There are so many idiotic myths surrounding 1920s matinee idol John Gilbert, mainly the notion that he possessed a squeaky voice which destroyed any chance of a successful career in the talkies. Those who don’t use Singin’ in the Rain as their basis for cinematic history know there were greater elements at play in the demise of Gilbert’s stardom: studio politics and especially the cultural shift brought on by the Great Depression. The screen type of the torrid, swashbuckling lover which Gilbert personified was no longer in vogue by the early 1930s, rendering him obsolete as far as the movie-going public was concerned.
Viewers with this knowledge will come to Gilbert’s final silent Desert Nights with a sense of melancholy. His first talkie His Glorious Night would wreck his image with its overly florid love scenes and Gilbert’s delivery of the purple dialogue (not his voice itself). In contrast, Desert Nights is much grittier, centering around a trio of thoroughly unlikeable characters motivated by greed, anger, and lust. It’s a handsome film at that, photographed by the legendary cameraman and master of low-key lighting James Wong Howe. The story itself is rather trite, a framework on which to explore heat-induced insanity and a deadly love triangle.
Desert Nights is an entertaining and compact little film, clocking in at a little over an hour. Gilbert plays Hugh, the manager of an African diamond mine, hard and feeling isolated after years away from his home in the States. One day, he is called upon by a father and daughter pair of English aristocrats, played by the wonderful Ernest Torrence and blonde Mary Nolan. Entranced by the woman’s delicate beauty, Hugh is smitten right away and pitches woo the moment they are alone, to which she reluctantly reciprocates.
But the next day, his romantic illusions are shattered. Turns out the blue-blooded duo are merely imposters who arrived before the real guests of honor, their true aim being to rob a bagful of diamonds from Hugh before kidnapping him. With their gang of crooks and African guides, they spirit Hugh away into the desert. However, their plans do not come out the way they intended: the greedy Torrence poisons the rest of the gang, the oxen driving their wagon die, and the African guides abandon them, leaving the trio trapped in the middle of the desert with Hugh left as their sole hope. But he doesn’t take too kindly to being betrayed, particularly by the alluring Nolan. Delirium, madness, and sexual tension ensue.
Gilbert is in fine form here, playing his usual character with a dark twist. I’ve often heard him compared to Errol Flynn, which does hold up. Both possessed a similar screen persona: a character who thoroughly enjoys life, laughs in death’s face, and knows when to get serious. Here, the seriousness gets amped up a bit. Hugh’s frustration, already pent up before the film’s beginning, bursts into disturbing fruition once he’s a hostage. There’s a great amount of sadomasochism on display, with a sweating Gilbert often trussed up and teased by Nolan, who calls him “good-looking.” The power balance shifts once Torrence agrees to have Gilbert freed so they might get back to civilization alive; Gilbert manhandles Nolan constantly, gleefully describes the painful ways in which they could all die, and withholds water from his captors. Do note that the manhandling part is not treated with any sense of romance; Gilbert’s character is going insane, driven to sadism by the actions of the thieves. Thank God that unlike Valentino’s deluded character in Son of the Sheik, he never goes too far with his actions against the leading lady; he makes it look as though he plans on forcing his desires upon Nolan in one scene, but it’s all a bluff to anger Torrence, who also lusts after the woman.
Torrence makes for a great foil to Gilbert with his large size and pug face. Silent film fans will remember him as Buster Keaton’s curmudgeonly father in Steamboat Bill Jr. and Captain Hook in the 1924 adaptation of Peter Pan. His presence alone makes the movie worth a look as he plays the role of mad scumbag extremely well. The only weak link among the actors is Mary Nolan. Though beautiful, I have always found her inadequate in emotionally demanding roles such as this film or the macabre Lon Chaney melodrama West of Zanzibar. She wails and flails her arms to simulate madness, and it usually comes across as comical rather than harrowing.
But Nolan’s performance isn’t what ultimately leaves the viewer dissatisfied; that’s the ending which lacks all dramatic credibility. MGM was obviously more comfortable with a conventionally romantic conclusion: even after all the torment he’s been put through, Hugh loves the jewel thief anyway. For some reason, the authorities allow him to decide her fate (matrimony) rather than carting her off to a cell. Maybe it’s just me, but after an hour of madness, frustrated lust, and delirium in the desert sands, these two getting a happily ever after doesn’t cut it in the dramatic sense. Not that Desert Nights required a downbeat ending with everyone dying in the heat a la Greed, but something more original should have been implemented.
Still, what works is what stays with you when the film ends: Gilbert’s bitterness and lust, Torrence’s madness, and the oppression of the desert heat. The last few minutes can be forgiven, because the psychological drama works so well. In hindsight, Desert Nights or a film similar to it might have been more ideal for Gilbert’s talkie debut. It certainly would have been a better induction into the hard-boiled and cynical pre-code era.
Images courtesy of Doctor Macro