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Wednesday, August 06, 2014

A Silent Star Caught In The Undertow


Way For A Sailor (1930) Deals a Drop To John Gilbert --- Part One

A billboard said it all. The Hollywood Pantages Theatre was playing Way For A Sailor in early December 1930, a John Gilbert vehicle arriving third behind two said to have thudded. A first JG talkie, His Glorious Night, actually made a profit, but that was forgot in wake of high-profile scathing by Variety and toadies that licked from their pan. Gilbert's slippage in a way seemed forced upon him by ones wanting him to fail. Can Jack Come Back? rang like a chorus through 1930 to culmination of a twenty-four sheet hung in Gilbert's own hometown: WALLACE BEERY and JOHN GILBERT in Way For A Sailor. Imagine "friends" directing Jack to the corner where it hung. The board was seen as evidence that Jack was indeed finished, but who to blame for the insult? Pantages staff was more committed to selling than contractual terms between Gilbert and Metro. Strict adherence to his deal would have entitled Jack to sue Loew's for the slight, but columnists would instead report the star's indifference, his response a "forced, ironical laugh," said Picture Play.


The theatre billed Beery above Gilbert because Beery had become a giant star in months since Way For A Sailor was finished. By December 1930, he'd been seen in The Big House, and was just opening to lines for Min and Bill. Word was out that MGM had a new Chaney in Beery. Pantages did what any theatre would have given this circumstance. In a showman's world, the time between a film's completion and its release was a yawning chasm. A presumed star on one end could become a supporting actor on the other. As far as exhibition was concerned, Way For A Sailor had gone from a Gilbert-Beery to a Beery-Gilbert within short months, and showmen could only sell them as they saw them. There was no crueler, or more accurate, barometer of a star's status than theirs.


Too many have pinned the Gilbert downfall on Louis Mayer, but he was a minor player here, New York being where numbers got crunched. Losses put in Jack's column iced his slope on the East Coast long before snow fell out west. Gotham's selling arm was always quickest to give up on a lame horse, be it stars on the slide or a movie they'd call a cluck (no better instance than Loew's twenty-year later dismiss of The Red Badge Of Courage). What undermine job they started was finished by exhibition. You'd not raise compassion for a troubled career among theatre staff stood among empty rows. They'd be ready to dump Gilbert soon as first held noses were spotted. A press alerted to carrion would merely finish the job. On a production end, MGM did everything within 1930 creative limit to make Way For A Sailor John Gilbert's comeback. It was, unfortunately, those very limits that dug his hole.


Metro was like all the other majors for releasing a lot of frankly poor films during 1930, Gilbert no less badly served than Buster Keaton, William Haines, Ramon Novarro, and other male headliners awash in weak vehicles as sound took uncertain steps toward adequacy. Actresses were no better off. Look at Greta Garbo in Romance or Joan Crawford in Untamed to wonder how either sustained careers in a wake of such output. A public, swelled by curiosity over talk and even its awkward application, forgave and was patient toward wrinkles ironing out. The Gilbert films were no worse than anyone's, which raises the question --- was it his voice? Intensive coaching was arranged, so said columns, by a mastermind of voice who'd led Enrico Caruso to heights. Dr. P. Mario Marafioti was a mouthful in name if not accomplishment. He made Jack sing in addition to exercising his speech, or "vocal rejuvenation," as Picture Play magazine put it in October 1930. Cooperation was assured because much was at stake, Gilbert humbling the least of anyone's, including his own, concern.

3 Comments:

Blogger Kevin K. said...

I always make sure to catch Gilbert talkies on the few occasions they run on TCM. Had he better scripts and a more forgiving studio, he could have been the American Errol Flynn -- an underrated actor who could do just about anything if given the chance.

11:11 AM  
Blogger radiotelefonia said...

You forgot something important in your article: outside the United States this film was released in a SILENT version.

12:19 PM  
Blogger Tom said...

It sounds like a lot of people were in a rush to call Gilbert a has been. Poor MGM vehicles, such as Way for a Sailor, as you pointed out, or Redemption certainly didn't help.

Pretty decent efforts like Gentleman's Fate and Phantom of Paris coming soon afterward didn't turn things around for him.

It's a shame that a strong film like Downfall, in which Gilbert is genuinely effective as a cad, didn't pave the way for him in character work.

That is particularly true, as well, of his last film, The Captain Hates the Sea, with a wonderful turn by by the actor as a souse.

Of course, this is the same film that was notorious for so much of the cast, not just Gilbert, delaying production by their drinking. It was actually being filmed in a ship off shore.

When Harry Cohn sent a telegram to director Lewis Milestone complaining that the film's production costs were staggering, Milestone responded by telegram, "So is the cast!"

10:04 PM  

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