Monday, August 29, 2011

Starry, Starry Night(s)


Since 2003, August on Turner Classic Movies has meant a 31 day parade of stars, each day filled with the films of a different one, each honored for 24-hours of what is known and celebrated as "Summer Under the Stars."

This year, many received a day of their own for the first time. I was  surprised to discover that Charles Laughton, Montgomery Clift and Ronald Colman hadn't been featured before. I wasn't at all surprised, but was infinitely thrilled to find that Jean Gabin, icon of the French cinema, was to be honored for the first time.

In his introduction to Renoir's brilliant La Bête humaine (1938) when it aired, Ben Mankiewicz remarked that Gabin was to Europe what Bogart was to the U.S. Many have called Gabin ‘the world’s coolest movie star;’ indeed, Jean-Paul Belmondo seems something of a poser by comparison.
Gabin and Simone Simon, La Bête humaine (1938)

I’m no stranger to the charms of Jean Gabin. Many years ago, when a profusion of revival houses regularly screened foreign classics, I had the great luck to see Gabin's best known films - Jean Renoir’s La Grande illusion (1937) and Marcel Carné’s La Jour se léve (1939) - on the big screen. And last February, while working on a post about Ida Lupino for a film noir blogathon, I watched for the first time Gabin’s American film debut, Moontide (1942); Lupino co-starred. It's an oddly charming bit of dockside noir and it rekindled my interest in the magnetic M. Gabin.

Once I realized TCM would soon be honoring him, I sat down in front of the DVR with my copy of the channel's "Now Playing" guide and programmed accordingly. I’ve been watching what I recorded ever since...some films more than once. Of those I hadn't seen before, two from 1954 stood out. The early '50s had been a period when the French actor's career seemed to be just about over. Not so, as it turned out.
Touchez pas au grisbi (1954)

Jacques Becker's Touchez pas au grisbi was the film, according to Mankiewicz, that "marked Gabin's return to prominence" (others have termed it his "spectacular comeback"). In it, Gabin portrays Max the Liar, a lifelong criminal, well respected among his underworld peers, who has pulled off his last great heist and is set to "retire." Gabin's Max is as confidently matter-of-fact and laconic as any successful, self-possessed businessman. His treatment of his women as well as the men who serve him is fairly off-hand. Only his partner, the luckless Riton, seems to stir visible affection in fatalistic Max.  Director Jacques Becker, though not of the school, was an influence on the French New Wave, and this film preceded Melville's rather similar Bob le flambeur and Dassin's Rififi by a year. A very young Jeanne Moreau appears in a supporting role.

Marcel Carné’s L’Air de Paris is an entirely different sort of film. Very popular in its day with audiences, though not with French critics (those enfants terrible of Cahiers du Cinema), it is romantic and charming, with Gabin portraying Victor, a character softer than, though as blasé as Max the Liar, opposite the magnificent Arletty (of Carné’s Les Enfants du paradis, and Gabin's co-star in Carné’s La Jour se léve) and Roland Lesaffre (To Catch a Thief). Victor is a one-time boxer, now a trainer, who has discovered a young fighter (Lesaffre) he believes he can take to the top; his wife Blanche (Arletty) is less enthusiastic.

Jean Gabin was a great star of French cinema's era of “poetic realism" in the '30s and '40s. Gabin's screen presence and style were ideal for the films of this age. Solid, earthy, worldly-wise, there is understated longing in those knowing eyes, a passion for life in that working-man's frame. His career spanned the '20s through the '70s and he died in 1976 at age 72.

I will be saving and viewing these films for some time to come. From other sources, I'll soon be watching Zou Zou (1934) co-starring Josephine Baker, and Carné’s Le quai de brumes (1938). With more to come: Renoir's French Can-Can (1955), about the beginnings of the Moulin Rouge.

August 31 marks the end of "Summer Under the Stars" and on that day the spotlight goes to Marlene Dietrich, a supernova of a movie and concert star if there ever was one. TCM last bestowed this honor on her in 2003.

Marlene Dietrich and Jean Gabin, 1946
Except for her early German films, I've seen all of Marlene Dietrich's movies many times, but I'll still be watching and recording much of her day on TCM. Dietrich is one of those timeless luminaries of film who never ceases to fascinate, particularly in those legend-making classics of the 1930s she starred in under the direction of cinematic magician, Josef von Sternberg. One of the day's not-to-be-missed highlights is the documentary Marlene Dietrich: Her Own Song (2001), the work of her grandson David Riva.

