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.