A change of heart comes to French itinerant seaman and dockworker Bobo as he sips his whiskey with a female regular at the Red Dot Inn. His wandering is over. He’s going back to his ramshackle barge on the California coast, back to Anna, someone once as lost as he was but now a woman who loves him as much as he loves her. So what if a “gypsy is dying, and a peasant is being born.”
It’s a decision that will prompt a deadly encounter with his jealous crony Tiny; however, Bobo and Anna marry in the end. He’ll carry her across their humble threshold to live happily ever after.
20th Century Fox producer Darryl F. Zanuck saw the role of Bobo in the 1942 film Moontide — April 2022 marks the 80th anniversary of the film’s release — as the perfect vehicle to Hollywood stardom for acclaimed French actor Jean Gabin. No way was the film’s hero, a potential Gallic Clark Gable, going to die at the end. No sad ending for Moontide.
What a contrast is the ending of another great Gabin film that came out just four years earlier, Port of Shadows (Le Quai des brumes). In this cinematic high point of French “poetic realism,” Gabin’s character Jean is also a wanderer who in the end returns to his equally lost lover Nelly (Michèle Morgan). That act, however, leads to his death at the hands of his cowardly nemesis, the gangster Lucien (Pierre Brasseur).
Moontide and Port of Shadows offer a fascinating study into key differences in Hollywood and European filmmaking and storytelling during the 1930s and early 1940s, a time when the studio system reigned supreme in Hollywood and war loomed heavily over the European continent. Those differences weren’t ironclad — films had both happy and sad endings on both sides of the Atlantic. Still, they existed and continued to exist in the coming decades despite the overarching influence of commercialism in all cinema.
In Port of Shadows, Gabin’s Jean is an Army deserter in the port city of Le Havre who fatefully encounters the cabaret dancer Nelly at Panama’s, a lonely, seaside bar on the ragged edge of the city.
In Moontide, Bobo encounters Anna, played by Ida Lupino, as she attempts a watery suicide. He saves her life and takes her back to his barge, where she’ll eventually find meaning in life again. Her backstory remains a mystery. Tiny, played by Thomas Mitchell, dismisses her as a “hash hustler.” She was a prostitute in the book that inspired the film. Soon, she and Bobo fall in love.
Both films are suffused in portside fog and shadows, a dreamlike, highly stylized world where crime and danger lurk in those shadows. In each film, a loyal dog follows the protagonist, instinctively growling at Tiny in Moontide and at the duplicitous Zabel in Port of Shadows. Zabel is Nelly’s godfather whose lust for her drives him to murder.
A bar is important to the action in each film, the Red Dot Inn in Moontide, Panama’s in Port of Shadows. In each film, Gabin’s character leaves his lover behind but then returns to her. Each film features a waterfront philosopher who makes observations about life and love — Claude Rains’ Nutsy in Moontide and Robert Le Vigan’s painter Michel in Port of Shadows before he drowns himself. The backstories of several key characters in both films are simply missing.
However, the similarities break down in the hearts and fates of Bobo and Jean. Bobo is a hard-drinking, hail-fellow-well-met kind of guy who even offers to help to his feet the man he just cold-cocked in a bar fight. Jean is a brooding war veteran with a chip on his shoulder, a soldier who saw enough death in “Tonkin” to abandon his outfit.
The most striking contrast in the two films, however, comes at the end with the fates of the two wanderers. Unlike Bobo’s happy reunion with Anna, Jean’s return to Nelly provides Lucien an opportunity for revenge for Jean’s shaming of him with slaps to the face in front of not only Nelly but also his fellow gangsters.
As does another Marcel Carné-directed film, Le jour se lève (1939), Port of Shadows showcases Gabin’s ability to speak volumes with a simple stare, a curl of the lip, a wordless shrug of the shoulders. Gabin “at his best doesn’t need any dialogue,” film historian Foster Hirsch has said. Both Carné films — which were written or co-written by the poet of poetic realism, Jacques Prévert — reflect the somber mood of a nation and a people facing the specter and subsequent reality of Nazi occupation.