Marlene Dietrich and Jean Gabin were romantically involved for several years in the 1940s. Dietrich gave Josef von Sternberg her loyalty and credit for her career, she provided a life-long marriage and a ranch in the Valley to her husband Rudi, and she bestowed her charms on various and sundry, but it was Gabin she remembered as the great love of her comprends.

The Devil is a Woman (1935), directed by Josef von Sternberg, costumes by Travis Banton

Marlene Dietrich, August 31, 2011, "Summer Under the Stars" on TCM
All Times Eastern/Pacific:
6:00 am/3:00 am The Monte Carlo Story (1957), with Vittorio De Sica
7:45 am /4:45 am Knight Without Armour (1937), with Robert Donat
9:45 am/6:45 am The Lady is Willing (1942), with Fred MacMurray
11:30 am/8:30 am Kismet (1944), with Ronald Colman
1:15 pm/10:15 am Stage Fright (1950) with Jane Wyman, directed by Alfred Hitchcock
3:15 pm/12:15 pm Rancho Notorious (1952), with Mel Ferrer, directed by Fritz Lang
4:45 pm/1:45 pm Marlene Dietrich: Her Own Song (2001), documentary
6:30 pm/3:30 pm Shanghai Express (1932), with Clive Brook, directed by Josef von Sternberg
8:00 pm/5:00 pm The Scarlet Empress (1934), with John Lodge, directed by Josef von Sternberg
10:00 pm/7:00 pm The Devil is a Woman (1935), with Lionel Atwill, directed by Josef von Sternberg
11:30 pm/8:30 pm Manpower (1941), with George Raft, Edward G. Robinson, directed by Raoul Walsh
1:30 am/10:30 pm A Foreign Affair (1948), with Jean Arthur, directed by Billy Wilder
3:30 am/12:30 am The Blue Angel (1930), with Emil Jannings, directed by Josef von Sternberg


  1. Eve, I was so pleased that TCM devoted a day to Gabin this year. I've seen many of the films you mention, and he was just great in all of them. His films of the 30s are one triumph for him after another. But even in the 50s he returned to the top of his form with two you referred to--the wonderful noirish crime film "Touchez Pas au Grisbi" (especially interesting in that the action starts immediately AFTER the big heist, rather than detailing the heist like so many film noirs) and Renoir's delightful "French Can-Can." For me he was the greatest French actor, to French cinema what Toshiro Mifune was to Japanese cinema. And the comparisons to Bogart are wholly justified. His screen presence was as unique and as forceful as Bogart's, and like Bogart at his best, Gabin achieved the perfect balance of toughness and sensitivity. I hope the admiration you show for him in your post will inspire readers who haven't yet seen these films to seek them out.

  2. R. D. - Of all those featured on TCM's "Summer Under the Stars" this year, it was the inclusion of Gabin that actually thrilled me.

    There is no French actor who touches Gabin, in my view. At times he seems to reveal his very soul, which is the rare thing - for any actor of any country.

    As you say, I hope those unfamiliar with Gabin who read this post will become interested enough to take a look at his films. So many of them are great classics and one, "La Grande illusion," considered one of the masterpieces of cinema.

  3. Eve, I'm so glad that you spotlighted actor, Jean Gabin. As I do not know much about his work..

  4. Dawn - I hope you have a chance to look into the films of Jean Gabin. I sometimes think "Pepe le Moko" ('37) is a good place to start for those familiar with American classics. It was remade in the U.S. in 1938 with Charles Boyer (and Hedy Lamarr) as "Algiers." Boyer does a good enough job with his moody glamor but lacks Gabin's depth and irresistible presence.

  5. It was really wonderful of TCM to not just show Gabin's well known and easily accessible films but so many rare films that are not on DVD here.

    That being said I am greedy. Even though I am not even close to finished watching what's on my DVR, I am already hoping TCM will air more rare films of Gabin's in the near future.

    - Kimalysong

  6. Kim - I'm still working my way through some of what I recorded, too, plus the DVDs I rented - & hope TCM will air the rarer Gabin films again (as well as those of Conrad Veidt's that I missed). All in all, a very special August "under the stars" this year...

  7. I also applaud your special mention of Jean Gabin, a familiar and favorite actor of my parents who were French. Pepe le Moko is one of my favorite films, as is Le Jour se Leve. He played the common man that had the qualities the French admired: playing the best you can with the cards you are dealt; getting yourself out of a jam ("se demerder" they would call it); and doing so with panache. And of course Marlene would say he was also a great lover.

