John Gilbert was perhaps the most famous victim in the transition from silent films to talkies. For 80 years the debate has continued: Did Gilbert have a bad voice? Was his career sabotaged by Louis B. Mayer or was he simply a victim of quickly changing tastes in screen actors?
Gilbert had been in films as a small-part player since the mid-teens. By the early 20s he was landing better roles but in small films that didn’t make much of an impression with the public. In the early 20s he was overshadowed by big stars like Wallace Reid, Rudolph Valentino, and even Charles Ray, with whom he had co-starred (along with Colleen Moore) in The Busher in 1919.
As he slowly moved toward star status in films like Cameo Kirby and The Snob, Gilbert also learned everything there was to know about filmmaking. According to his biography, written by daughter Leatrice Gilbert Fountain, Gilbert was as interested in directing and writing as he was in acting. Being a star was not his goal. But then a funny thing happened: in 1925 he landed starring roles in what were to become two of the biggest hits of the year. These two films often appear among the best silent films of all time.
The Merry Widow was a sprawling romance that starred Mae Murray in her biggest hit, with Gilbert as the leading man. It was directed by Erich von Stroheim and was a big money maker for MGM. This success was overshadowed by Gilbert’s towering performance in The Big Parade, co-starring Renee Adoree. This film ranked as one of MGM’s biggest hits of the silent era and still ranks among the all-time greatest war films. In 1926 Gilbert remained white hot with La Boheme, starring with Lillian Gish; then came his legendary first pairing with Greta Garbo in Flesh and the Devil. Gilbert sailed along as MGM’s major male star through a series of silent films, notably 12 Miles Out with Joan Crawford and Desert Nights (his final silent film). But here’s where Gilbert’s career turns sour.
By 1929 MGM was finally ready to start making talkies (more than a year after the debut of Warner’s The Jazz Singer). Gilbert made his talkie debut in The Hollywood Revue of 1929, along with Joan Crawford, Marion Davies, Norma Shearer, Laurel and Hardy, William Haines, Marie Dressler, Bessie Love, Conrad Nagel, and a host of other MGM stars. Gilbert and Shearer performed “the balcony scene” from Romeo and Juliet and then humorously redid the scene in “jazz” talk, including Pig Latin. It’s important to note that in this sequence, Gilbert is relaxed and jovial. Although his voice is slightly nasal and his delivery of the lines a tad sing-songy, there’s nothing drastically wrong with his voice. Reviews for the film were terrific and Hollywood Revue was a box office smash (and nominated for a best picture Oscar).
He then launched into his first starring talkie, Redemption. This is a dreary love story about a dashing Russian soldier and two women. It was considered to be so bad that it was shelved. The sound recording was bad and the soggy storyline was depressing. But Gilbert gamely headed onto his next assignment, His Glorious Night, a limp romancer released in 1929. The film received bad reviews but actually made money (production costs were about $210,000 and the film grossed a respectable $590,000), despite the persistent rumors that the film was a total disaster. But word started to circulate that Gilbert was in trouble because audiences were laughing at the love-making scenes. In her autobiography, Lillian Gish insisted that it was the lame “I love you” speech and not Gilbert’s voice that was the problem. Nevertheless, the legend started to take hold about Gilbert’s bad voice. In Fountain’s biography of her father, she cites snide studio releases and “fan” magazines that jumped on the bandwagon, claiming that another silent idol had fallen prey to the microphone. The feeding frenzy had started. [By this time it was already clear that many major stars were in trouble with the new medium. Colleen Moore, Norma Talmadge, and Mae Murray all flopped with their first talkies. Emil Jannings couldn’t speak English. Pola Negri, Ramon Novarro, Lars Hanson, Dolores Del Rio, and Vilma Banky all had foreign accents. Constance Talmadge retired rather than attempt talking.]
Then, in 1930 MGM did the unthinkable: it released Redemption. A stunned Hollywood watched as this clunker (which, to be fair, has a few decent scenes in it; it cost a whopping $560,000 and grossed about $400,000) flopped and fed the rumors that Gilbert “couldn’t talk.” It’s important to note that in the midst of this, Gilbert had been feuding with Mayer over his relationship with Garbo. It was reported that Gilbert had punched Mayer at a party after the mogul had insulted Garbo. Mayer was widely reported to be one of the most vengeful men in Hollywood and reacted violently to insults, real or imagined. Mayer was determined to break Gilbert’s studio contract and destroy his career; Gilbert was just as determined to stay. The failure of Redemption (which surprised no one) of course gave Mayer the fuel he needed to continue sinking Gilbert’s career. His next assignment was the dismal Way for a Sailor (which cost a whopping $889,000 to produce), a tepid story about sailors who compete for a girl. The film has a cheap look to it and did nothing for Gilbert or his co-stars, Wallace Beery and Leila Hyams. MGM famously advertised this film with Beery’s name above Gilbert’s. Gilbert’s iron-clad contract called for his name to always appear above the title in the opening film credits, but the contract apparently neglected to mention billboards and newspaper advertising. Although many have argued that Mayer would not purposely sabotage the career of a major MGM star, the evidence shows that Mayer would stop at nothing to destroy an “enemy.”
Fountain tells a fascinating story about the sound recording on Gilbert’s early films. Rumors circulated for years among Hollywood’s sound men that, via “orders”, the bass on Gilbert’s recorded dialog was always turned off. This tactic would not have affected the women’s voices and would not have “damaged” the basso profundo voice of Wallace Berry. It would have been just enough to tweak Gilbert’s voice into the “thin” category and emphasize his nasal speech.
The list of Gilbert’s films that followed Way for a Sailor is a desultory footnote to a brilliant career. Although he had high hopes for The Phantom of Paris (a good story) and Downstairs (widely regarded as his best talkie) it was too late. He had lost his audience. He had also started to lose his battle with drinking. Beset with a crashed career and a worsening drinking problem, a glimmer of hope appeared when Garbo dismissed Laurence Olivier as her co-star in Queen Christina, demanding Gilbert for the role of the Spanish Envoy. Mayer balked but eventually gave in to Garbo (she was still box office). The film (probably Gilbert’s best known talkie) was a modest hit and Gilbert’s reviews were solid. But his gilt-edged MGM contract had expired. Gilbert made one last film appearance in 1934 in Columbia’s minor-but-pleasant The Captain Hates the Sea, an ensemble piece with Victor McLaglen. In a sort of “floating Grand Hotel,” Gilbert turns in a funny and crisp performance as the world-weary drunk. His voice is fine.
The final note to the talkie career of John Gilbert is that he was in talks to star in The Garden of Allah with Marlene Dietrich (whom he was dating), but Gilbert died suddenly in January 1937. The film was made with Dietrich and Charles Boyer. It’s a Technicolor desert pastiche about disgrace and redemption, an ironic “closure” to Gilbert’s career.