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Wednesday, April 7, 2010


Time for more battles of the casting couch! Next up, of course, is April's Actor: John Gilbert.


There was an unconscious and lengthy war waging between these two silver screen giants. As one's career was burning out, the other's was just starting to catch fire! As a result of the great depression and changing social attitudes towards the male image, John Gilbert slowly found himself being usurped time and again of various roles and always seemingly by the new MGM macho, Clark Gable. At first, the studio didn't know what to do with the hulking, big-eared actor. But they knew that he was a star, for when they put him in front of the camera, audiences reacted with relish! Gable more accurately symbolized the prototypical modern man to 1930s audiences. He was gruff, a bit dangerous, and "liberal" with his morals.

As a result, when it came time to cast the scandalous films that were being slipped past the censors, Gable seemed to fit the bill more than the eloquent Gilbert, who was more recognized for romantic leads in period pieces. John was all man, no doubt about it, but his image was identified with a more distant past. He knew how to handle a sword and could win the day with heroic daring-do, but his success was the result of skill and wit, whereas Gable simply used brute force... and guns. When it came to the opposite sex, John would woo and win over a woman with his sensitivity and boyishness; Gable would simply manhandle. Thus, in 1931, when Gilbert was up for the role of the sinister and magnetic male lead opposite Norma Shearer in A Free Soul, he found himself unceremoniously intercepted by Gable (above, right). Audiences wouldn't have responded with as much ravenous lust had it been John who had thrust Norma down onto the couch. That is not how the "Great Lover" would treat a lady!

The same followed when Clark was cast in both Susan Lenox: Her Fall and Rise and Red Dust (above), both of which were originally slated to be Gilbert vehicles. What would it have been like to have John Gilbert in the center of a love triangle with Jean Harlow and Mary Astor? Of course, some of the reasoning behind Gilbert's shut-out most certainly had to do with Mayer's manipulation, but several factors went into the dissolution of John's career, including public sentiment and-- it seems-- fate. (Gable wasn't called "The King" for nothing). It is interesting to note that the gritty roles being offered to Gable were the very ones that the impassioned Gilbert had always craved, however they were normally denied him. Instead, the roles that would later be played by Errol Flynn seem more reminiscent of old John roles: a heroic figure who wins the ladies over without force, using only charm and a wink. I suppose the identity of John's onscreen persona can be found somewhere in between the images of both men.

Apparently, it was just Gable's time to shine, and shine he did in a lengthy and rich career, which has yet to be topped. While John was filming The Merry Widow back in his hey-day in 1925, he had no idea that one of the extras would take his place as the reigning sovereign of MGM. The ambitious and hungry Gable probably stood there in the crowd, studying the star and learning what it was to be a true lead. (Did Gilbert inspire his later mustache)??? He certainly took notes, for he was able to craft his own unique identity and win over the hearts of the American people. His career was also successful because he willingly worked with MGM to preserve his image, unlike the independently spirited Gilbert, and was close friends with both Eddie Mannix and Howard Strickling.

Though John was overshadowed in the aftermath of the sound film phenomenon, he was not forgotten, and in a way, he had the last laugh... At least among those who knew him best. When Gable went on to star in Gone with the Wind, a film whose success and majesty matched and outdid Gilbert's prior war epic The Big Parade, he was at the crest of his stardom-- untouchable. John Gilbert was sadly dead and gone. However, David O. Selznick himself would hold in his heart an image of what could have been... One day, when speaking to Leatrice Joy, John's ex-wife, he would say, “You and I know, Leatrice, we buried the man who should have played Rhett Butler.” Now it is hard to imagine anyone else in the luscious role of the South's most beloved lecher, but this comment speaks volumes on the power of a once proud individual and incomparable actor whom history has laid so low.


John Gilbert wasn't always the victim, however. He did manage a few victories at his career's end. The last major one came with the help of former lover, Greta Garbo, who was about to star in the historical epic Queen Christina. The role of her romancer was to be played by an English import, Laurence Olivier, (above) who had been winning renown for lighting up the British stage. However, Greta would have none of it. Greta was always an insecure and sensitive actress, and she had relied on John Gilbert's help tremendously during the beginning of her career. She wanted a co-star she could both trust and lean on in this pivotal role. Mostly, she wanted to do a service for the man who had so generously helped her when she was fresh off the boat from Sweden. Despite John's declining popularity, she used her clout to insist that he star opposite her. The reunion of on and off-screen lovers remains sensational to behold. Not only does John prove that he can speak just fine in the film, eradicating all rumors of a high-pitched voice, but the scenes between him and Greta evoke a nostalgia for a romantic time long past. Though the film did not fare so well in its day, performing only respectably at the box-office, now it is like watching two long lost lovers come home. Few things are more perfect.

As for poor Larry-boy, he was so insulted by the whole fiasco that he refused to work in America for several years. To be ousted is one thing, but to be ousted by the Great Greta Garbo?!?! Ouch. He would not make his big American debut until 6 years later in 1939's Wuthering Heights (below), where he finally fell in love with both film-making and film-acting and would spend the rest of his life enhancing the possibilities of both. He still held a grudge against Greta when they later met at a party, but it didn't take long for the beauty to make him forget the hard feelings. A jealous Vivien Leigh discovered the two walking arm in arm away from the rest of the crowd, looking very chummy indeed. Clearly, they had buried the hatchet.

 Woulda coulda shoulda or destiny devine? Whatever the possibilities were, this is how it all played out. Despite the upset feelings and particularly the heartbreak of dear John, I think the resulting films couldn't have turned out any better. They all remain classics, after all. That's saying something!!!


  1. I never knew that Gilbert was the original choice for Red Dust, A Free Soul and Susan Lenox. I guess when you punch out LB however right you may be , you’re done. I think that’s what did John in. Gable had great charisma and was boffo box office for MGM but there was room for both. You also talk about Gilbert’s voice. Which I think kinda sounded like Ronald Coleman and Coleman seemed to do just fine. WTG Meredith

  2. I wish Gilbert had been given a chance to prove he more machismo, to break away from his usual role of ever romantic. I think he would have done fantastically in A Free Soul- maybe not so much in Red Dust though.

  3. Billy: You're right. I never made the connection with Coleman, but they do sound very similar!
    Sarah: I agree. I would have loved to see him in more of those roles. There is a gaping hole where half of his career should have been.

  4. Wonderful post. I think John Gilbert's decline is such a sad story, particularly now that I know more of the particulars. I wonder how much history would have changed if he had been Rhett. A fascinating and enlightening read, as always!! Thank you for sharing all of your wonderful information!