John Gilbert: The Artist

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.

  • James Shell

    Perhaps no star of any era has been more unfairly maligned than John Gilbert. He was a fine actor and, by all accounts, a warm and friendly person. His performance in “The Big Parade” was one of the greatest of the silent era and would surely have earned him an Oscar had they been around in 1925. And the stories about his voice are easily disproved with a look and listen to any of his talkies. John’s problem was that Hollywood was no longer making the type of films in which he had excelled (the same problem Douglas Fairbanks had). However, his fine performance in “The Captain Hates the Sea” shows that he could easily have made the transition to character actor had he not died so young.

  • Christine Harrison

    Excellent article! I always found John Gilbert’s story to be a particularly tragic one, even by Hollywood standards. There was a rumour that Louis B Mayer deliberately had the sound recording of “His Glorious Night” altered to make his voice appear higher than it actually was, but I can’t recall where I heard this and it could be another media rumour.

    It’s interesting to compare Gilbert with two other actors of the time, one being Rudolph Valentino, who you mention in your article. Would he have survived the coming of sound had he not died young? I think not, as he not only had a foreign accent, which was generally a disadvantage then, but his style of film would also have gone out of fashion during the Great Depression. This wasn’t really his fault as such, as he was at the time responding to public demand – they wanted a glamorous sheikh and not a farmhand where he was concerned. Personally, I feel that Valentino the actor has been rather misrepresented: in his final film “The Eagle”, he has a fair bit of humour at his expense, which does seem to imply that he more of a sense of fun than he was generally credited with by the critics.

    However there was a screen hero who did make the transition very successfully from silence to sound, and that was Ronald Colman, who had a lengthy career in both media. There are certain similarities between Colman and Gilbert: both good-looking, with a definite appeal to the female audience, but also capable of winning over the male side with swashbuckling roles. So why did Colman continue his success and not Gilbert? It could simply be that Colman had a better choice of role and a better rapport with the Hollywood moguls than Gilbert did. Certainly, Colman had a fine speaking voice and seemed a true gentleman in his pictures, and not without a dash of humour either. Even in a film like “Random Harvest” with its enjoyable – but VERY over-the-top storyline – he manages to make you care about his character.

    It’s interesting to speculate what might have happened if the two actors had switched roles. Would Gilbert have been as successful as Colman if he had had the parts the latter played? Ultimately, I think it’s really that Hollywood can be a cruel town – if you’re not in the right place at the right time, you can end up neglected while someone else takes your place. Even a talented actor can be cast off for the slightest shift in public perception. If there is one note of consolation for Gilbert, it was his role in “The Big Parade” where he showed his talent at his fullest. Let’s remember him that way.

  • joylesstreet

    I love John Gilbert & agree w/all the positive comments on his talent, particularly his performance in The Big Parade. On the decline of his career w/the advent of talkies, I read that when Garbo did not show up for their wedding, L.B. Mayer asked a distraught Gilbert why he had to marry her (Garbo), why not just **** her? Gilbert is said to have punched Mayer, who then vowed to end Gilbert’s career. The book goes on to say that Mayer had the sound altered on Gilbert’s films to make his voice sound thin, and that Mayer did whatever he could to ruin Gilbert. With the power Mayer had, it seems he was successful. I think John Gilbert was a more natural actor than many stars of silents & early talkies & his films are still worth watching today. I am glad he is not forgotten, at least by classic film fans!

  • Wayne

    Marlene Dietrich became very close to his daughter, Leatrice, later on…and his legacy lived on aided by her support to the family. I agree with Christines comment above that the voice of Ronald Colman helped his transition to talkies so the vocalizing mayve been a problem for Gilbert, all other things being equal in his roles, which may not have been the case, per both James and Joylesstreets’ remarks, albeit for vastly different reasons. On a related note, had Lon Chaney Sr. lived, his talent was such that he wouldve been great doing sound films too, as the only one he did, a remake of his own: “The Unholy Three” was excellent!

  • Clayton Edwards

    john gilbert has a hero and a writer and a director and a actor and mostly a marvoluous man back then.