Thursday, October 18, 2018

JEAN GABIN: The Actor Who Was France, Evolution of modern film- No passport necessary.


Here is an interview to air in November with Joseph Harriss about JEAN GABIN and his significance  as artist and as a public figure, an "everyman" who came to personify France.




Jean Gabin:  The Actor Who Was France

The first biography in English of the iconic French film actor whose career and life mirrored both 20th-century France and the early evolution of modern film.

When Joseph Harriss published The Tallest Tower: Eiffel and the Belle Epoque, it was acclaimed as a definative book and it was written by an American. Now, the Paris based journalist has done it again with a different kind of icon in Jean GabinThe Actor Who Was France (McFarland). Illustrated with more than 40 photographs, the book portrays in graphic detail Gabin’s films and personal life, including his unhappy years in Hollywood and his largely unknown wartime service as a tank commander with the Free French.

This full-length biography, the first in English, shows how Jean Gabin, whom Harriss sees as “a French Everyman,” embodied the spirit of the French people, much as John Wayne embodied American values. Gabin's “tragic drifter” character in his great classics of the late 1930’s was tough yet fated to lose, mirroring a France facing the German invasion of 1940. Later, Gabin’s film character was often dismayed by postwar cultural change, as France's unique character was progressively homogenized by the European Union and globalization. 
His persona as “patriarch” in the 1960s marked the culmination of a 45-year, 95-film career that made him a worldwide screen idol (it is calculated that his post-WW II films alone attracted some 161 million moviegoers.)  At his death in 1976 The New York Times called him “the craggy and sardonic hero-victim of a hundred French films. . . one of the great men of cinema.”
Jean-Alexis Moncorgé entered show business as a song-and-dance man at the Folies Bergère in the 1920s.  He went on to do operetta and then talkies in the 1930s, rising to stardom as Jean Gabin just before World War II.  Refusing Nazi pressure to act in German films, he fled occupied France to Hollywood, where Darryl Zanuck eagerly signed him for Twentieth Century Fox.  But, notoriously cantankerous and independent, he detested the town’s rigid, autocratic studio system. He did only two films there before returning to join Charles de Gaulle’s Free French Forces to fight for the liberation of France.
It's a dramatic personal and professional trajectory as Gabin grew, matured and evolved, thanks in part to his three marriages and often-painful love affairs ranging from the 1930s French beauty Mistinguett to Ginger Rogers, Michèle Morgan and Marlene Dietrich. But there was much more to him than his massive presence and the captivating pale eyes so admired by Jean Renoir. The emotional depth of his internationally renowned 1930's classics, like Grand IllusionPépé Le Moko, and La Bête Humaine, directed by filmmakers such as Renoir and Marcel Carné, led the great French film critic André Bazin to call him “the tragic hero of contemporary cinema.”   Bosley Crowther of the Times saw Gabin then as “the Spencer Tracey of French films . . .  obviously one of the best slap-‘em-and-kiss-‘em actors in the game.”
Harriss shows that Gabin's success was due not only the instinctive naturalism of his acting, but also to his habit of revising screenplays to improve the film and sculpt his role to his advantage. This while working with legendary screenwriters like Jacques Prévert and Michel Audiard. His dogged insistence that only a good story can make a good film later resulted in his being scorned by 1960s Nouvelle Vague auteurs such as François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard.
Jean Gabin: The Actor Who Was France is a penetrating, serious but not solemn portrait of a complex personality, the actor whom the Film Society of Lincoln Center in New York once called  “Everybody's Star." It is a book to be savored not only by Gabin fans, but also students of cinema history and lovers of France itself. 
I knew little about Gabin but really liked that I learned both about WW2 in Europe before the Americans and what the music halls and our vaudeville contributed to the nascent film industry. Before the Actor's Studio, Gabin had figured out how to underplay for the camera and to pare plots for maximal focus,  movement, and personal exposure. Though without formal education, Gabin's instincts were ahead of his time. His personal force shaped the new medium and what we see today. 

But perhaps fitting for a French icon, his suffering was deep and ironic. He was undone by 1960s New Wave Auteurs, who resisted his vision as "old hat" and controlling, he escaped the Nazis for Hollywood, only to be treated as a "French" product. Gabin who loved women and spent a fortune in pursuit, found none, until later in life, willing to have his children. 

I could see why huge crowds mourned his death, and today a museum and street are dedicated to his memory.  If you love film and France, read about Gabin, rent a couple films. Escape the cliches of  2018 in the U.S.A., no passport necessary.
S.W.