Jean Gabin, the Actor who was France

A few months ago, I wrote about the long and winding career of French actor Marcel Dalio. He’s best known for his role in “La Grande Illusion” (1937) in which he plays a wealthy French Jew prisoner of war (World War I), alongside Captain de Boeldieu, an aristocrat, and Lieutenant Maréchal, a working-class mechanic who serves as a stand-in for the ordinary Frenchman.

Maréchal is played by Jean Gabin. He was the natural choice; indeed, the only actor director Jean Renoir reasonably could have considered for the part. For as Joseph Harriss shows in his superb new biography, (published by McFarland), Gabin is “the actor who was France.”

Harriss’ book is thorough, insightful, and beautifully written. Its insights extend beyond Gabin and his films to French life and society during much of the 20th century.

But the book fascinates primarily because of its immediate subject.

Gabin had proletarian roots. His grandfather paved the streets that transformed Paris during the grand renovation under Napoleon III. Gabin himself worked briefly as a cement mixer and as a laborer in a foundry.

He had grown up in the countryside outside of Paris, but also lived in Montmarte, the neighborhood where his father worked as what we would call a vaudevillian. That’s where Gabin picked up the slang he employed so brilliantly in some of his films.

Thus, early on, Gabin was in touch with all major aspects of ordinary French life. Later, he would become familiar with the military, serving in the Navy during the mid-1920s and then fighting for Free French forces during World War II (about which more later).

None of this would have mattered for cinematic purposes had Gabin not been a great natural actor. The “talkies” were perfect for him. His ability to present dialogue in an entirely natural way, coupled with his rugged good looks and perfectionism, made him France’s biggest star in the 1930s.

I first saw Gabin act 50 years ago when the Dartmouth Film Society presented Le Jour se Lève (1939). I had never heard of the actor, but his performance was such that I became a devoted fan. I’ve seen the movie three times. Harriss tells us that at least one young actor who went on to fame watched Gabin that many times in one day.

Harriss writes:

Le Jour se Lève provides Gabin with what is probably his greatest film role. It also brought to formulation his persona as the common working man whose innate dignity is destroyed by social forces beyond his control.

This was Gabin’s last film before World War II. The war opened up perhaps the most interesting chapter in Gabin’s life — one with which I was entirely unfamiliar.

As the German Army approached Paris, Gabin fled to the south of France. He resisted calls to make propaganda movies for the Vichy government, and eventually moved to Hollywood, where leading members of the French film industry had formed a colony, and where he had a nice contract to act in American movies.

But unlike other French film luminaries, Gabin couldn’t stand being in America. Even an affair with Marlene Dietrich couldn’t compensate for being absent from France and from the war to rescue his country from the Nazis.

Gabin offered his services to the Free French. Its representatives wanted him to do propaganda films, but Gabin insisted on active duty in the armed forces.

Reluctantly, the Free French assigned him to naval duty. But, by pulling a few strings, Gabin eventually became France’s oldest tank commander.

He was too late for the Normandy invasion, but served in the push to Germany, most notably in the taking of the Royan Pocket, one of the last German strongholds in post-D-Day France. His tank regiment cleared the way for an infantry attack that captured the garrison.

Two days later, Hitler committed suicide.

After the war, Gabin, could no longer play the same roles as before and was never again France’s pre-eminent movie star. However, he was able, with great difficulty, to regain his status as a successful, sought-after film actor.

Late in his career, Gabin starred with a young Brigitte Bardot. These days, Bardot lives a reclusive life. She doesn’t do interviews. But when she learned Harriss was writing Gabin’s biography, she responded to his inquiry with a handwritten note. Bardot told him:

With Jean Gabin, I did one of the best films of my career. I was terribly intimidated by him at first, but he hid great kindness behind his gruff exterior, and acting opposite him was enriching — his personality was as powerful as his talent.

He had a strong, difficult character, but so did I, and he was a wonderful partner.

In general, he represented in many ways the typical Frenchman of the time, very earthy. For me he remains unique, the actor with a capital “A” who left his mark on the 20th century.

He has never been replaced, and never will be.

Joseph Harriss’ fine biography demonstrates in a detailed but readable manner the accuracy of every word in this assessment.