Thursday, July 11, 2013

PRE-CODE PARADE: The Ordeal of John Gilbert

One of the undying legends of Hollywood is that the silent star John Gilbert's adaptation to talkies, and his career, were sabotaged by his employers at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Gilbert was one of M-G-M's most popular male stars thanks to the war film The Big Parade and his romantic teaming with Greta Garbo, but the legend tells that the actor offended Louis B. Mayer in some way. In the most dramatic version, Gilbert slugged Mayer when the boss tried to console him, cynically or not, after Garbo had jilted Gilbert at the altar, after which Mayer swore revenge. For some reason, Mayer waited until the coming of sound, either tampering with the quality of the sound recording or assigning Gilbert roles so that he would sound ludicrous, either for what he said or the way he said it. From the time Gilbert first spoke, playing Romeo in The Hollywood Revue of 1929, it was all downhill. By the end of 1933, after Garbo had tried to save him by having him cast as her leading man one last time for Queen Christina, the studio dumped him. He made one more picture and died in 1936.

All legends are suspect, of course. As for why Mayer would wait until sound came to ruin Gilbert, you can look at his last silent picture, Desert Nights -- as I just did, thanks to Turner Classic Movies -- and wonder whether the fix was in before Gilbert first spoke on film. For a star of his purported magnitude, that story of a hero outwitting diamond thieves in the desert looks suspiciously like B movie stuff. As for what came after, TCM followed Desert Nights with a run of Gilbert's talkies, skipping over the infamous His Glorious Night to start with the Tolstoy adaptation Redemption. I'd seen that years ago and remembered only that it was boring. I focused on the next three films, starting with Sam Wood's Way For a Sailor from late 1930. The two previous films had already done such damage that Sailor was said to feature a "new" Gilbert. The star shaved off his defining moustache and threw himself into the he-man milieu of the merchant marine, as envisioned by pulp author Albert Richard Wetjen. But this only exposed how different Gilbert was, in ways entirely to his disadvantage, to his co-star Wallace Beery. In some places Beery was billed above Gilbert to reflect the new pecking order at M-G-M, and in the film itself Beery blows Gilbert off the screen whenever they share it. Way is an episodic saga built on the Gilbert character's on-off romance with a shipping clerk (Leila Hyams) who wants him to quit the sea and live a stable life. Gilbert vacillates, loving both the girl and the sea -- and probably his buddies, too. But the love story is flimsy stitching holding together disparate episodes, and the star is neither romantic in his old manner nor convincing as a rough-tough sailor man. Only a mid-sea rescue sequence with actors and stuntmen getting seriously pounded by artificial waves, stands out cinematically. Gilbert's voice itself isn't the problem, but he never really learned to use it to rebuild his persona the way Beery, an older veteran of silent days, managed triumphantly. Gilbert's voice quickly became a national joke after his earliest talkies, but could anyone imitate it? A 1931 fan magazine tells a story that a tourist encountered Gilbert but failed to recognize and ultimately refused to acknowledge him because he didn't sound like Gilbert. The punchline: Gilbert tells a buddy that the studio thinks the same way.

In 1931 there seemed to be a chance that Gilbert would pull out of his decline. TCM didn't show his next picture, Gentleman's Fate, but the movie press indicates that the film was well received. John Robertson's Phantom of Paris appears to have been a second-consecutive success. Gilbert inherited a role intended for the late Lon Chaney -- an adaptation of Gaston Leroux's Cheri-Bibi that was retitled to emphasize the Phantom of the Opera connection. While it isn't great, it's definitely the best Gilbert starring role in a talkie that I've seen, and could have been a turning point for him because it shows the sort of role he could flourish in. He plays a Houdini-like escape artist framed for murder after quarreling with the victim, whose daughter he loves. Bibi escapes from prison, of course, but when the real murderer dies of influenza before he can be made to confess, Bibi's only option to remain free is to kidnap the corpse, hire a plastic surgeon, and reappear as the murderer, an aristocrat who married Bibi's love (Hyams). Gilbert must step into Chaney's shoes modestly to play a man of two faces and two voices. While he isn't especially convincing in his imposture, he strikes a commanding figure in the early reels as the masterful escapist. Allegedly burdened with rage issues, Bibi allows Gilbert to project more power than he ever did otherwise in talkies, to my knowledge. You may not be a studio executive, and neither am I, but watching Phantom your first thought probably would be that Gilbert should be cast as dashing jewel thieves and dominant seducers. Put him in a tuxedo or dinner jacket and have him play as charismatically arrogant as he can. Gilbert might have been M-G-M's William Powell before they got Powell.

