The most popular French actor of the prewar era, Jean Gabin was the essence of world-weary stoicism; a classic antihero, his characters ran the gamut of society's victims and losers, outsiders damaged by life and with no hope of survival. Born Jean-Alexis Moncorgé on May 17, 1904, in Mériel, France, he was the son of professional cabaret performers, and raised by relatives in the country. After World War I, Gabin apprenticed at a Parisian construction company before deciding to follow in his parents' footsteps, struggling as a performer for several years before finally entering the military. Upon his discharge he appeared in a series of musical revues, followed in 1926 by a pair of operettas, La Dame en Decolette and Trois Jeunes Filles Nues. He also toured South America, and upon returning to France signed on with the Moulin Rouge. Gabin's career began picking up steam through his varied theatrical and music hall performances, and after rejecting a contract offer from a German film company he signed with Pathé-Natan, making his screen debut in 1930's Chacun sa Chance.
Mephisto followed in 1931, and by Paris-Beguin later that same year, Gabin was already earning second billing. He worked with an impressive group of directors, including Jacques Tourneur (on Tout ca ne Vaut pas L'Amour) and Anatole Litvak (Coeur de Lilas), and quickly developed the image which became his trademark: his face a mask of boredom and cynicism, a cigarette dangling insolently from his lips. With Brigitte Helm, Gabin starred in both L'Etoile de Valencia and Adieu les Beaux Jours, and for director G.W. Pabst he appeared in De Haut en Bas. A co-starring role in the 1934 Josephine Baker vehicle Zou Zou led to Maria Chapdelaine, his first major hit. Directed by Julien Duvivier, it won the Grand Prix du Cinema, and also set a major precedent followed by virtually all of Gabin's prewar films: His character died, and Duvivier was so impressed by the actor's skillful performance of his death scene that similar projects were immediately discussed. In fact, it was rumored that before long, Gabin's contract stated that all of his characters were to be ill-fated.