The Actor Who Was France

A new book by Joseph Harriss on the life and times of Jean Gabin is 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. Gabin’s most memorable films include “La Grande Illusion” (1937), “La Bete Humane” (1938), “Le Jour se Leve” (1939) and “Le Plaisir” (1950).

The biography “Jean Gabin: The Actor Who Was France” 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. By some estimates 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.”

Gabin (whose real name was 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.

Harriss shows that Gabin’s success was due not only to 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.