For him, acting was nothing more than a profession like any other: Throughout his life, Jean Gabin eluded the glamor of the film industry and led a secluded private life. His name rarely appeared in the tabloids – when it did, it was in connection with Marlene Dietrich, with whom he was linked by a relationship scarred by the Second World War.
When it came to his profession, Jean Gabin managed to concentrate fully on his work and to achieve the best possible portrayal of his character. Jean Gabin often played the role of the typical worker in French films: perhaps that’s why he was able to slip into the role of the working man so well, because behind the scenes he behaved like a worker himself. Whether Jean Gabin stood in front of a star, a cameraman, the director or an extra on the set was unimportant to him: what counted for him in the end was the result, for which everyone involved had made their contribution.
Marlene Dietrich and Jean Gabin
That Marlene Dietrich and Jean Gabin would sooner or later go their separate ways was foreseeable: Marlene Dietrich was Gabin’s only anchor in the forties when he had to emigrate to the United States, but after the war the differences between the two began to show. The screen legend Marlene Dietrich embodied exactly what Jean Gabin wanted to distance himself from: To maintain her screen myth, glamour was indispensable for Marlene Dietrich. Gabin couldn’t deal with this and distanced himself.
Although Jean Gabin was considered one of the best-paid screen stars of French cinema for some time, he remained modest: He differed from a typical French worker perhaps only by buying a 100-hectare estate in Normandy, where he fulfilled his dream of breeding trotting race horses.
However, Jean Gabin’s repertoire of roles was by no means monotonous: although he particularly often played the typical worker, he also slipped into the roles of aristocrats, managers and crooks on the screen.
In a way, acting was in his blood: Jean Gabin was born in the Parisian artists’ quarter Montmartre as the son of an artist couple. His mother, who died when Gabin was 14, sang in cafés and his father played small opera roles. At first, Jean Gabin wanted nothing to do with show business: He completed an apprenticeship as a bricklayer and eked out a living doing various trades. As a child, his dream was to become a mechanic on the railroad. While his father wished his son would pursue a career in the arts, the young Gabin was busy at the local train station, admiring the railroad. In 1924 Jean Gabin decided to take his first steps in show business…
Jean Gabin first appeared at the Folies Bergère cabaret in Paris, where artists of the caliber of Josephine Baker performed in the Golden Twenties. Parisian vaudeville audiences knew Jean Gabin primarily for his impersonations of Hollywood actor Maurice Chevalier, who resembled him in his younger years.
In 1928, Jean Gabin is said to have been discovered by the legendary actress and chanson singer Mistinguett: Mistinguett was considered the ultimate symbol of the Parisian artistic scene in the Golden Twenties and continues to influence French chanson to this day. For instance, the chanson Comme disait Mistinguett, interpreted by Dalida in 1979, makes reference to the chanson singer. Mistigunett gave Jean Gabin various engagements in famous Parisian revue theaters.
However, it took quite a while before Jean Gabin would make it to fame on the big screen: Gabin made his little-noticed debut in 1931. After playing alongside Josephine Baker in the musical Zou-Zou in 1934, Gabin advanced to become one of the most sought-after stars of French cinema.
Successful films in the thirties
French director Julien Duvivier recognized the dramatic potential of the young Jean Gabin: he cast him in the role of a legionnaire in the 1935 literary adaptation La Bandéra. Jean Gabin also worked with director Jean Renoir in the thirties: The filming of the play The Lower Depths [Les bas-fonds, 1936] was the first time Jean Gabin worked with Jean Renoir. To this day, film connoisseurs are convinced that it was under Jean Renoir’s direction that Gabin delivered some of his best acting performances. In the thirties and forties, actor Jean Gabin was primarily a French phenomenon: it wasn’t Gabin’s goal to achieve international fame by going to Hollywood like other of his compatriots.
But the occupation of France during World War II forced Gabin to go to the United States: He was lucky enough to be welcomed there with open arms by Marlene Dietrich, who helped him learn English, among other things.
In America, Jean Gabin starred in two less successful films: Gabin soon realized that he could make little sense of the world of Hollywood and returned to France. There he committed himself to the Forces françaises libres and went to the front of the Second World War.
In his first film after the Second World War, Gabin starred alongside Marlene Dietrich: Martin Roumagnac (1946) contains many motifs of film noir, which was an important style of French cinema in the forties.
After the Second World War, Jean Gabin’s film career was only slowly taking off: Although many moviegoers could still remember this star of French cinema of the thirties, successful productions were initially absent. It was not until the gangster film Touchez pas au grisbi (1954), in which Lino Ventura made his screen debut, that Gabin was able to build on his successes from the thirties. The Belgian writer Georges Simenon was pleased to have found in Jean Gabin a suitable actor for the role of Inspector Maigret. Jean Gabin became known to German-speaking audiences in particular for his role of Maigret in three literary film adaptations between 1958 and 1963. Gabin also appeared in four other film adaptations of works by Georges Simenon.
Jean Gabin regularly starred alongside other French cinema legends: In 1962, for example, he starred alongside Jean-Paul Belmondo in A Monkey in Winter [Un singe en hiver].
In The Sicilian Clan [Le Clan des Siciliens, 1969], Jean Gabin played the role of a mobster for the first time, named Vittorio Mannalese: Lino Ventura slipped into the role of the antagonist Commissioner Le Goff in the film. Later, there were rumors that Jean Gabin had been chosen for the role of Don Corleone in The Godfather – but he turned this role down, not least because it did not fit into his usual repertoire of roles.
Jean Gabin played some of his most important character roles alongside Alain Delon: In Two Men in Town [Deux hommes dans la ville, 1973], for example, he played Germain Cazeneuve, a parole officer who is supposed to help the newly released Gino Strabliggi back into society. Towards the much younger Alain Delon, Jean Gabin takes on a father role in the film. The drama Two Men in Town was one of Jean Gabin’s last films.
Not a star, but a worker
When one thinks of French actors, the name Jean Gabin is unavoidable: alongside legends such as Jean-Paul Belmondo or Yves Montand, Jean Gabin occupies a solid place.
In the course of his career, he demonstrated his acting skills in countless character roles, and although he achieved international fame, he always kept his distance from the Hollywood film industry: any forms of glamour were not on his agenda; for him, what counted most was his acting performance and the artistic potential of a film material.
With his work ethic and modesty, Jean Gabin behaved like a behind-the-scenes worker – star status, glamor, fame, and being recognized on the street all meant little to Gabin.
Cover picture: © Simon von Ludwig