During World War II, it was common for actors and filmmakers in Europe to seek refuge from the threat of the Nazis by coming to Hollywood, but not all of them found the same success in America they had back home. Moontide, an attempt to make French superstar Jean Gabin a hit in the United States, was a fascinating mess of miscast actors, casual racism, and prenoir moodiness.
Archie Mayo’s interesting but mostly unsuccessful film failed to properly introduce American audiences to Gabin, and the actor gave up on Hollywood after one more role, probably for the best. Anyone watching Moontide without having seen any previous Gabin films would be justified in asking the question: Who is this guy?
Gabin rose to prominence in France during the late thirties as a kind of French Humphrey Bogart, a strong-and-silent type who expressed emotion and yet wasn’t afraid to crack a joke. His films were so successful financially and with critics that some even played in America; his 1938 film Grand Illusion was the first foreign language film to be nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards.
Gabin, like so many others, made the pilgrimage to Hollywood when the war came, and upon arriving signed with Twentieth Century Fox to make Moontide. It’s not clear how invested the thirty-eight-year-old actor was in being a success in America, but the fact that he signed with a lower-budget studio like Fox suggests that even if he was, he did not do his research.
The screenplay by John O’Hara plays almost as an Americanized take on another Gabin film released overseas, Marcel Carné’s moving and bleak Port of Shadows. In Moontide, Gabin plays Bobo—a ludicrous name for a romantic leading man—an alcoholic dockworker in San Pablo. His drunken antics are a far cry from Gabin’s definitive moody loner in Port of Shadows, or even a more mischievous character like the titular one of another Gabin hit in France, Pépé le Moko.
Rather, in Moontide, he’s a fool, albeit one who finds some form of redemption when he rescues the suicidal Anna (Ida Lupino) from the ocean. The pair falls in love and brings out the best in one another, working on a barge and selling bait to fishermen. But Bobo’s antagonistic friend Tiny (Thomas Mitchell) claims to know something about Bobo’s involvement with a recent murder, and menaces Anna by threatening to tell what he knows unless she leaves Bobo for good.
In a 2000 study of Gabin, Professor Ginette Vincendeau defined the actor’s appeal in France as that “his parts and extra-cinematic image repeatedly emphasized ‘ordinary’ working-class values [but] his performance also exuded power and charisma.”1 Moontide checks the working class box, and Bobo is charming at times. But for much of the film he’s a drunken clown with a big grin plastered on his face—a far cry from power and charisma. Gabin did not speak English very well, which comes across in stilted line deliveries that take his performance to a new low.
Original director Fritz Lang later told an interviewer how Gabin hated the film, though did not specify his reasons why. “I didn’t like it either,” Lang said. “But when you’re under contract you often have to do things you don’t like.” Lang was quickly removed from the film, and left Fox soon after that, claiming “something personal occurred between Gabin and me.”2 Some historians theorize that the two may have fought over their respective affairs with actress Marlene Dietrich, a petty but not unlikely reason.3
Even though Lang worked on the film for less than two weeks, his stamp is evident, as the style he and cinematographer Lucien Ballard established was well-imitated by Mayo and new cinematographer Charles G. Clarke (who wound up with an Oscar nomination for the film). But the look of the film is strange; it has some of the poetic realism of Port of Shadows, despite having been shot entirely on very blatant sets. It feels unintentionally dreamlike and surreal, especially in the case of one drunken montage sequence Salvador Dali briefly consulted on.4 None of these factors cohere into a film with one consistent vision, just like Gabin’s performance feels like an amalgamation of opposite star personas.
The film is so mixed-up that even its racist caricatures make no sense. Chinese American actor Chester Gan plays a broad Chinese stereotype, but Victor Sen Yung, an American also of Chinese parentage, was allowed to play his character without racist affect—mostly unheard of in 1942. Other actors such as Claude Rains are completely miscast—seeing this distinguished, gentlemanly actor in a cowboy hat is a truly bizarre sight for viewers familiar with his work.
As for Gabin, the actor made one more film in the United States—The Impostor, also a failure—before leaving Hollywood to join the Free French army, returning to France after the war, where he slowly regained his popularity.5 Moontide remains a bizarre entry in the actor’s filmography, an embarrassing mess that buoys Port of Shadows even further. It might simply have been that Gabin was too French for Hollywood. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine what would have been the right vehicle for the actor to succeed in America, but then again, it’s not hard to imagine something better than Moontide.
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For More on Moontide
Behind the Scenes
References [ + ]
|1.||^||Ginette Vincendeau, Stars and Stardom in French Cinema (London: Continuum, 2000), 70.|
|2.||^||“Interview with Fritz Lang,” by Charles Higham and Joel Greenberg in Fritz Lang: Interviews, ed. Barry Keith Grant (Jackson, MI: University Press of Mississippi, 2003), 108.|
|3, 4.||^||“Turning of the Tide: The Ill-Starred Making of Moontide,” Moontide, directed by Archie Mayo (1942, Hollywood, CA: Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment, 2008), DVD.|
|5.||^||Ginette Vincendeau, Stars and Stardom in French Cinema (London: Continuum, 2000), 64.|