Jean who, you ask?

Can’t say we blame you since the name Jean Gabin is to put it mildly not widely known in the U.S. today except among lovers of foreign-language classic movies, which we are.  But let’s put it this way:  Gabin is France’s biggest male movie star ever.

Imagine a senior Clark Gable (born three years before the French actor), vintage Humphrey Bogart (five years older), a soupcon of Robert Mitchum (the baby of the lot, 13 years younger) and and the terse toughness of an Edward G. Robinson (11 years Gabin’s senior).

Put it all together and you might begin to approach the screen impact of Jean Gabin throughout most of his career. No other French screen actor has seemed to the French to embody so many of their own admirable characteristics, writes film historian David Thomson.

The product of show biz parents who worked lower-level popular theaters, Gabin began onstage as a variety performer.  His movie career in France started in 1928, and lasted nearly five decades until his death at age 72 in 1976.  His leading ladies include the legendary Josephine Baker (1934’s Zouzou), Simone Simon (La Bete Humaine, 1938) and Michele Morgan (1938’s Quai de Brumes).

By the end of the Thirties Gabin was a well-established star in France thanks to such classics as Le Jour Se Leve (Daybreak), Jean Renoir’s Le Grande Illusion  and Pepe LeMoko.  He was also well known and highly regarded in some Hollywood circles (producer Walter Wanger was very impressed).

So when Gabin decided to depart France for America — smart decision since German troops were on the march — Hollywood took notice. Thus began in the early Forties what the French now call Gabin’s “periode americaine.”

Twentieth Century Fox offered a contract. Gabin was hailed as “the French Spencer Tracy.” The actor took English lessons in earnest.  He also made the obligatory promotional rounds at Hollywood’s Tracadero night club. He was photographed at New York’s Stork Club with Ginger Rogers.

But things did not go well.  Gabin had annoyed Wanger by declining the title role in the producer’s 1938 remake of Pepe titled Algiers with Charles Boyer in the part Gabin had so forcefully played (a Paris gangster hiding out in Algiers’ Casbah).

Gabin made only two movies during his Hollywood period, first playing opposite Ida Lupino as a tough longshoreman in Fox’s 1942 film noir Moontide. It was produced by noir veteran Mark Hellinger, and boasts a script by novelist John O’Hara. Fritz Lang is said to have had a hand in the direction.

In 1944 Gabin starred as a French soldier who escapes death in Universal’s The Imposter (aka “Strange Confession”) directed by Julien Duvivier, who directed the actor in the original Pepe. Trivia item: one of  our favorite noir actors, Charles McGraw, has a bit part in this picture as a soldier.

Both these Gabin Hollywood efforts are not the easiest to track down today but would be well worth the effort.

The biggest legacy of the actor’s Hollywood period was the beginning of his passionate seven-year affair with Marlene Dietrich.  The two made an odd couple — she the svelte femme fatale, he the provincial tough guy — but they loved each other (Gabin was married three times during his lifetime but never to Dietrich).

After the breakup she is said to have carried the torch to her grave. The one film they made together was in back in France in 1946, Martin Roumagnac.  She portrays a spirited refugee hiding out in a provincial French village. He plays a smitten local.  It comes to a bad end.

Why didn’t Gabin make it in Hollywood?

For one thing, he never felt comfortable there — regarding the place, as many French still do, as synonymous with vulgarity and money-mongering.  More to the point, the actor was less than diligent in learning English.

He may well have been too “exotic” for Hollywood at the time, not conforming to the preconceived stereotypes — the smooth continental (Boyer) or the jaunty music hall veteran (Maurice Chevalier).  In all, “une experience douloureuse”  — a sad experience.

But there was always Marlene.

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