A Book Review Essay by Tony Williams.
Usually, I’m hesitant when presented with another biography for review. Despite the dedication and research involved, there often occurs a fundamental similarity in approach and, sometimes, lack of critical and insightful qualities when covering the actor’s films themselves. What makes them distinctive? Is it the historical period or certain nuances common to the actor? Alternatively, a mixture of both? I’ve already read and enjoyed film historian and screenwriter Charles L. Zigman’s earlier two volume study World’s Coolest Movie Star: The Complete 95 films (and Legend) of Jean Gabin, independently published in 2008, in addition to individual articles by critics such as Andre Bazin and Ginette Vincendeau. After ordering the books for our university library in better financial times, I was impressed by the work Zigman undertook, as well as his challenging rating system of the actor’s work. Zigman spared no effort in his quest and visited many European archives to see less accessible Gabin films. Zigman had really done his homework seeing the films, avoiding the usual scholarly bluff resorting to theoretical obfuscation rather than comment objectively on the films themselves, and leaving the field open for further debate.
Joseph Harriss is another welcome addition to those stimulating ranks of independent scholars working outside the system. He is an “American in Paris,” a respected journalist, having already written three books on France, fluent in the culture and language of his adopted homeland. He acknowledges not only Zigman but also other key figures, such as Gabin’s daughter Florence, the curator of the Meriel Jean Gabin Museum, historians such as Claude Gauteur, Gabin Museum Board member Patrick Glatre, Cinemateque Francaise program director Jean-Francois Rauger, as well as gaining informative contributions from Francoise Arnoul and Brigitte Bardot who worked on some key films. Coupled with constant references to what the Gabin family consider the most accurate biography of the star, Gabin by Andre Brunelin (2007), and other French texts referred to or translated into English, this is a virtual treasure trove of information especially for those of us struggling with a basic reading knowledge of French wishing we were more fluent. Running for 218 pages with an introduction, 20 chapters, filmography, notes, bibliography, and index, this is one of the best-written and accessible biographies I have read so far. Written in a lively accessible journalistic style, Jean Gabin: The Actor Who Was France (McFarland, 2018), democratically introduces all types of readers to its fascinating subject matter.
How can an actor embody a particular national identity? When first arriving in Paris, Harriss eventually realized that “studying his characters in those movies was as good a way as any of getting at the notoriously complex and contradictory French identity, an often bewildering mix of preening panache and gruff earthy common sense” (1). His roles “form a mosaic amounting to the French version of the human comedy” (1) during the actor’s lifetime (1). Jean Gabin (1904-1976) “represented the socio- economic archetypes of different periods of France’s national existence” (2). These range from an unemployed worker in La Belle Equipe (1936); tragic gangster in Pepe Le Moko (1936); sacrificial victim of the collapse of the Popular Front in La Bete Humaine (1938), Quai des Brumes, and Le Jour se Leve (1939); prosperous, world weary businessmen in the changed post-war era; Georges Simeon’s Inspector Maigret in three films, and an elderly Norman farmer in La Horse (1970) attempting to save his grandson from drug gangs finding common cause with former Indo-China Veteran (significantly nicknamed “Indo-Chine). His despised son-in-law has put his daughter in the family way to become a member of the family farm. Gabin’s silent, but telling, glances towards this miscreant speaks volumes. He accepts him into the family but inwardly detests him.
As Alain Paucard noted, “There’s not a single Gabin film where his role doesn’t reflect French society. Or, more precisely, there’s not a single Frenchman who doesn’t see himself in some Gabin role” (2). But despite aging and the evolution of his screen persona, he remains quintessentially Gabin. Costa-Gavras once remarked, “By his way of being, by his way of speaking, moving. When you see Gabin, it was France” (2).
Born on May 17, 1904 as Jean Alexis Gabin Moncorge, to parents associated with the world of entertainment, young Jean spent his first 11 years in the rural area of Meriel until moving to Paris and eventually finding work as a performer in the Folies Bergere. He eventually gravitated to the Moulin Rouge where Maurice Chevalier’s former lover Mistinguett took him under her wing and launched him as leading singer and dancer in her new review of 1928. From there he moved towards films, making several in the early 1930s before developing his distinctive acting style and a diverse number of roles, in addition to that of proletarian hero that became his most noticeable trademark in the latter part of the decade. He played a direct role in collaborating with directors concerning the nuances of his performances in several respects embodying the concept that Patrick McGilligan would recognize in his study of James Cagney – the actor as auteur:
The words have to come out of the eyes, because movies are visual. If you don’t really think what you’re saying, it won’t be in your eyes. And to really think it, you have to be able to say it easily. So I always try to make the dialogue my own. I would be completely unable to play classical roles, like Moliere tragedies. That would be catastrophic. (58)
Many French stars such as Michele Morgan (1920-2016) acknowledged the advice Gabin gave them about acting technique. (p.44). As Francoise Arnoul (1931- )later said, “The French recognized themselves in him because he loved everything that makes France, France, the soil, eating well, drinking good wine, seduction women, l’amour, all the things you associate with this country” (45). In many ways, he was a Gallic equivalent to Gary Cooper (see pp. 3, 42, 43, 71) but with his own distinctive persona.
