France rediscovers Jean Gabin...
...AND MARTIN ROUMAGNAC!
As we get closer to GABIN 118, our seven-film birthday celebration for the one & only Jean Gabin (at the Roxie Theater on May 15/16), it’s thrilling—and more than a bit astonishing—to note that the French are also in the process of rediscovering Gabin right now.
The commune of Boulogne-Billancourt, located west of Paris and just south of the famous Bois de Boulogne, is the location for a massive, five-month celebration of Gabin centered at the magnificent Museum of the Thirties.
You can immerse yourself in the wealth of biographical detail that has been assembled for this landmark tribute on Boulougne-Billancourt’s overview page.
And you can examine a capsule history of Gabin’s legendary career via a gallery of poster images supplied to the exhibition by the Cinematheque Française. (While the Cinematheque overlooks several of the films we will screen on May 15/16, their approach to Gabin’s career is quite sound overall and will help guide you past some lingering misconceptions.)
Perhaps the most intriguing coincidence in this most welcome merging of France’s rediscovery of its greatest cinematic icon and our ongoing revisionist exploration of his film career is the recent re-release of a restored version of MARTIN ROUMAGNAC (aka THE ROOM UPSTAIRS), which had its official re-premiere in Paris just two days ago.
You may remember (from our last post) that MARTIN ROUMAGNAC is the only film that features the real-life couple of Gabin and Marlene Dietrich, whose love affair spanned World War II and came to an end within a few months of the film’s release (December 1946). While Gabin would marry in 1949, the echoes of his affair with Dietrich affected his life and career for quite awhile afterward.
What’s fascinating to discover, though, is just how intensely involved in the process of bringing the film to the screen Gabin really was. For that story, and for an assessment of how well the film fares given its impossible mission of living up to the outrageous star power with which it’s burdened, we turn to our friend Hervé Horne:
At the end of the 1930s, Jean Gabin set his sights on a novel by Pierre-René Wolf, entitled Martin Roumagnac. This is a passionate drama about the myth of the femme fatale set against a backdrop of "class struggle."
Convinced that the story could give rise to a magnificent film, Gabin immediately bought the rights and in 1938 offered Marcel Carné and Jacques Prévert the chance to film the adaptation. Unfortunately, the two accomplices read the novel and are not convinced. Gabin accedes to their judgment...
But after the war, the desire to play the character of Roumagnac did not leave him. He looks again to Carné and Prévert for a potential project to unite him on screen with Marlene Dietrich, his companion since his otherwise barren sojourn in Hollywood. Unsatisfied with their plans for what became Gates of the Night (a critical disaster when released), Gabin decides to forge ahead with Martin Roumagnac. He chooses to work with director Georges Lacombe; they surround themselves with solid actors: Marcel Pérès, known as "Perez", will play Paulo, Roumagnac's sidekick; Marcel Herrand will be the consul, Monsieur de Laubry; a young Daniel Gélin will be the supervisor.
Gabin does not take long to realize that Lacombe is not Carné, and faced with the lack of pedagogy of the director vis-à-vis Dietrich, it is Gabin himself who takes the controls to direct it and quickly becomes the mastermind of the film.
Martin Roumagnac is not quite what cinema devotees project in their mind’s heart when they envision Gabin and Dietrich's first and only meeting on the screen. Despite this, however, the collision between these two myths of the seventh art, whose connection is then known to the whole world even during wartime, remains fascinating.
When we see their characters together on the screen, how can we not also look at the couple formed by the two stars? Especially since the film readily lends itself to such a reading: We know that Gabin, like Roumagnac, only feels good in the countryside, among modest people. On the other hand, Marlène, like Blanche, adores luxury and gala evenings. The house offered by the mason to his mistress is reminiscent of the one that Gabin has just had built in Sainte-Gemme where he often stays with Marlène.
And, as in the film, their own aspirations are far too divergent for the couple to survive.
As MARTIN ROUMAGNAC progresses, one senses a underlying sadness and resignation in Gabin’s performance in the title role, something that seems even to transcend the events in the film. I’m thinking that his realization that his great & genuine love for Dietrich was ultimately fated to end in a mutual heartbreak added these notes to his interpretation, turning his original fascination with the story into a kind of cross that he felt compelled to bear.
In short, he punished himself to do penance for the undoing of their love. And, due to a series of films that followed MARTIN ROUMAGNAC—films that are unique explorations of alienated, fractured, arrogant, even criminal characters—he was punished for quite some time in the press and at the box office for compulsively exploring this dark night of his soul.
THERE is still much to learn and absorb regarding Alexis Moncorgé, alias Jean Gabin. Please join us May 15th and 16th for more signposts on that journey of discovery—and, perhaps particularly, on that second date so that you can see Gabin and Dietrich together on screen, even as their great love was coming tragically undone.