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Thursday, April 1, 2010


Happy April Fool's Day! Don't worry, no pranks here. However, to commemorate the day, I have chosen to feature John Gilbert, a man who in the history of Hollywood most closely resembles fortune's fool.

John is not recalled for being a gifted actor, a handsome heartthrob, or a gallant gentleman. He is referred to in the history books as the symbol of the silent-talkie disaster. The story is thus: when films made the transition to sound, Gilbert's career was "ruined," because his voice recorded at too high a register. He stood in the crowd at a screening of His Glorious Night, listened as the audience laughed at him, and ran away in tears. His career was over... What a bunch of bull!!! In truth, there was nothing at all wrong with John's voice, which-- according to his own ex-wife Leatrice Joy-- sounded closer to Joseph Cotten's scotch-coated drawl than to a pipsqueak girly-man. This fact becomes obvious when one watches any of his sound films: Queen Christina, Redemption, The Hollywood Revue of 1929, etc, (the latter two of which were released BEFORE His Glorious Night). As for his running out of the movie theater in embarrassment, John was on his honeymoon in Europe with Ina Claire when the film premiered and wasn't even present to witness it!! Any laughter exhibited by viewers was a nervous reaction to the now spoken, romantic dialogue, which was received with awkwardness during every sound film at the time. Lovey-doveyness is always better on the page.

 In Flesh and the Devil with Greta Garbo--
the film on which they fell in love.

So, what's the big idea? Why is John remembered incorrectly as a wash-out? The answer: because Louis B. Mayer wanted it that way. Mayer and Gilbert never got along, for reasons I referred to in an earlier post, but I think the majority of the conflict lied in Mayer's own jealousy. John was handsome, talented, and could and did have pretty much any woman he wanted. Mayer was a short, fat, hard-boiled money-machine, who was only able to bed the beautiful women at his studio after he learned to leverage his position of power. In any case, Mayer set his sights on Jack's destruction and set about destroying his career. He placed him in mediocre films with poor production value until fans, who were used to seeing John in the sweeping epics of The Merry Widow and The Big Parade, had to look elsewhere for viable entertainment. Desert Nights wasn't cutting it! Then, to ruin his image, he planted the seed that Jack couldn't transfer to sound because of his voice. Releasing varying cuts of the His Glorious Night across the US, with unflattering editing and enhanced treble, rumors started circulating and soon fiction was accepted as fact. John's livelihood was pulled out from under him, and after duking it with out with Mayer until his MGM contract finally ended, John slowly disappeared from the limelight.

Waltzing in The Merry Widow with Mae Murray

Mayer's plot worked all too well, for John is still remembered incorrectly by these faulty historical reconstructions. If you hear a story told too many times, you eventually start to repeat it as fact. So it went when his tale was passed down the line. But John was no failure. He was a graceful and magnetic presence, a powerful and intense actor sincerely dedicated to his craft, and "The Great Lover" of cinematic history, onscreen and off. His films and his tumultuous relationship with Greta Garbo are legendary, and in his final days, it was Marlene Dietrich who was by his side. What else can you say about a man who was able to make the most complicated and elusive women in history salivate over him?!?! Please take the time to get to know this gifted and kindhearted individual, who martyred himself for us over and over again on that brilliant, silver screen. A charming rake and a gifted artist: ladies and gentlemen, John Gilbert!

Happy Easter!!!! :)


  1. Happy Easter. John’s tragic fall from grace kinda mirrors the Roscoe Arbuckle tragedy. Lasky and Zukor wanted out of his huge contract and did not go out of their way to protect him when he was in a jam. They could have but didn’t. Same with Mayer . I’m not too sure he was happy with that last contract Thalberg gave to Gilbert. Just another part of the unhappy saga between the two.

  2. I'm currently reading Maria Riva's accounting of her mother Marlene's life and was surprised to learn that Dietrich was there as Gilbert was dying and had to quietly slip away to avoid bad press. Actually, Riva's book is full of surprises.