Monta Bell’s seldom-seen drama Downstairs proves not only what a great actor John Gilbert was, but, quite contrary to legend, how competent his voice sounded.
All seems joyful in the house of the 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 the wedding of his head-butler (Paul Lukas) to the lady’s maid (Virginia Bruce) in opulent fashion, even bequeathing the butler with a box that symbolizes membership in the family. That happy relationship, however, is breached upon the arrival of the new chauffeur.
John Gilbert plays the unctuous driver who instigates himself into the lives of both the downstairs staff and the upstairs aristocracy. First, he comes between the butler and his wife; then, he seduces the middle-aged cook (Bodil Rosing) and extorts her money. He even shtups the lady-of-the-house on one of their excursions and later blackmails her.
As the humble, faithful butler torn between his loyalty to the upstairs family and his marriage to an unfaithful wife, Paul Lukas is particularly intense in one scene where he professes his devotion to the people upstairs by turning a blind eye to their imperfections, no matter what. His fidelity cannot be shaken. However, as his wife implies, he is apparently a milquetoast in bed. She thus yields to the hot-blooded passion the chauffeur provides, falling reluctantly under his spell.
What amazes me most about Downstairs – written by Lenore Coffee and Melville Baker, from a story by John Gilbert himself – are the film’s realistic details, such as the characters’ belching and hiccupping, and even Gilbert picking his earwax while the crestfallen cook weeps at his rejection of her. He is numb to everyone else’s feelings, and only wishes to use sex and blackmail to get what he wants. That is as perfect a portrayal of a narcissist as there ever was – thanks to Gilbert’s deft performance.
As a plus, the ending is no letdown. The chauffeur 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. There didn’t always have to be retribution. And isn’t that more like real life?
© Danny Fortune
Downstairs (1932). Director: Monta Bell. Screenplay: Lenore J. Coffee and Melville Baker; from a story by John Gilbert. Cast: John Gilbert, Virginia Bruce, Paul Lukas, Olga Baclanova, Reginald Owen, Hedda Hopper, Bodil Rosing, Otto Hoffman, Karen Morley.