Metro Struggle To Sell Sailor
Part Two On Way For A Sailor (1930)
Optimism was high re Way For A Sailor, as this was John Gilbert back in rough-and-rumble mode after "sentimental twaddle" blamed for his poor previous two. He'd sport dungarees and love 'em/leave 'em like the Jack of (Breaking) Hearts he'd earlier played. Trouble might have been his doing so sans signature mustache, an accessory Gilbert truly needed to balance facial features that skewed to ordinary without it. Watching him bare-lipped in Way For A Sailor puts JG at distance from the romantic idol of yore, and maybe that's what he needed to move from silent emoting to a precode street level. There was much rooting for Gilbert to succeed with Way For A Sailor. MGM foreswore in trade ads to "raves on the coast" preceding release, and spotters for fan mags who got advance glimpse described Jack's triumph as complete.
He got help too from unexpected quarters. A faddish "tramp" writer named Jim Tully, whose hobo exploits had been screen-adapted as Beggars Of Life, was brought onto Way For A Sailor as support player and incidental gagman, latter duty shared with vaudeville writer Al Boasberg. Regarded as silent creative partner behind Burns and Allen, The Marx Brothers, Block and Sulley, and many others, Boasberg was on call at Metro to salt features with funny business, a joke or bit dropped here/there to liven shows in need of a hypo. Tully recalled Boasberg as among best-paid of Metro back-of-camera folk that came to rescue of shows lacking a laugh. It was a job not unlike what Buster Keaton would fill when he came back to Metro in the mid-thirties as roving gag supplier, only Boasberg got serious $ for his input. Tully and Boasberg whispered funny ideas in director Sam Wood's ear as Way For A Sailor commenced over several months, further indication that Sailor was neither a mere programmer nor quickly made.
|Leading Lady Leila Hyams Is Flanked By Director Sam Wood and Gilbert|
Tully had been in a nightclub dust-up with Gilbert; in fact, the shorter man, trained in boxcars to protect himself, gave Jack a pasting. The story went 20's-viral, and was part of why Tully was hired for Way For A Sailor. He and JG would publically bury hatchets, but reconciliation went further, Tully becoming a virtual press rep for Gilbert by way of sympathetic essays he'd write for a fan press. All of who read the dime mags knew that MGM was "iron-bound" by the "million dollar contract" they had perhaps unwisely entered into with Gilbert, among which perks was his quitting at five each afternoon, schedules be damned, a provision most stars but dreamed of working up to (and few would, one being Jack's successor at Metro, Clark Gable, but it took him years getting there). Way For A Sailor spent money where it counted on a ship-at-sea wreck, filmed on the backlot with expensive hydraulics. Sailor's negative cost was $889K, much of that attributable to Jack's exorbitant weekly take, but the outlay bespoke MGM's hope, if not confidence, that Way For A Sailor would get Gilbert back on main deck as a star attraction.
The beating Way For A Sailor took ($606K lost) had to have been disillusioning for Metro and Gilbert. This picture was not customized to fail, whatever the conviction of Mayer-haters. Crocodile tears were press-shed to effect that Jack was a broken man well before release, with scant hope of Sailor rescue. His "apathy" had robbed Gilbert of "fire and flare" that distinguished prior performances, raves/standing applause at Sailor previews forgotten now that his vehicle was certified a failure. Picture Play took imagining a step further with fictionalized account of a despondent Jack despairing of his "mistakes" to neighbor Raquel Torres as they shared a beach sunset. Gilbert's own decline had become font of high drama his pictures were lacking. But MGM wouldn't quit yet. Sure, they wanted out of the now ruinous contract, but JG wouldn't settle. For at least the forthcoming A Gentleman's Fate, released in spring 1931, they'd float to trades the assurance that Jack Was Back to reclaim his boxoffice throne, but hopes weren't fulfilled. A Gentleman's Fate and future Gilberts from Metro, with exception of Queen Christina in which he played distinct support to Garbo, lost money.