The son of the painter Auguste Renoir, Jean Renoir became one of France's most important and respected filmmakers during the middle of the 20th century. A Philosophy and Math student, Renoir became a cavalryman, but was invalided out of the army before World War I. He subsequently joined the infantry; injured in that service, he became a pilot. Later, he married a model and aspiring actress, and, following the death of his father and the acquisition of an inheritance, set up his own production company to produce movies for his wife. Renoir learned from these early experiences of financing movies and watching other films, and became a director in 1924. He later took directing assignments from other producers as a means of supporting himself, augmented by occasional acting roles.
With the advent of sound, Renoir's career was quickly made with a series of profitable films, including La Chienne (1931), a savage and dark drama about a man's self-destruction, which was later remade by Fritz Lang as Scarlet Street. Renoir's subsequent films, including The Lower Depths (1936) and Grand Illusion (1937), were among the finest made in France before the war, and were well acknowledged at the time of their release; the latter became an international hit. However, Rules of the Game (1939), with its strong criticism of French society, struck a raw nerve with critics and the public alike on the eve of World War II, and was quickly withdrawn from distribution and subsequently re-edited. Renoir served in the film unit of the French army at the outbreak of World War II, but was fortunate enough to get to Lisbon and then America after the fall of France. He was later put under contract at 20th Century Fox, where he made the rural drama Swamp Water (1941), a beautiful, lyrical, and poetic story of injustice and vengeance. At RKO, he made the patriotic drama -- and possibly the best the studio ever produced -- This Land Is Mine (1943), and returned to rural American subjects for The Southerner (1945), released by United Artists. Diary of a Chambermaid (1946) was another independent production, while Woman on the Beach (1947), a dark romantic drama, was done for RKO. Renoir's first post-American film (and his first in color), The River (1951), was financed by a Beverly Hills florist, but shot in India. Based upon a story by Rumer Godden, it told of the coming of age of three young women in India and received tremendous international acclaim, but relatively little public attention, although later became one of his most popular films.
His next films, The Golden Coach (1952) and French Can-Can (1955), marked Renoir's return to Europe and France, respectively, and to profitable filmmaking. The early '60s saw the restoration and re-release -- to belated acclaim as a masterpiece -- of Rules of the Game. His later films were less successful and more modestly produced, and made extensive use of television techniques, the most popular of which was The Little Theater of Jean Renoir (1969), which was originally made for TV. Throughout his career, Renoir's style embraced a multitude of genres, and its permutations make it almost impossible to characterize. However, his social realism was usually on-target, as La Chienne showed to his advantage and Rules of the Game presented so disturbingly to the French public. Renoir died in 1979.