  8. It's awards season again, so if you're not already snowed under with baubles, have a Stylish Blogger over here:

  9. Christian - I've always found the combination of fatalism and panache most appealing (there is a bit of France in my background). It was wonderful to see Gabin pictures I hadn't seen before - with 24 hours to fill, TCM had to include some of his less known films in the mix. By the way, I've read that the documentary on Dietrich (airing today at 1:45/Pacific) includes home movie footage in which Gabin appears.

    Matthew - Thank you so much! So thoughtful of you to include mine among your favored blogs for a Stylish Blogger Award. You are too kind and I appreciate the honor.

  10. Eve, how lovely to see a profile of Jean Gabin's work! My favorite Gabin performances are very different and show how versatile he truly was: La Jour se léve and French Can-Can. The latter features an older Gabin at his rascally, charming best (as opposed to the brooding Gabin of some earlier films). His character takes advantage of a young person--but you still like him...the Gabin flair counts for a lot.

  11. Rick - Gabin so deserved his 24-hours on TCM that I had to post about him, even though I'd just published my latest interview with Leatrice.

    I'm not sure I have an overall favorite performance of his, but of the films featured on TCM I'm very fond of these two - and they're characters of different types and ages: Jacques in "La bete humaine" (passionate, volatile) and Max in "Touchez pas au grisbi" (impenetrable, controlled). Gabin's characters manage to be sympathetic regardless of their flaws. He evokes their humanity, I think, and so we understand or forgive.

  12. I was tickled to death that Ann Dvorak got her own day on TCM earlier in the month. I can't get enough of the glorious and under appreciated Ms. Dvorak. TCM really picked some great ones this month. Kind of makes me wish they would do September under the stars!

  13. FlickChick - I feel the same way and will be missing the ongoing 24-hour tributes. I wouldn't mind September under the stars at all.

  14. Eve,

    Touchez pas au grisbi, Rififi, La Bête humaine, La Jour se léve and La Grande illusion are all billiant. I was happy to see some rarer works, ones that were new to me like "Des Gens Sans Importance" and "Leur Derniere Nuit" both of which are must sees. Hopefully you have recorded them as they are unavailable otherwise. Still looking to see Renoir's FRENCH CAN CAN.

  15. Hi John - I'm hoping to see "French Can Can" in the next week or so. I didn't see or record every one of Gabin's films (and accidentally deleted one before seeing it) so am hoping TCM will re-air his unavailable films again soon - possibly on TCM Imports if they're reluctant to give other time to foreign language films. My hat's off to TCM, this August was a very nicely done mix of reliable star attractions (Bogart,Crawford, Bette, Cary, etc.) and new, but very deserving honorees.

  16. I agree Eve, TCM did a great job this season! They also had a nice selection of rare flicks of early pre-code Joan Blondell of varying quality but interesting.

  17. I recorded quite a few of those Jean Gabin titles. Now its just a matter of finding the time to watch them.

    I thought this was an unusually strong Summer Under the Stars. Any festival that includes everyone from Jean Gabin, to Ben Johnson, to Anne Francis, to Linda Darnell, to Lon Chaney gets my vote. Can you guess which days I was most excited about?

    Thanks for the intro to Jean Gabin. I'm looking forward to seeing these.

  18. John & Kevin - I thought this was the best "Summer Under the Stars" in memory. 17 stars honored for the first time this year - even Ralph Bellamy had his day, bless him. Thanks to Mr. Bellamy, I had a chance to watch "The Awful Truth" again and "The Secret Six" for the first time.

  19. Excellent! This year's Summer Under the Stars was superb. I didn't get to watch many live, but I have a DVR full of goodies, many featuring Gabin and Dietrich. I cannot wait to sit down and watch.

    I was especially shocked to discover that Ronald Colman had never been given a day. That seems almost criminal! I'll never forget when 2 years ago Fredric March got a day. I stayed glued to the television all day and night. Then last October he got his own month!

  20. Eve, I really like your articles about the French foreign films (I almost typed "Frend foreign legion!" More familiar phrase, I suppose!) I have learned a lot about it, and I am particularly interested now in Gabin. I have written down all of the titles you mention, and I'm going to Netflix and even Youtube to see what I can find. I hope to find Touchez pas pe Grisbi especially, and also La Bete Humaine and La Grande Illusion.

    Thanks for a lovely article and some recommendations I look forward to seeing.

  21. You've picked a good amount of Gabin's creme de la creme, Becky. So glad this post piqued your interest in him...Enjoy!

    I'll be watching "Zou Zou" tonight for the first time and "Quai des brumes" (for the first time in years) over the weekend.