Michel Simon (Quai des brumes) – Best Supporting Actor of 1938

Other Noteworthy Performances:

Basil Rathbone (The Dawn Patrol)

Lionel Barrymore (You Can’t Take It with You)

Claude Rains (The Adventures of Robin Hood)

Basil Rathbone (If I Were King)

Robert Morley (Marie Antoinette)

Edward Arnold (You Can’t Take It with You)

Pierre Renoir (La Marseillaise)

Roland Young (The Young in Heart)

Charles Ruggles (Bringing Up Baby)

Edward Everett Horton (Holiday)

Humphrey Bogart (The Amazing Dr. Clitterhouse)

Sabu (The Drum)

There are several good choices for best supporting actor of 1938, most notably Basil Rathbone in The Dawn Patrol as a conflicted officer sending untrained pilots to their almost certain deaths or in If I Were King as the gleefully clever king of France trying to save his kingdom from foreign and domestic threats. Other good choices (listed above) include Lionel Barrymore doing what he does best in You Can’t Take It with You and Claude Rains as dastardly Price John in The Adventures of Robin Hood. In the end though only Michel Simon truly stands out as the complex villain Zabel in Quai des brumes.

Michel Simon as Zabel directing his unwanted attentions to Nelly (Michele Morgan)

Simon’s Zabel is a mess of contradictions without ever coming off as phony or contrived. He is a quasi-respected member of the harbor community in the film, the dutiful owner of a bric-a-brac shop and noted lover of religious choirs who has admirably raised his stepdaughter Nelly with no complaints. He spends his days minding the shop while the pious harmonies set the wholesome scene. This is Zabel to the rest of the community – an upright citizen just trying to get along honestly like everyone else.

Of course Zabel’s respectable image is a façade that masks darker truths about his character. Zabel supplements his income by dabbling in criminal enterprises and his aboveboard relationship with his stepdaughter hides his lascivious desires for her. Nelly is forced to run away when Zabel’s lust gets the better of him and loses control of himself.

What is clever about Simon’s performance is Zabel never comes off as a pure villain. He truly wants to be the respectable man he pretends to be, but his urges and desires – for money or for Nelly – subvert his positive impulses. He’s a man driven by desires and is too weak to control them. Several times in the film we see him struggle with what he knows is right and what he wants. What he wants usually wins so long as he believes he can maintain his public image and his misdeeds are kept in the dark. Exposure is the only thing that keeps him in check.

Simon recognizes the rarity of pure evil and grounds Zabel in reality. Most people who do bad things are more like Zabel than truly evil people. Perhaps viewers will recognize a little bit of Zabel in themselves making the character all the more chilling. Not only could he live in our own neighborhoods, but he could reflect something dark in ourselves.

That Simon chose a realistic way of depicting Zabel supports director Michel Carné’s critique of French society in the 1930s. Had he been an extraordinary or cartoonish villain, audiences could have detached themselves from his actions, dismissing Carné’s message. But by giving him emotional layers, by expressing his struggle through Simon’s performance, Carné confronts his audience head on about what he believed ailed French society. Zabel represents those who have abandoned their commitment to the nation for their own benefit.

Michel Simon was a prolific actor on the stage and screen from the 1920s to the 1970s. But it was during the 1930s that he gave some of his best performances for France’s best directors. In La Chienne and Boudu Saved from Drowning for Jean Renoir, L’Atalante for Jean Vigo, Drôle de drame and this film for Michel Carné, Simon proved that he was a great actor, intimately in touch with characters shunned, ignored, and forgotten. He forces us to examine those we would pass without comment, without a glance on the street, and recognize ourselves in them. His portrayal of Zabel in Quai des brumes is one of the most skillful of his illustrious career and well deserving of recognition as one of the best performances of 1938.

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7 Comments

Filed under 1938, Yearly Best Performances

7 responses to “Michel Simon (Quai des brumes) – Best Supporting Actor of 1938

  1. I haven’t seen ‘Quai des Brumes’, but delighted to see you mention Robert Morley in ‘Marie Antoinette’ as I think he’s great in it – the scene early on where he is crying because he is afraid of having sex with his new wife is astonishing, and I really like his whole performance in the film. I also love Basil Rathbone in ‘The Dawn Patrol’ remake, though I still prefer the earlier version directed by Hawks – the actor playing the same part in that is great too.

    • I loved Robert Morely in “Marie Antoinette.” He may have been the only thing I liked in it though. I thought he was charming and sympathetic even though it was clear this movie was meant as a warning to anyone who might be sympathetic to Communist revolution in the U.S. He might be a tad too much of a caricature, but that works for a supporting performance in this movie.

      And I still haven’t seen the original version of “The Dawn Patrol,” but I liked the 1938 version quite a bit.

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  3. Both your choice Jason, Michel Simon (an actor I adore in every sense) and my colleague Allan’s top choice, Basil Rathbone in THE DWAN PATROL are excellent!!!! One of your great essays too in examining Simon’s character and acting style.

    My own choice is Ernest Thesiger for the little-seen British noir, THEY DRIVE BY NIGHT.

    Your own runners-ups are irrefutable, though I’ll add:

    Michel Simon *** your #1***
    Basil Rathbone ***Allan’s #1***
    John Garfield (Four Daughters)
    Ralph Richardson (The Citadel)
    Lew Ayres (Holiday)
    Paul Lukas (The Lady Vanishes)
    Alastair Sim (Alf’s Button Afloat)
    Pat O’Brien (Angels With Dirty Faces)
    Basil Rathbone (The Adventures of Robin Hood)
    Donald MacBride (Room Service)
    Louis Jouvet (Hotel du Nord)
    Wilfrid Lawson (Pygmalion)
    Alan Hale (Algiers)
    Victor Jory (The Adventures of Tom Sawyer)
    Warren Hymer (You and Me) **just seen again on big screen Thursday
    Humphrey Bogart (Angels With Dirty Faces)

    • Again Sam, I can’t fault you with any of your choices. Like in the supporting actress category there are several that I thought about including but finally left off like Lew Ayers and Alan Hale (who was fantastic in Algiers). And, as always, you have pointed out some movies I haven’t had a chance to see yet like You and Me and Alf’s Button Afloat. This is a great addition to my list. Thank you as always!

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