Thursday, March 8, 2012

John Gilbert: The Artist

This is my contribution to the "Gone Too Soon" Blogathon, hosted by Comet Over Hollywood ,where you can see the complete line-up of tributes to those stars who left us too soon.

John Gilbert was a silent screen star whose specialty was hot-house, throbbing romance. He was a great star in the 1920s who, with the advent of sound, crashed and burned and sunk steadily into despair and ruin.
Sound familiar? If you have seen the movie "The Artist," it will. The many similarities between Gilbert and George Valentin are obvious, right down to the  pencil mustache, the subsequent alcoholic despair and even his act of writing his own film. However, like all legends, while there is a grain of truth to them, they leave out so much. And so it is with John Gilbert. 

John Gilbert had an ugly youth. Born John Cecil Pringle in 1897, his father was an absent comic actor and his mother an actress in touring companies. The hard life of living hand to mouth with his mother gave him an early awareness of the grittier side of life, but Jack, as he was often called, was filed with determination to get into the movies. By the time he was a teenager, he was working in Hollywood, both as an unknown actor and as a writer of screenplays. His first big break came in a 1919 Mary Pickford film called "Heart 'o the Hills" as one of Mary's handsome young suitors.
John Gilbert: With and Without His Mustache
From there it was a steady climb. Signed by Fox Studios, Jack Gilbert became John Gilbert and began evolving into a dashing leading man. One of the highlights of his Fox period is "Cameo Kirby." Based on the Booth Tarkington play, Gilbert sports his famous mustache, which transformed his looks from good to devastatingly handsome. During this time he married his second wife, actress Leatrice Joy.

In 1924, Gilbert moved from Fox to MGM and began the most successful period of his career. Full-fledged stardom was achieved with "His Hour," the type of florid romantic film that Gilbert would become famous for. As the Russian nobleman who makes love to Aileen Pringle, women swooned and an American Valentino emerged as a major Hollywood heart throb. A string of hugely successful films followed ("The Snob", "He Who Gets Slapped", "La Boheme", "The Merry Widow"), but Gilbert got the chance of a lifetime in 1925 as the WWI soldier of King Vidor's "The Big Parade."
As the soldier who learns about life, suffers the horrors or war and falls in love with a French girl, Gilbert proved he was more that a smoldering glance. The picture was an instant classic and he received rave reviews for his performance. However, more films like "The Big Parade," were not in Gilbert's future. The public wanted Gilbert the lover.

One of the things Gilbert is remembered for today is being one half of one of Hollywood's hottest romances. In 1926 Gilbert was divorced from Leatrice Joy and was assigned to a film called "Flesh and the Devil," starring none other than Greta Garbo. By all accounts, their eyes met, sparks flew and the rest was history. Dubbed "GarBert" or "GilBo" by the press (what, you though Bennifer or Brangelina was a first?) they were hot copy. This, of course, did not please the reticent Miss Garbo, who refused to commit. She would eventually leave him at the alter.
While they were a couple they made three successful romantic films: "Flesh and the Devil," "Love" and "A Woman of Affairs." All presented the lovers as ultra romantic beings who lived in a world of love we mere mortals can only imagine. This was the image that the public had of John Gilbert and it raised him to unimaginable heights and also caused his ultimate demise.

Silent screen stars were rarely viewed as "real folks." They lived and loved on a Mount Olympus called Hollywood that had only a passing resemblance to the world the audience knew. Movie stars loved more passionately, felt more deeply and generally experienced life more powerfully than the rest of us. That was the great art of the silent screen - to make the make-believe believable. And John Gilbert was one of its greatest artists. He was the romantic lover supreme.

It all went bad for John Gilbert so suddenly. First, Garbo finally put an end to the affair. On the rebound, he married the great stage star, Ina Claire. This union did not last. His relationship with studio boss Louis B. Mayer had reached toxic proportions and the new talking pictures caused concern. Gilbert's voice was light, but certainly acceptable. Here he is in 1929's "Hollywood Review." He and Norma Shearer (directed by Lionel Barrymore) perform the balcony scene from "Romeo and Juliet," as well as a modern jazz-age version for laughs. He is handsome, charming and very much at ease.
Unfortunately, "His Glorious Night" was making the rounds and did him in. This is the film so wickedly parodied in "Singing in the Rain." It's not Gilbert's voice that is wrong, but the repeated "I love you, I love you, I love you"s that caused laughter in the theaters. And when a heart throb is laughed at, well, the end is near. Gilbert was undone, not by his voice, but by the passing of his creation, the great lover. The great lover persona was never meant for sound. Valentino, had he not died, might well have met the same fate. Fairbanks, whose persona was also larger than life, was dealt a similar career-ending blow.

From then on, nothing seemed to work for John Gilbert. He gave a good performance in "Downstairs," a film written by him in which he played a cad to good advantage (he married his co-star, Virginia Bruce, but that union also ended in divorce). He then got a monumental chance when Garbo asked for him as her co-star in "Queen Christina." The film was successful, Garbo was applauded for her magnificent portrayal, and Gilbert got good notices, but it did little for his career. There was nothing wrong with John Gilbert except that too many new sound actors were in the forefront and there was no longer any room in Depression America for the grand, fantasy-image of The Great Lover.

