Monday, June 19, 2017

John Gilbert and the Excellence of "Downstairs"

If you're going to talk about silent films, great silent film couples and how the advent of the talkies brought on the destruction of a once-great career, you cannot avoid talking about John Gilbert.  He had it all - - film success, high profile affairs with insanely popular actresses (Barbara La Marr; Laurette Taylor;  Bebe Daniels; Lupe Velez; Mae Murray; Greta Garbo; and Marlene Dietrich to name but a few), excesses, marriages, divorces, a career nosedive and early death.  That's the quick and dirty version.  The actual truth of John Gilbert requires much more than a simple post.

With all the available fodder on Jack (as he was known to friends), very little is ever said about his 1932 film Downstairs.  A terrible oversight and shame because Downstairs is a masterpiece of nuance and one that was delivered several generations too early for its movie-going audience.

Downstairs was written by Jack around 1928, at a time when he was still at the top of his game. He had written it with himself in mind as the lead - - a suggestion that horrified his bosses at MGM because the lead, Karl, was an unapologetic, self-serving crook.  How would it look for The Great Lover (as Gilbert had been nicknamed) to portray an irredeemable heel?

The script sat for several years, until Jack's career hit a downturn.  How that happened has reached mythical status over the years (Louis B. Mayer insulted Gilbert and Gilbert punched him; Mayer vowed revenge and wreaked havoc with the sound of Gilbert's films or Mayer planted a story that audiences laughed at Gilbert's allegedly high and effeminate voice in his first talkie.)  It's unlikely that Mayer would tamper with films that were in the can because, hey, a dollar's a dollar and Mayer was all about making more of them.  But at a certain point - - after his botched nuptials with Garbo, in which the actress stood him up at the altar - - Jack was given progressively worse scripts and directors that were either inept or didn't understand the actor, causing a drop in his popularity.  However, he still had a contract with MGM and a friend in production chief Irving Thalberg. Perhaps Thalberg felt guilty over Mayer's shabby treatment of a man who had made the studio a ton of money or that Jack's misfortunes, brought on by the depression caused by his lackluster career, were putting him into the drink. Regardless, Thalberg gave him two assignments that showcased exactly how versatile and talented John Gilbert was.

The first, The Phantom of Paris, a mystery, had been slated for Lon Chaney, who died of cancer in 1930.  Jack stepped into the role of a magician/showman who was accused of murder and uses his mastery of magic and disguise to solve the crime and find the real killer.   He does well in Phantom, playing very debonair (and true to type); it was not an easy task to take over for Lon Chaney.

In Downstairs, he played against type.  Very much against type. As the scheming, blackmailing chauffeur Karl, Jack is both repugnant and mesmerizing.  He's a scoundrel for sure but he takes it a step further.  He blatantly seduces women for material needs - - money, shopping, clothing - - or just for fun and then dumps them when they have served their purpose.  It doesn't matter if the woman is young, old, single or married; if she has the means, Karl has the time for seduction.  And you know that Karl knows how to lay down the pipe.

Anna weakly tries to fend off Karl (good luck, sister) 
His current target is new bride Anna (played by Virginia Bruce, who would become Jack's new bride off-screen shortly after the film wrapped), a maid in the residence where Karl is working.  Anna is so kind that Karl opens up to her in his attempts to woo her:  "I've had to fight my way through life alone. Bad men and bad women. I've never been in love with anyone good, like you, before. I didn't know how to treat you."

Good, right?  I mean, he knows exactly what to say.  I think we can figure that he's never been in love with anyone before.  And he knows how to hook his mark.  Jack's delivery, along with his expressions, are perfection here.  You can see exactly when he realizes he's reeling in his "fish," and she's all his.  It's the subtle type of nuance in which the best Pre-Code movies deliver and John Gilbert delivered.

