(Swans - May 3, 2010) Those penetrating black eyes burning like basilisks virtually devoured leading ladies such as Eleanor Boardman, Rene Adore, and Garbo. There was an amorous hunger in his screen persona that made female fans silently surrender to him in darkened cinemas throughout America. It was that fascinating combination of mastery and savage desire that turn suburban housewives into helpless paramours. Valentino had it, and John Gilbert had it in spades, and it made moviegoing in the twenties into an almost orgiastic experience.
If you mention the name of John Gilbert, there are usually only three things that spring to mind: 1) he was Garbo's lover on and off the screen, 2) he made a disastrous debut in talking pictures when his high-pitched voice rendered him ludicrous to his fans, and 3) he subsequently drank himself to death. Like most potted versions of film-stars' lives, the surviving tidbits barely do justice to the facts; the most salient fact being that after Valentino, Gilbert was the most popular and, in many ways, the most charismatic silent-screen actor of the twenties.
The star, who had virtually no education to speak of, energetically compensated for this deficiency throughout his life. He was an insatiable reader and devoured everything from Schopenhauer to Elinor Glynn. In his earliest days in Hollywood as the protégé and leading man of the highly esteemed French director Maurice Tourneur, he was encouraged to collaborate on scripts as well. He turned out a workmanlike first draft of The Pavillion on the Links by Robert Louis Stevenson (released as The White Circle) and collaborated with Clarence Brown on his first film, a fairly standard Western. When Brown invited him to a studio-showing of the completed picture, Gilbert was furious about the changes he had made. "That's the worst thing I ever saw," he cried. "How could you do that to me?" Gilbert, at the very dawn of moviemaking, was learning that, in the hands of a willful director, the marble of a writer's finished script can be transformed into putty. But the desire to write quality material for the screen remained deeply embedded in the actor who was frequently obliged to perform drivel in the furtherance of a shaky career.
He was responsible for half a dozen film-scenarios of now long-forgotten silents such as The Great Redeemer, The Bait, Love's Penalty and the aforementioned White Circle. He was always marinating screenplays he intended to produce himself. In 1932, his own story Downstairs, a study of servants' lives in an aristocratic Viennese household (strikingly reminiscent of the British TV series Upstairs/Downstairs), was made by MGM. Apart from Gilbert, the cast included Paul Lukas, Hedda Hopper, Reginald Owen, and Virginia Bruce, who was destined to become Gilbert's fourth wife. It was very well received and Time Magazine, praising its style and sophistication, claimed that it "brought Gilbert back to the top of the Metro Goldwyn Mayer stable of stars." Of course, it did nothing of the sort, but it was hard for many in the early 1930s to accept that a star of Gilbert's power and prominence could possibly have lapsed permanently.
Part of the standard Gilbertian mythology is that, as a result of a long-standing feud with Louis B. Mayer, the producer tampered with the soundtrack of His Glorious Night, Gilbert's first talkie, producing the high-pitched screen voice that effectively ruined his Hollywood career. An embarrassment satirized in Gene Kelly's film Singing In The Rain.
The mystery of that unfortunate premiere has never been satisfactorily unraveled. In 1929, sound films were still in their infancy but lack of technical expertise notwithstanding, His Glorious Night was boorishly directed by Lionel Barrymore, an experienced actor but a fledgling director. According to Louise Brooks, numerous requests for retakes from the sound director Douglas Shearer were denied by Barrymore. In the mid-'80s sound technicians from Thames Television examined the film under laboratory conditions and could find no evidence of tampering. Mayer would have had to be so vindictive against Gilbert that he was prepared to sustain a massive financial loss on one of MGM's earliest sound efforts, which, given the malevolence of human nature, is not an outrageous assumption.
As his daughter Leatrice Gilbert Fountain makes clear in Dark Star, the biography of her father, the majority of reviews for His Glorious Night were generally favorable -- even though the public reception proved disastrous. American audiences were not accustomed to actually hear intimate exchanges of affection between screen lovers, and the endless repetition of syrupy phrases such as "Oh beauteous maiden, my arms are waiting to enfold you. I love you. I love you. I love you," might well have triggered embarrassed laughter.
But the Mayer conspiracy theory dies hard and in 1973, Leatrice Gilbert reports that when she asked a thoroughly compos mentis Clarence Brown, director of several of Gilbert's early silents, what had happened to His Glorious Night, he replied: "I know what happened. I was there. Douglas Shearer told me himself. He said: 'We never turned up the bass when Gilbert spoke -- all you heard was treble.' -- Of course it was a mistake." Leatrice pressed Brown: Had Mayer ordered it? Clarence was silent for a long time and finally said: "Louis B. Mayer was my best friend in pictures. I was there from the early days until 1952 and we never had a cross word. I'm not going to say anything about anyone who is not here to defend himself." -- A reticence that speaks volumes to the suspicious.
