“Michèle Morgan places herself among the best young leading ladies on the French screen.” That’s how Le Matin, in 1938, described the impact of the 18-year-old’s performance in Marcel Carné’s Le Quai des brumes, a film that has come down to us as among the great star turns in French film history, introducing audiences to a woman who would become one of the legendary figures in European cinema.
Morgan died just a few weeks ago, at 96, and her obituaries understandably emphasized the significance of Quai des brumes, her fame secured when her co-star, Jean Gabin, tells her in tight closeup, “T’as des beaux yeux, tu sais” (“You have beautiful eyes, you know”), and she responds, “Embrasse-moi” (“Kiss me”). Gabin obliges, and then Morgan demands, “Embrasse-moi encore.”
Quai des brumes, as well as Morgan holding her own against the formidable Gabin, did indeed make an extraordinary impact on Parisians in the summer and fall of 1938, but even before that the actress had begun to impress audiences. She made a few films before Quai des brumes, and then, when she was only seventeen, she had a co-starring role opposite another monumental French actor, Raimu, in Gribouille, from 1937.
Gribouille (the title means “fool,” or “naïf”), a comedy directed by Marc Allegret, opened in Paris in early-September 1937 at the Madeleine cinema, an important “cinéma d’exclusivité” in the fashionable eighth arrondissement. Any film with Raimu was a major one, and Gribouille had a successful two-month run at the Madeleine, went out of circulation for two weeks, and then, in a sign of its status, began another exclusive run at the Rex cinema in the second arrondissement. Complete listings for the city from this time are hard to find, but after two weeks at the Rex, and rather than fanning out to multiple cinemas throughout the city, Gribouille seems to have moved to just two. It played at the largest cinema in Paris, the Gaumont-Palace in the eighteenth arrondissement, this time on a double bill with Anny a le béguin (vor liebe wird gewarnt) a 1936 German film starring Anny Ondra (herself a significant international star who had been featured in Alfred Hitchcock’s first sound film, Blackmail, from 1929). Gribouille also appeared at the Pantheon, a much more intimate cinema in the center of the city, on the left bank in the fifth arrondissement.
A trajectory like this one—successively at only two cinemas and then just two more before moving out widely to the neighborhoods—wasn’t extraordinary in Paris at the time, but it certainly wasn’t the norm, and it is probably attributable mostly to Raimu’s popularity. But Morgan does seem to have elicited significant interest, so much so that the trade journal Revue de l’Ecran would feature both her and Raimu on its cover just after Gribouille opened, and call Morgan “la révélation de l’année,” the “revelation of the year.”
The Parisian press began running stories about Quai des brumes several months before it opened—there weren’t many cultural events that could rival a forthcoming Jean Gabin movie. And, of course, it helped that the film starred yet another iconic French performer, Michel Simon. Quai des brumes finally opened on 17 May 1938 at the 1,250-seat Marivaux cinema on the boulevard des Italiens in the second arrondissement. I’ve mentioned the Marivaux in a number of other posts—it was one of the most important of all French cinemas, and almost always ran exclusive engagements of major French films.
In fact, a look at a few months at the end of 1938 of the films that opened there, beginning with Quai des brumes, provides at least some sense of the significance of the Marivaux as well as the astonishing film culture of Paris during the 1930s. First Carné’s film, then Marcel Pagnol’s La Femme du Boulanger (starring Raimu), then Maurice Tourneur’s Katia, which featured the actress who was perhaps Gabin’s only real rival in terms of star power, Danielle Darrieux, followed by Jean Benoït-Levy’s ballet melodrama La mort du cygne, and then finally Carné’s next film, Hôtel du Nord, with Jean-Pierre Aumont and Annabella.
Quai des brumes was more successful than any of them. After its opening in May the film ran well into September, and then, following the model of Gribouille, moved to another exclusive run—without going out of circulation even for a week or two—at the Moulin Rouge in the eighteenth arrondissement. After about a month there, Quai des brumes appears to have moved to just two cinemas, the Ermitage in the eighth arrondissement and the Pagode in the seventh, and the film maintained this very slow strategy of moving through the city, so that by December 1938 it still only showed in five cinemas.
Such a deliberate exhibition pattern was reserved for only the most popular films at the time; other movies might play exclusively for just a week or two, and then go out to a dozen or more “cinémas des quartiers,” the smaller, less significant cinemas in the neighborhoods. From its May 1938 opening at least until the beginning of 1939—and I haven’t done the research after this date—Quai des brumes played continuously in Paris, and typically at several of the city’s best cinemas.
Even while Quai des brumes was playing in Paris, Morgan and Gabin were teamed in another movie, Le récif de corail, directed by Maurice Gleize, who is little known to us today, but with a screenplay by Charles Spaak, who of course co-wrote La grande illusion with Jean Renoir. This new Gabin-Morgan movie opened in Paris at the Aubert-Palace cinema in the ninth arrondissement on the boulevard des Italiens, the location of so many important exhibition sites. Detailing the opening, Le Matin headlined “The adventure you’ve dreamed of! With the stars you love!” When Gribouille premiered the advertisements in Parisian papers stressed Raimu as star. Then, with Quai des brumes most of the advertisements emphasized Gabin’s presence. With this latest film, even the great Gabin had to share equal billing with his co-star, with Le Matin continuing, “Jean Gabin and Michèle Morgan in Le récif de corail at the Aubert-Palace.”
Morgan worked constantly during this period, and made one more film with Gabin, Jean Grémillon’s Remorques in 1941. Shortly after that Morgan would leave France for Hollywood until the end of World War Two, a self-imposed exile that, however professionally expedient it may have seemed at the time, was also certainly an act of resistance to the Nazi occupation of Paris and the rest of the country. Indeed, the Nazis understood that getting Morgan back–as well as Gabin, who also left for the duration of the war—was a major part of their project of making French and Parisian culture seem just as it was before the war began. When Morgan refused to return the Germans threatened the safety of her family, which had stayed in France. Morgan still wouldn’t come back, and so the Nazis gave up and banned her films in France, just as they would with Gabin’s. After an up-and-down career in Hollywood and the UK (where she starred with Ralph Richardson in Carol Reed and Graham Green’s The Fallen Idol ), Morgan came back to France, where she worked for most of the rest of her lengthy career.
It’s likely that Morgan did not have quite the same enduring importance as her contemporary Danielle Darrieux. And she certainly did not have the sustained international success of Simone Signoret, who was just one year younger. But of all the great French actresses from the period, no one seems to have made the impact on Parisian audiences that Morgan did after just two co-starring roles, and even more impressively while she was still a teenager. With Gribouille and especially Quai des brumes we can chart that impact throughout Paris by looking at those films’ progress through the cinemas there.