Jean Gabin (Quai des brumes) – Best Actor of 1938

Other Noteworthy Performances: James Cagney (Angels with Dirty Faces), Robert Donat (The Citadel), Errol Flynn (The Dawn Patrol), Jean Gabin (La bête humaine), Cary Grant (Bringing Up Baby), Cary Grant (Holiday), Leslie Howard (Pygmalion),  Charles Laughton (St. Martin’s Lane), Aleksei Lyarsky (The Childhood of Maxim Gorky), Reginald Owen (A Christmas Carol), Edward G. Robinson (A Slight Case of Murder)

Jean Gabin commiserates with Michele Morgan in "Quai des brumes"

With Jean Gabin as best actor, 1938 is the first year that I have chosen four foreign language performances. I suspect it will, unfortunately, be the last for quite some time as war will erupt in Europe and Asia slowing the film production in those places to a trickle and its artists fleeing for safety. I’ve already written about Quai des brumes as one of the best pictures of 1938 and when I chose Michel Simon as best supporting actor so I won’t go into the specifics of the film. The focus will be on Jean Gabin and his character, Jean.

Gabin possessed a naturally intense screen presence out of which a mediocre actor could have milked a decent career. But Gabin was much more than a mediocre actor – he was a very good one. He exploited his talent and his ability well in a string of artistically successful movies in the 1930s: High and Low (1933), The Lower Depths (1936), Pépé le Moko (1937), Grand Illusion (1937), La bête humaine (1938), and Le jour se lève (1939). Taking these (and other) movies into consideration, I’m not sure if his performance in Quai des brumes is his best (next years Le jour se lève will rival it), but it is one of his most intense and the best performance by an actor in 1938.

Gabin’s Jean is a man resigned to his fate. Having deserted from the army, he knows his time is limited. He could be arrested at any moment, but Jean’s resignation is more philosophical than considerations of physical imprisonment. He recognizes that everything is temporary, everything will come to an end – and sooner than we think. He has given up hope even though he makes vague plans to escape the country, but little beyond that. Why would he need to plan for a life beyond the shores of France when he has given up, resigned himself to an existential fate.

That Jean’s journey mirrors the attitudes of many French citizens at the time makes Gabin’s performance all the more relevant. He captured their frustration, anger, and sense of betrayal with a subtle sneer or narrowed look. And not even the love of beautiful young Nelly (Michèle Morgan) can reclaim him from the depths of a corrosive apathy.

Like Jean, nothing Nelly does improves their situations – there is nothing they can do. Their bleak world is immune to love or hope. The biggest mistake they make is recognizing a connection in one another and mistaking their feelings for a faint glimmer of hope that they can escape. Escape is impossible. It’s a bleak vision of the world, but one with which too many identified in 1938 – and one in which Jean Gabin fit perfectly.

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5 Comments

Filed under 1938, Yearly Best Performances

5 responses to “Jean Gabin (Quai des brumes) – Best Actor of 1938

  1. Ironically enough Jason, I went with Jean Gabin, but for a different film – LA BETE HUMAINE. But it’s all apples and oranges and with this great actor there is rarely a false note. You’re right, that at this point Hollywood takes over for a long run, with the war in Europe looming. Wonderful qualifying essay and distinguished runners-up choices, though I would add these: (note that I felt Flynn was superior in THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD)

    Best Actor: Jean Gabin (La Bete Humaine)

    Runners-Up:

    Nicolai Cherkassov (Alexander Nevsky)
    Raimu (La Femme du Boulanger) *** Allan’s #1 choice
    Victor Francen (J’Accuse)
    John Barrymore (The Great Man Votes)
    Emlyn Williams (They Drive by Night)
    Pierre Renoir (La Marseillaise)
    Michael Redgrave (The Lady Vanishes)
    Errol Flynn (The Adventures of Robin Hood)
    Charles Laughton (Vessel of Wrath)
    Charles Boyer (Algiers)
    Spencer Tracy (Boys Town)
    Cary Grant (Holiday)

    • I don’t know how I forgot Cary Grant in Holiday, especially since I slightly prefer his performance in that movie over his great job in Bringing Up Baby. As for the others, either I haven’t seen them (La Femme du Boulanger, They Drive by Night, J’Accuse, Vessel of Wrath) or thought they were fine without being great. They only two I would flat out disagree with are Charles Boyer in Algiers (maybe I spent too much time comparing him to Jean Gabin in the original) and Pierre Renoir (but only because I consider it a supporting performance — and I recognized him there). I had mixed feelings about John Barrymore in The Great Man Votes. I thought he had flashes of greatness, but it was overall a bit unbalanced for me even though I did consider it for the list. He, like all the others you mention, would make my runner-up list.

      • I saw ‘The Great Man Votes’ the other day – it’s listed as a 1939 release at the imdb btw. Must say I thought it was a really bad film, horrendously sentimental, except for “occasional flashes of greatness” from John Barrymore, as you say, Jason.

  2. Once again there are a lot that you and Sam list from this year which I haven’t seen as yet, including the two Gabin films. Of those I have seen, I love Cagney in ‘Angels with Dirty Faces’, a film I just can’t get enough of – also Flynn in both ‘Robin Hood’ and ‘The Dawn Patrol’, plus I’m also a fan of his waif-like performance in ‘The Sisters’ , which is pretty much the opposite to ‘Robin Hood’ (he loses any fight in about one second flat.)

    • I haven’t seen The Sisters, but it sounds interesting. I’m curious to see Flynn cast in such a role (and surprised Warner’s would have allowed him to). And I almost chose Cagney here, because you are right about him and the movie. He is extraordinary in it, especially that great final scene — which I think we’ve talked about before.

      And yes, you are right about The Great Man Votes. It is a 1939 release. I should have known that because I just watched it with my batch of 1939 films for my next countdown.

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