Harriss uses many rare family and professional stills from the Gabin Museum never seen before as well as supplying detailed information from archive and French sources revealing much previously unknown about the actor in the English-speaking world. Gabin’s breakthrough came from his association with key directors such as Julian Duvivier (1896-1967), Marcel Carne (1906-1996), and, of course, Jean Renoir (1894-1979). The films he made with them solidified his screen image such as La Bandera (1935), La Belle Equipe, Les Bas-Fonds, (1936), Pepe le Moko, La Grande Illusion (1937), Guele d’Amour (1937), Quai des Brumes (1938), La Bete Humaine, and Le Jour se Leve.
Wartime brought many personal and professional changes to this thirties personification of French poetic realism. After enlisting for naval service, the Fall of France led to Gabin and his Quai des Brumes co-star Michelle Morgan separately leaving for Hollywood. However, Gabin’s diplomatic signing of an eight-month exit visa requiring him to make Vichy propaganda films would later return to haunt him, despite the fact that he had no such intention (103). The actor normally kept a low profile politically but his patriotic-inspired anger against those who had taken American citizenship and did not return home as soon as the war was over led to tensions with the more vocal Free French supporters. Charles Boyer (1899-1978) encouraged the rumor that Gabin was pro-Vichy. Gabin, accustomed as he was to taking direct action, convinced Boyer that he might be the object of a real-life enactment of one of his angry movie scenes if he didn’t stop spreading the rumor” (107).
Always his own person, both individually and cinematically, Gabin’s two Fox Hollywood films, Moontide (1942) and The Imposter (1944) wasted his talents in the same way as Chow Yun-fat experienced later. Like Michelle Morgan, Gabin was biding his time. He wanted to return home and fight. During this period, he began a love affair with another exile, Marlene Dietrich (1901-1992) who, despite her American citizenship, was also under suspicion by the FBI. Harriss not only supplies new information under the Freedom of Information Act concerning reservations American authorities had over these two major stars( see pp.128-133) but also supplies informed reasons for the homesickness felt by Gabin and Morgan.
It was a typical French form of intense homesickness that immigrants from other countries, particularly northern Europe, don’t seem to experience to the same extent. Nearly every French person I’ve known who lived in the U.S., and there have been many, had the same feeling of irremediable bereavement. (1)
By the time, his second Hollywood film gained release, Gabin had already joined the Free French. He enlisted for active service, becoming the oldest tank commander in the field as the respected Sergeant Moncorge. But, after making his only film with Dietrich at a time their relationship began to fragment, the unsuccessful Martin Rougmagnac (1946), Gabin not only had to come to terms with the fact that he had aged but also that French society had changed.
Postwar French society was fast evolving in ways that obliterated many things Jean Gabin had represented in earlier films. Slowly at first, then with dizzying acceleration over the next 30 years, the France that Gabin – a man of the 19th century – had known and loved began disappearing before his eyes. It was the start of the Trente Glorieuses, the three decades from 1950 to 1980 that saw France change faster and more profoundly than even the protean United States. It was not changing in ways that suited Jean Gabin. (154-155)
These historical observations relevant to the changing nature of Gabin’s post-war stardom represent one of the most fascinating aspects of this study. After appearing on stage for the first time since his early days in Le Soif (1949) and finally finding his desired soul mate with whom he would father several children, Gabin began to re-negotiate the changing nature of his stardom. He would evolve into the Gallic Grand Old Man of French Cinema receiving acclaim for his performance in Jacques Becker’s Touchez Pas au Grisbi (1954) which also featured Jeanne Moreau (1928-2017) and Lino Ventura (1919-1987) who became his best friend. He also fulfilled a dream of purchasing a farm and living a quiet life with his family. Harriss supplies some interesting information here (see especially pp162-165). Yet acting was his main source of income and he made many films, some not up standard, to supply needed sources of revenue. Harriss tends to concentrate on the important work while Zigman covers everything. Films such as Jean Renoir’s French Can (1954) and Claude Autant-Lara’s La Traversee de Paris (1956) and En Cas de Malheur (1958) receive appropriate coverage. In these Lara films, Gabin co-starred with the great French comedian Bourvil (1917-1970) in an early skeptical examination of the “Myth of the Occupation” that would not begin to be questioned fully until Marcel Ophuls’ The Sorrow and the Pity (1969). This film deserves to be better known while the second contains another performance by Brigitte Bardot that shows what a good actress she really could be under appropriate circumstances. Holding her own with established actors such as Gabin and Edwige Feuillere (1907-1998), Bardot gained much from a veteran actor who not only helped her in sympathetic ways but also professionally collaborated with her enabling them to deliver superb performances despite problems with the difficult director.
