Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Gilbert Talks: Fast Workers (1933) and Downstairs (1932)

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."


Casey said...

I read Fountain's book years ago. It was a moving tribute from a daughter who barely knew her father. It does seem that Gilbert was self-destructive, and he should never have gone up against Mayer. The drinking was certainly a problem, but I think it was Mayer who ruined Gilbert's career.

john_burke100 said...

The Siren answered that she'd bring Franz Schubert some penicillin.


Yojimboen said...

(If I may I’ve moved my last comment up from the previous topic below.)

A remarkable banner shot, chère Sirène – new to me – Garbo and John Gilbert seem lost in separate reveries between takes (Love 1927 ?) – supposedly at the height of their passion.

Gilbert almost had a comeback - after the string of commercial flops - in Borzage’s Desire cast as the jewel thief Carlos Margoli. They even shot some Technicolor costume tests with Marlene Dietrich (whom he was dating at the time).

Days before shooting started, however, he had a minor heart attack in his dressing room and was immediately replaced by actor John Halliday.

A few days after this final rejection, Gilbert died of alcohol-induced heart failure.

The Siren said...

Casey, yes, it's one of the most passionately personal bios I've ever read.

John burke, glad you agree.

Y., it's like they're seeing the future, isn't it? I'd read about Desire and it's yet another of the crying shames of Gilbert's career.

The Siren said...

Via Peter Nelhaus, if anybody wants to take a flutter on Downstairs, here's one way.

whistlingypsy said...

If I may play the devil’s advocate (somewhat in reverse), I believe Gilbert’s appearance as Romeo, along with Norma Shearer’s Juliet, is an interesting glimpse of the whole notion of “voices that didn’t translate well to early sound pictures”. In the scene, both Giblert and Shearer put on “affected voices” while performing Shakespeare’s words, but once Lionel Barrymore yells cut, each resumes a more natural intonation. If I take the argument a bit further, I’ve often wondered how actors such as Charles Farrell and Rod La Rocque made the transistion without the attending legacy. I adore Charles Farrell, but his sound pictures with Janet Gaynor reveal a voice in a higher register than I expected. I don’t care for Rod La Rocque as a rule, but he always sounds as if he’s whining in his sound pictures. I suppose a combination of early (untried) sound equipment, and (then) contemporary speech, made audiences both less and more tolerant of what they heard.

Trish said...

This is a wonderful piece, Siren. I was shocked by the sound of his voice when I finally heard it. It does sound like that of Ronald Coleman. Even as late as the 70s books were advancing the theory that his "high-pitched" voice killed his career. I must see these films!

surly hack said...

Thanks, Siren. I saw Downstairs years ago, and more recently, The Captain Hates the Sea. Truly, Gilbert's voice was not the problem.

Sadly, I'm reminded of Buster Keaton, another silent star whose sound career seemed hampered more by studio interference and alcohol than any audio aversion by their audience.

Unknown said...

Just wanted to let you know I have a biography of John Gilbert coming out next May--I have been able to see all of his extant films, thanks to various archives, museums and "things that fell off the back of a truck."

Leatrice Jr. gave me her blessings, and I do hope his fans enjoy it!

Eve Golden

Trish said...

I used to read Ms. Golden's pieces in Movieline years ago. She is the real deal.

The Siren said...

Eve, that's wonderful news and I'll look forward to it.

Yojimboen said...

Just watched Fast Workers, Gilbert is winning beyond words – I love how he shows up for work as a riveter dressed like Cary Grant. His voice is actually quite mellifluous, a lot more pleasant to listen to than Robert Armstrong’s rasp. (Of course Sterling Holloway’s is consistently three octaves higher than the ladies in the room and nobody complains.)

My favorite exchange:

Judge: “If I let you go will you promise not to drink anymore of that Hallelujah Syrup?”
Accused: “Yessir!”
Judge: “Ten dollars or ten days for lying! Next case.”

The Siren said...

