Book review: “John Gilbert: The Last of the Silent Film Stars” by Eve Golden

I haven’t read a biography in a while, so I treated myself to Eve Golden’s book on silent screen legend John Gilbert. Being a silent film devotee, I’ve seen several Gilbert movies (would highly recommend The Big Parade and Flesh and the Devil), though I wouldn’t call myself a hardcore fan. I knew the rough outline of his life and the many, many conspiracy theories inspired by his swift, Norman Maine-like fall from the top of the industry with the coming of sound.

The picture Golden paints of Gilbert is intriguing. He was charming, generous, and lively, but also troubled, insecure, and often his own worst enemy. He fell in and out of love quickly, going through wives and lovers in rapid succession. He resented his mother for not showing him maternal love while being hands-off with his own children. He tended to badmouth the lucrative movies he was in to the press, much the chagrin of his home studio MGM. His drinking killed him before he had the chance to see his fortieth birthday.

Regardless, Golden thoroughly examines why he was such a beloved star at the time. Gilbert made for a swashbuckling, charismatic screen presence, and he was game enough to play unsympathetic roles when the opportunity came. His ambitions extended to directing and writing, though he had little opportunity to pursue the former and lacked the discipline to succeed with the latter. I was surprised to learn he was an avid reader, his personal library stocked with classics and nonfiction (Golden compares him to the similarly ill-fated sex symbol Marilyn Monroe in this regard). Though unsentimental about his flaws, Golden never makes Gilbert out to be pathetic nor does she adopt a judgmental attitude. She presents him as he was, and this very human portrait gives his biography the ring of tragedy.

For a long time, Gilbert’s eclipse was attributed to a falsetto voice. It’s an ironic idea and a tidy, simplistic explanation, which is probably why it’s stuck to Gilbert’s reputation for so long. I’ve come across people who have never touched a silent film in their lives who will still repeat the story of “that silent film star who had a high speaking voice.” However, it’s not the truth nor is it as interesting as what appears to have been the real cause of his decline.

Firstly, there was the cultural shift of the late 1920s. People often go with the “all silent film stars had no idea how to deliver lines AND they all sounded like Lina Lamont” myth, but in truth, the Depression, an influx of younger talent into Hollywood, and changing tastes had more to do with the fall of many a former screen favorite than their ability to speak lines into a microphone. Gilbert was no exception—he was a Great Screen Lover of the sort that was quickly falling out of fashion with the onset of the hard-edged 1930s. His voice, while shaky in early efforts, was perfectly fine by 1932 (see him in the underrated Downstairs if you don’t believe me). Unfortunately, by then the public lost all interest in him.

Golden pushes the case that Gilbert was talented enough to reinvent himself as a character actor in the 1930s since he yearned to go beyond the matinee idol phase of his career. However, Gilbert’s hardcore drinking, poor health, and unreliable behavior put off many studios. Throughout that whole section, I was sad thinking about what might have been, particularly a possible collaboration with Marlene Dietrich in Desire that was destroyed by a heart attack. While Gilbert insisted it was only severe indigestion, the incident frightened the suits into dropping Gilbert from the project.

Of course, Golden does not let the studios entirely off the hook either. She does not indulge ideas like Louis B. Mayer purposely sabotaging Gilbert’s career in the sound booth and effectively debunks the infamous “fistfight” story, but she does show that MGM had no incentive to nurture Gilbert during the rocky transition to sound nor did they bother to supply him with quality scripts. He was taking in a high salary at a time when the Depression was hitting movie studios hard, which prevented him from getting a high-profile leading lady that might have drawn in additional audiences. It’s a sad affair—even if Gilbert was the partial author of his own ruin, outside circumstances were certainly at play as well.

I did have one problem with the book. A major pet peeve of mine is when biographers feel the need to play movie critic. Golden offers her opinions of several films and stars, which jibbed too much with the scholarly tone the book was going for—and also felt unneeded. When I read a biography of a movie star or filmmaker, I don’t mind some interpretations on murkier parts of a person’s life (such as Golden’s modest speculations regarding Greta Garbo’s feelings toward Gilbert), but I don’t care to read any commentary on the quality of their work. It just feels like a waste of time and it’s not why I picked up the book in the first place.

