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Monday, October 03, 2016

Wherein Jack Mopes

Redemption (1930) Won't Redeem Gilbert's Boxoffice

I pushed myself through Redemption last night and tried to figure again what went so disastrously wrong for Jack Gilbert. Everyone (now) wants to insist that it wasn't the voice, which we buffs lean toward liking, but that doesn't mean 1930 audiences had to. A problem at the time was fact this was not what they expected Gilbert to sound like. His dark appearance and smoldering appeal suggested something deeper to silent pic-goers. Were they prepared for the pleasant tenor that emerged with His Glorious Night, and then this? Redemption was the first of star-era Gilberts to lose money, and word got round fast. Photoplay magazine had begun counting him out even before Redemption was released. If there's evidence of studio ploy to wreck JG, it surely comes of such articles and the way out of left field Variety review of His Glorious Night, which I have long considered the smoking gun in conspiracy's arsenal.

The obvious problem with Redemption is the utterly downer story it tells. Why in heaven tender Jack as a layabout loser at need's height for an upbeat vehicle, or even a change of pace toward precode newness? Tragic too was Metro's refusal to loan Gilbert when Howard Hawks wanted him for The Dawn Patrol. That, I think, would have secured Jack's talking career, judging by rentals the show took when Warners released it in 1930. A cruel aspect of Redemption was putting Gilbert one-on-one with pitch-perfect Conrad Nagel, then regarded a best of voices so far recorded for nascent talkies. Their call and response in scenes running long, and between them only, tend to emphasize Nagel's rich and deeper cadence as contrast to Gilbert, a comparison that would have gone Nagel's way in lately-wired '30 venues. Redemption got scathing reviews --- you can't help thinking Metro sort of let that happen --- but watch again today, especially beside truly rotten product Leo was pitching, and Redemption doesn't seem quite so bad. TCM plays it infrequently, that understandable for one so limited to "archival" interest.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Interesting that your prior Gilbert post mentions positive critical response to Gilbert-Shearer in HOLLYWOOD REVUE OF 1929. The "straight Shakespeare" part of that scene turns up in the Kevin Brownlow-David Gill HOLLYWOOD series of 1980, immediately preceded by the commanding, swoon-inducing John Gilbert of his silent vehicles with Garbo. I recently watched this episode with my eldest son, age 27. We both snickered at the high-pitched, slightly lisping Gilbert dialogue and he made a sly remark about the thousands of women this must have crushed. I couldn't imagine that soundtrack not getting laughs in ANY era; now I wonder if something was rigged in HOLLYWOOD's presentation.

9:29 AM  
Blogger radiotelefonia said...

What you are not mentioning is that REDEMPTION was seeing by most audiences all over the world, including the United States, in a silent version. It was not until John Gilbert's third talkie that most people were actually able to hear him speak.

11:28 AM  
Blogger DBenson said...

The role of expectations may be the key.

I think my first encounter with Chaplin's voice was the sound version of "The Gold Rush". The very British voice reading that affected narration just didn't fit the creature onscreen. If not tipped otherwise I'd have assumed some smug, uncomprehending prig was trying to upstage Charlie. Chaplin certainly sensed this; he never let The Tramp voice anything other than a nonsense lyric in "Modern Times" (the barber in "Great Dictator" is explicitly NOT The Tramp).

Meanwhile, I was used to old Buster Keaton's growly voice thanks to his later movie and TV gigs; his face had caught up to it by then. When I finally heard it emanating from young Keaton's mask of a face, it was not a surprise.

Was anybody surprised to hear Stan Laurel's odd British accent? While audiences obviously liked what they heard, I wonder if there was some initial shock. Garbo had been presented as an exotic for years; the public was primed for an exotic voice.

7:17 PM  
Blogger coolcatdaddy said...

With all the debate about Gilbert's voice, I have to wonder what the films actually sounded like in theatrical venues when "His Glorious Night" and "Redemption" were new.

Today, we're hearing the soundtracks through modern tv sets or stereo equipment. Were original theater sound setups at that time unable to reproduce some of the lower tones in Gilbert's voice that we hear today, making it sound higher pitched than what we perceive?

I know that some early radio programs found on original discs probably sound better than what listeners heard back in the late 20s and early 30s with primitive network lines, broadcasting equipment and receiving sets. Wider-range sound wouldn't really be commonly heard until the late 30s.

8:55 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Dan Mercer considers John Gilbert and "Redemption" (Part One):

“Redemption” is of interest to the cinematic completist as an example of the early sound film and an anecdote in the career of silent film star John Gilbert, but for little else. Much of it consists of long, static takes from middle distance of insecure or ill-coached performers. There are few attempts to restore the fluidity of the camera or exploit the sound process, though some of these are striking. For example, there is a long tracking shot from a group of gypsy singers to a den where Gilbert is in conversation with two other men, or the image of a spinning roulette wheel, with the distinctive clacking sound of the ball being dropped on the wheel repeated over and over, to suggest the endless games of chance being played. The rest, however, is monotony.

