Family & Companions
One of France's most celebrated actors, Jean Gabin was the tragic romantic hero of such pre-World War II dramas as "Marie Chapdelaine" (1934), "Pépé le Moko" (1937) and "Grand Illusion" (1937), and later, an aging, worldly presence in such post-war hits as "Touchez pas au grisbi" (Don't Touch the Loot") (1954) and "The Sicilian Clan" (1969). Early in his career, Gabin earned fame on the stage with an imitation of Maurice Chevalier, which in retrospect, seemed an almost foregone conclusion, as both men embodied opposing sides of the French male persona as seen through the filter of motion pictures: Chevalier the charming bon vivant, and Gabin the brooding, lustful and reckless anti-hero. Both performers continued to personify those archetypes in their later years, but Gabin brought profound emotional depth to his lions in winter. The sins of the past were never far from his characters, which were often forced to violently confront their histories as they returned to bedevil their present lives. A treasured figure in the history of French cinema, Jean Gabin set the bar for leading men in his native country and elsewhere for generations.
Born Jean-Alexis Moncorgé on May 17, 1904 in Paris, France, Jean Gabin was raised by his parents, both cabaret entertainers, in the village of Mériel, in Val d'Oise. He entered the family business as a teenager, playing bit roles in the Folies Bergères before serving in the military. After his discharge, his stage career blossomed, with turns in reviews and operettas, where he won favor with an impression of crooner Maurice Chevalier. After adopting "Gabin" as his stage surname, he began performing at the Moulin-Rouge in 1928. His film debut also came that year with a small role in the silent sketch comedy feature "Ohe! Les Valises" (1928). By 1930, he had worked his way up to supporting turns in talking pictures like "Chacun sa Chance," but waited a full four years before earning his star-making turn as a rough-hewn logger who lost his heart to Madeleine Renaud's "Marie Chapdelaine" (1934). The film and its follow-up, Marc Allégret's "Zouzou" (1934), with Gabin as a doomed circus performer, immediately established him as a screen idol, particularly with female audiences who queued up by the hundreds to swoon over his melancholy features and resonant voice.
For the next decade, Gabin epitomized the tragic romantic hero in dozens of films, most notably in collaboration with his "Marie Chapdelaine" director, Julien Duvivier. The success of "Marie" and "Zouzou" was compounded by 1936's "La Bandera," a wildly popular adventure-romance with Gabin as a falsely accused murderer who fled the law by joining the Spanish Foreign Legion. Duvivier would also oversee one of his most enduring hits, "Pépé le Moko" (1937), with Gabin as a thief on the lam in Algiers who lost his heart to Mireille Balin's Parisian expatriate. His turn as a working-class French officer who struggled to maintain his faith in humanity while in a World War I prison camp in Jean Renoir's anti-war classic "La Grande Illusion" (Grand Illusion") (1937) brought Gabin his first international acclaim, and he would reunite with Renoir a year later for "La Bete Humaine" (The Human Beast") (1938), a thriller about a train engineer's lust for his co-worker's wife (Simone Simon), which sets off a chain of tragic events. Gabin soon established himself as a pro-noir anti-hero in Marcel Carné's "Port of Shadows" (1938) and "Le Jour se lève" (1939).
With the outbreak of World War II, Gabin followed Renoir and Duvivier to America, where he attempted to launch a career in Hollywood. His efforts there, "Moontide" (1942) and "Strange Confession" (a.k.a. 1944's "The Imposter") for Duvivier were dismal failures, compounded in no small part by his bullish personality. A chance to star in a feature for RKO was torpedoed by his demand that his lover, Marlene Dietrich, was cast as the female lead. The studio refused, which infuriated Gabin, who was eventually fired and the production shelved. He returned to France in 1943, where he joined Charles De Gaulle's Free French Forces as a tank commander and won medals for combat in Europe and North Africa. Upon his return to acting in 1946, Gabin was dismayed to find that the public had forgotten about him. A string of expensive failures, including "Martin Roumagnac" (1947) with Dietrich rendered him box office poison. Even the critical success of "Au-Dela Des Grilles" (The Walls of Malpaga")(1947), which won the Oscar for Best Foreign Film, could not reverse his declining fortunes.
Jacques Becker's "Touchez pas au grisbi" (Don't Touch the Loot") (1954) marked the beginning of Gabin's comeback. Fifty at the time of its release, Gabin's ruddy good looks had hardened, and his roguish charm was replaced by a sense of world-weariness, as well as a distinct touch of menace. Both aided significantly in his portrayal of an aging gangster forced to abandon plans of retirement to rescue his friend. The film, which earned Gabin the Volpi Cup from the Venice Film Festival, launched the second phase of his career, which saw him transformed into a character actor and occasional lead whose gravitas bespoke of a life filled with extraordinary highs and lows. He reunited with Renoir for the wistful comedy "French Cancan" (1955), co-starring Edith Piaf, and Duvivier for "Voici le temps des assassins" (Here is the Time of the Assassins) (1956) as a restaurateur whose life is thrown into turmoil by the arrival of his step-daughter (Daniele Delorme). In 1959, he won the Silver Bear at the Berlin Film Festival as a tramp who planned to avoid the winter by landing in prison in "Archimede, le clochard" (1959). The following year, he was made a member of France's Legion of Honor.
In the 1960s, Gabin divided his time between genial comedies like "Un singe en hiver" (A Monkey in Winter") (1962) with Jean-Paul Belmondo and "Rififi in Paris" (1966) with George Raft, and French crime thrillers that hinged much of their appeal on his enduring star status. The best of these was "The Sicilian Clan" (1969), with Gabin as the godfather of an Italian crime family who teamed with a rogue French crook (Alain Delon) to steal a collection of jewels. In 1971, he won a second Silver Bear for "Le Chat" ("The Cat"), a downbeat drama about an aging husband whose affection for a stray cat roused his wife (Simone Signoret) to anger. He soon returned to French crime pictures, including "Verdict" (1974) with Sophia Loren and the comedy "Holy Year" (1976). That same year, he was hospitalized with leukemia, which claimed his life on Nov. 15, 1976. A national hero to generations of moviegoers, Gabin's ashes were dispersed into the sea from a naval ship with full military honors.
By Paul Gaita
Cast (Feature Film)
Music (Feature Film)
Dancer with Folies-Bergere
Formed company Gafer Films (with Fernandel)