John Gilbert was a silent screen star whose specialty was hot-house, throbbing romance. He was a great star in the 1920s who, with the advent of sound, crashed and burned and sunk steadily into despair and ruin.
Sound familiar? If you have seen the movie The Artist, it will. The many similarities between Gilbert and George Valentin are obvious, right down to the pencil mustache, the subsequent alcoholic despair and even his act of writing his own film. However, like all legends, while there is a grain of truth to them, they leave out so much. And so it is with John Gilbert.
John Gilbert had an ugly youth. Born John Cecil Pringle in 1897, his father was an absent comic actor and his mother an actress in touring companies. The hard life of living hand to mouth with his mother gave him an early awareness of the grittier side of life, but Jack, as he was often called, was filed with determination to get into the movies. By the time he was a teenager, he was working in Hollywood, both as an unknown actor and as a writer of screenplays. His first big break came in a 1919 Mary Pickford film called Heart ‘o the Hills as one of Mary’s handsome young suitors.
From there it was a steady climb. Signed by Fox Studios, Jack Gilbert became John Gilbert and began evolving into a dashing leading man. One of the highlights of his Fox period is 1923’s Cameo Kirby. Based on the Booth Tarkington play, Gilbert sports his famous mustache, which transformed his looks from good to devastatingly handsome. During this time he married his second wife, actress Leatrice Joy.
In 1924, Gilbert moved from Fox to MGM and began the most successful period of his career. Full-fledged stardom was achieved with His Hour, the type of florid romantic film that Gilbert would become famous for. As the Russian nobleman who makes love to Aileen Pringle, women swooned and an American Valentino emerged as a major Hollywood heartthrob. A string of hugely successful films followed (The Snob, He Who Gets Slapped, La Boheme, The Merry Widow), but Gilbert got the chance of a lifetime in 1925 as the WWI soldier of King Vidor‘s The Big Parade.
As the soldier who learns about life, suffers the horrors or war and falls in love with a French girl, Gilbert proved he was more that a smoldering glance. The picture was an instant classic and he received rave reviews for his performance. However, more films like The Big Parade were not in Gilbert’s future. The public wanted Gilbert the lover.
One of the things Gilbert is remembered for today is being one half of one of Hollywood’s hottest romances. In 1926 Gilbert was divorced from Leatrice Joy and was assigned to a film called Flesh and the Devil, starring none other than Greta Garbo. By all accounts, their eyes met, sparks flew and the rest was history. Dubbed “GarBert” or “GilBo” by the press (what, you though Bennifer or Brangelina was a first?) they were hot copy. This, of course, did not please the reticent Miss Garbo, who refused to commit. She would eventually leave him at the altar.
While they were a couple they made three successful romantic films: Flesh and the Devil, Love and A Woman of Affairs. All presented the lovers as ultra-romantic beings who lived in a world of love we mere mortals can only imagine. This was the image that the public had of John Gilbert, and it raised him to unimaginable heights and also caused his ultimate demise.
Silent screen stars were rarely viewed as “real folks.” They lived and loved on a Mount Olympus called Hollywood that had only a passing resemblance to the world the audience knew. Movie stars loved more passionately, felt more deeply and generally experienced life more powerfully than the rest of us. That was the great art of the silent screen – to make the make-believe believable. And Gilbert was one of its greatest artists. He was the romantic lover supreme.
It all went bad for John Gilbert so suddenly. First, Garbo finally put an end to the affair. On the rebound, he married the great stage star, Ina Claire. This union did not last. His relationship with studio boss Louis B. Mayer had reached toxic proportions and the arrival of talking pictures caused concern. Gilbert’s voice was light, but certainly acceptable. In the all-star The Hollywood Revue of 1929, he and Norma Shearer (directed by Lionel Barrymore) perform the balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet, as well as a modern jazz-age version for laughs. He is handsome, charming and very much at ease.
Unfortunately, the costume drama His Glorious Night was making the rounds around the same time and did him in. This is the film so wickedly parodied in Singin’ in the Rain. It’s not Gilbert’s voice that is wrong, but the repeated “I love you, I love you, I love you”s that caused laughter in the theaters. And when a heartthrob is laughed at, well, the end is near. Gilbert was undone, not by his voice, but by the passing of his creation, the great lover. The great lover persona was never meant for sound. Valentino, had he not died, might well have met the same fate. Douglas Fairbanks, whose persona was also larger than life, was dealt a similar career-ending blow.
From then on, nothing seemed to work for John Gilbert. He gave a good performance in Downstairs, a film written by him in which he played a cad to good advantage (he married his co-star, Virginia Bruce, but that union also ended in divorce). He then got a monumental chance when Greta Garbo asked for him as her co-star in 1933’s Queen Christina. The film was successful, Garbo was applauded for her magnificent portrayal, and Gilbert got good notices, but it did little for his career. There was nothing wrong with John Gilbert except that too many new sound actors were in the forefront and there was no longer any room in Depression America for the grand, fantasy-image of The Great Lover.
After Queen Christina, Gilbert made one more film, The Captain Hates the Sea, for Columbia in 1934. In 1936, drinking heavily and in the midst of a love affair with Marlene Dietrich, John Gilbert suffered a heart attack and died at the age of 38. Gone too soon.
John Gilbert’s daughter, Leatrice Gilbert Fountain, has done much to set the record straight regarding her famous father. She continues to promote the revival of his films and is the author of “Dark Star, the Untold Story of the Meteoric Rise and Fall of Legendary Silent Screen Star John Gilbert.”
Marsha Collock has been an avid fan – not scholar – of classic films since she saw the first flicker of black and white on the TV screen. Her muse is Norma Desmond, to whom she has dedicated her blog, A Person in the Dark, a site designed for all of the wonderful people out there in the dark who have an unabashed passion for silents, early talkies, all stars and all films. You can visit her on Facebook as well.