There was nothing wrong with John Gilbert's voice.
We know that, but let's start there anyway, as even a few recent articles about The Artist, by people who should know better, reference the old story: John Gilbert, the romantic star of silents, was cursed with a voice that didn't match his masculine sex appeal, a voice that killed his career.
All you have to do to know this received film history is bogus is watch Queen Christina from 1933, the one sound effort from Gilbert still in wide circulation. He's hampered by bad hair, but he sounds fine. His speech is in the same register as that of Ronald Colman or Errol Flynn. Gilbert didn't have their nifty accents, but his slightly flat vowels aren't an irritant and could have been easily remedied. When sound came in, Mary Astor's Midwestern intonations were cured by coaching from her then-lover, John Barrymore.
Admittedly, it's hard to know much about His Glorious Night, Gilbert's first full-length talkie (the first released, that is; he made another, equally ill-fated one before that, Redemption). The Siren doesn't know a soul who's seen it, save John McElwee. He calls Gilbert's voice "more than adequate" and reminds us that the film that supposedly made Gilbert a laughingstock also turned a tidy profit. There's a tiny clip on YouTube where Gilbert does sound a bit effete, but that's mostly a function of the atrocious dialogue. In Singin' in the Rain, if you recall, it's Gene Kelly cooing "I love you, I love you, I love you"--like that Youtube clip--that gets 'em rolling in the aisles as much as Lena Lamont's henhouse screech. But Kelly's voice is no problem for the talkies; even Singin' didn't sign on for the whole myth.
Someone needs to spring His Glorious Night from whatever archival holding pen it's occupying, so we can hear for ourselves. The Siren's willing to bet that Gilbert doesn't sound bad, not even bad enough to support the old rumor that a vengeful Louis B. Mayer, who by all accounts couldn't stand Gilbert, ordered the MGM technicians to use trebles, and trebles only.
These thoughts were retrieved from the attic trunk of the Siren's mind a few weeks ago, because the bottom half of her double bill with Imogen Smith was Fast Workers from 1933, starring John Gilbert, and directed by an uncredited Tod Browning. Off screen Gilbert was miserable, drinking heavily, eking out the last of his MGM contract like a prisoner making hash marks on the wall, but you wouldn't know it. He moves with the same assurance he had in his silents.
The fast workers are construction men, blessed with well-paid jobs while unemployment's at 25%. The men relish their privilege, none more than Gunner Smith (Gilbert), whom we first see in the early morning as he's changing from evening clothes to work duds in the back seat of a car. As you watch him take off his shirt with swift precision, you know it's at least the second, possibly even the third or fourth time he's disrobed in as many hours.
Gunner ambles onto the worker's base platform high above the streets and pow, the rhythm jazzes right up. In any group of friends there's always such a creature, the easy leader, granted that unelected status by looks, charm, and above all confidence. When the guys go out for drinks, Gunner's status is even more evident. He half-sits on a barstool, marking out his next conquest and grinning that devilish grin, and his coworkers are happy just to watch him operate.
It isn't a female-friendly world, to say the least; Gunner's entire off-duty life is devoted not only to getting laid, but to making sure that his best friend Bucker Reilly (Robert Armstrong) avoids any con jobs from cheap skirts. The preventative is simple and diabolical: Gunner sleeps with Bucker's crushes himself. Problem solved. No, seriously, that's what the man believes; Gilbert plays it exactly as though he's doing his pal a favor. But then Bucker falls genuinely in love with Mary, played by Mae Clarke with a great mix of tough-tootsie grifting and fragile romantic desire. Mary has already been around the block with Gunner, you see...
Tod Browning, coming off the worst disappointment of his career with the failure of Freaks, was no happier about Fast Workers than Gilbert, and had his name taken off the picture. Probably the script wasn't a good temperamental fit; the goings-on are not so much strange as sordid. There's a definite Browning feel to the best bits, though, such as a dizzy scene on a girder that's been tampered with. The rear projection used for the street below the skyscraper is marvelous. And there's a minor subplot involving baby pigeons that would have fit just fine in Freaks.
It's a lowdown lurid little movie that would have done Warner Brothers proud, and how it landed at MGM I'll never know. Seeing MGM stamped on Fast Workers is like discovering your Sunday school teacher looks great in a swimsuit.
Now the Siren has seen Queen Christina (at least eight times, if you insist on a tally) so she knew Gilbert's voice wasn't a problem. But she'd gathered that his other talkies were, by and large, unworthy of him. On the Siren's shelves is Dark Star, Leatrice Gilbert Fountain's biography of her father, and even Fountain didn't like Fast Workers. By the time the credits rolled, the Siren was a bit worked up herself, having discovered that she couldn't have been more misinformed if she'd gone to take the waters in Casablanca. "This is one of his lousy, career-destroying talkies?" she demanded, rhetorically of course, no one was arguing with her, least of all Imogen. "This is Gilbert on the skids? What?"
Imogen highly recommended Downstairs, which Gilbert conceived and co-wrote as well as starred in--but it isn't on DVD. Damnit. (Although Fast Workers is.) A little bit of digging, and the Siren had it (gone now, alas).
Downstairs, directed by Monta Bell and set in what Lubitsch might have called Vienna, Hollywood, is a comedy of manners about the servants and their employer problem. Confession: The Siren's addicted to Downton Abbey, despite some things that bother her no end, such as when Bates, the butler, decides he must nobly protect the good name of his lordship. Thomas, the scheming footman, he's got the logical attitude: Take these ludicrously overprivileged layabouts for all you can get. If that thought has crossed your mind while watching Downton Abbey, rejoice; here's John Gilbert as Karl the chaffeur.