These, and others, are films worthy of recognition, but even some pot-boilers have interesting moments such as one scene in the otherwise formulaic Les Clan des Sicilians (1970), a box-office project designed to feature Gabin, Alain Delon, and Ventura together. One delightful scene, usually edited out of theatrical releases, show semi-retired aging bosses, played by Gabin and veteran Italian actor Amedeo Nazzari (1907-1979), meeting after many years and discussing what toys they will buy for their grandchildren. Harriss notes Gabin’s later appearances with a younger generation of actors such as Delon and Ventura but does not mention that young Gerard Depardieu (1948- ) also made three films with the veteran actor – Le Tueur (1972), The Dominici Affair (1973), and Deux Hommes dans la Ville ((1973). These films are not only worth seeing in their own right but supply evidence that Gerard was much less weighty in his earlier days. Is this another Gabin influence? Significantly, Sergio Leone originally wanted both actors to appear as the older and younger Max when he began planning Once Upon a Time in America (see p. 185)
Worthy or disappointing these post-war films were, Harris notes that they “would increasingly reflect, often with undisguised scorn and a certain melancholy, the new postwar France with its tight social tissue unravelling, the traditional trades vanishing, colorful old neighborhoods being bulldozed to make way for eyesore apartment complexes. Taken together, they form a penetrating portrait of French society during three decades of traumatic change” (170).
Is this another post-war example of Gabin’s own brand of the Actor as Auteur? (2) Critic Michel Audiard suggests that Gabin “was basically a man of the left who became so disillusioned with people on the left that he adopted conservative values” (181). The same was also true of James Cagney (1899-1986). However, his social conscience was by no means extinct during this time as his anti-capital punishment film co-starring Delon, Deux Hommes dans la Ville (1973) and The Dominci Affair (1973), both show. Also Le Chat (1971), co-starring Simone Signoret (1921-1985) based on a Georges Simenon novel, is a poignant, unflinching study of old-age alienation in a changing environment that earned both stars Silver Bear Awards at the Berlin International Film Festival.
Harriss opens his final chapter with “Not everyone liked Jean Gabin, man and actor” (184). He was obviously a complex and contradictory character but one who opened out to Robert Stack (1934-2003), whom he was initially suspicious of, in one of their lesser films, by taking him around his old 1930s Parisian haunts as Zigman mentions. Towards the end of a French Film Noir class several years ago when enrollments and student attitudes to “old films” were less reactionary than they are now, I remember those students cheering the appearance of an actor they had seen earlier in his 1930s work when he appeared in the opening credits of Rififi in Panama (1966). It was a dubbed copy but I could not imagine co-star George Raft dubbed into French in the original version! Gabin was a remarkable presence whose work is still enduring. As to why, I will quote the concluding remarks of Harriss.
Our perception of France is colored and shaped by the 95-fim mosaic of it this Gallic Everyman left us. For many of us who seek through the distancing lens of foreign eyes one of the best vestiges of this idiosyncratic nation caught in a time warp – a France that was, is no more, and will never be again – Jean Gabin, because of his films and because of his very authenticity, was France itself. (193)
- The rise of Boris and rapid changes affecting Manchester UK with the contamination of big money, homelessness, skyscrapers destroying the city landscape, police surveillance has sadly solidified my now realistic understanding of the title of Thomas Wolfe’s well-known novel, “You Can’t Go Home Again.”
- See Patrick McGilligan, Cagney: The Actor as Auteur. San Diego: A.S. Barnes, 1982.
Tony Williams is Professor and Area Head of Film Studies in the Department of English, Southern Illinois University at Carbondale, and a Contributing Editor to Film international. He yearns for those days when enrollment permitted classes on French Film Noir and Jean-Pierre Melville with few prejudices voiced against “old”, ”subtitled” “black and white films” and dreaming of using Gabin’s method of “direct action” against those who do!