HAHA! Isn't it a PIP? Do you understand the Siren's reaction? And poor Gilbert hated the film. This was how good he could be even when he hated the part!

Sterling Holloway is great here; he's like hair and a nose attached to nothing but adenoids and an Adam's apple. I loved him shooing the waiter out of the way at the bar so they could watch Gunner do his thing.

grandoldmovies said...

Gilbert is really fine in 'Downstairs,' and his voice is excellent; and what's more, it perfectly suits his character - he gets that right tone of supercilious devilry into it - so he could act with his voice, too.

One story I recall reading regarding the Gilbert-Mayer feud (I think in an Alexander Walker book) is that Gilbert once flippantly said to his boss that his (Gilbert's) mother was a whore. The remark so enraged Mayer (who considered motherhood to be sacred) that he swung at Gilbert (not the other way around) and then never forgave/forgot. I haven't seen the story repeated elsewhere, but somehow it sounds like Mayer.

Unknown said...

Siren and Trish--Aren't you sweet! I do hope you like it. I adore John (I think of him as "Jack" now, that's what everyone called him), but am not blind to his faults. Neither was he--he knew he kept putting his foot in it.

Grandoldmovies--the Gilbert/Mayer fistfights are urban legend, it turns out. Eleanor Boardman and Sam Marx told story after story that just do not hold up to investigation. Not that Gilbert and Mayer did bot hate each other's insides!

--Eve Golden

The Siren said...

Eve, I thought as much, hence my careful phrasing when I was retelling that old story, even though Boardman did claim she witnessed it. I honestly almost never believe stories of publicly flouting Mayer, let alone punching the man; he was too powerful and too vindictive.

What's striking is how many people--aside from Mayer--did love Jack (and yeah, the dimunitive is irresistible). He was evidently a very lovable person, the flaws almost making him more so. I'm very eager to see the book and find out what careful research reveals.

The Siren said...

ZOWIE, folks, inadvertent kismet. I managed to post my John Gilbert tribute on the man's birthday. I had no idea. That NEVER happens. Almost never. I feel that this is a good luck portent. Can a Lincoln Center retrospective be far behind? :)

Unknown said...

Siren--all of his ex-wives and lovers spoke with great fondness of him. With the one exception, I may add, of Greta Garbo--Ina Claire even told Garbo to "shut up" when she overheard her bad-mouthing him at a party decades later!

I found the Gilbert/Dietrich relationship much more moving and fascinating than the Gilbert/Garbo one.

--Eve Golden

Aubyn said...

I'm fascinated by those matinee idols who deliberately sought out nasty, manipulative roles. John Gilbert in Downstairs, Tyrone Power in Nightmare Alley...and I suppose Robert Pattinson is now trying the same trick.

"Karl is the anti-est of antiheros, so amoral he could take Thomas down to his shirt studs." You know this really makes me want to have a smackdown between all those Downton characters and their Hollywood analogues. Mrs. Danvers would be the obvious choice to chew up and spit out O'Brien.

Unknown said...

I love him in Downstairs--he would have been fabulous in the John Halliday role in Desire, which was to have been his next part; he could easily have segued into Adolphe Menjou "aging cad" roles.

--Eve Golden (who still does not know how to sign in!)

gmoke said...

Gilbert/Garbo and Gilbert/Dietrich but what about Garbo/Dietrich?


Ah, Hollywood!

Pinko Punko said...

Wonderful post. I saw Queen Christina on the big screen and was so mesmerized by certain scenes I am afraid to watch it on a TV because it won't feel the same. I liked Gilbert in it, but Garbo so dominates...

Vanwall said...

I was always fascinated by the machinations studios went thru to get rid of people. I liked Gilbert from way back as a tad, and seeing a few sound films on TV in my formative years, I liked him even more. A consummate actor.

But then again, John Kobal observed that most of the casualties in the sound transition had regional accents (curable) but no voices. Putting Gilbert up against Baclanova's verbal presence in "Downstairs" was a tad unfair - Olga had a pretty damn real 'voice' and even though it was like a Russian and English train colliding, she had something the mikes liked. The film gave any supporting players from Europe an automatic advantage, and many spoke a number of languages with tonal inflections that taught them how to have a voice.

