I think John Gilbert was the best male silent screen dramatic actor! Known as "the great lover," he was a rival of the silent screen mega star Rudolph Valentino, (I think Gilbert was a much better actor). Although often cited as one of the high profile examples of an actor who was unsuccessful in making the transition to talkies, his decline as a star had more to do with studio politics and money and not the sound of his screen voice.
Born John Cecil Pringle (July 10, 1899 – January 9, 1936) in Logan, Utah to stock company actor parents, he struggled through a childhood of abuse and neglect before moving to Hollywood as a teenager. He first found work as an extra with the Thomas Ince Studios, and soon became a favorite of Maurice Tourneur, who also hired him to write and direct several pictures. He quickly rose through the ranks, building his reputation as an actor in such films as “Heart o' the Hills” with Mary Pickford. In 1921, Gilbert signed a three year contract with Fox Film Corporation, where he was cast as a romantic leading man. Some of his films for Fox include “Monte Cristo,” an adaptation of The Count of Monte Cristo; “St. Elmo,” an adaptation of a popular book of the period; “The Wolf Man,” not a horror film, the story of a man who believes he murdered his fiancée’s brother while drunk and many others. At the time, Gilbert did not sport his famous mustache, which made his features more uneven and a little less handsome, and Fox plainly did not realize his huge potential.
In 1924, he moved to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, where he became a full-fledged star with such high-profile films as “His Hour” directed by King Vidor; “He Who Gets Slapped” (1924), co-starring Lon Chaney, Sr. and Norma Shearer, and “The Merry Widow” (1925) directed by Erich von Stroheim. In 1925, Gilbert was once again directed by Vidor in the war epic “The Big Parade,” which became the highest grossing silent film. His performance in this film made him a major star.
The following year, Vidor reunited Gilbert with two of his co-stars from that picture, Renée Adorée and Karl Dane, for the film “La Bohème” which also starred Lillian Gish. Gilbert and Adorée would be teamed up again in the excellent 1927 silent movie “The Show.”
Gilbert married the successful film actress Leatrice Joy in 1922. The union produced a daughter, Leatrice Gilbert Fountain, but the tempestuous marriage only lasted two years. The couple divorced in 1924, with Joy charging that Gilbert was a compulsive philanderer.
In 1926, Gilbert made “Flesh and the Devil,” his first film with Greta Garbo. They soon began a very public relationship, much to the delight of their fans. Gilbert planned to marry her, but Garbo changed her mind and never showed up for the ceremony. Despite their rocky off-screen relationship, they continued to generate box-office revenue for the studio, and MGM paired them in two more silent films “Love” (1927), a modern adaptation of Anna Karenina, and “A Woman of Affairs” (1928). The former film was slyly advertised by MGM as "Garbo and Gilbert in Love."
Throughout his time at MGM, Gilbert frequently clashed with studio head Louis B. Mayer over creative, social and financial matters. One crucial event occurred on September 8, 1926. While guests were waiting for Garbo to show up for a proposed double wedding ceremony - Garbo with Gilbert and director King Vidor with his fiancée, actress Eleanor Boardman - Mayer allegedly made a crude remark about Garbo to the distraught Gilbert that caused him to fly into a rage and he physically attacked the mogul. Mayer swore he'd get even. Gilbert's daughter has alleged that Mayer then proceeded to sabotage the recording of his voice by increasing the treble; giving direction of his films to an inexperienced director who was on narcotic pain medication; refusing him good scripts, such as 1930’s “The Dawn Patrol” which directors wanted to star him in; and editing his projects to ruin his films. Gilbert did have a powerful supporter in production head Irving Thalberg. The two were old friends and Thalberg made efforts to reinvigorate Gilbert's career, but Thalberg's failing health probably limited such efforts. With the coming of sound, Gilbert first spoke in the film “His Glorious Night,” in which his voice allegedly recorded in a high-pitched tone that made audiences burst out laughing. He spoke again in the all-talking musical Hollywood Revue of 1929, appearing in a Romeo and Juliet Technicolor sequence along with Norma Shearer in which they first played the part straight and then modernized it. Reviewers for the film did not note any problems with Gilbert's voice at this time and, in fact, some praised it. A documentary, “The Dawn of Sound: How the Movies Learned to Talk” (2007), demonstrates that with improved recording equipment Gilbert's voice was suitably deep.
Gilbert appeared in “The Phantom of Paris,” a project created to star Lon Chaney, who tragically died from cancer in 1930, prior to filming. In 1932, MGM made the film “Downstairs” from Gilbert's original story, in which Gilbert played against type as a scheming, blackmailing chauffeur. The film was well received by critics, but did nothing to restore Gilbert's popularity. Shortly after making the film, he married co-star Virginia Bruce; the couple divorced in 1934. Gilbert starred opposite Garbo for the last time in “Queen Christina. Garbo was top-billed, with Gilbert's name beneath the title. Unfortunately, this picture also failed to revive his career, with his next film, The Captain Hates the Sea, being his last.
By 1934, alcoholism had severely damaged Gilbert's health; he died of a heart attack without ever regaining his former reputation. Toward the end of his life, Gilbert became involved with Marlene Dietrich, and at the time of his death he was slated to star opposite her in the film “Desire.”
On his passing in 1936, at the age of 36, John Gilbert had directed 1 movie, wrote six, and acted in 97 movies, mostly silent films.
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About the reviewer
Michael Neulander (MNeulander)
Recently graduated with a Masters in Humanities degree from Old Dominion University reading in philosophy and history. I graduated from the Univ. of Miami in 1980 with a B.A. in Political Science; specializing … more
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