In fact, the roots of Port of Shadows can be traced to the Neubabelsberg studios of the giant German film company UFA (Universum-Film AG), where initial work was done before Adolf Hitler’s propaganda minister, Dr. Josef Goebbels, rejected it as too dark and decadent. Ironically, the great French director Jean Renoir would later dismiss Port of Shadows as a “fascist” film. Only after Carné and Prévert brought it back to France were they able to make the film they wanted to make.
Based on a novel by Pierre Mac Orlan in which the action takes place in Paris’ Montmartre and the Lapin Agile cabaret, not in Le Havre, Port of Shadows “was a fairly revolutionary film, both in spirit and in form,” Carné says in his 1996 autobiography. “In that era the theaters were filled to the brim with comedies, musical or otherwise, overflowing with bright sunshine and crawling with extras. And here I was with my empty nightclub, my fog, my grisaille, my wet pavements, my streetlamps.”
Assembling a team that included supporting cast members Michel Simon as Zabel and the aforementioned Brasseur as Lucien, Alexandre Trauner on set design, Eugen Schüfftan as cinematographer and music by Maurice Jaubert, Carné created a masterpiece that was attacked by the Benito Mussolini press at the Venice Film Festival but which nevertheless won a Golden Lion award for the director. “Port of Shadows possesses nearly all the qualities that were once synonymous with the idea of French cinema,” Luc Sante writes in the Criterion Collection edition of the film. “The philosophical gravity of peripheral characters, the idea that nothing in life is more important than passion — such things defined a national cinema that might have been dwarfed by Hollywood in terms of reach and profit but stood every inch as tall as regards grace and beauty and power.”
Decades later, American film critic Pauline Kael would call Port of Shadows “a breath of fresh air to American filmgoers saturated with empty optimism.”
Gabin’s earlier success in films like Julien Duvivier’s Pépé le Moko (1937) and Jean Renoir’s La Grande Illusion (1937) got 20th Century Fox’s attention, and its publicity wing pulled no stops in promoting him as a French “hunk” primed to break the hearts of “dreamy readers of lonely hearts columns,” in the words of Gabin biographer Joseph Harriss.
Arriving in America along with a wave of other French émigrés in the late 1930s — like fellow actors Morgan and Louis Jourdan, and directors Renoir, Duvivier and René Clair — Gabin quickly came under studio control. His contract got him the studio’s top salary, but Hollywood also put an Apache scarf around his neck, coiffed his hair and put mascara on his lashes. They got him a chauffeur and a yacht. He rented Greta Garbo’s house and committed to intense English language lessons.
The trouble was Gabin’s terrible homesickness — he would only make one more film in Hollywood before returning to fight with the Free French Forces. Unlike fellow Frenchmen Charles Boyer and Maurice Chevalier, he never really adapted to the land or the language. Europe clung to him, as did his mistress Marlene Dietrich. At her wishes, he urged the studio to hire the famous Austrian director Fritz Lang, another émigré, to direct Moontide. Lang only lasted a few weeks, his departure welcomed by Gabin after the jealous Frenchman learned Marlene had once been the filmmaker’s mistress, too. Archie Mayo took over directing duties.
Novelist John O’Hara and veteran Hollywood scribe Nunally Johnson wrote the script for Moontide, which was based on a novel by Willard Robertson. It was “a noirish film resembling the poetic realism of (Gabin’s) recent films in France,” Harriss writes. Still, this was Hollywood where filmmakers faced the sharp eye of censor Joseph Breen and the studio’s razor focus on the bottom line.
Plus, “what does a Hollywood studio, accustomed to creating artificial stars, do with an actor whose charisma, not to mention box office success, derives mainly from his authenticity?” Harriss writes.
