Today we highlight another feature in this week’s series about cinematic remakes and reworkings. This time we’re talking about a distinguished French original plus two American remakes of 1937’s Pepe Le Moko.
What better way to celebrate Bastille Day, the French national holiday marking the storming of the Bastille during the French revolution, on July 14, 1789. Happy Fete Nationale Francaise to our French friends.
Notably, the original Pepe and its chief American remake, 1938’s Algiers, star two of the finest French-born screen actors ever — Jean Gabin (pictured top right) and Charles Boyer (below surrounded by Algiers compatriots, Brooklyn-born Sigrid Gurie on the left and Vienna-born Hedy Lamarr on the right, in her American movie debut).
Gabin and Boyer were destined to opposite fates in Hollywood and in their home country. While the former remains an icon in France, he bombed in Hollywood. Boyer, all but forgotten at home, emerged as one of classic Hollywood’s most durable stars.
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, which was an international hit.
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. But things did not go well.
Gabin had annoyed produceer Walter Wanger by declining the title role in the producer’s Algiers, and the picture went ahead with Boyer in the part Gabin had so forcefully played (a Paris gangster on the lamb and hiding out in Algiers’ labyrinthian old quarter known as the 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.
Boyer was the pride of Figeac, a medium-sized city in France’s southwest Cahors wine district, who started making movies in Europe in 1920 before being lured to Hollywood 11 years later by a succession of big studios — MGM, Paramount, Twentieth Century Fox and Algiers producer Walter Wanger.
Boyer continued making films in Hollywood and Europe right up until until 1976, two years before his suicide in 1978 in Phoenix, Arizona. He is credited with appearances in more than 90 films and tv shows, and played opposite some of Hollywood’s classiest leading ladies (Garbo, Dietrich, Hedy Lamarr, Ingrid Bergman, Jennifer Jones, Irene Dunne).
He was a superb actor, who improved any picture he appeared in.
Then there’s Tony — Tony Martin, that is, the star of Universal’s Casbah, a 1948 “crime-musical” with the singer (pictured below with Peter Lorre) cast in the role previously undertaken by Gabin and Boyer. Lorre and Yvonne DeCarlo are along for the ride. This one might be fun to revisit.