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Saturday, March 30, 2013

John Gilbert Soldiers On

John Gilbert was so much the broken idol throughout his talkie career as to make difficult viewing even for admirers. Several JG fans of long acquaintance admit never having seen/heard him talk. Alone was Gilbert, I think, for swapping chips of super-silent stardom for venture down ever-darkening character tunnels. Case to point: His 1931 West Of Broadway. Jack has drunkenly wed a stranger (Lois Moran) to spite another who's given him air. The morn-after finds Gilbert wanting off the hook. He shuffles in from a separate bedroom, heebie-jeebies in evidence, offering a check to forget the whole thing. After a fashion of romantic leading men (not!), JG fights a losing battle with alcoholic shakes and palsied hands, as authentic a glimpse of addict suffering as you'd see in mainstream H'wood of the day. Too real, I'd venture, for dream purchasers discomfited by a once romantic paragon Big Parading troubled offscreen life, patrons wise to that thanks to merciless press coverage of Gilbert's decline.

Jack had dropped to studio label of Grossly Overpaid. Contract renewal with Loew's during Broadway's forever-run of The Big Parade by-passed negotiation with Mayer and minions in favor of direct pledge to bigger chief Nicholas Schenck. No one then pictured Gilbert as a star at risk, thus was commitment of $250K per pic with no options (that is, escape clause for Leo). Four years rich grazing was Jack's, plus what seemed an emerald bridge over his segueing to sound, failure of which came among an industry's bigger shocks. By 1931 and West Of Broadway, fan press made no secret of MGM paying money for nothing, all of JG's since His Glorious Night in a revenue dive. I never bought that Mayer rigged equipment to queer the Gilbert voice, too much cash involved to indulge even LB's animus toward a star plunging fast enough on his own. Gilbert hated weak pictures assigned to him, but told West Of Broadway support Ralph Bellamy he'd clean spittoons for stipends now regretted at Loew's leisure.

So maybe he could relax and focus on the acting. Trouble (among much) was Jack not able to sleep, for days at a time. He'd drag in dispirited from this and a hundred causes from which hindsight can pick: bleeding ulcers, alcohol abuse, probable manic depression ... that latter suggested by sometimes wildly up/down temperament. There's a moment in West Of Broadway where someone recommends Jack get rest, to which he gives new meaning to despaired one-word line reading: Sleep! --- that avenue foreclosed to both Gilbert and the character he was playing. I'm satisfied that the best "personality" players got their immortality letting private life bleed into roles. A lot of West Of Broadway is Jack doing demolition duty on his silent lover image, a process disturbed/diminishing fans wouldn't sit for.

Critics were oblivious as well to Gilbert's progression (and it was progress --- he really soars in these '31-32 talkers). One said "a galloping, romantic picture" would restore him, but Jack's self-awareness, and talent matured thanks to that, would not accommodate going back. Besides, talkies wouldn't accommodate a silent Gilbert sort of vehicle. I'd say he was more than equipped to make the precode jump --- in fact, he did --- just not in product audiences embraced or MGM put best effort toward selling. Promised-to-him Grand Hotel or Red Dust were the stuff of comebacks, if not romantic galloping. Jack might have played Grand's Barrymore part better than Barrymore (I'd rather have him in it), and chances are he'd have brought more irony and life experience to the eventual Gable role in Red Dust. It's finally pointless to ponder what-ifs --- I limit mine to Gilbert and like cases that should have had a different outcome, and almost surely would have, if not for a wrong choice here or broken pledge there.

West Of Broadway almost answers the Whatever Happened To ... of Gilbert's character in The Big Parade. Back from the Great War, wounded Jack has comic sidekick El Brendel, "picked up in the Argonne," and immediate from docking, gets love's letdown with descent to drink for a chaser. So much of this was commonplace to precode, with its taken for granted smart dialogue and nuanced performing. Gilbert plays the alcoholic like a home movie. I've read repeatedly of his pics having been flipped off by Metro in all-but-deliberate effort to wash Jack up, but was he worse served than other lead men the studio couldn't retrofit to sound? Seems looking back that it was mostly newcomers who got a leg up. If anything, Gilbert colleagues Ramon Novarro, William Haines, and Buster Keaton, also popularized in silents, were tied to heavier anchors than Jack (I watched Haines' Way Out West the other day --- ye gods!). Could even a surviving Lon Chaney have risen above such corporate mismanagement?

1931 reviews for West Of Broadway seem unreasonably savage. Precode's public had it so good then as to cull much that was fine from litters, and overexposure could be an issue for players collecting high weekly checks. Gilbert had three features out that year, negating chance any one of them could excel. Product had to stand completely on what he brought to it. By later work (including West Of Broadway) and a greater public's perception of burnout, JG had no chance left. WOB captures all the moods he must have felt, throws off welcome vibe of Jack being Jack, and never mind a script more effort could have improved. If the early 30's had reality shows, West Of Broadway was one. My suggest would be to read Leatrice Gilbert Fountain's splendid book about her father, then watch. West Of Broadway is recently out from Warner Archive, a more than welcome DVD and highly recommended.

More John Gilbert at Greenbriar Archives: Desert Nights, His Glorious Night, and The Grand Hotel That Might Have Been.


Blogger Jan Willis said...


