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Friday, June 22, 2018

Could This One Have Brought Jack Back?


Gilbert Evokes Chaney in The Phantom Of Paris (1931)

Plenty of star dust clung to John Gilbert as he ventured into talkies, evidenced by dual-role-ing here, Jack as escape artist who beats a murder sentence to pose as the killed man and place guilt where it belongs. The opener reel grabs: Gilbert wriggling way from a water trap like one that had doomed real-life Houdini, then besting gendarme Lewis Stone at handcuffs. You'd like to think The Phantom Of Paris would bring Jack back, hopeful trade ads having pointed to each of his and said this one's the charm, but no, all of Gilberts after His Glorious Night lost money except Queen Christina, which was, of course, more a "Garbo" than a "Gilbert." JG does tricks with his voice to effect assumed identity, a conceit admittedly hard to accept as the face is identical but for raffish goatee. Anyway, it scuttled (or should have) doubts of Jack's ability to talk with variety and conviction. If Chaney could make sound success of The Unholy Three, why not The Phantom Of Paris for Gilbert?


Oh well, I'd have suspended disbelief in 1931 just as I did in 2016. There's still no talking me into notion that MGM was sabotaging Gilbert with pictures deliberately bad. If you look at what Leo handed Ramon Novarro, William Haines, and Buster Keaton in a same year, The Phantom Of Paris looks Citizen Kane-ish. No use trying to figure why Gilbert sunk so utterly; we'd have to know a public's mood circa early-30's better than is possible at 85 year distance. A question occurs to me, then: How many John Gilbert fans stayed loyal after slippage began? Has anyone seen vintage scrapbooks representing his talkie period? There were/are always ones to champion an underdog. I'd like knowing how much fan mail Jack received around Phantom's time. Did he ever read letters for reassurance, or present them to execs as evidence that some still cared? Whatever --- the numbers spoke loudest, and they were writ in red. No matter how much we enjoy The Phantom Of Paris, Downstairs, and even saucy pre-code Fast Workers, there was just no surviving such relentless rentals loss.

3 Comments:

Blogger Donald Benson said...

In "Silent Clowns", Walter Kerr posited that the type of films were a factor: Silence not only concealed voices, but made possible a kind of fantasy world that collapsed with sound. It was an acute problem for silent comedians, but even a straight actor with an excellent voice might not survive if the movie around him was suddenly rendered stiff and hollow by sound.

He cites Ronald Colman as a successful transition, making his sound debut not as the dashing dream lover but as the modern and witty Bulldog Drummond. In time, the technology and experience would be there for assured, old-style fantasy in talkie mode. There'd be a market for Flynn's Fairbanksian swashbuckers, but it coexisted with depression grit and snappy penthouse banter.

It sounds like "Phantom of Paris" was intelligently conceived to transition Gilbert, but it's possible his real baggage was that world of glamorous silent fantasy. Despite voice and acting chops, maybe audiences simply had trouble accepting him in a new universe -- the old problem of typecasting. Chaney had the advantage of being a famous chameleon whose films were all over the map. Audiences expected to be surprised.

It's worth noting that when Chaplin confronted sound, he didn't take the obvious course of making the Tramp a mute in a talking world. EVERYBODY continued to speak via intertitles, and there was no ambient real sound -- just music and specific effects. He kept the Tramp's world intact. In "The Great Dictator" his character resembles the Tramp, but clearly is not. He's a Jewish barber in Europe, with a life and history; not the magical cypher the Tramp was.

6:17 PM  
Blogger radiotelefonia said...

Based on the information and production dates supplied by Juan B. Heinink and Robert G. Dickson, PHANTOM OF PARIS was first filmed by MGM in its Spanish language version. The English version with John Gilbert was filmed later.

4:52 PM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

I remember reading a biography of John Gilbert that stated Marcus Loew signed him to a contract to keep him at MGM that pretty much doomed his pictures to not being able to show a profit.

When it comes down to it who understands the pulse of the public? Those MGM talkies with Buster Keaton made more money than did Buster's silent features. That, more than anything else, was the nail in Buster's coffin.

The thing was his MGM talkies had better distribution. It was not about the quality of the movies themselves. Had Keaton followed Chaplin's advice and gone independent he still needed his films to be distributed.

I have done many programs I was certain would hit big that did not and many that were designed as throwaways that hit huge. That's show business.

7:57 AM  

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