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'The world's coolest movie star' is back on screen

The Egyptian Theatre hosts a retrospective film series featuring the acclaimed French actor Jean Gabin.

September 05, 2008|Susan King | Times Staff Writer

French film star Jean Gabin played the Everyman every woman wanted.

From the early 1930s until his death in 1976, the bulky, sexy and brooding Gabin was one of France's greatest movie heroes. Beloved internationally three decades after his death -- there's even a museum devoted to him outside Paris -- Gabin is still basically unknown in America save for a handful of classics including the 1937 gangster romance 'Pepe le Moko," Jean Renoir's 1937 antiwar drama "Grand Illusion" and Marcel Carne's poetic 1939 tragedy "Le Jour se leve."

Gabin came to Hollywood during World War II but, unlike countrymen Maurice Chevalier and Charles Boyer, failed to catch on with American audiences. Author Charles Zigman is hoping his massive two-volume biography of the actor, aptly titled "World's Coolest Movie Star," will give Gabin the respect that has eluded him in the U.S.

This weekend at the American Cinematheque's Egyptian Theatre, Zigman will autograph his book and introduce Gabin films which vividly demonstrate the breadth and depth of Gabin's talent: In 1969's "The Sicilian Clan," which screens Saturday, he plays an expatriate Sicilian mobster. The evening's second feature, 1942's melodrama "Moontide," is one of the two films he made in Hollywood. Sunday evening's programming opens with a real rarity, 1955's film noir "House on the Waterfront," with the terrific gangster film, "Grisbi," from 1954, rounding out the bill.

"He is great because he is the consummate Everyman," says Zigman. "When you start watching his movies what you notice immediately is that he's likable. You feel like you have known him for a long time. He's very real. He's not putting on airs."

Gabin was the original film noir antihero, predating by several years such American stars as Humphrey Bogart and Robert Mitchum. "American film noir comes out of French poetic realism, which is what he did in the 1930s," says Zigman.

"He's stuck in this dark world and there's no escape. In his case it was because of the kind of encroaching fascism of World War II when everybody felt stuck. 'Port of Shadows,' 'La Bete Humaine' . . . those Gabin movies were the immediate predecessors of film noir. When I was researching the book I discovered that a lot of different people consider 'Pepe le Moko' to be the first film noir antihero and the first film noir."

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susan.king@latimes.com

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Jean Gabin films

Where: American Cinematheque at the Egyptian Theatre, 6712 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood

When: Saturday and Sunday at 7:30 p.m.

rice: $10

Contact: (323) 466-FILM or www.americancinematheque.com

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