‘The Great Lover’ Ruined by Hollywood Politics
By Tom Morrow
To silent film buffs he was known as “The Great Lover” and, contrary to belief, he did not have a high, squeaky voice when he began making “sound” films. John Gilbert made the switch from silent to sound rather well, but became the victim of Hollywood politics by a powerful mogul.
Born July 10, 1897, in Logan, Utah, John Gilbert, born John Cecil Pringle, He was an American actor, screenwriter and director, rising to fame during the silent film era and became a popular leading man. At the height of his career, Gilbert rivaled Rudolph Valentino as the leading man box office draw.
Though Gilbert was often cited as one of the high-profile examples of an actor who was unsuccessful in making the transition from silent to talkies, his decline as a star had far more to do with studio politics and money than with the sound of his screen voice, which, unlike popular belief, was rich and distinctive.
In 1915, Gilbert got work in movies appearing an extra in short films. His first leading role, “Princess of the Dark,” (1917), he was paid $40 a week, but was not a big success so he went back to supporting roles.
In 1921, Gilbert signed a three-year contract with the Fox Film Corporation, where he was cast as a romantic leading man with a new name: “John Gilbert.”
Fox gave Gilbert his first real starring part in “Shame,” (1921, then he starred in “Cameo Kirby,” (1923), directed by John Ford, co-starring Jean Arthur, then on to “The Wolf Man,” (1923) with Norma Shearer.
In 1924, Gilbert moved to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, where his biggest success was King Vidor’s 1925 World War I epic, “The Big Parade,” It was the all time second-highest grossing silent film and the most profitable of the silent era.
In 1926, Gilbert made “Flesh and the Devil,” with Greta Garbo. They soon began a highly publicized love relationship, much to the delight of their fans. Gilbert wanted to marry her, but Garbo continually balked.
He then made “Twelve Miles Out,” (1927), with Joan Crawford and “Man, Woman and Sin,” (1927), with Jeanne Eagels.
He was reunited with Garbo in “Love,” (1927), which was slyly advertised by MGM as “Garbo and Gilbert in Love.” In 1927, he went to jail for ten days for disturbing the peace after a drunken public bout just before his last silent film, “Desert Nights.”
Throughout his time at MGM, Gilbert frequently clashed with studio mogul Louis B. Mayer over creative, social and financial matters. On one occasion it was said Mayer made a crude remark about Garbo which led Gilbert to physically attack the powerful mogul.
Mayer detested Gilbert and was quite disgruntled the actor had signed an MGM contract for six pictures at $250,000 each. It was suggested Mayer deliberately gave Gilbert bad scripts and ineffective directors in an effort to void the contract.
With the coming of sound, Gilbert’s vocal talents made a good impression in the all-star musical comedy, “The Hollywood Revue of 1929,” appearing in a Technicolor sequence with Norma Shearer. Most reviewers didn’t note any vocal problems — with some praising it.
Audiences awaited Gilbert’s first romantic role on the talking screen which was “His Glorious Night,” (1929), directed by Lionel Barrymore. According to reviewers, audiences laughed nervously at Gilbert’s performance. But the fault was not Gilbert’s voice, rather the awkward scenario along with overly ardent love scenes. In one, Gilbert keeps kissing his leading lady, while saying “I love you” over and over again. That scene was parodied in the MGM musical “Singin’ in the Rain,” (1952). It was rumored L.B. Mayer had ordered Gilbert’s voice to be gelded to a higher pitch in order to ruin him.
In 1933, much to Mayer’s chargrin, Gilbert announced he had signed a seven-year contract with MGM at $75,000 to $100,000 a picture. Greta Garbo had insisted Gilbert return to MGM to play her leading man in “Queen Christina,” (1933), but the film didn’t revive his career.
Gilbert’s private life was anything but private. He was married four times, each ending on less-than-friendly and amical terms.
Because alcoholism severely damaged Gilbert’s health, in December 1935, he suffered a serious heart attack, then a second and fatal heart attack on Jan. 9, 1936.
Among the funeral mourners were Gilbert’s two ex-wives, his two daughters, and film stars Marlene Dietrich, Gary Cooper, Myrna Loy, and Raquel Torres.
Gilbert has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and in 1994, he was honored with his image on a U.S. postage stamp designed by noted caricaturist Al Hirschfeld.
This week’s column points out how incorrect and unfair facts can ruin a historical character, leaving the subject’s true past contrary to the real “true.”
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