Downstairs is about wealthy Vienna society, the differences between those who live "upstairs" and those who live "downstairs" (hence, the name) and sex.  Lots of sex.  Jack oozes the same sex appeal he was so notorious for as the dashing Great Lover, only here he's not doing it for love but for gain.  He's so smooth, so sexually charged and electrifying that you can't truly hate him, despite his at-times vicious behavior.  So charming is he that in one scene he manages to seduce and engage in shenanigans while actually picking his nose.

Downstairs was given a redheaded stepchild release (thanks, MGM) after the fairly disastrous premiere of His Glorious Night (the film which launched a thousand and one conspiracy theories) and the critics of the day roundly hated it.  They, like theater patrons, chose to ignore Jack's risque dialogue and witty banter and were confused by the leading man's portrayal of such a remorseless character, who gets no type of comeuppance that would be required post Pre-Code.

It's tragic that no one, save John Gilbert himself, seemed to realize that he wanted to play against type because it's real.  People like Karl existed and do exist.  He wanted to be someone on screen other than the man who ran after Garbo, or types like her, mad with love and lust, murmuring sweet nothings. In Downstairs, he proved that not only could he act out those parts but he could write them as well.

I think that Jack chose to do Downstairs, at least in part, as a "screw you" to MGM, who apparently felt they owed to nothing to a man who helped to build their empire.  While the exact role of Mayer in Jack's downfall is in question, there is no doubt that Mayer disliked him heartily and had no use for the man unless his blood and sweat were transforming into coins with which to line the studio coffers.

If Downstairs had been released fifty years later, I've no doubt that John Gilbert would have been greeted with acclaim and lauded with praise and awards.  The more jaded 1970s (and after) audiences would have recognized Karl in their co-worker, neighbor or spouse.  The movie audiences of the early 1930s were happy to have cads on screen but not portrayed by actors who typically played the "good guys," and certainly not if they never saw the error of their ways.

John Gilbert had believed so much in Downstairs that he sold the rights to MGM for a single dollar.  He made no salary off his work as a writer and the film at the time only cemented the belief that he was washed up.  The film ended up losing money and was chalked up as another "miss" for Jack.  Garbo would insist that he be given the role opposite her in the successful Queen Christina in 1933 but it did little to help his sagging career.  He would end his MGM contract with a B picture that same year.  The following year, Columbia cast him in The Captain Hates the Sea, in which he played a frustrated playwright.  The hope for any comeback was soured by the constant drinking that was done by Jack and co-stars Victor McLaglen, Leon Errol, Walter Catlett and Walter Connolly.  It would end up being Jack's last film appearance.

In December of 1935, Jack suffered a serious heart attack that left him weak and in poor health.  On January 9, 1936, he suffered a second and fatal heart attack.  At the time of his death, he had been slated to appear in the film Desire, with Marlene Dietrich, who he was romantically involved with at the time

Despite his career slide, and a divorce in 1934 from Virginia Bruce (his fourth), he would leave an estate valued at nearly $6.5 million in today's dollars.  The bulk of it went, at his direction, to Virginia and their daughter Susan.

It would take the inception of Turner Classic Movies and a rebirth of the appreciation of the Pre-Code films for Downstairs to find a new and much more appreciative audience.  Today, we aren't shocked at the lengths to which persons will go in order to obtain money and have their egos stroked; we can appreciate Jack's performance and his desire to take on the role of a less than moral and likable character.

Fortunately, John Gilbert today is remembered in a far kinder light than he was in 1936.  His voice, a subject of innuendo and controversy, was never effeminate or laughable and in fact, was crisp and distinctive.  What the actual reason for his falling out with Mayer and MGM, it certainly was not due to his acting or to Downstairs.

Jack gets the last laugh


  1. I greatly enjoyed your interesting, insightful and informative post. I love Downstairs, and while I've only seen him in a few films (Gentleman's Fate and Queen Christina, I think, are the only others), I really like John Gilbert. He got a raw deal. I look forward to reading more of your work!

    1. Thank you so much, shadowsandsatin! I'm glad you enjoyed the post and I'm thrilled that more people are discovering John Gilbert and his work. Hopefully TCM will air more of his films.

      Happy Wednesday!