- Downstairs (1932) movie review: In his final notable starring role, silent era icon John Gilbert shows he could be a first-rate “talkie” actor, while the Monta Bell-directed movie itself is evidence that they don’t make risqué social dramas like they used to.
The largely forgotten pre-Production Code social drama Downstairs, directed by the largely forgotten filmmaker Monta Bell, proves not only that former silent era idol John Gilbert was a great actor but also, quite contrary to legend, that he had a good speaking voice.
As the movie begins, all seems joyful in the Austrian estate of Baron and Baroness von Burgen (Reginald Owen and Freaks’ Olga Baclanova). A symbiotic relationship exists between the servants downstairs and the masters above. So much so that the Baron celebrates in opulent fashion the wedding of his head-butler, Albert (Paul Lukas), to the lady’s maid, Anna (John Gilbert’s soon-to-be off-screen wife Virginia Bruce), even bequeathing the former with a box that symbolizes membership in the family.
That happy, seemingly class-unconscious relationship, however, is breached upon the arrival of the new chauffeur.
Milquetoast butler vs. passionate chauffeur
His stardom in the doldrums since the coming of sound, John Gilbert plays the unctuous driver, Karl Schneider, who instigates himself into the lives of both the downstairs staff and the upstairs aristocracy.
First, he comes between the butler and his wife, while also seducing the middle-aged cook (Bodil Rosing) and extorting her money. He even shtups the lady of the house on one of their excursions, something he later uses as blackmail fodder.
As the faithful, humble butler – who is horrified by his wife’s infidelity – future Best Actor Academy Award winner Paul Lukas (Watch on the Rhine, 1943) has a particularly intense moment when he professes his devotion to the people upstairs by turning a blind eye to their imperfections, no matter what. His fidelity cannot be shaken.
On the other hand, his wife implies he is a milquetoast in bed. That helps to explain why she reluctantly falls under Karl’s spell, yielding to the hot-blooded passion he provides.
Realistic details of a sort
What amazes me most about Downstairs – the movie was written by Lenore J. Coffee and Melville Baker, from a story by John Gilbert himself – are the film’s realistically mundane details.
Examples include the characters’ belching and hiccuping, and even having Karl pick his earwax while the crestfallen cook weeps at his rejection of her.
The chauffeur is numb to everyone else’s feelings; sex and blackmail are the means for him to get what he wants. Thanks to Gilbert’s deft performance, that’s as perfect a portrayal of a narcissist as there ever was.
As a plus, the Downstairs ending is no letdown.
Karl neither sees the error of his ways nor does he reform. Being beaten and kicked out of the Baron’s house does not preclude him from continuing his exploits with other victims.
That is a big advantage Pre-Code films had over later ones. Retribution wasn’t an essential plot component.
And isn’t that more like real life?
Director: Monta Bell.
Screenplay: Lenore J. Coffee & Melville Baker.
From a screen story by John Gilbert.
Cast: John Gilbert. Paul Lukas. Virginia Bruce. Olga Baclanova. Reginald Owen. Hedda Hopper. Bodil Rosing. Otto Hoffman. Lucien Littlefield. Marion Lessing. Karen Morley.
“Downstairs Movie: Deft John Gilbert in Racy Social Drama” review text © Danny Fortune; excerpt, image captions, bullet point introduction, and notes/endnotes © Alt Film Guide.
“Downstairs (1932) Movie Review” endnotes
Olga Baclanova and John Gilbert Downstairs movie image: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.
“Downstairs Movie: Deft John Gilbert in Racy Social Drama” last updated in October 2021.