Baclanova loved working with Gilbert, BTW: (read with a thick Russian accent) "He had sex appeal. Terrific. His voice, no, but himself was wonderful." She was speaking of his sound presence, I understand.

Gilbert did well enough on his own, no doggie required, and should be revered - unquestionably - for his work, with no caveats.

mndean said...

I've seen a lot of early sound films, and it seems that many who didn't make it in sound had heavy accents like Antonio Moreno, which I would guess made them hard to understand. Even Americans who had some serious honking accents found themselves put in character parts where before they were featured in silents. Some just didn't deliver lines well, and it may be contentious, but Louise Brooks fits in that category from the few appearances I've seen of hers in the early '30s. Conversely, Gary Cooper somehow got away with it, his early sound performances show some really problematic line delivery.

The Siren said...

I am sorry to say that I have never seen Louise Brooks in a talking role, unless you count her late-life interviews (rim-shot). Her post-sound behavior always struck me as incredibly strange. Paramount tells her to come back and record The Canary Murder Case and she just says, "No." I know our Miss Brooks was a rebellious sort but how on earth did she think that was going to turn out? Even in Barry Paris' excellent bio I was left scratching my head at her perversity.

All this is by way of saying that your verdict on her vocal acting is plausible to me. Recall also that she was embarrassed by her Kansas accent, although it had supposedly been cured by Barbara Bennett's coaching. Sometimes when people cure an accent, they create another problem of stilted, self-conscious delivery.

All speculative of course...

The Siren said...

Mr./Miss ?, Queen Christina is Garbo's show all the way, although her best scenes are in that inn with Gilbert.

VW, in some ways The Artist plays like a Gilbert rescue fantasy, which may be one small part of why it appealed to me.

Kirk said...

I can understand the rumors about his having a high voice being believed now, as Gilbert's no longer alive and most of his movies out of circulation. But how in the world could people have believed it in the 1930s, when he was still alive and could have easily refuted such a rumor? It doesn't make any sense. Then again, the rumors about Paul McCartney being dead in 1969 didn't make much sense either, yet I've known people who STILL believe that!

Unknown said...

Also--let's face it--Jack did not have a drop-dead, dreamy Ronald Colman voice. But neither did Clark Gable or Jimmy Cagney or Edward G. Robinson!

--Eve Golden

Vanwall said...

Brooksie had her accent verbally beaten out of her by a soda-jerk she saw regularly: "And it's not 'hep,' you hayseed —it's 'help,' 'help,' 'help '!" She aquired a sort of upper-crust sound, possibly from the Bennetts, that certainly recorded well, from what I've heard - it wasn't her voice, it was herself that killed any career. She was very much in thrall to George Marshall, the Washington Redskins owner, around that time, and his influence led to some curious decisions on her part. Plus she was pretty ornery.

The fundamentals for the Studios was always the bottom line, or as much of one they could concoct in secret with no real traceability, and shoving people out the door was easier than figuring things out for all sides.

The Siren said...

VW, I always forget Marshall, who could have a chapter in my vaunted, as-yet-unsold book proposal "Useless Paramours of the Great Female Stars." He was better than others in that long-planned book of mine, but a bad influence on Brooks' career, for sure. I think I forget about him because every time he comes up in Brooks discussions I'm like her mother: "God, she could have done so much better!"

She wrote about him very touchingly, though.

Yojimboen said...

L.B.'s first mistake was leaving the Denishawn Dance Company (she’s 2nd from right) in 1922; coulda had a career. The dancer in the middle was Martha somebody, I forget what happened to her.

The Siren said...

Her life story is like an aria about bad choices. But they were HER choices and she didn't whine about them.

The Siren said...

Robert Avrech is having trouble posting a comment (so it isn't just you, Eve!) and asked me to put this up. As usual, he's too kind, but I do need to see Desert Nights. I knew nothing about Mary Nolan, either:

"A wonderful post about a talented and tragic figure.