After "Queen Christina," Gilbert made one more film, "The Captain Hates the Sea." In 1936, drinking heavily and in the midst of a love affair with Marlene Dietrich, John Gilbert suffered a heart attack and died at the age of 38. Gone too soon.
John Gilbert's daughter, Leatrice Gilbert Fountain, has done much to set the record straight regarding her famous father. She continues to promote the revival of his films and is the author of "Dark Star, the Untold Story of the Meteoric Rise and Fall of Legendary Silent Screen Star John Gilbert."


Kimberly J.M. Wilson said...

His life seems so sad. I'm sure dealing with Garbo was enough to do anyone in.

The Lady Eve said...

John Gilbert nearly had another chance for a silver screen comeback via his last inamorata, Marlene Dietrich. He had, at her request, tested and been cast in "Desire," but he suffered a heart attack in his dressing room early on. He was quickly replaced by John Halliday and did not live much longer after that.

Leatrice Gilbert Fountain, now 87, suffered a stroke this last Thanksgiving but, thankfully (and no doubt due to her great heart and spirit), is recovering.

FlickChick said...

Oh, Kim.... I guess it's safe to say you are not under the spell og the gorgeous Miss G? Poor John Gilbert did have a sad life. He was wildly talented and flamboyant, but also wildly self-destructive.

FlickChick said...

Lady Eve, one of the things I like most about Dietrich is how supportive she was of her friends and causes. Her devotion to Gilbert was so touching, but he turned out to be a tragic lost cause. Thank you for the update on Leatrice Gilbert Fountain. Glad she is doing well. The work she has done on behalf of her father is astonishing and so important.

Flapper Flickers + Silent Stanzas said...

Thanks Kim - I was just wondering the other day how Ms Fountain was doing!

Jack is one of my favorites. Thanks for such a lovely and insightful piece. Also, he is phenomenal in "Downstairs" - that might be my favorite film of his!

Diane said...

I agree...gone way too soon.

FlickChick said...

@ Jennifer - yes - Downstairs was quite a departure for Jack. Too bad he didn't get a chance to pursue that new direction.

FlickChick said...

Diane - thanks for reading and stopping by.

KC said...

The thing about Gilbert that makes me sad is that he seemed to be trying so hard to make things better for himself. All those marriages, writing his own film, trying to make a comeback with Garbo. Doing his best didn't get him anywhere. We're never told that this is a possibility when we reach for the stars, but he's proof that it can happen. At least he did leave some good work.

FlickChick said...

KC - it's true that it is all so sad. And he did try hard, but, unfortunately, he tried even harder to destroy himself with alcohol. Such a waster, because he was so talented.Even if his career in front of the camera waned, he seemed to have so much to give behind it.

Dawn said...

John Gilbert, was such a wonderful actor and I have loved watching him perform, in the films that I have seen so far. I hope to one day to see all of them.

Thank you Eve, for the update on Leatrice. I wish her a quick and complete recovery.

FlickChick said...

Dawn- thanks for stopping by. It's sad that his image got so tarnished by a nasty lie.

R.A. Kerr said...

I didn't know much about John Gilbert before reading this post. I laughed when I read your comments re: GarBert and GilBo. I had no idea how old this couple-combo-name practice was!

FlickChick said...

R.A. - isn't it true that everything old is new again?

100 Years of Movies said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
100 Years of Movies said...

Great post on Gilbert. Loved his work with Garbo in Flesh and the Devil. You are right on with the observation about the media. Between GarBert and PickFair, they were at least as bad as today's tabloids.

FlickChick said...

100 Years of Movies - thanks ever so for stopping by. Yes - those press boys were always one step ahead on the funny stuff - that's why we love 'em!

ClassicBecky said...

A really excellent bio, FlickChick, with facts, information and a lot of heart. John Gilbert strikes me as a man who just didn't have the tough skin that a lot of actors have to push themselves through -- as much as we love old Hollywood, it could be a very cruel place that required some nastiness for most to get ahead. He sounds like a nice man searching desperately for something he couldn't reach, particularly in his love life. I don't know any of that for sure, of course, but it's just a feeling I get when I read about him.

I loved the clip you left. I imagine that women expected the great lover to have a deep masculine voice, and I agree that his is light, although not horrible at all. Audiences can be very unforgiving with their movie gods. On a different note, it was interesting to see Norman Shearer play Juliet in such an emotive, almost hammy manner. Coming out of silents must have done that, because she was so much better and her manner perfect when she did Juliet with Leslie Howard.

Kudos for an amazing review of John Gilbert's life!

FlickChick said...

Thank you so much, Becky. You are always so encouraging and I really do appreciate that. I imagine that, for actors trained almost exclusively in film, playing Shakespeare was a daunting task. In fact, I'd think the stage-trained actors would be "hammy," too. It took a few years before the right balance was found for talkies!

Page said...

Awww, Gilbert with his perfect pencil mustache and his brooding good looks.

It really is heartbreaking that his career died off much too soon with the talkies.

His resemblance to Jean Dujardin really is eery.
You've done a wonderful tribute to Gilbert Flick Chick and your wonderful photos were an added bonus.

FlickChick said...

Thank you, Page. He sure was a handsome devil, wasn't he? But, such a sad one. If only someone could have saved him from himself.