For a look at just how good Gilbert could be in his talkies, I recommend Downstairs (1932).
It airs from time to time on TCM and would be a great addition to a future Forbidden Hollywood volume from Warner.

Also, Eve Golden's new biography on Gilbert will be released on April 18 and can be preordered now.

1:29 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Richard M. Roberts has some interesting thoughts about John Gilbert and MGM:


Agree with you wholeheartedly about MGM's treatment of John Gilbert, his talkies are no better or worse than anything else MGM was grinding out at the time. Was there any other Studio that made a worse transition to talkies (well, yeah, RKO actually, but MGM hits a close second). If anyone truly thinks MGM (i.e. Louis B. Mayer) was out to destroy Gilbert with bad pictures needs to look at what Joan Crawford or any other MGM star was making at the same time, and Gilbert's previous film, THE PHANTOM OF PARIS, is actually very good, as is DOWNSTAIRS. It's obvious that MGM is doing their best, he's given top directors and supporting casts, it's just those typical MGM scripts, strained through too many writers and rewrites, and a few odd casting choices (what the hell is Gilbert foing in WAY FOR A SAILOR?)that sink many of these films.

If only MGM had handled Gilbert the way Samuel Goldwyn handled Ronald Colman, who had been doing near the same sort of thing Gilbert was in silents, Gilbert would have been fine. I think the thing most Gilbert fans do not want to admit that the strain of depressive self-destruction was Gilberts, and that he most likely would have gone down hill no matter where he was. It's just too bad he was working for a Studio so rigid and clueless in making movies, I really do have to say that I like less and less of their product as years go by, their classics really do seem to be almost flukes in their system, because so much of their bread and butter programmers suffer that same MGM problem: films start out great, then story gets muddled in the middle, then end ridiculously with wrap-up that comes out of too many previews and second ot third guessing rather than plot logic. For a Studio that worked so hard to get it right, they get it wrong way too often.


7:09 PM  
Blogger coolcatdaddy said...

has an interesting theory about Gilbert's fall at MGM.

According to Walker, Nicholas Schenck, president of Loew's, which owned MGM an William Fox were working on a deal to let Fox buy out Leow's in 1929.

Louis B. Mayer was left out of the negotiations and, by coincidence, Gilbert's contract was up for renewel. Someone, perahps Gilbert's agent, planted a story in the trades that Louis B. Mayer was retiring from MGM and taking the "studio's most valuable asset", Gilbert, with thim.

Schenck, again without involving Mayer, renegotiated Gilbert to an iron-clad three-year contract to keep him at the studio, fearing that if he jumped ship, Schenck's deal with Fox would fall through.

Mayer visted the White House as the negotiations progressed, pulled some strings, and there was some threat of the Justice Department getting involved. However, the deal fell through when Fox was injured in a car crash and, by October's stock market crash, he was in no position to make the deal.

My guess, based on this info, is that Mayer just let the contract ride and didn't intervene as Gilbert's personal life went down the drain. It does look like the studio didn't put much effort into protecting its asset.

10:06 PM  
Blogger reprobates said...

Coolcatdaddy's theory has several problems with it. to begin with, Gilbert's new ironclad contract was negotiated and signed in late 1928, not 1929, when Gilbert was big boxoffice and threatening to move to United Artists months before the attempted Fox buyout even began.

The second problem is the simple fact that, if Nick Schenck was that directly involved, he and Thalberg (who was friends with Gilbert) would have been Gilbert's protection against Mayer had Mayer truly set out to destroy Gilbert, but Gilbert was doing too good a job destroying himself that all Mayer had to do was sit back and wait. To me the most telling sign that Mayer didn't care that much is the fact that MGM brought Gilbert back post-contract for QUEEN CHRISTINA, something that I don't believe would have happened regardless of Garbo's supposed or perceived weight being thrown around if Mayer had really set out to get Gilbert.

If you really want to see how Mayer could wreck a career, you really need go no further than Anita Page, who had quarreled with Thalberg, refused Mayers sexual advances, and didn't have any powerful friends on the lot. She went from major MGM pictures in 1932 to being loaned out to Columbia, Universal, I.E. Chadwick and Chesterfield in 1933 and out of the business the following year. None of that happened to John Gilbert or even Buster Keaton, who also admitted that his firing from MGM was more a disciplining action than a dismissal and that they had made overtures for his return that he, in his drunken anger rejected. Whatever Mayers actual faults, he was not going to go on personal vendettas that would hurt his Studios assets.


11:05 AM  
Blogger Kevin K. said...

I thought the same thing about Gilbert's performance in "West of Broadway." As good as his performance is throughout, those drunk scenes seem quite realistic. Either he really was drunk or, more likely, he knew exactly what his character was going through. He's a far better talkie actor than he was given credit for.

And I agree with Jan Willis -- "Downstairs" is terrific. And Gilbert wrote the story!

8:42 AM  
Blogger Ralph Schiller said...

John Gilbert was such a wonderful actor and his death was a loss for the film industry and public.

I hope you review his last film
'The Captain Hates The Sea' (1934) from Columbia. It's very under-rated and Gilbert is magnificent in it.

8:43 AM  
Blogger Louie said...

Thanks for sharing these rare photo of El Brendel, John!

12:40 PM  

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