Karl is the anti-est of antiheros, so amoral he could take Thomas down to his shirt studs, and the movie knows it shouldn't be on his side, and yet it is. Just watch dependably stolid Paul Lukas, as Albert the butler, sternly warn Karl not to betray the lady of the house (Olga Baclanova) after she's been diddling some schmo in town. Karl can barely conceal his contempt as he agrees to maintain the family secrets. Gilbert keeps eye contact and almost imperceptibly shakes off the butler's honorable handclasp. Then, again in a tiny gesture, he wipes the bridge of his nose, as though Albert's crawled up there.
Ah, the Gilbert nose. By rights it should be as immortal as John Barrymore's, and the nose gets a major workout in Downstairs. He's peering down it at whoever he's conning, he's tilting it slightly skyward as he contemplates his next scheme. Baclanova seals her doom when she goes to meet her lover and almost shuts the door on the nose. You don't do that to the Gilbert profile. His look as he pulls back is not fury, resentment or humiliation; it's cool, deliberate vengefulness.
Karl calibrates his behavior to the desires of every mark, and they're all marks to Karl. Seducing the cook, for example, he doesn't bother with subtlety. Told he has flour on his ass ("your whatchamacallit," the cook says coyly), Karl sticks it out at her and says, "Get it off, will you?"
But Karl's real target is Albert's wife Anna (Virginia Bruce). He takes her to a nearby inn for a spot of seduction. Off-duty and sure of his goal, Karl rattles the dishes when he stubs out a cigarette. Legs splayed and chair tilted back, Karl looks at Anna like a cat wondering if the mouse should be the main course or saved for later, like a chocolate with coffee.
Gilbert wrote himself a complicated, nasty, but undeniably sexy part. Downstairs forces us to admit that sexy counts far more than most people like to admit. It's deliciously clear that upright Albert is hopeless in bed. If showing Anna the real facts of life were Karl's only sin, he could take the "anti" off hero. Alas, Karl really is a louse, shown by his brutal cruelty to the dimwitted, lovestruck cook. But he's also probably the one taste of good lovemaking she'll ever get. Downstairs is cynical enough to suggest maybe the cook didn't do so badly by the bargain.
Gilbert was proud of Downstairs, and it got him a few good reviews as well as the hand of Virginia Bruce, whom he married after filming. But any reprieve was temporary. Soon he was losing the lead in Red Dust to Clark Gable and seething through the making of Fast Workers.
Fountain's book tries to solve the puzzle of why her father became sound's most notorious casualty. She goes through Gilbert's feud with Mayer and the question of whether MGM deliberately sank its troublesome, expensive star. Fountain believes the story that Gilbert, left at the altar by love of his life Greta Garbo, knocked Mayer flat when the mogul quipped gallantly, "Why don't you just fuck her and forget about it?" She quotes His Glorious Night reviews and notes that no one mentions the voice; she smacks down an old yarn about Gilbert attending the premiere and leaving in shame before the lights came up. (There was no big premiere, and he was in Europe when the film came out.)
Fountain tracks the voice sniping to about 1930, when it took off in the press, whether fueled by the MGM brass, or just gossips smelling blood, she can't say. Such was the power of the legend that one of the most poignant quotes comes from Clarence Brown, who directed Gilbert in the gorgeous Flesh and the Devil: "As time went by, I'd hear occasional mentions of Jack's high piping voice, and the way audiences roared at the sound of it, and damned if I didn't find myself repeating them one day. Can you believe that? Me, of all people, repeating those stories. And I knew better, Leatrice, I knew better."
Dark Star is a touching book, a loving daughter's attempt at resurrection, and while Fountain doesn't excise Gilbert's drinking, she's reluctant to attribute much to it. But colleagues were blunt: Gilbert was an alcoholic, one who "became more argumentative and belligerent with each drink," wrote Colleen Moore. (Moore spoke from experience; her first husband was an alcoholic.) The Siren told Robert Avrech, who holds a special love for silents and early talkies, that she was writing about Gilbert. Robert wrote back:
The more I read about him the more I'm convinced that he was an emotional child, impulsive, impossibly romantic, and tragically self-destructive. Going to war against L.B. Mayer is sheer madness. I admire Downstairs tremendously. His playing against type was courageous, but certainly not what his audience wanted.
And of course his voice was fine.
History comes with hard-set myths, and more than once the Siren's hit her head on some Hollywood cement. At least the lie about Jack Gilbert's squeak is all but dead. When the Siren took to Twitter, after seeing Fast Workers, to say that Gilbert sounded good, nearly a dozen people instantly tweeted back that of course he did.
Thank goodness. The canard diminishes even Gilbert's silent performances, if new audiences look at him--so graceful, varied and heartbreakingly sincere in The Big Parade, to cite only one--and imagine the intertitles spoken in an incongruous high tenor. If the voice myth gets a stake through its heart, perhaps Gilbert's good talkies can get more attention, too, putting paid to the idea espoused by David Thomson, that "Gilbert had always been a coarse actor," and sound simply emphasized that.
Some silent stars survived to see their fame renewed. Louise Brooks wrote about Pabst for the New Yorker, Buster Keaton became a hero to cinephiles worldwide. It makes the stories of the ones who didn't live that long all the sadder. Gilbert died in 1936, his talkies already enshrined as the thing that did him in, turned him into a man who didn't sound manly.
On a now-defunct chatboard some dreamy-eyed chatter once started a thread thus: "If you could go back in time and give an artist one present--and one only--who would you pick, and what would you give the person?" The Siren answered that she'd bring Franz Schubert some penicillin. But suppose she had to go back empty-handed, and could deliver only a line. She could do a lot worse than, "Mr. Gilbert, Fast Workers is a good movie."