Sunday, July 7, 2013

John Gilbert: The Last of the Silent Film Stars by Eve Golden

John Gilbert's ex-wife Leatrice Joy compared him to mercury, but he was never swift enough to outrun his demons. In "John Gilbert: Last of the Silent Film Stars," Eve Golden gives us story of a great star whose fall was legendary.

The story of John Gilbert, in some form or another, has always been with us. Is he Don Lockwood in "Singin' in the Rain"? Is he George Valentin in "The Artist"? Rumors and conspiracy theories have never been laid to rest. Was his romance with Garbo manufactured by MGM? Did MGM sabotage his career? Eve Golden takes on the mercurial "Great Lover" of the silent screen and paints a detailed portrait of a man whose worst enemy was himself.
1923- Gilbert without his signature mustache when
he was known as Jack Gilbert (with Bebe Daniels in "St. Elmo")
Gilbert's story is well-known - or is it? He peppered his own history with many half-truths not, as some actors do to make their pasts prettier, but to make it even uglier. His mother was a stock company actress. They lived an itinerant life, moving from place to place. While his mother may not have won any awards as mother of the year, Golden claims she was not the abusive whore Gilbert claims that she was. Nevertheless, poor John Gilbert grew up with a sense that the world had robbed him of his just due, a feeling that never left him no matter how much fame was heaped upon him.

Gilbert paid his dues, starting as an extra with the Ince Studios in 1915. He served a long apprenticeship before signing with MGM and reaching stardom in 1924 with a string of hits that began with "His Hour," "He Who Gets Slapped," "The Merry Widow," and, most importantly, "The Big Parade."
Gilbert and Mae Murray in "The Merry Widow," a big hit for MGM and Gilbert
The tales of the making of "The Merry Widow" never fail to amuse. Gilbert actually comes off as Mr. Cool compared to the volatile personalities of Mae Murray and director Erich Von Stroheim, but he did have his moments, at one point stalking off the set and claiming to have quit the film.  Mae's account of running naked after him through the MGM parking lot (in only her tiny size 4 slippers) grew over they years. it seems that would have been a memorable sight, but no one but Mae seemed to remember it that way. Well, Mae was never one to let the facts stand in the way of a good story!
Gilbert and frequent co-star Renee Adoree in "The Big Parade"
These films cemented Gilbert's fame, not only as a romantic leading man, but as an actor of substance. He was MGM's biggest star. Yet, he was unhappy with his scripts, the quality of the filming and his treatment by his employer. Worse, he continuously groused to the press, raising the ire of studio boss Louis B. Mayer. He was perceived as an ingrate and Mayer was not entirely wrong. It is amazing to see how perpetually dissatisfied Gilbert was when he had achieved so much. His public moaning is hard to sympathize with and he tweaked the noses of many studio big wigs while he was riding high. This arrogance would come back to haunt him later.
Garbo and Gilbert set the screen on fire in "Flesh and the Devil"
1926 found Gilbert paired with MGM newcomer Greta Garbo in "Flesh and the Devil." He was top billed, but Garbo's star was rising. Their chemistry ignited the screen and spilled over into their private lives, as well. There has always been much speculation about the Garbo-Gilbert romance. Was it real or was it cooked up by the studio? Louise Brooks (who never met a conspiracy she didn't agree with when it came to Hollywood) thought it was manufactured to cover up Garbo's lesbianism, but it seems unlikely that the very private and shy Garbo would have gone along with such a sham. On the other hand, the stories of a planned wedding and the flowery love prose propagated by the purple press (mainly by Adela Rogers St. John), seems not to have been true, either. Instead, Golden gives us a story of 2 people who were in love for a time, one a little more than the other. Garbo and Gilbert made 3 silents together, all tremendous hits for both stars and their studio.
A rare outing for the lovebirds
Throughout the silent era, Gilbert was unstoppable. And then it all came to a crashing halt. He had signed a tremendous contact with MGM (which rankled Mayer) before the advent of sound and suddenly, he became an albatross around the studio's neck. Sound revealed his voice to be adequate, if a little thin and affected, but certainly not the high squeak of legend. However, his film persona, the great lover, became ridiculous overnight. Just as Chaplin knew his Little Tramp could never speak, the great lover needed to be silent. Dialogue like "I love you, I love you, I love you" repeated over and over again made Gilbert a figure of ridicule. One can only wonder what would have happened to Valentino had he lived.

Did MGM sabotage his career? Golden thinks not, but his past behavior made many loathe to help him. Clearly, the studio did not know what to do with John Gilbert once sound took over Hollywood. He belonged to an era of screen gods and goddesses. More down to earth stars like Cagney and Harlow and Gable were making the grade. Plus, Gilbert's salary was so large that it prohibited the studio from giving him a leading lady of real stature in any of his early sound films. After a string of fair to lousy films, he finally parted company with MGM in 1933. It was a bitter parting, as he had burned all bridges and alienated most friends.
Queen Christina: only Garbo's name above the title
But, he didn't stay away long. Garbo, who had survived the transition from silents to sound, requested him for her co-star in "Queen Christina." A young Laurence Olivier had originally been signed for the part of Christina's Spanish lover, but he proved inadequate. In a backward looking gesture to an old love and a glorious time, Garbo requested Gilbert and MGM agreed. The picture was a hit, but did little for Gilbert. He made one more forgettable film for Columbia.

