Between 1936 and 1946, Marcel Carné was among the chief proponents of poetic realism, a studio-bound film style that combined theatrical themes with elaborate dialogues which depicted ordinary people attempting to contend with the unalterable nature of destiny. The shadowy fatalism of poetic realism presaged the more popular American film noir. Though the style was created by Jacques Feyder, with whom Carné apprenticed, it was Carné and poet/screenwriter Jacques Prévert who brought it to its full fruition with Enfants du Paradise (Children of Paradise) (1945), a work still considered one of France's greatest films.
Born and raised in Montmarte, Carné was originally slated to work for an insurance agency by his father, a cabinetmaker. Carné, however, was more interested in movies and secretly attended evening classes on cinematography with the Paris city council-sponsored Association Philomantique. Without telling his father, Carné left the agency in 1928 to work as an assistant cameraman for Feyder's Les Noveaux Messieurs (1928). He next filmed Richard Oswald's Cagilostro (1929). After winning a Cinémagazine contest for amateur film criticism, Carné became a staff critic for the periodical from 1929 to 1933. He also occasionally wrote for Cinémonde often using the penname Albert Cranche. Just prior to becoming a writer, Carné had begun work on his debut film, Nogent, Eldorado du Dimanche (Nogent, the Sunday Eldorado) (1929). This documentary was a silent chronicle of working-class people enjoying a peaceful Sunday afternoon. He next worked as an assistant director for Rene Clair on Sous les Toits de Paris (1930). He gained further experience in filmmaking when he directed a series of advertising shorts with animator Paul Grimault and writer Jean Aurenche. For a short time, Carné edited the weekly Hebdo-film. By 1933, Carné had tired of simply reviewing films and became Feyder's permanent assistant director, working on some of Feyder's best films, including Le Grand Jeu (1934) and La Kermesse Héroique (1935). It was Feyder who provided Carné his feature film directorial debut with Jenny (1936). Starring Feyder's wife Francoise Rosay, the story was melodramatic, but it was set apart by Carné's creation of a dark, misty urban setting. Showing an unusual rapport with his actors, Carné drew forth strong, poetic performances from each cast member.