Turner Classic Movies inspired the love and gratitude of cinephiles—yet again—by devoting one day (August 18) of its annual “Summer Under the Stars” extravaganza to the iconic French actor Jean Gabin. Moreover, apart from La Grande Illusion, La Bête humaine, Pépé le Moko, and Le Jour se lève, most of the 24 hours’ worth of features would be new to Stateside viewers. The event gave me an excuse to post a cine-bio of Gabin written for a 1996 project but never published. —RTJ
Born as Jean-Alexis Moncorge, May 17, 1904; Meriel, France
Death: November 16, 1976
With his earthy presence, working-class features, and imperturbable gaze that has seen everything life has to show him, Jean Gabin was an icon of French cinema—and French manhood—for more than four decades. His trademark roles were weary drifters, taciturn lovers, and victims of blind destiny, and he eventually became rather too familiar in them. But he was also capable of an extraordinary sensitivity, the more affecting for his stoical calm, and in his best films he was an exemplary screen actor.
His parents were café entertainers, and he made his own first foray into show business at 19 as—hard to imagine—a Folies-Bergère dancer. He rose to leading man opposite the legendary Mistinguette, and also worked in music halls and operettas. None of this comports with the screen image Gabin began to develop in 1930, at age 34. A star from Maria Chapdelaine in 1934, he played opposite Josephine Baker in Zou-Zou (1934) and, in 1936, made his first film with Jean Renoir, Les Bas-fonds/The Lower Depths; its closing image—Gabin and the leading lady setting off down a bleak road with little hope but in good cheer—could be the emblem of his filmography. Renoir straightaway cast him as the proletarian pilot opposite Pierre Fresnay’s refined aristocrat in the WWI prisoner-of-war classic La Grande Illusion (1937), and his international reputation was launched.
He was excellent in Jean Grémillon’s Gueule d’Amour (1937) as a Foreign Legionnaire who becomes involved with an adventuress and, in civilian life, finally destroys them both. Pépé le Moko (1937), for Julien Duvivier, cast him as a gangster who cannot leave Algiers’ Casbah. Gabin gave his best Renoir performance as the railroad engineer tainted with “bad blood” in La Bête humaine (1938). His image as a fated film noir hero achieved apotheosis in two films for Marcel Carné, Quai des brumes/Port of Shadows (1938) and Le Jour se lève (1939); in the latter, Gabin’s selection of a necktie before committing suicide is one of the great, uncanny moments in the annals of film acting.
The war interrupted his career; he weathered it in Hollywood, making two weak films and becoming the lover of Marlene Dietrich—a relationship that continued after the war and included a French film together, the rustic tragedy Martin Roumagnac/The Room Upstairs (1946). He reestablished his stardom with the Oscar-winning Au-delà des grilles/The Walls of Malapaga (1949) for René Clément, and played a droll part in the brothel episode of Max Ophuls’s Le Plaisir (1951). But apart from Jacques Becker’s gangster film Touchez pas au grisbi (1953) and Renoir’s own triumphant homecoming French Cancan (1955, with Gabin as the man who created the Moulin Rouge), his films became formulaic, and likewise his performances. Still, the French never tired of him, and waited eagerly for his outbursts of volcanic temper, as institutionalized as his now-authentic weariness. He made several films as Georges Simenon’s Inspector Maigret, and in 1963 formed a production company with France’s other most popular and predictable actor, the comedian Fernandel. He stayed as busy as he wanted to be—about one film a year—until his death in 1976.