As you noted, there is an immediate contrast between Conrad Nagel, with his smooth, well-modulated tones, and the occasional strained awkwardness of Gilbert. What comes across with Nagel as well, however, is his colorless personality. He suggests nothing in the way of emotion, let alone passion, but greets the loss of his beloved or the destruction of his friend with the equanimity of a man asking his barber for a trim. Compare him with the Ronald Coleman of “Bulldog Drummond,” filmed that same year, who was also possessed of a warm and beautifully modulated voice, and you’ll understand why Coleman’s stardom blazed all the brighter with the coming of sound and why Nagel was shortly relegated to leads in minor pictures and supporting roles in more important ones.

Despite the stagy quality of some of his scenes, Gilbert comes across in this picture as an intensely charismatic actor. I appreciate that many do not find that voice of his in keeping with his screen personality. I can only say that I disagree, and find that it well complements the sort of characters he played and the sort of man that he was, in that it is not strong in itself yet so compelling in the way he uses it. I’ve always regarded Gilbert’s great popularity as something of a phenomenon. He was not classically handsome, with his long, long-nosed face—as David Shipman wrote, he more suggests a weedy bank clerk than a great lover—and yet those eyes of his suggest such complete belief—in the utter, absolute beauty of the woman who’d captured his heart, or his utter, absolute need to win her—that you find yourself, too, believing that he must be the very apotheosis of romanticism. That is, if you don’t find him entirely absurd.

5:56 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Part Two from Dan Mercer:

Gilbert’s performance here is uneven, the staginess apparent as he looks upstage or allows his voice to seek some plaintive quality after a long pause, yet in many scenes he is well within character and quite good. I’m thinking especially of one in a sordid tenement room with his gypsy lover, arguing with her parents over the price of her virtue, as his estranged wife comes in, or another in a gambling hall, when he laughingly suggests a fool-proof way of winning, to watch him and do just the opposite. And his final descent is achingly well-done. For all his popularity in other, more vital roles, there was always a seeming awareness by him of how fragile a life becomes, when all is given for love or desire. He was someone who could plumb these depths, in life as onscreen.

As you say, the real problem with “Redemption” is its story. It is unrelenting in its depiction of the downfall of Gilbert’s character, but never shows us where he came from or what he might have been; that is, never the qualities of the man apart from his weaknesses. There are simply endless repetitions of a remorseful Gilbert saying that this time he’ll change, followed inevitably by another episode of drunkenness,then another of remorse. If tragedy is the story of the downfall of a great man,still, there must be a sense of that greatness, if we’re to appreciate the tragedy. In “Redemption,” there is only a kind of emotional monotony to complete that of its visuals.

Some find in the lines given to Gilbert’s character in this film—“I want to be good”—a parody of his life, as he began his own descent into dissolution. That is neither fair nor true, at this point in his career. He was still immensely popular, though his studio had given him little more than potboilers to do since “Bardeleys the Magnificent,” and though there was drinking and partying, it remained in balance with his love of life. To read the articles he wrote then—the radiant purple of the prose betrays his own hand as that of the author, and not that of some studio hack—is find a man enthralled with the possibilities opening up before him. That his studio did not share this vision became obvious, but, oddly enough, the selection of “Redemption” as his first sound starrer probably reflected a meeting of the minds. There was a morbid streak to his character and, together with his artistic ambitions,he would have found in such a subject a worthy vehicle, just as he did in “Man,Woman, and Sin” or “Downstairs,” or other films that are much more interesting to us today than they were to paying audiences of the time. Even so, it needn’t have turned out so dismally, had it been developed with more care and subtlety.With the notable exceptions of “Phantom of Paris” and “Downstairs,” however,almost all of Gilbert’s sound films suffered from poor screenplays or production. Possibly this was the result of indifference or maybe something worse, but it is just another of the imponderables in the career of this man.

5:56 AM  
Blogger Scott MacGillivray said...

Conrad Nagel may have overshadowed John Gilbert in REDEMPTION, but the irony is that Gilbert is the one we're talking about here, and Nagel isn't. Nagel was the victim of overexposure; he worked so frequently in early talkies that he must have been inescapable. Nagel himself said as much in "The Real Tinsel." But at least he kept working, in lesser pictures and in network radio.

I think Gilbert could have righted his ship if he stayed sober through THE CAPTAIN HATES THE SEA. Harry Cohn and Columbia would have salvaged and extended his career, and Gilbert would have escaped the ominous Mr. Mayer.

6:06 AM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

Gilbert had a contract that guaranteed him a HUGE amount of money for each film he starred in. I believe Marcus Loew was responsible for that. That made doing anything with him an enormous risk.

10:34 AM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

Gilbert probably felt he was slumming at poverty row Columbia. Mayer sent people there as a punishment. That backfired when Clark Gable made IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT.

10:36 AM  

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