The highly-publicized relationship with Garbo started with the experienced film actor serving as the young Swede's mentor. In time, it developed with ardor from Gilbert's standpoint and characteristic ambivalence from Garbo's. After several zealous proposals, Garbo was browbeaten into acquiescing to marriage. It was, in fact, going to be a double wedding; Gilbert and Garbo and King Vidor and Eleanor Boardman. But on the morning of the double-header, Gilbert looked out his window to see Garbo hastily pulling out of the driveway in her car. By the time the marriage ceremonies were about to start, it was clear that Garbo had flown the coop. Gilbert was distraught and frantic and couldn't bring himself to mingle with the guests. It was at this point of maximal stress that Louis B. Mayer, emerging from a guest bathroom, said to him: "What's the matter with you, Gilbert? What do you have to marry her for? Why don't you just fuck her and forget about it?"
A rocket went off inside of Gilbert's head and before he knew what was happening, he was strangling Mayer and banging his head against the tiled wall of the bathroom. Eddie Mannix, the ex-bouncer who was always at Mayer's side, eventually extricated the shaken Mayer from his attacker, but the damage had been done. Eleanor Boardman reported Mayer hissing through clenched teeth: "You're finished Gilbert. I'll destroy you if it costs me a million dollars." The cost of the flawed talkie His Glorious Night was not quite a million dollars but the bruised and bloodied Mayer may simply have been indulging in hyperbole.
Gilbert had had other disasters before His Glorious Night and neither he nor anyone else assumed this would put a kibosh on his career, but in retrospect the ill-fated talkie was the turning point. From then on, it was the rocky road of studio disdain, negligible roles and that curious kind of alienation with which Hollywood manages to chill the lives of artists that are visibly careening downhill.
In 1933, at Garbo's insistence, Gilbert was cast to play opposite her in Queen Christina -- edging out a budding Laurence Olivier who had actually been signed for the role. Although today Rouben Mamoulian's film, with a screenplay by Salka Viertel and dialogue by S.N. Behrman, is considered a high point in both their careers, its reception in 1933 was lukewarm and did nothing to reinstate Gilbert's popularity.
To the very end, Gilbert was conceptualizing films he intended to write but which, because of his volatility and his wrangles with the studio chieftains, never came to fruition. In his last film, The Captain Hates The Sea, the actor played a crapulous sea captain and was unfortunately surrounded by a cast of hard drinkers that included Walter Connolly, Victor McLaglen, Walter Catlett, and Leon Errol. In the final scene, as the sea captain's cruise ship docks he is met by his wife with the lines: "Did you stop drinking?" "No," answers Gilbert. "Did you start your book?" "No," he repeats, and that prophetic little exchange was the last anyone ever heard of John Gilbert on the screen. On the night of January 9, 1936, after his nurse administered a sleeping draft but didn't remain to check its effect, John Gilbert, aged thirty-eight, choked to death on his own tongue.
He had been having a torrid affair with Marlene Dietrich and, according to Dietrich's daughter, Maria Riva, the star was in bed with Gilbert when the end came. Frantic at the prospect of a scandal and aware that violation of the Morality Clause in her contract might ruin her career, Dietrich called a doctor, but when she realized it was all to no avail, bundled all her belongings into a pillow case, arranged for her maid to collect her in the early hours of the morning, and fled to the safety of her Beverly Hills mansion. But Dietrich was terribly shaken by Gilbert's death and remained incommunicado for weeks afterward. -- There was no word at all from Garbo.
What is clear today, and was very muddy in the period between silents and sound, is that there were such things as silent screen "greats" who, more than likely, could never have executed a role on a Broadway stage or necessarily made a successful transition to sound films, but whose performances in silent screenplays generated the kind of popular excitement that actually defined the concept of Hollywood celebrity.
Silent actors, deprived of the literary power of dialogue and the nuances of naturalistic behavior, were obliged to create a visual force field that compensated for those deficits. Their booming directors exhorted them to dredge up passions from the boiler rooms of their personalities and fill the void of a one-dimensional medium. Comedy apart, it was not a genre for pantomimics but for people who could tap the deepest recesses of their innermost beings and nakedly display what they found there. That is why a Garbo or a Gish, using only their eyes and their faces, could transmit feelings that, despite the absence of language, communicated immediately with audiences all over the world. The silent screen was a kind of intense X-ray which, more clearly than talking pictures, revealed the physiognomy of an artist's soul; a revelation that couldn't be glossed over or masked by the superficies of language. The more complex that soul, the more the actor had to draw on. The evidence of Gilbert's complexity is enshrined in the half-dozen or so films he has bequeathed to us.
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