Category Archives: 1938

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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Simone Simon (La bête humaine) – Best Actress of 1938

Other Noteworthy Performances: Jean Arthur (You Can’t Take It with You), Bette Davis (Jezebel), Janet Gaynor (The Young in Heart), Katherine Hepburn (Bringing Up Baby), Katherine Hepburn (Holiday), Wendy Hiller (Pygmalion), Miliza Korjus (The Great Waltz), Vivien Leigh (St. Martin’s Lane), Michèle Morgan (Quai des brumes), Margaret Sullavan (Three Comrades)

It’s hard to consider the best actress of 1938 without Simone Simon entering the conversation for her melancholy, conniving, and tragic role in Jean Renoir’s La bête humaine (The Human Beast). She plays a beautiful woman (what other type could she play?) trapped in a stifling marriage desperate for a way out. Modern audiences often identify her role as an early femme fatale, but I’ve never thought that was entirely appropriate. Her motivations are more complex than later, more traditional femme fatale-types, like Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity or Joan Bennett in Scarlet Street. These women were driven by greed, but Simon’s Severine is more complex. She’s trapped by violence and jealousy, and tries to use the only tool she has to escape: her sexuality.

Simone Simon as the mysterious Severine with Fernand Ledoux as her jealous husband

Severine is married to Roubaud (Fernand Ledoux), a slightly pudgy, plain-looking railroad station master. We can’t help but wonder why she married the man – she certainly could have attracted a younger, better looking man. And Roubaud isn’t poor, but as station master he isn’t rich either. While we are tangentially aware of these discrepancies, Roubaud is consumed by them, acutely aware that Severine could have done much better – and still can.

When Roubaud discovers that Severine’s godfather M. Grandmorin seduced her, he flies into a jealous rage and forces her to help him kill Grandmorin. From the time they kill the old man, Severine withdraws even further from her husband. She is now pointedly aware of how violent he truly is and knows it is only a matter of time before Roubaud’s jealousy and guilt will overcome him, and he will murder her as well.

She finds solace and hope in a dangerous relationship with Lantier (Jean Gabin), a locomotive engineer and a friend of her husband. They fall in love and, eventually, Severine urges him to help her kill Roubaud before he can get to them. This is when Severine’s motives get cloudy and highlight the mastery of Simon’s performance. Does she really love Lantier, or is she an opportunist, using his affections to get rid of her husband? Simon plays the part with a deep sincerity that compels us to accept her emotions as genuine. She isn’t cruel or evil; she wants to save herself – nothing terrible about that.

Ironically, despite Jean Gabin’s hypnotic screen presence, Simon’s most powerful scenes are played opposite Fernand Ledoux as Roubaud. In them we see that she truly loved her husband despite (or maybe because of) his jealousy, but all affection dies when he kills Grandmorin.

Simone Simon commands the screen, juggling Severine’s contradictory traits – her vulnerability and strength, her nativity and intelligence – in ways only an actual person could. . Simon is crafty in this part, but never gimmicky. We’re never able to quite put our fingers on what drives Severine; every time we think we’ve got it, she does something to undermine our satisfactory explanation. The ambiguity with which Simon approaches Severine is an intelligent acknowledgement that we are complex animals and no matter how much we try, we will never be able to fully understand another person’s motivations, especially those secret, dark ones that lead to murder. It’s a masterful job.

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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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Varvara Massalitinova (The Childhood of Maxim Gorky) – Best Supporting Actress of 1938

Other Noteworthy Performances:

Fay Bainter (Jezebel)

Billie Burke (Merrily We Live)

May Whitty (The Lady Vanishes)

May Robson (Bringing Up Baby)

Billie Burke (The Young in Heart)

Una O’Connor (The Adventures of Robin Hood)

Jean Dixon (Holiday)

Ruth Donnelly (A Slight Case of Murder)

Varvara Massalitinova is not a name many of us would claim to recognize but, despite her obscurity, she turned in the best supporting performance of 1938. Massalitinova perfectly captured the idealized portrait of Maxim Gorky’s grandmother. She’s a physically imposing presence – a thick and strong woman who looks as though she has spent a lifetime at work and only death could slow her down – but Massalitinova balances her physical strength with a tender, grandmotherly love. Her face – which at first appears hard and unfeeling – blossoms into warmth, compassion, and affection with a single genuine smile.

We read her hard life in the lines of her face, but her good nature always shines through. After years of beatings from her diminutive (and rather stupid) husband, she still proclaims affection for the man. After years of watching her sons perpetuate one horrible deed after another (eventually leading to the death of her beloved Ivan), she still supports them as only a mother could. To little Aleksei (later to become the great Russian writer Maxim Gorky) her deference to physically and emotionally weaker men is dumbfounding. Stand up and fight, he will eventually urge her, but she can’t do it. It isn’t in her nature.

To fight back would mean shirking her duty – to her husband and her sons no matter how flawed they may be. Aleksei – not to mention most modern audiences – can’t understand her slavery to duty when she has not only the right, but also the strength to stand up for herself and possibly redirect her family’s energies in more positive directions. She is a woman, however, of a different time and place, well before Communism proclaimed equal status for women or, in this country, Betty Freidan and Gloria Steinem spearheaded feminism, both of which have helped shape our perceptions of Massalitinova’s character.

Her emotionally rich characterization makes her relatable and sympathetic even as we shake our heads at her unnecessary subservience. She folds her strength and acquiescence into a fully realized supporting character, embracing the contradictions to give us a clear sense of how a woman like her would have lived and felt in Tsarist Russia. And, not incidentally, she committed to film a character most of us would have loved to have had for a grandmother.

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