The most popular French actor of the prewar era, Jean Gabin was the essence of world-weary stoicism; a classic antihero, his characters ran the gamut of society's victims and losers, outsiders damaged by life and with no hope of survival. Born Jean-Alexis Moncorgé on May 17, 1904, in Mériel, France, he was the son of professional cabaret performers, and raised by relatives in the country. After World War I, Gabin apprenticed at a Parisian construction company before deciding to follow in his parents' footsteps, struggling as a performer for several years before finally entering the military. Upon his discharge he appeared in a series of musical revues, followed in 1926 by a pair of operettas, La Dame en Decolette and Trois Jeunes Filles Nues. He also toured South America, and upon returning to France signed on with the Moulin Rouge. Gabin's career began picking up steam through his varied theatrical and music hall performances, and after rejecting a contract offer from a German film company he signed with Pathé-Natan, making his screen debut in 1930's Chacun sa Chance.
Mephisto followed in 1931, and by Paris-Beguin later that same year, Gabin was already earning second billing. He worked with an impressive group of directors, including Jacques Tourneur (on Tout ca ne Vaut pas L'Amour) and Anatole Litvak (Coeur de Lilas), and quickly developed the image which became his trademark: his face a mask of boredom and cynicism, a cigarette dangling insolently from his lips. With Brigitte Helm, Gabin starred in both L'Etoile de Valencia and Adieu les Beaux Jours, and for director G.W. Pabst he appeared in De Haut en Bas. A co-starring role in the 1934 Josephine Baker vehicle Zou Zou led to Maria Chapdelaine, his first major hit. Directed by Julien Duvivier, it won the Grand Prix du Cinema, and also set a major precedent followed by virtually all of Gabin's prewar films: His character died, and Duvivier was so impressed by the actor's skillful performance of his death scene that similar projects were immediately discussed. In fact, it was rumored that before long, Gabin's contract stated that all of his characters were to be ill-fated.
After the hit Varietes, Gabin starred as a French Foreign Legionnaire in Duvivier's 1936 war drama La Bandera, a role which launched him as a romantic hero. That same year he and Duvivier collaborated on La Belle Equipe; upon its completion, Gabin entered into another highly fortuitous partnership with filmmaker Jean Renoir, for whom he first made Les Bas-Fonds. Still, it was another Duvivier film, 1937's Pepe Le Moko, which shot Gabin to international stardom; its follow-up, Renoir's brilliant antiwar meditation La Grande Illusion, solidified his new fame. A certified classic of world cinema, the picture ran for an unprecedented six months in New York City, where the critics dubbed it the best foreign film of the year. In France, it was the box-office champ of 1937, and its success established Gabin as his homeland's biggest star. His fame was reinforced by a series of hits, including the 1938 Marcel Carné drama Le Quai des Brumes, Renoir's La Bete Humaine, and 1939's Le Recif de Corail.
Gabin turned down any number of Hollywood offers to remain in France, where he was offered projects like Carné's grim, superb Le Jour Se Lève (aka Daybreak). He then began work on Jean Grémillon's Remorques, but wartime duty prevented the film from completion until 1941. In the meantime, Gabin finally signed a Hollywood contract with Fox; no appropriate projects were immediately forthcoming, however, and when Moontide finally appeared in 1942, few were pleased with the results. At Universal, he and Duvivier were reunited for 1944's The Impostor. At RKO, Gabin was next scheduled to film The Temptress, but at the 11th hour he demanded Marlene Dietrich be hired as his co-star. The incensed studio paid his salary, canceled the project, and issued the warning that he would never work in Hollywood again; Gabin shrugged off the threat and proceeded to rejoin the French troops in North Africa, later winning a Croix de Guerre for his wartime efforts. He intended to make his comeback in Carné's Les Portes de la Nuit, but after a series of delays — most the fault of Gabin himself, who made demand after demand — he was fired from this project as well.
Gabin and Dietrich, whom he was dating offscreen, instead made 1946's Martin Roumagnac; it was not successful, nor was the follow-up, 1947's Miroir. In 1949, he returned to the stage in the flop La Soif, then filmed Au-Dela Des Grilles for Rene Clement; the picture was a foreign smash, winning an Academy Award and directorial honors at the Cannes Film Festival, but in France it bombed. Gabin and Carné were then encouraged to set aside their differences in order to rekindle both of their careers; while 1951's La Marie Du Port was produced without incident, it made few waves upon its release. Clearly, Gabin was in trouble. In an attempt to rehabilitate his image, he next appeared in a fantasy, E piu Facile che un Camello, followed by a comedy, Victor. Neither worked, and despite winning acting honors at the Venice Film Festival for his work in the subsequent La Nuit est mon Royaume, his box-office stature continued to wane.
Film after film failed before Gabin agreed to appear in Leur Derniere Nuit, a role which successfully combined his older, distanced image of his peak period with the warmer, more bourgeois persona he attempted to project in his later years. While the picture itself was not a hit, Gabin had not delivered a more engaging performance in years. His work in the follow-up, 1954's Touchez pas au Grisbi, took the same path, and this time he scored an international smash. Well-received reunions with Carné (L'Air de Paris), Renoir (French Can-Can), and Duvivier (Voici le Temps des Assassins) appeared over the next few years, and suddenly Gabin was again a global star. However, over the decades to come he refused to work with filmmakers greater in stature than himself; as a result, few of his subsequent pictures were released internationally, and outside of France he faded from view. Still, Gabin remained a prolific screen presence in his homeland, and in 1963 he and fellow French actor Fernandel created their own production company, Gafer Films. The 1976 L'Annee Sainte was Gabin's last film; he died in Paris on November 15, 1976. — Jason Ankeny