Just a few days ago I was wondering if Turner Classic Movies would devote a day to the likes of John Gilbert, one of the biggest movie stars of the silent era – or any era, really. Though mostly forgotten today, Gilbert starred in numerous box office and critical hits from 1923 to 1928, a relatively brief period but an illustrious body of work, nevertheless.
The good news is that fourteen Gilbert vehicles will be presented. The not-so-good news is that not one is a TCM premiere even though Time Warner should have access to several Gilbert vehicles that (to the best of my knowledge) have never been shown on television, e.g., Twelve Miles Out (1927), with Joan Crawford, Man Woman and Sin (1927) with Jeanne Eagels, and Gilbert’s first released talkie, His Glorious Night (1929). (The 1930 drama Redemption, a drab adaptation of Tolstoy’s The Living Corpse, was actually shot first.)
Now, since John Gilbert is the topic here, I must recommend every single one of the fourteen movies being presented on TCM. Even the weaker ones are worth at least a look – if only for historical reasons.
Having said that, let me add that Gilbert could be an excellent actor in silent films (The Show, The Merry Widow). In talkies, despite a weak voice, he excelled as a sexy heel in Monta Bell’s racy pre-Coder Downstairs (1932) and was perfectly acceptable in several programmers, among them The Phantom of Paris (1931), as a magician accused of murder, which is scheduled for Tuesday afternoon.
In fact, I’d say that even in his less successful efforts Gilbert was an intriguing presence because of his tragic off-screen fate. Gilbert, after all, is probably the most notorious casualty of the talkies. Gene Kelly’s “I love you, I love you, I love you” bit in Singin’ in the Rain, for one, is taken directly from Gilbert’s effusive delivery in His Glorious Night, which left some audiences in stitches – but that earned MGM a passable profit ($202,000).
Of course, there was more to Gilbert’s downfall than just a voice that didn’t quite match his persona. He’d been drinking too hard, partying too much, and had gotten into some well-publicized brawls. (A Star Is Born‘s Norman Maine was partly inspired by Gilbert’s professional and personal fall from Hollywood grace.) According to some stories, he is supposed to have knocked down MGM mogul Louis B. Mayer, who vowed his revenge.
Personally, I don’t believe all that much in the Mayer’s Wrath story, as Mayer may have been the head of MGM but despite all the power attributed to him he was ultimately a Loews, Inc., employee who had to answer to Mayer Enemy #1 Nicholas Schenck in New York City. Additionally, Gilbert was a top asset at MGM; someone the studio wouldn’t recklessly allow to fail especially considering the amount of money they had invested in him.
Yet, Gilbert’s enormous salary increase in 1929 and the higher costs resulting from sound filmmaking made it difficult for his movies to recover their production costs. Thus, Gilbert’s talkie career basically consisted of one flop after another. The one major exception was Queen Christina (1933), Rouben Mamoulian’s masterpiece and one of Greta Garbo’s greatest films and performances.
Queen Christina was very expensive (cost: $1.144 million), but it did earn MGM a hefty profit ($632,000) thanks to Garbo’s enormous popularity overseas (about 70 percent of the film’s revenues came from abroad).
Gilbert, by the way, was cast in this romantic period drama at Garbo’s insistence. The two had been intimate in years past, and the Swedish import, by then one of MGM’s top stars, demanded that Gilbert be hired as her on-screen lover in place of British import Laurence Olivier.
Here’s wondering if John Gilbert would have lasted longer as an MGM star had his popularity abroad matched that of Garbo’s or Ramon Novarro’s. Unlike those two stars, Gilbert’s movies almost invariably made much more money in the US than abroad.
Here are my top recommendations for John Gilbert Day (in addition to Queen Christina, mentioned in the previous post):
Victor Sjöström’s touching, poetic He Who Gets Slapped (1924), which features my favorite Lon Chaney performance as a clown with a past – no, Chaney doesn’t play a politician; he’s a real circus clown. Both Gilbert and Norma Shearer are flawless in less demanding but just as memorable roles.
Erich von Stroheim’s The Merry Widow (1925), a megablockbuster that solidified Gilbert’s superstardom along with King Vidor’s The Big Parade, released that same year. Mae Murray shines in the title role, while von Stroheim adds some welcome kinky touches. (C’mon, TCM, I know you have several Mae Murray vehicles in your archives; I’ve actually seen a couple – Valencia, Altars of Desire – at special screenings. Unearth those, please.)
