Jean Renoir was a French film director, screenwriter, actor, producer and author. As a film director and actor, he made more than forty films from the silent era to the end of the 1960s. As an author, he wrote the definitive biography of his father, the painter, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Renoir, My Father (1962).
During the 1930s Renoir enjoyed great success as a filmmaker. In 1931 he directed his first sound films, On purge bébé and La Chienne (The Bitch). The following year he made Boudu Saved From Drowning (Boudu sauvé des eaux), a farcical sendup of the pretensions of a middle-class bookseller and his family, who meet with comic, and ultimately disastrous, results when they attempt to reform a vagrant played by Michel Simon.
By the middle of the decade Renoir was associated with the Popular Front, and several of his films, such as The Crime of Monsieur Lange (Le Crime de Monsieur Lange, 1935), La Vie Est a Nous (People of France) (1936) and La Marseillaise (1938), reflect the movement's politics. In 1937 he made one of his most well-known films, Grand Illusion (La Grande Illusion), starring Erich von Stroheim and the immensely popular Jean Gabin. A film on the theme of brotherhood about a series of escape attempts by French POWs during World War I, it was enormously successful but was also banned in Germany, and later in Italy after having won the "Best Artistic Ensemble" award at the Venice Film Festival. This was followed by another cinematic success: The Human Beast (La Bête Humaine) (1938), a film noir tragedy based on the novel by Émile Zola and starring Simone Simon and Jean Gabin.
In 1939, now able to co-finance his own films, Renoir made The Rules of the Game (La Règle du Jeu), a satire on contemporary French society with an ensemble cast. Renoir himself played the character Octave, a sort of master of ceremonies in the film. The film was met with derision by Parisian audiences upon its premiere and was extensively reedited, but without success. It was his greatest commercial failure. A few weeks after the outbreak of World War II, the film was banned. The ban was lifted briefly in 1940, but after the fall of France it was banned again. Subsequently the original negative of the film was destroyed in an Allied bombing raid. It was not until the 1950s that two French film enthusiasts, Jean Gaborit and Jacques Durand, with Renoir's cooperation, were able to reconstruct a near-complete print of the film. Today The Rules of the Game appears frequently near the top of critic's polls as one of the best films ever made.
A week after the disastrous premiere of The Rules of the Game, in July 1939, Renoir went to Rome with Karl Koch and Dido Freire, subsequently his second wife, to work on the script for a film version of Tosca. This he abandoned to return to France in August 1939, to make himself available for military service. At the age of 45, he became a lieutenant in the French Army Film Service, and was sent back to Italy, to teach film at the Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia in Rome, and resume work on Tosca. The French government hoped this cultural exchange would help maintain friendly relations with Italy, which had not yet entered the war. As war approached, however, he returned to France and then, after Germany invaded France in May 1940, he fled to the United States with Dido.
In Hollywood, Renoir had difficulty finding projects that suited him. In 1943, he co-produced and directed an anti-Nazi film set in France, This Land Is Mine, starring Maureen O'Hara and Charles Laughton. Two years later, he made The Southerner, a film about Texas sharecroppers that is often regarded as his best work in America and one for which he was nominated for an Academy Award for Directing.
In 1945 he made Diary of a Chambermaid, an adaptation of the Octave Mirbeau novel, Le Journal d'une femme de chambre, starring Paulette Goddard and Burgess Meredith. The Woman on the Beach (1947) starring Joan Bennett and Robert Ryan was heavily reshot and reedited after it fared poorly among preview audiences in California. Both films were poorly received and were the last films Renoir made in America. At this time, Renoir became a naturalized citizen of the United States. Expand Collapse