During this period of decline, Gilbert systematically continued to drink himself to death. His marriages to Olivia Burwell, Leatrice Joy, Ina Claire and Virginia Bruce all ended in divorce. At the end, Marlene Dietrich attempted to help him both personally and professionally, but it was too late. At age 38 (in 1936), the bright star of John Gilbert burned and crashed when he died of a heart attack.

Eve Golden's "John Gilbert: The Last of the Silent Film Stars," is available at Amazon.

Gilbert's daughter, Leatrice Gilbert Fountain, has also written a loving tribute to her father, called "Dark Star." It, too, is available at Amazon.

It is my good luck that Turner Classic Movies is running a John Gilbert marathon this Wednesday, July 10th (his birthday). My DVR is set. Please take some time to get to know this important and tragic star.

6:30 AM


A notorious womanizer falls for the woman he has bet he can trick into marriage.
BW-90 mins, TV-PG,

8:15 AM

SHOW, THE (1927)

In this silent film, a sideshow dancer secretly loves the show's amoral barker.
BW-76 mins, TV-14,

9:45 AM


Prejudice keeps a free spirit from the man she loves, triggering a series of tragedies.
BW-91 mins, TV-PG,

11:30 AM


In this silent film, diamond robbers get caught in a violent sandstorm.
BW-62 mins, TV-G,

12:45 PM


A man thought dead returns to find his wife has built a new life.
BW-65 mins, TV-G,

2:00 PM


A devoted sailor jeopardizes his love life for love of the sea.
DirSam Wood Cast:  John Gilbert , Wallace Beery , Jim Tully .
BW-85 mins, TV-G,

3:30 PM


A magician is charged with killing his fiancee's father.
BW-74 mins, TV-PG,

5:00 PM


A millionaire doesn't remember getting married but can't forget how much he hates his new wife.
DirHarry Beaumont Cast:  John Gilbert , El Brendel , Lois Moran .
BW-67 mins, TV-G, CC,

6:30 PM


A bond thief, a private eye and a drunken reporter wreak havoc on an ocean voyage.
BW-85 mins, TV-G, CC,

Gilbert heats it up with newcomer Joan Crawford in 1927's "Twelve Miles Out."


Patti said...

Wow, a heart attack at 38! How tragic!

Since I don't watch silents, I am not at all familiar with Mr. Gilbert. He is very good-looking, though. I would have expected him to have a fantastic voice to match!

FlickChick said...

He was very handsome, Patti, and a huge star. I know his films with Garbo, but I am looking forward to seeing the TCM roster.

Inge Gregusch said...

Great post Marsha. What a sad ending for the man who was one of the brightest stars of the silent screen. In 'Queen Christina' he is a shadow of his former self. For this reason, I don't care for that film. good stuff--but sad.

FlickChick said...

Thanks, Inge. The really sad thing about Gilbert is that he brought it all on himself - one of the most self-destructive stories I've ever read.


Dear, you really should be part of the 2013 Summer Classic Film Book Challenge, hosted by Raquel at Out of the Past. Your book reviews are great!
I still need to learn more abou John, but he was great in He who gets slapped, even with Lon Chaney to compete.

Samantha said...

It seems to me he did a lot in his short life but oh what a sad ending. Great post.

The Lady Eve said...

Great piece, Chick. Gilbert died in near-oblivion and I'm sure he never imagined a book would be written about his life and career 75+ years after his demise. Leatrice must be pleased that he's the subject of another bio - she did so much (including her own bio) to revive interest in him.

FlickChick said...

Oh, Le - you are so sweet. I can't wait to see more of Gilbert's films.

FlickChick said...

Thanks, Sam - a sad, short life, indeed, but such an important Hollywood figure.

FlickChick said...

Lady Eve - Eve Golden had daughter Leatrice's blessing for this book, which makes it even more special and authentic.

Silver Screenings said...

What a sad, fascinating story. One hears a lot of things about John Gilbert and it'll be good to see some of the movies TCM has scheduled for tomorrow night.

Great post!

FlickChick said...

Silver Screenings - I can't wait to sample the works of Mr. Gilbert.

james said...

Eve Golden is a dear friend of mine, but I will not feel guilty in the least saying this is one of the best biographies of Hollywood's *ahem* Golden Age that I have ever read. Actually, I read it twice already!

Thanks for writing her such a nice review and endorsement! I'll link this site to my fb and my Peg Entwistle website, too!

Unknown said...

I'm going to spend the morning watching a couple of his films.

DorianTB said...

Marsha, your review of Eve Golden's JOHN GILBERT: THE LAST OF THE SILENT FILM STARS was a fascinating read! It's a shame that Gilbert was his own worst enemy in so many ways. Sounds like it's well worth reading; great blog post, as always!

FlickChick said...

Thank you, Dorian. I wish they would make a good movie of his life.