The aforementioned The Big Parade, the biggest box office hit of the silent era in the United States. (Ben-Hur, starring Ramon Novarro and released that same year by MGM, was the biggest silent blockbuster worldwide.) Renée Adorée, one of the greatest actresses of the 1920s (or any other era) is marvelous as the young Frenchwoman who falls for the American doughboy. Watch her running after the departing troops and just try keeping your eyes dry.
Adorée and Gilbert can also be seen in Tod Browning’s The Show (1927), which I find one of the best late silents. A creepy (it’s Tod Browning, after all) love story set among the down-and-dirty world of small-town carnivals.
Clarence Brown’s Flesh and the Devil (1926) is great to look at (cinematography by the masterful William H. Daniels), but dramatically it’s nothing more than a cheesy soap opera. The most interesting element in the story is the obvious implication that Lars Hanson has the hots for Gilbert and that two male “friends” are happier when there’s no woman around to spoil their mutual love.
I haven’t watched King Vidor’s Bardelys the Magnificent (1926), a long-thought-lost period adventure in which Gilbert is paired with Vidor’s future wife, Eleanor Boardman. Anyhow, a Vidor-Gilbert-Boardman combo can’t be bad. (Boardman was an excellent actress. Her most famous role is that of the young working-class wife and mother in Vidor’s The Crowd.)
Eleanor Boardman, John Gilbert in King Vidor’s Bardelys the Magnificent
Schedule (PT) and synopses from the TCM website:
3:00 AM Busher, The (1919)
In this silent film, a minor-league baseball player gets his shot at the big leagues. Cast: Charles Ray, Colleen Moore, John Gilbert. Dir.: Jerome Storm. Black and white. 55 min.
4:00 AM He Who Gets Slapped (1924)
In this silent film, a scientist flees his tragic past to become a circus clown. Cast: Lon Chaney, Norma Shearer, John Gilbert. Dir.: Victor Seastrom. Black and white. 72 min.
5:30 AM Merry Widow, The (1925)
In this silent film, a European nobleman courts the wealthy American widow he once loved to save his bankrupt homeland, Cast: Mae Murray, John Gilbert, Tully Marshall. Dir.: Erich von Stroheim. Black and white. 137 min.
8:00 AM Show, The (1927)
In this silent film, a sideshow dancer secretly loves the show’s amoral barker. Cast: John Gilbert, Renee Adoree, Lionel Barrymore. Dir.: Tod Browning. Black and white. 76 min.
12:15 PM Gentleman’s Fate (1931)
A bootlegger falls apart when his wife leaves him. Cast: John Gilbert, Louis Wolheim, Leila Hyams. Dir.: Mervyn LeRoy. Black and white. 93 min.
2:00 PM Phantom of Paris, The (1931)
A magician is charged with killing his fiancee’s father. Cast: John Gilbert, Leila Hyams, Ian Keith. Dir.: John S. Robertson. Black and white. 74 min.
3:30 PM Downstairs (1932)
An evil chauffeur seduces and blackmails his way through high society. Cast: John Gilbert, Virginia Bruce, Paul Lukas. Dir.: Monta Bell. Black and white. 78 min.
5:00 PM Big Parade, The (1925)
In this silent film, a young innocent enlists for World War I service but soon learns the horrors of war. Cast: John Gilbert, Renee Adoree, Karl Dane. Dir.: King Vidor. Black and white. 126 min.
7:15 PM Bardelys the Magnificent (1926)
A notorious womanizer falls for the woman he has bet he can trick into marriage. Cast: John Gilbert, Eleanor Boardman, Roy D’Arcy. Dir.: King Vidor. Black and white. 90 min.
9:00 PM Flesh And The Devil (1926)
In this silent film, a femme fatale comes between childhood friends. Cast: Greta Garbo, John Gilbert, Lars Hanson. Dir.: Clarence Brown. Black and white. 113 min.
11:00 PM Queen Christina (1933)
Romantic tale of the 17th-century Swedish queen and her romance with a Spanish diplomat. Cast: Greta Garbo, John Gilbert, Lewis Stone. Dir.: Rouben Mamoulian. Black and white. 99 min.
1:00 AM Captain Hates the Sea, The (1934)
A bond thief, a private eye and a drunken reporter wreak havoc on an ocean voyage. Cast: Victor McLaglen, Wynne Gibson, John Gilbert. Dir.: Lewis Milestone. Black and white. 85 min.
Source for Queen Christina/His Glorious Night figures: Eddie Mannix ledger found at AMPAS.