Being quoted by the Siren has to be the high point of my Hollywood career.

I'd like to recommend John Gilbert's last silent film, “Desert Nights” (1929) It's a splendid yarn with fine performances by Gilbert and his co-star, Mary Nolan, who might have been even more tragic and self-destrucive than Gilbert."

Yojimboen said...

To sum up on LB’s choices, I may be biased but I submit her choice to pose for A.C. Johnston was one of her better decisions.
Herein two of my favourite images of Our Miss Brooks:

LB by ACJ & LB by GWPabst

mas82730 said...

Even though I never seen a Gilbert talkie, I've never believed that old canard. Mayer was a sadist, look how he treated Crawford. I mean if Gilbert could render Garbo lovestruck (oh sure, some women go for effeminate men, but Gilbert never acted the pansy - Agee showed me it was OK to use that epithet).
If you want to talk about sound harming a film career, Christ, Chaplin sounds like a flamer from the Rachel Zoe project in bits of 'Verdoux'. He was never the same with the advent of sound.

G said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Yojimboen said...

Poor Mary Nolan’s Wiki bio is almost too painful to read, but in her prime Ziegfeld days she was a rare beauty.

G said...

That photo up top, wow - my interpretation is that poor John realizes he has a tiger by the tail. Indeed, as it turned out it seems as if it was not in the cards for Greta to be in a committed relationship with anyone.

It's been a long time since I read Louise Brook's book, I'd sort of thought she'd mentioned Gilbert but she DID make a convincing case for how the studios ruined Lillian Gish's career as a movie star.

Even if Brooks did not mention Gilbert explicitly, I would think something similar might have been at play. Studio bosses used the transition to sound as an opportunity to show uppity stars who had the REAL power. I have not seen "Fast Workers" but I'd imagine making Gilbert play a blue collar type might have been meant as some kind of jab against his image - something to put him in his place.

Even if Gilbert's voice was fine, if the studio machinery did not continue putting in great effort to maintain his image through the transition to sound (like they did with Garbo), it is sad but not to surprising his career would fold.

I saw Downstairs a long time ago at Film Forum and liked it a lot. Even so, so many films were being made in that era a movie would have to be pretty successful in order to just be 'held over' beyond a couple of days. Again, if the studio did not do a lot of advance publicity for it it might have helped spell doom.

For the poster who wondered why Gilbert didn't stick up for himself - what would have been his options to get his side of the story out? There was little serious coverage of show biz in those times, and the gossip magazines and columnists seemed mostly to be in league with the studios. I guess some actors engendered independent 'relationships' with influential columnists, but it all seems like a sordid business that many would have felt was beneath them.

(removed my initial comment so I could edit out a typo!)

The Siren said...

Mas82730, despite my love for Agee I'd point out that he died in 1955. For myself, in comments, I prefer less, er, flamingly retro terms.

G, I think your diagnosis sounds largely accurate. They didn't have to actively torpedo anybody, especially not someone as self-destructive as Gilbert. Mere neglect would do the trick. Brooks' piece on "Gish and Garbo" takes up a whole chapter of Paris' bio and it was riddled with inaccuracies, but her larger point about the power the studios wielded over stars is still worth pondering. And yes, I think Gilbert probably resented a lot of what makes Fast Workers so attractive to a modern audience: the down-market atmosphere, the lewd blue-collar character, the no-frills script and dialogue. He'd been playing romantic leads for so long, and few heartthrobs ever relish the transition to character parts. Downstairs is against type in that Karl is a heel, but he's a sophisticated heel, one who's mixing it up with his betters in posh settings.

Y., that Louise Brooks photo, DAY-UM. How old was she? And Mary Nolan was dazzling. I couldn't believe that Wiki bio either. One abusive mate after another. Some Hollywood stories will never become biopics because they are too horrific for tragedy and too tragic for horror.

mas82730 said...

