Monday, July 7, 2008

Jean Gabin: The Five Cycles of His Film Career

When I started watching Jean Gabin's movies, in preparation for writing my two-volume book WORLD'S COOLEST MOVIE STAR: THE COMPLETE 95 FILMS (AND LEGEND) OF JEAN GABIN, VOLUMES ONE AND TWO, which will be released on July 20th, I was trying to figure out a good way to organize my information, and I decided that Gabin's movie career actually broke itself down -- and very neatly, I might add -- into five distinct periods, or cycles:

Volume One of my book concerns itself with the first Four of these Five Cycles:

During CYCLE ONE (1930-1933), a young Jean Gabin stars in his first 15 films. Here, he hasn't yet become cinedom's most famous somber/brooding tragic drifter, in fact, many of these (great) films are comedies and musicals, and none of them are known in the English-speaking world at all. Gabin, who was 26 to 29 years of age during this period, had just emerged from Paris's vaudeville stages, where he sang and danced -- and singing and dancing is what he does (and very well, I might add) during some of these movies. These films are all made in France.

CYCLE TWO (1934- 1941) is a cycle of 16 films in which Gabin played his famously-somber, brooding (yet life-loving!) tragic drifter character, and most of the films for which he is known today in the English-speaking world were made during this period. Grand Illusion, Pepe Le Moko, La Bete humaine, Le Jour se leve, Quai des brumes, and La Bas-fonds were all made during this period, and all of these exist in wonderful subtitled editions, mostly available from the Criterion Collection. These films are made in France.

There are only two films in CYCLE THREE (1942-1944): When Hitler invaded France, many of France's best filmmakers and actors moved to the United States where they continued their film careers in American movies, made for the major Hollywood studios. Gabin made two films during this period -- the only American movies he ever made, and the only movies which he ever made in the English language -- and even though these are American movies, they are almost completely unknown today in the United States: In Moontide (20th Century-Fox, 1942), Gabin is a French sailor who washes up in a Southern California port, where friends (Claude Raines) and lovers make his life fun, and a stark-raving psycho (Thomas Mitchell) tries to ruin that fun. Impostor (Universal Pictures, 1944) is an up-to-the-minute World War II tale in which Gabin joins the Free French Army and goes up against the Axis in the Belgian Congo (and the Belgian Congo scenes were shot in Toluca Lake, California)! In his two American films, Gabin continues to play the brooding tragic drifters whom he had played in his famous French films, from 'Cycle Two.'

Volume One of WORLD'S COOLEST MOVIE STAR ends with CYCLE FOUR (1946-1953): In 1943, after making his two American films, Jean Gabin returned to France. He spent two years fighting for his country in the Free French Navy (in fact, he was a much-decorated tank commander!), and when the war ended, he made 12 more great movies. This is kind of a transitional period for Jean Gabin: In some of the films, he plays his usual tragic drifter character, and in others, now that he is older, he plays, for the first time, a gentleman-gangster or a businessman. The French public kind of turned on Gabin during this period and didn't come out to see these films, feeling that Gabin had deserted them during the War -- they felt that he was having "fun" in America, while they were dealing with the scourge of Nazism. (Zero of the films made during this period are known in the English-speaking world, and all of them are either French, or else French-Italian co-productions.)


Next, comes Volume Two of my book: The entirety of Volume Two deals with Cycle Five, the final cycle of Jean Gabin's career. During this period (1954-1976), Jean Gabin makes 48 of his 95 films. While he's just as quiet and brooding (and cool) as ever during this period, here, his characters have ventured over to the other side of the social spectrum. Back in the 1930s, he played the ultimate working-class tragic drifter. Now, while he's still quiet, solemn, and brooding, he'll usually play a wealthy magnate, a patriarch, or a smooth criminal gentleman-gangster, who's a kind of proto-Michael Corleone. During this fifth and final Cycle of Jean Gabin's movie career, the French finally "forgave" him, once again making him their country's biggest star, and turning out for all of his movies. Outside of two movies -- 1954's Touchez pas au grisbi (directed by Jacques Becker) and 1955's Moulin-Rouge epic French Cancan (directed by Jean Renoir), none of the movies in which Gabin made during this period are known by the vast majority of English-speaking cineastes.

Hopefully, one of these days, the English-speaking world will know what the rest of the world has already known: Jean Gabin is THE WORLD'S COOLEST MOVIE STAR.

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