The aforementioned Morgan didn’t fare much better in Hollywood. Despite the luxury Hollywood offered — she would live in the same Brentwood Canyon home that later was the site of the notorious Charles Manson murders in 1969 — she bristled at efforts to turn her into a French sex kitten, a “phony product” in her words, at “how much the studio was trying to make her into something she was not,” Harriss writes. She eventually returned to Europe and enjoyed a highly successful career.
Trouble haunted the making of Moontide. Dietrich, now 40 years old, was jealous of 23-year-old (and happily married) Ida Lupino. Gabin didn’t like Zanuck or the script. Producer Mark Hellinger liked the film’s darkness but insisted on a happy ending. Amidst it all, Gabin continued having a devil of the time with the English language.
Moontide got mixed reviews — critics said it was too slow- — and didn’t score high at the box office either. The New York Times’ Bosley Crowther liked Gabin better than Moontide. Dietrich dismissed it as “an idiotic film” in her 1987 autobiography, and Gabin biographer Harriss called it “an embarrassment” that forced the actor to overact with “whimsical faces, curiously thrusting out his lower lip to look fanciful while spouting words of wisdom. … The grotesque result is Gabin doing an American imitation of Gabin.”
Still, Moontide had its champions. Although one of film’s most acerbic critics, Manny Farber called it “superb” and “a picture moving and good” that depicts “wonderful movie love.”
Today, the tide has turned for Moontide. The criticisms and dismissals that made it “overlooked” for many years are “a pity as the film is actually an intriguing mix of gritty realism and stylish noir, a fascinating meeting of Europe and Hollywood and a curious combination of aesthetic peculiarities and moving performances,” critic Martyn Bamber wrote in Senses of Cinema in 2018. Moontide stands today as “a love story in a noir universe,” says film noir guru, publisher, and Turner Classic Movies host Eddie Muller.
“You can understand why the film was not successful, but 65 years later it is fascinating,” Foster Hirsch said in 2017.
One reason Moontide may not have resonated with American audiences in 1942 was that, despite the happy ending, they weren’t used to the things it shared with Port of Shadows — the darkness, the dreamlike world (Spanish artist Salvador Dalí helped shape one hallucinatory scene depicting a drunken spree by Bobo), the gloomy touch of foreignness that would later become de rigueur in film noir.
Writer and lecturer Robert McKee described the different attitudes in Europe and Hollywood toward filmmaking and storytelling in his classic 1997 book Story. “Hollywood filmmakers tend to be overly (some would say foolishly) optimistic about the capacity of life to change — especially for the better. Consequently, to express that vision they rely on… an inordinately high percentage of positive endings. Non-Hollywood filmmakers tend to be overly (some would say chicly) pessimistic about change, professing that the more life changes, the more it stays the same, or, worse, that change brings suffering. Consequently to express the futility, meaninglessness, or destructiveness of change, they tend (toward) negative endings.”
Surely, the legacy of 20th century dictatorships, wars, destruction, political and economic upheaval in Europe helped create a sense of fatalism and the existential absurdities of human life.
In the United States, existentialism had to make way for capitalism. Screenwriter and novelist Budd Schulberg points to this in his book Moving Pictures, describing MGM titan Louis B. Mayer’s filmmaking philosophy as early as 1920s Hollywood. “Mayer’s credo was… to give the public what it wanted, right down to that lowest common denominator: the twelve-year-old mind. Family pictures. Romance. Happy endings. Movies could titillate, but in the end husband and wife, or estranged young lovers, must be reunited. That was Mayer’s law. The moral standards of middle-class America must be upheld.”
Of course, the bottom line was the foundation of Mayer’s law.
“What we have in Hollywood is an artistic medium encased in a business enterprise, and the business enterprise is considered more important than the artistic endeavor,” screenwriter/director Abe Polonsky said in a 1998 interview.
The aforementioned Kael has also weighed in on the influence of commercialism on how stories are told in Hollywood and what audiences have come to expect from the movies they watch. “From the beginning, American film makers have been crippled by business financing and the ideology it imposed: they were told that they had an obligation to entertain the general public, that this was a democratic function.”