Sorry, Siren, I have many gay friends who fling about such pejoratives promiscuously, so I hope I didn't offend anyone here and it will never happen again.

The Siren said...

Mas, I figured as much, and so do I actually, so no offense taken. It's a great big mix of people here so I err on the side of caution in trying to make everyone feel comfortable as possible. Hope that makes sense.

mndean said...

I think a lot of why silent stars got shunted aside was purely financial. The studios could unload a lot of big contracts fairly easily and take up the slack with Broadway actors. Some silent stars like Betty Compson just went on and on as bit players, others like Dorothy Mackaill seemed to hit a brick wall - by 1934 she was doing nothing but poverty row films.

After watching Brooks in such things as Windy Riley Goes Hollywood and It Pays To Advertise, I think she must have either not been interested or had some problem speaking into the microphone. I sort of understand Paramount ceasing to be interested after she blew off The Canary Murder Case. They had other actresses on the lot who were a lot less trouble, and the assembly line way of producing films didn't allow much rebellion if you weren't a huge star.

Also re: Brooks - Did she lift weights? Other dancers? She's got the biggest shoulders I ever saw on a woman. I first noticed them in the silent Love 'Em And Leave 'Em. She was very good, btw.

Anagramsci said...

a swell piece here Siren -- thanks for bringing these to our attention (especially Fast Workers -- anything involving Mae Clarke AND Tod Browning is something I need to see!) I've always thought Gilbert was excellent in Queen Christina and in The Captain Hates the Sea (which manages to channel its star's alcoholic tribulations nearly as successfully as John Barrymore's magnificent The Great Man Votes)

I've got Gilbert on the brain lately, as I'm planning to pick up my chronological examination of King Vidor's films with Bardelys the Magnificent (Vidor and Gilbert collaborated wonderfully in The Big Parade of course, but also in La Boheme)


Unknown said...

Yojimboen, that "LB" had me picturing for one horrible moment LB Mayer in the Denishawn Dance Company!

One of Jack's problems was that he signed a $250,000/film contract right before talkies hit, against Mayer's wishes (Mayer did not have final say on everything). it was all very complex.

I was lucky enough to get hold of stacks of notes by Gladys Hall--unedited interviews she did with Jack from the mid-20s till 1933! So there will be a lot in his own words in the book. And he had no illusions about himself.

--Eve Golden

Yojimboen said...

Apologies, Eve, my fingers actually hesitated to type 'LB' just for that reason.
Meanwhile add me to the growing list of fans eagerly awaiting your book.

Unknown said...

Louis B. Mayer in leotards, doing deep-knee bends * shudder *

--Eve Golden

The Siren said...

Louis B. Mayer in a leotard is a picture Yojimboen would post only if he were really drunk, or REALLY angry at all of us, or just wanted to play the world's best practical joke.

"Look, here's a nude study of LB!!"


*cue heart attacks from Sirenistas in 10 time zones*

(Yojimboen for the love of all that's holy do not take that as a dare.)

Anagramsci, I will look forward to those. To me Vidor was without question Gilbert's best director, in terms of what he got from him. I was watching some clips from La Boheme and loving the way Gilbert plays this artist as someone who's always on stage, so conscious of the effects he's having, and how that alters as his love for Mimi grows.

One thing I'll look forward to in Eve's book is (I hope) settling the question of whether Gilbert was really concerned about his image. Vidor said so in his memoirs, but Leatrice Fountain objected to that. So who was accurate? I suspect maybe Vidor but I can't wait to find out.

Unknown said...

Well, he was a complicated person--but for all his complaining, he loved being a STAR and was a big old drama queen, in the best sense of the word (not that his wives would agree).

One of the interviews I found has him complaining about the trials and tribulations of being a movie star--then catching himself and laughing at his own "problems."

--Eve Golden

DavidEhrenstein said...

Lovely banner pick of Greta and Jack.

His rise and fall is a lot more complicated than the transition from silents to talkies.