I’ve come across some reviews that claimed this book offers little new information than Dark Star, a Gilbert biography written by one of his daughters in the 1980s. I haven’t read Dark Star, so I cannot comment there (yet), but as someone only casually interested in Gilbert, Golden’s book made me want to rewatch a lot of the man’s films and gave me a greater appreciation for what he was able to achieve during his all too brief tenure as Hollywood’s top romantic lead. It’s not among the top tier movie star biographies, but it is a good, balanced one I would recommend to the curious.

5 thoughts on “Book review: “John Gilbert: The Last of the Silent Film Stars” by Eve Golden

  1. This is a SUPERB review of Golden’s bio, which, if there’s not TOO many pages, I’ll read. I read ‘Dark Star’ many years ago and now, since I’ve never lost my interest in Gilbert (he with the big nose and bushy eyebrows), it’s time to see what Golden has to say about Gilbert’s downfall because his was the BIGGEST downfall in the entire history of Hollywood downfalls. His downfall was SO colossal that the onlooker is irresistibly compelled to find out: What Happened? And What Should He Have Done After He Fell From the Heavens To Earth? With one disastrous film he plunged from being beloved by millions to being ignored by those same millions. In 5 years he was unemployable. Washed up. A has-been. And ultimately, at the young age of 38, a dead has-been.

    In contrast to Gilbert, John Barrymore fared well. He kept his career going until he too died of alcoholism. But, of course, Barrymore – the Great Profile – was acclaimed by the industry as a Great Actor, and Gilbert – the Great Lover – was (like Valentino) a passing fad. Disposable. Soon replaced in the public’s adoration by new favorites such as Clark Gable (whose stardom lasted for an astonishing 40 years!) What happened to Gilbert is not a tragedy. It’s life. The saying is: It’s not what happens to you that matters, it’s how you deal with what happens. My opinion is that Gilbert dealt with it as best as he and his advisors and his studio, reading the murky tea leaves and looking for answers in the cloudy crystal ball, fumbling in the dark, could do. Gilbert had a steep uphill battle to wage to win back the fans who had deserted him and he fought on, doggedly, through the dismal film reviews and audience apathy, to resurrect a career that was unresurrectable. That dogged grim determination – was it admirable? Or was it a fault? It definitely contributed to his heart attacks and early death. WHY was it so important to him to get back on top? Maybe Golden has the answer.

    Gilbert’s problem was his image – that of the Great Lover – which belonged to the silent era and was not transferrable to talkies. Gilbert understood this and tried to dump his image. But his fickle fans were not buying the new Gilbert. Later film historians blamed it on his “high-pitched” voice, but there was nothing wrong with his voice from the start (other than articulating too unnaturally). The fan mag Screenland in April 1930 wrote that Gilbert’s voice in ‘His Glorious Night’ suited his character. But the writer also said the dialogue, particularly the words, “Darling, I Love You. I Love You” repeated again and again caused the picture goers to giggle and guffaw. But – surprise! – the film was a COMEDY. The audience was SUPPOSED to laugh. Did the audience know it was a comedy? Did the director make it clear that it was a comedy? Was the film previewed with an audience before it was generally released? If so, did the audience laugh in inappropriate places? Did the audience laugh at the dialogue because they knew it was a comedy, a spoof on Gilbert’s Great Lover image?

    I don’t buy the theory that L.B. Mayer sabotaged Gilbert’s career. The producer of ‘His Glorious Night’ was Gilbert’s friend, the Boy Genius, Irving Thalberg. If Mayer was sabotaging Gilbert with inferior scripts and directors, the NY office would fire Mayer. Furthermore, it was not in Mayer’s best interest to destroy Gilbert because Mayer’s salary and bonuses depended on making films that were profitable. MGM had a million dollar asset to protect and a million dollar contract with Gilbert to fulfill. MGM was stuck with Gilbert and did everything they and Gilbert could think of to turn the tide and put Gilbert back on top at the box office. Finding good scripts WAS a problem. ALL the stars wanted and needed good scripts and blamed their film duds on poor scripts. But a story that looked good on paper, a story with a big juicy role for the star, often didn’t result in a good film. A good director would sometimes turn a sows ear into a silk purse but just as often would turn a silk purse into a sows ear.

    I could write a lot more on this fascinating (to me) subject, but I’ll stop here.

