Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Judging John Gilbert

Tomorrow's star in TCM's Summer Under the Stars is not John Gilbert. Instead, it's Great Garbo, who worked several times with Gilbert both in the silent era than in talkies. Garbo apparently took lessons to improve her English, which is why she wasn't used by MGM when they made The Hollywood Revue of 1929. But her career continued just fine after the introduction of sound, starting with the famous "Garbo Talks"-promoted picture Anna Christie and continuing for another decade until changing tastes and the advent of World War II led her to retire from films and become a recluse.

As for John Gilbert, well, he wasn't so lucky. The legend says that Louis B. Mayer didn't really like Gilbert, so Mayer let it be known in the media that Gilbert had a voice that didn't fit his screen persona, and deliberately cast Gilbert in a bunch of garbage. That's probably a bunch of nonsense. While studios had a lot of control over their stars and often didn't know how to use them -- see Warner Bros. and its handling of Bette Davis before she left for Europe -- I don't think they were going to try to lose money deliberately, especially not with a Depression going on. John Gilbert was also a heavy drinker, which certainly couldn't have helped his movie career.

At any rate, you've got a chance to catch John Gilbert talking tonight at 8:00 PM with Downstairs, a movie that has him playing a chauffeur to a wealthy Austrian family, trying to move up the ladder any way he knows how, which means a bunch of unscrupulous means. This includes getting involved with maid Virginia Bruce -- the subject for today in Summer Under the Stars -- even though she's married to the butler. (The talkie I'd like to mention is Queen Christina, but that doesn't seem to be airing as part of Garbo's day tomorrow.)

For a representative silent, you could do worse than Flesh and the Devil, airing tomorrow morning at 8:00 AM. This is Garbo's movie all the way, playing a woman who fell in love with Gilbert despite the fact that she was married to another man, leading to a duel that kills the other man and Gilbert's being exiled. Gilbert returns with the intention of marrying her, only to find that she's married Gilbert's best friend (Lars Hanson) in the meantime! Wow, talk about a nice thing to do to somebody!

So watch both and judge for yourself how good or bad an actor John Gilbert was.

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