I've seen and heard Louise in God's Gift to Women and . She's fine. The films are rotten. Neither give her much to do.

Yojimboen said...

Stone cold sober, LB, encore sans leotard:

mndean said...

God's Gift To Women is the best of her performances (I still don't think it's that good), but it's a really small part and somewhat degrading considering her former status. I fear David and I are at an impasse.

Happily, I think there was nothing wrong with John Gilbert's voice. The fun I had reading the trades and fan mags of the period when sound first came in. Let's say the reporting was...fanciful. Or a pack of rather impressive whoppers, whichever you prefer. The Clara Bow story alone was worth the time and effort. They even wedged some sexual overtones in that.

X. Trapnel said...

Golly, Y., I was really hoping for a photographic souvenir of The L.B. Mayer Dance Experience.

But this will do.

DavidEhrenstein said...

I don't see Louise Brooks as an actress in the conventionla sense, mndean.

She was a creature of light and shadow -- like Edie Sedgwick and Nico.

Sh was also ateriffic writer.

VP81955 said...

The Siren said...

I am sorry to say that I have never seen Louise Brooks in a talking role, unless you count her late-life interviews (rim-shot).

Someone earlier mentioned "It Pays To Advertise" (1931) -- Brooks appears in the first six minutes of the film and then vanishes. She has a supporting role in this Carole Lombard vehicle, but you don't see them together at all; in fact, it's entirely possible Lombard and Brooks never met.

The clip is at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P4dzfXug1YU; an entry I wrote on Carole and Louise some years back is at http://carole-and-co.livejournal.com/32690.html.

Anagramsci said...

The Siren said:
To me Vidor was without question Gilbert's best director, in terms of what he got from him.

Oh yes, I agree most heartily. Although, in my undoubtedly biased opinion, Vidor was everyone's best director!

mas82730 said...

David Ehrenstein, as I know you know Edie auditioned for the stage version of Mailer's "The Deer Park" and he had to fire her because she almost burned herself out in paroxysms of acting during the rehearsals alone. That is, if Mailer was telling the truth.

DavidEhrenstein said...

That's a very big "If."

Mailer found the Truth to be inconvenient.

Yojimboen said...

To be serious. A casual hour’s web-surfing last night, plus a random scan of period bios this morning prove one thing: it’s virtually impossible to find anything in depth on John Gilbert which doesn’t feature the lie about his voice. Clarence Brown’s confession to Leatrice Fountain that he found himself perpetuating the myth he knew to be false (and here I contradict you, chère amie), isn’t in the least “poignant”. I submit it’s fucking hideous.

Eve Golden’s mention of Gilbert’s new $250,000 contract sounds like the likeliest reason for the character assassination, and Mayer the likeliest source. Imagine spreading lies that ruin another human being’s life (to the extent of likely causing his premature death) for profit?

Thank goodness things like that don’t happen today.

The Siren said...

Y., you have a point. Hideous is not inaccurate. I felt for Brown because he was trying to get some kind of absolution from Fountain, and she was kind. Kind even though she also tells (I don't have book in front of me, I do recommend it) of someone asking Brown point-blank if he thought MGM torpedoed Gilbert, and Brown sitting in silence for a long moment, and then responding with an evasion.

(I won't be able to give details on that until tomorrow morning but I'll get the exact remark Brown made.)

Ha, I love it that you're getting just as indignant as I was. You did notice that David Denby link up top?It's so easy to repeat the conventional wisdom without bothering to check first, that's the real problem. Even in my old Flesh and the Devil review. I did NOT repeat the voice lie, I did know better than that (did I mention I love Queen Christina?). But I carelessly referred to His Glorious Night as the film that all but ended his career. This isn't strictly accurate, either, so I fixed it.

If you superficially Google search a lot of old-movie names and history, you will always, always find a bunch of rumors or one-source anecdotes repeated as fact. (IMDB trivia is the WORST for that.)

That's why someone like VP81955 (a well earned PLUG here) is invaluable because everything he posts about Carole Lombard is sourced.

mndean said...

