Yesterday we showed a never-before-seen before photo of Michele Morgan from the Donald Gordon collection. She was only one of several stars from Europe to come make films in the America during the Second World War.
The one pictured above had the shortest and perhaps the quirkiest Hollywood stint, but remains nonetheless hugely celebrated in his home country. (We’ll reveal his identity on Monday.)
He began his career 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 — yes — Michele Morgan (1938’s Quai de Brumes).
By the end of the Thirties he was a well-established star in France, and was also well known and highly regarded in some Hollywood circles (producer Walter Wanger was very impressed). So when he departed for America at least one studio took notice.
20th Century Fox offered him a contract, hailing him 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. The actor annoyed Wanger by declining the title role in the producer’s 1938 title, Algiers with Charles Boyer, in a part he had previously played (a Paris gangster hiding out in Algiers’ Casbah) in the French-language original.
Our mystery actor made only two movies during his Hollywood period, first playing opposite Ida Lupino as a tough longshoreman in Fox’s 1942 film noir Moontide. In 1944 Gabin starred as a French soldier who escapes death in Universal’s The Imposter (aka Strange Confession).
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. (Our mystery man 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.
Why didn’t our mystery actor 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 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.