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    • I got that Gilbert’s downfall was the result of a perfect storm of multiple causes, but the big two are the decline of the Great Lover style film and Gilbert’s alcoholism. The latter worsened because of the former, but Gilbert did miss out on some good opportunities later because of how badly his drinking affected his health (such as the character role in Desire with Marlene Dietrich).

      It’s a sad case all around and does make you wonder if Gilbert’s sound career had started with another movie if he would have been able to transition better or if his career was always doomed to crash and burn with the changing of audience tastes.

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      • “If Gilbert had started with another movie” … Gilbert’s 1st talkie was ‘Redemption,’ which was shelved because Gilbert (and presumably MGM) was dissatisfied with it. Then the studio, eager to get their expensive star’s film into theatres asap, rushed the production of ‘His Glorious Night.’ Was Gilbert satisfied with ”HGN’? Did he and MGM consider it the better of the 2 films? Because the decision to release ‘HGN’ had disastrous consequences for Gilbert and no film profits for MGM for the entire run of Gilbert’s contract, one wants the facts to understand how this happened.

        First, was ‘HGN’ previewed? It was customary for studios to PREVIEW their important films, to get feedback from the audience and make necessary changes before releasing the film. Second, was there a film PREMIER? Often after a premier more changes were made to the film before its general release. It’s impossible to believe that MGM did not know that audiences were LAUGHING at the Great Lover’s DIALOGUE before they released the film. But since the play on which the film is based is a COMEDY, it is possible that MGM and Gilbert were deliberately trying to kill his Great Lover image by putting him into a COMEDY. BUT, if ‘HGN’ was intended to be a comedy, the fan mag, Screenland, didn’t see it that way. The 120 word review in the Jan 1930 issue ended, “Let’s give them both another chance.” 120 words, on the 3rd page, given to a film of this importance is surprising. No, it’s not surprising. It’s shocking. To Screenland, Gilbert’s talkie debut blunder was no big deal, just another film in a star’s resume that didn’t hit a homerun. It was not, at this point, labeled a disaster. The reality is that it was merely the first flop in a chain of flops that undid a great star’s career and reputation.

        What did Golden have to say about all this?

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  2. ‘His Glorious Night’ was based on Ferenc Molnar’s play, ‘Olympia’, about which a very informative website furnished these quote snips: “The characters who populate Molnar’s play are masters of wit and social code, deftly flinging stunningly constructed verbal phrases … the social critique Molnar slips in between laughs … Molnar set his comedy … Olympia was rousing success in Hungary due to its masterful comedic construction … the well-crafted comedy and dexterous verbal wit that are Molnar’s hallmarks … Molnar has been too often dismissed for writing well-crafted, but ultimately trite comedies … Like all great comedies, Olympia … Source: http://tactnyc.org/olympia-notes/

    Conclusion: The play was a comedy.

    Regardless, as ‘Olympia’ ran for only 39 performances on Broadway in Oct 1928, it was not a success. Even with a sophisticated New York audience who would recognize wit and comedy when they heard it, it was a dud. Maybe the star, Ian Hunter, Kay Francis frequent costar in her 30s films, was the problem. Maybe Thalberg thought Gilbert could do better than Hunter, that Gilbert could put pizazz and sex appeal into his portrayal of the dashing Captain Kovaks. Maybe Thalberg thought removing the sophistication would make it popular in the byways and highways of America. What we can be certain of is that Molnar didn’t write the line “Darling, I Love You, I Love You” and have the besotted Captain 3repeat it 50 times to his beloved, just to make sure she understood how he felt about her. Obviously, something terrible happened to the witty words Molnar wrote, namely, they disappeared from the film script Willard Mack wrote. Maybe Thalberg thought Mack, unlike Molnar, had his finger on the pulse of the unsophisticated American movie going public who wanted to not only SEE Gilbert woo and win fair lady but HEAR exactly what it was he said to her so that they, that is the male portion of the audience, could copy him word for word whilst wooing their own fair lady.

    Maybe the problem with ‘His Glorious Night’ was Thalberg. The producer is responsible for choosing the material to be made into films. Thalberg chose to adapt ‘Olympia’ for the screen and he approved Mack’s script. And Thalberg is responsible for handing this turkey to Gilbert. Or was this turkey Gilbert’s idea and he talked Thalberg into buying the film rights and letting him star in it? Either way, the Boy Genius is lucky he kept his job and reputation after ruining Gilbert’s talkie debut.

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