prompting canned laughter, which had migrated to France from radio shows in the United States.
Loved and hated by critics, he was a one trick pony who had few followers outside the metropole. His schtick, which was valuable enough to keep him in clover for half a century in spite of a chronic gambling problem, was tickling the funny bone in a Gallic culture that was almost as buttoned up as Britain.
Cowl talked fast, made up lines on the fly and left no stolen scene behind. He affected a fake stutter as a signature designed to hold audience attention. And his on-stage insults would scratch your character like the laces of a boxing glove.
Throughout his life, which included two marriages and plenty of dalliance, he held forth from the affluent Parisian suburb of Neuilly, which served as a political springboard for another famous fast talker, former French president Nicolas Sarkozy. Sarko, who dominated French politics with his own vitriolic repertoire, served as mayor of the town early in his career.
But Sarkozy, whose show business connections include wife Carla Bruni, didn’t need to take a role in a kung-fu movie to pay off his gambling debts. God finally said rien ne vas plus and sent Cowl up to the Grandes Boulevards in the sky. Never reading the warnings on the sides of the ciggie packs he inhaled, Cowl died in 2005 from lung cancer in Neuilly at the ripe old age of eighty.