One of the reasons I go back to sources (when I can) is that every Hollywood story is really only that. Many of the stories have some or occasionally even much truth, some stories have none. They all tend to be gilded and it's just the thickness of the gilt coat that's different. Yes, I am cynical about those old accounts.

That Mayer would do something on this order squares with a number of accounts I've read of him.

The Gilbert stories early on were highly mixed, some repeating the slander, others saying it wasn't so. Why Brown would repeat that slander is hard to understand in light of his being one of the more independent of MGM's directors. He could (and did) stand up to Mayer without consequence.

Yojimboen said...

You do well to upbraid David Denby for his surprisingly lazy review of The Artist (a film which, incidentally, I cordially detest, which is neither nor there) as he descends into what I like to term POLR (Path Of Least Resistance) Journalism with statements such as “…Gilbert, an inept master of meaningless prolongation, failed in the sound period, as everyone knows, because his voice was too high…”

I like Denby’s work. A lot. I have admired him for years, so I’m quite surprised to find such ill-considered nonsense as the above… And below:

“The cinematographer William Daniels, who shot many of Garbo’s movies, says that the actress needed to be photographed either in closeup or in long shot, most likely because he thought her big, wide-hipped, flat-chested body awkward, even a little clumsy.”

POLR Journalism, Mr. Denby. Naughty, naughty. Using Daniels’s opinion as justification for your own is simply not on. He didn’t say Garbo was wide-hipped, flat-chested, clumsy or awkward, you did.

Since I’m in a generous mood this week, here is the lady in question (whom I have posted before); perhaps someone who knows DD might suggest he cops a look at the clumsy, awkward Ms Garbo… And cocks an ear to … John Gilbert’s real voice.

Yojimboen said...

In 1980 Thames TV (UK) did an extensive study in 13-parts.
Ep 12 was titled ‘Star Treatment’ and spent an hour on two stars: Clara Bow and Jack Gilbert; on-camera interviews with wives, lovers, children, directors, everyone who knew them… It’s all here.

Took a while, but I finally found it.
Jack Gilbert’s tragic story begins about 18:25.

The Siren said...

OK, here we go, the passage I was trying to recall in Dark Star, where Leatrice asks Clarence Brown about His Glorious Night, during an interview in 1973:
"I know what happened," [Brown] told me. "I was there. Douglas Shearer told me himself. He said, 'We never turned up the bass when Gilbert spoke; all you heard was treble.' Of course it was a 'mistake.' "

When I asked if Mayer had ordered it, Clarence was silent for a long time. At last he said, "Louis B. Mayer was my best friend in pictures. I was there from the early days until 1972 and we never had a cross word. I'm not going to say anything about anyone who isn't here to defend himself."

Subject closed. Interview over.

The Siren said...

Y., I also have respect for Denby but that article--it's basically a think piece but it is--politely stated--slight. Also, it just occurred to me -- what the HECK, famed New Yorker fact checkers, does poor Jack Gilbert not merit your efforts?

DavidEhrenstein said...

Denby is just so completely wrong. Daniels was Garbo's fave DP because he could bring out the best of her in clsoe-up -- which is where her art lies.

The thing that Cukor discovered immediately when he becae a film director was how powerful the camera was in picking up nuances of the most refined sort. That's why his most frequent piece of direction s "Stop acting!" Naturally he adored Garbo, who he was lucky enough to direct in her greatst role. In his interview with gavin Lambert hes becomingly most -- sayinghe had "a little" to do with her performance. But no more. Garbo knew what she was doing. He says she was teh sould of professionalism. No grand airs. Didn't aste anyone's time. And like all true stars got along smashingly with the crew.

DavidEhrenstein said...

As for Garbo's body, Cukor mentions how graceful she is in Camille, moving through the theater lobby, knowing that all eyes are on her.

Nobody remotely like that anymore.

Trish said...

That banner photo glows. You can almost see them breathing.

Yojimboen said...