Instead, perhaps the best evidence for sabotage is Gilbert's final film of 1931. Harry Beaumont's West of Broadway is meandering debacle that could not have seemed promising to anyone rational. Gilbert is an ailing war hero returning home to learn that his fiancee wants to end their engagement. It turns out that he's also a millionaire and an alcoholic. Worse than that, he retains his war buddy as a civilian sidekick, and the sidekick is the Swedish dialect comedian El Brendel. El has some fans even today, and they can have him. For most movie watchers, however, he's a byword for everything bad about early talkies, or at least early sound comedy. People back them really seemed to think that El was funny by virtue of his accent alone. For us moderns, that means a jaw-droppingly bad scene in which he tries to relate to Gilbert's Chinese cook (Willie Fung) that he has "indiyestion." The two ethnics end up getting into a tickle fight, which is putting the best spin on it. To be fair to Fung, he actually has the funniest moment of the picture. A new arrival, seeing him pass from behind, tries to summon him by calling out, "Boy!" Fung turns to point out his Fu-Manchesque whiskers, and in an early blow for civil rights reproves the woman, "No callum boy! Moustache!!" Back to Gilbert: after a drunken night out with a seeming gold digger (Lois Moran) he marries her on impulse to spite his old flame. Sobering up the next morning, he realizes his mistake and offers the girl money to forget everything, not realizing that for her it was love at first sight. She wants to dry him out and won't take no for an answer. She follows him to his dude ranch -- it's her Fung reproves -- where Ralph Bellamy pays his dues as a foreman with little to do, a potential subplot involving his crush on the boss's wife going nowhere fast. At the ranch, Gilbert dressed as a cowboy looks hardly more plausible (or comfortable) than El Brendel. As for the rest of the story ... can't we skip it? She hides the booze, he drives her away then gets worried when he's told she's driving a new car recklessly, though the worry has no payoff. He tracks her back to Chicago, gets in a brawl, gets arrested, and wins her back somehow. Take my word for it. Gilbert makes not so much a bad impression as no impression. You can't even speculate whether Gilbert was really drunk in any scenes, since he overacts the shakes in a way that might not have passed muster with Mack Sennett. Anyway, I've seen Gilbert hammered on screen, in The Captain Hates the Sea, and its a sadder sight than anything in West of Broadway, which is sad only by its utter lack of entertainment value. It's one of the worst Pre-Codes I've seen since starting this project.

Afterward, Gilbert tried to take charge of salvaging his career by writing an original story for himself. M-G-M indulged him by making Downstairs, which TCM didn't show in its marathon despite its reputation as Gilbert's best talkie vehicle. It was his only film of 1932. From there he did Fast Workers, for which director Tod Browning refused screen credit, and finally Queen Christina. Gilbert didn't fall alone, however. M-G-M saw an almost complete turnover in its male star roster once sound set in for good. The studio washed its hands of Buster Keaton (drunk) and William Haines (morals) in 1933. Ramon Novarro outlasted them a little due to his versatility as an all-purpose ethnic, but he was done after 1934. Other victims outside M-G-M could be cited, ranging from Richard Barthelmess at Warner Bros. to Harold Lloyd (who held out the longest because he produced his own films). Sound imposed a new aural ideal of masculinity, if not multiple ideals: the tough talker, the fast talker, etc. Many male stars of silent days couldn't live up to the new ideal. As with Gilbert, it wasn't necessarily a matter of bad voices but an inability to use their voices as instruments defining personality. Some established stars like Ronald Colman managed the feat, while a younger silent star like Gary Cooper had an easier time learning the new rules.

Silent acting was hard to unlearn; you can see it in the losers' eyes. When Norma Desmond said of her generation, "We had faces," she really meant that they had eyes. More than any overblown pantomime gesticulating, intent or blazing stares define silent acting. Their eyes had to do the work their voices could not, and once they could use their voices their eyes made a redundant, excessive impression. Gilbert suffers from this in Way For a Sailor but the later films show him striving to unlearn the old intensity while failing to replace it with real vocal virtuosity. Whether M-G-M could have helped him with this if the bosses really wanted to is a matter of conjecture; they seemed happy to let their old talent swim or sink while making new stars like Clark Gable or even making new stars of old but vocally-gifted talent like Beery. I know of no smoking gun proving a conspiracy to ruin Gilbert -- not even West of Broadway. But the Gilbert talkies I've seen suggest that the star shares some of the blame for his decline, for artistic if not personal reasons. He may or may not have been sabotaged, but the fact remains that he failed, and the likelihood is that he would have failed whether the studio wanted him to or not. Is that a tragedy? To his truest fans, yes. For the rest of us, maybe not tragic, but certainly sad.

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