Saturday, August 29, 2015

Pre-Code Parade: DOWNSTAIRS (1932)

At Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, in the death throes of his stardom, Buster Keaton pitched what he thought might be a career-saving story idea. Having lobbied unsuccessfully to be cast in Grand Hotel, Buster proposed a full-scale parody of the movie, featuring himself and all the studio's comics and grotesques. The studio shot down the idea. They weren't out to sabotage Keaton, or so we assume, but still thought, with an eye on the box office, that they knew best how to make Buster Keaton movies. Meanwhile, according to legend, M-G-M was out to sabotage the career of John Gilbert, their great lover of the silent screen, but when he pitched a potentially career-saving story idea around the same time, the studio bought it and made his authorship a selling point for the finished film.

As it happened, Downstairs had some more selling points. On the set, Gilbert had wooed and won his leading lady, Virginia Bruce, and Metro emphasized this as fresh proof of the actor's great-lover status. To drive this point home more strongly, after repeatedly trying to sell the public a "new" Gilbert the publicity department let people know that this time, at last, the old Gilbert, the one everyone loved, was back. Such audiences as took the bait, drawn by the ads or rave reviews in the newspapers, were in for a shock -- or so we might assume. But Gilbert may have understood something about his star appeal that doesn't necessarily match our distant view of him as a silent lover but makes Downstairs his best talkie. Some instinct may have told him that in a fight for his professional life in the Pre-Code era, it was time to get evil.

Two words show up in a lot of contemporary reviews of Downstairs: "Von" and "Stroheim." Gilbert had starred in Erich von Stroheim's Merry Widow in 1925 and seems to have been taken with the man. One paper reports that at one time Downstairs was envisioned as some kind of Von Stroheim movie, but with Gilbert directing Von rather than vice versa. Whatever might have been, the character Gilbert ended up creating for himself, Karl the chauffeur, was described as a Von Stroheim type. Presumably that means he was a man you could love to hate. Karl is clearly a man you're supposed to hate, but part of that, I think, is because he might also be easy to love. Another part is that he loves, or makes love, too easily.

I've heard Downstairs described as a precursor of both the old Upstairs, Downstairs TV show and the present Downton Abbey, so I was surprised to see it take place not in Britain, but somewhere in Mitteleuropa. The Baron (Reginald Owen) is celebrating the wedding of his head butler Albert (Paul Lukas) and Anna the maid (Bruce) in Universal-village style, complete with knee-slapping, yodeling and some ceremonial grape-stomping by the bride. In this environment, hearing Lukas's Hungarian accent left me wondering how many chances poor Bela Lugosi didn't get simply because Lukas existed. That led to me wondering whether Gilbert as a vampire would have been a good career move, but clearly I digress. Anyway, the happy day is Karl's first day of work for the baron, and how appropriate it is that he begins as a wedding crasher. We're warned early that Karl is bad news, but apparently aristocrats have no blacklist to put him on and the Baron and Baroness (Olga Baclanova) have no worries about hiring him. One of the subtle messages sent by Gilbert and the actual screenwriters, Melville Baker and Lenore Coffee, is that the different moral standards that apply upstairs, where the rich dwell, and downstairs, where the servants live, give an unscrupulous servant plenty of room to maneuver. Karl is ready to exploit every opportunity, either to make money or to score with Anna behind Albert's back. It becomes apparent that Karl will screw, or screw with, everybody. He seduces a rather homely cook to get at the bankroll she stuffs in her stocking while blackmailing the Baroness once he realizes she's having an affair. Having stolen one of her jewels and given it to Anna, he saves Anna's job, when the Baroness accuses her of stealing it, by claiming to have bought it himself from an address the Baroness recognizes all too well.

Albert the butler is our hero by default, but he's a bit of a prig, and his reserved attitude of propriety and duty leaves Anna vulnerable to Karl's attentions. His weakness, the film makes clear, is his dispassion. When Anna finally succumbs to Karl, and Albert discovers it, the maid challenges her husband, throwing in his face the profound difference between the way he "makes love" and the way Karl does. Even for a Pre-Code film, it's bracingly clear that by "making love" Anna doesn't mean serenading her under the balcony or saying, "I love you, I love you, I love you!" To win Anna back, Albert has to discover some passion of his own. Fortunately, he becomes passionately motivated to kick the crap out of Karl, though the climax proves slightly anticlimactic, if only because it looked for a brief moment as if Karl was going to get shot by "accident" during a boar hunt. That wouldn't have served Gilbert's purpose, however. Karl may lose this battle, and he may have to abandon the field, but in his downstairs-upstairs world there's always another castle where he can land on his feet and hit the ground running. But really! Does no one ask for references? Not in Karl's world, it seems...

Gilbert's grafting of himself on a Stroheim model was a self-reinvention that may have been decades ahead of his time. Karl seems more modern than his surroundings, and with sympathetic writers realizing Gilbert's ideas, along with producer-director Monta Bell, Downstairs seems adult in a modern way even by Pre-Code standards. In my survey of Gilbert's talkies I've cited approvingly the arrogance of his escape-artist character in Phantom of Paris. Downstairs takes that positive arrogance to amoral heights. It's essential to the aggression that re-energizes Gilbert, and if it makes him more modern in our eyes it also really does bring back the old Gilbert if we accept that the old Gilbert was first and foremost a sex symbol. Downstairs depends absolutely on Gilbert's sex-symbol status; it presumes that audiences want to see him seduce women. Only that expectation makes Karl tolerable as a human being, and it also gives him a fantasy's freedom of action. In an age of gold-diggers, Gilbert's instinct seemed to tell him that he had to be not just an aggressor but a predator, and his gamble was that he could make audiences like it. For film buffs his gamble paid off in the long run, but in 1932 Downstairs could succeed at the box office only if women still dreamed of Gilbert seducing them, or if men imagined themselves as Gilbert seducing women, or imagined themselves kicking Gilbert's ass -- and since the next Gilbert picture was Fast Workers, once more promising a "new" Gilbert in a working-class milieu, we must presume either that Downstairs flopped or that, as many still assume, the fix was in at Metro. It's a shame either way that Gilbert couldn't follow up on this breakthrough, since Downstairs fully lives up to its reputation as his best sound film. For once you don't find yourself analyzing his voice because what he's doing commands your attention. This film restores the pure physicality that was his primary asset in silents; it's quite well-written but Gilbert's body language is just as important in building his performance. The saddest thing about it is that Gilbert finally solved the problem of sound film himself, by becoming as close to an auteur that he'd ever get, but was still chained, like Keaton (who had his own interesting ideas about sound comedy that were ignored), to an unsympathetic studio. By the time Metro was done with both men, they were alcoholic ruins. Keaton recovered, though it took a while and fully regained his old stardom, but Gilbert was dead by 1936. He's still remembered best for his silent films, but while they're monuments to what he was, Downstairs is a monument to what he could have been.

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