Chère Sirène, sadly, your sourcing the Shearer/Brown interviews makes the whole sordid affair even worse. It goes without saying I’ll never look at a Clarence Brown film the same way ever again, if indeed I ever again look at any of his work. What mealy-mouthed cowardice! And neither does Douglas Shearer emerge too simon-pure. Damn! Shearer had a superb record for innovation and quality - the MGM sound dept was his fiefdom, backed up by the not inconsiderable clout of having a brother-in-law named Irving Thalberg. Jack Gilbert and Norma Shearer had been lovers before her marriage, and they were still very close – Douglas Shearer could have passed on a heads-up to Jack via Norma, but rather he – and Brown – chose to cave to the vile Mayer and sandbag a fellow professional, effectively destroying Gilbert’s life.

“Men behave decently once they have exhausted all other alternatives.”
Abba Eban

Marilyn said...

Gilbert's last picture, a tragic curtain call: The Captain Hates the Sea

The Siren said...

Y., I have just given up on the people I admire behaving well; I have learned to take it as a bonus when they do and when they don't, I try to push it away. On Twitter I was exchanging messages with an excellent critic about Garbo, whom we both adore. I have to admit, I was rattled by Orson Welles tale of how he took her to a restaurant at the height of the war, and outside was a soldier--on crutches, one leg amputated--who had been waiting, IN THE RAIN, wanting nothing more than an autograph. And Garbo refused him!! Welles said "do you see how stupid she was?"

And yet I worship her...eight times for Queen Christina, and I could watch it again now...

Marilyn, THANk YOU for that link. Captain Hates the Sea is on WB Archive and I'm waiting for the next sale to purchase it. Love your screen grab of the Gilbert nose, too.

X. Trapnel said...

Siren, I never heard that story about Garbo and was, well, rattled. Could this be another great director (think Walsh, Hawks) telling tall tales?

On the other hand, if Welles, whom I revere had made up or embellished this story I'd be pretty rattled.

Yojimboen said...

Hell! The month gets worse and worse!
I dearly loved this woman.
This one hurts.

Kane76 said...

I enjoyed the article about Gilbert and his troubles with sound. The fact is, Mayer is responsible for the demise of Gilbert's career. He never cared for Gilbert and when Thalberg died, and Paul Bern, too, then Gilbert was left with no allies at MGM. Gilbert's drinking was helpful, either.

Brian Paige said...

I have actually seen quite a few of Gilbert's talkies and even my younger brother watched and thought "So...why did this stuff kill his career?" Of course, I showed him stuff like Downstairs (great film) and the solid Phantom of Paris. I watched a few minutes of Fast Workers one time on TCM and just couldn't get into it. I do make a point of watching a Gilbert talkie when it pops up on TCM. I've enduring Way For a Sailor, West of Broadway, Gentleman's Fate, and even Redemption. I'd like to see the train wreck of His Glorious Night, but it never pops up.

I think the problem that Gilbert had is that there wasn't any sort of sound role that he was just RIGHT for. Would anyone seriously rather have him than Gable in Red Dust? He's not as macho as Gable, so those roles are out. He wasn't as charismatic as Colman, so those roles would also be out. Maybe if The Lost Weekend had been made in the 1930s he could have been a good pick?

Even playing a scumbag like in Downstairs wouldn't work long term, since that film works because he's playing way against type. He was also up for the Richard Barthelmess role in The Dawn Patrol, and he might have been adequate in it, but if Warners had Barthelmess under contract why bother dealing with Mayer to get Gilbert?

Unknown said...

He was just starting to age into a new career: the role he was supposed to play in Desire was taken by John Halliday, who had a good long career. Jack could have done Adolphe Menjou roles with ease--might gave become one of the great character actors of the 1930s and '40s had his (physical and emotional) health held out.

--Eve Golden

Unknown said...

John Gilbert was such a great artist, i wish there were more talking movies with him! That was also such a pity that Gilbert and Garbo didn't marry. I read about the story how they broke up here http://www.fampeople.com/articles-a-