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Jean Gabin: Doomed Worker-Hero of a Doomed France

Helmut Gruber
International Labor and Working-Class History
No. 59, Workers and Film: As Subject and Audience (Spring, 2001), pp. 15-35
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/27672707
Page Count: 21
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Jean Gabin: Doomed Worker-Hero of a Doomed France
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Abstract

The characters portrayed by Jean Gabin, a true star of 1930s films, are from the working class but lack the usual attributes; they are more part of the popular classes but without political identities. They are vividly urban, masculine, and individualistically French. Their antisocial tendencies and their helplessness in the face of outside forces beyond their control leading to violent escapes into oblivion made them seem heroic. Their often dual existence as criminal/legionnaire and worker played on the frissons long associated in France with the combination "working classes, dangerous classes." These attributes made the Gabin characters more than members of the working or popular classes and gave them a classless appeal as "everyman," with much the same universal appeal as Charlie Chaplin had for his audience. The collective psychological profile of the Gabin-everyman includes: alienation, depression, entrapment, helplessness, and escapes into nostalgia ending in violence and self-destruction. In his nine films from 1935 to 1939, there are eight murders and seven suicides! The atmosphere of Gabin's environment is one of doomed destiny, a fate created by forces beyond his control. The fate of Gabin's characters is in part inspired by an existing climate of hopelessness in French society and at the same time amplifies and reinforces it. The crisis in French society at which this study is directed had its denouement in the collapse of France in June 1940, resulting from immediate temporal and long-range structural problems. By 1939 France had become a stalemated society. Gabin's imagined presence at the side of his popular audience in its experience of these difficult times suggests a bonding between audience and star whereby the performance of the latter and the daily struggles of the former become one (the kind of convergence all film makers strive for but very rarely achieve).

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