For those film lovers like her who have sometimes wanted more than what “commercialized Hollywood” might offer, Kael said, “Le Jour se Lève and La Grande Illusion restored us.”
Recent films such as Netflix’s Worth in 2021 show that remnants of the old Hollywood formula remain. A film about the government effort to compensate the wide range of victims of the 9-11 attacks, Worth is in many ways “an excellent film” but also a “frustrating” and “irritating” one because in the end “it appears to retreat from the implications of the way it’s telling its complex narrative,” film critic Matt Zoller Seitz wrote for RogerEbert.com.
Worth offers a classic narrative arc in which Michael Keaton’s Kenneth Feinberg turns away from cynicism to a driven commitment to help victims regardless of their status in society. The film ends with a list of Feinberg and his team’s successes in pursuing that goal, as if the issue was largely resolved.
A sharp contrast to this conclusion is the ending of Michael Moore’s 2007 documentary Sicko, in which 9-11 victims have to go to Cuba to get the medical treatment they need because they cannot get it in the United States.
“The reluctance to tear down restrictive storytelling templates rather than merely jostle them a bit is of a piece with the film’s refusal to really engage with the question of whether a CEO’s life is worth more financially than a janitor’s,” Seitz writes about Worth.
Of course, as said earlier, the cinematic divide between America and Europe isn’t ironclad. The New Hollywood films of the 1960s and 1970s broke from the old studio-driven formulas and “brought to the screen a gritty new realism and ethnicity,” Peter Biskind writes in his 1998 book on the era, Easy Riders, Raging Bulls. More recently, director Robert Eggers’ moody and dark film The Lighthouse (2019) with Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattison as two lighthouse keepers hardly offers viewers a happy ending. The two become mad, Dafoe’s character dies and the film ends with Pattison’s character naked and under assault by a flock of gulls.
Europeans still make films differently. Wim Wenders’ Paris, Texas in 1984, for example, is filled with iconic images of the American West — the desert, lonely Western towns, endless highways — yet it is suffused with European sensibilities, from Wenders’ direction to Dutch cinematographer Robby Müller’s camerawork, its slow pace, sparse dialogue, sad and fatalistic ending still hard to find in most Hollywood films.
As detailed in Emilie Bickerton’s 2009 book on the history of the icon-breaking film magazine Cahiers du Cinéma, European film hasn’t been immune from the pressures of the bottom line. By the 1980s, even the once “troublemaking” Cahiers du Cinéma, a magazine that helped launch the French New Wave in film (ironically itself a movement that paid homage to Hollywood masters like Howard Hawks, Nicholas Ray and British-born Alfred Hitchcock), had become “a mouthpiece for the market (with) the mind-numbing quality of an up-market consumer report,” Bickerton writes.
Ultimately, the way of storytelling in films can be problematic on both sides of the Atlantic, McKee says. “Too often Hollywood films force an up-ending for reasons more commercial than truthful; too often non-Hollywood films cling to the dark side for reasons more fashionable than truthful. The truth, as always, sits somewhere in the middle.”
Looking back at both Moontide and Port of Shadows after the passage of some eight decades, both films, as different and as similar as they are, provide a satisfying cinema experience. Farber was right to call Moontide a “picture moving and good,” one in which “a quality of human goodness and fraternity” is palpable despite the dangers that also face the main characters. The filmgoer is glad when Bobo and Anna get together, and that’s great if they do live happily ever after. Port of Shadows, as dark and sad as it is in the end, deserves all its accolades.
In both Moontide and Port of Shadows, the light of human love and community manages to break through all that fog, all those shadows, and that light still burns when we leave the theater and step back into our own world.
Joseph B. Atkins is a veteran writer who teaches journalism at the University of Mississippi. He is the author of Harry Dean Stanton: Hollywood’s Zen Rebel (University Press of Kentucky, 2020) and the novel Casey’s Last Chance (Sartoris Literary Group, 2015). Joseph’s blog is laborsouth.blogspot.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.