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John Gilbert

John Gilbert: The Last of the Silent Film Stars

Eve Golden
Series: Screen Classics
Copyright Date: 2013
Pages: 384
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  • Book Info
    John Gilbert
    Book Description:

    Charming and classically handsome, John Gilbert (1897--1936) was among the world's most recognizable actors during the silent era. He was a wild, swashbuckling figure on screen and off, and accounts of his life have focused on his high-profile romances with Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich, his legendary conflicts with Louis B. Mayer, his four tumultuous marriages, and his swift decline after the introduction of talkies. A dramatic and interesting personality, Gilbert served as one of the primary inspirations for the character of George Valentin in the Academy Award--winning movie The Artist (2011). Many myths have developed around the larger-than-life star in the eighty years since his untimely death, but this definitive biography sets the record straight.

    Eve Golden separates fact from fiction in John Gilbert: The Last of the Silent Film Stars, tracing the actor's life from his youth spent traveling with his mother in acting troupes to the peak of fame at MGM, where he starred opposite Mae Murray, Norma Shearer, Joan Crawford, Greta Garbo, and other actresses in popular films such as The Merry Widow (1925), The Big Parade (1925), Flesh and the Devil (1926), and Love (1927). Golden debunks some of the most pernicious rumors about the actor, including the oft-repeated myth that he had a high-pitched, squeaky voice that ruined his career. Meticulous, comprehensive, and generously illustrated, this book provides a behind-the-scenes look at one of the silent era's greatest stars and the glamorous yet brutal world in which he lived.

    eISBN: 978-0-8131-4164-0
    Subjects: History, Film Studies

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. [i]-[vi])
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. [vii]-[viii])
  3. Introduction October 1929, “If I Had a Talking Picture of You”
    (pp. 1-4)

    Honeymooners John Gilbert and Ina Claire were among the more eye-catching American tourists in Europe in the summer of 1929. Fortyish Ina Claire was Broadway’s leading light comedienne, and as for John Gilbert—in his early thirties, he was the screen’s hottest heartthrob, the top male sex symbol of the late 1920s and one of MGM’s box-office champs. Handsome, mercurial, and very talented, he had already married and divorced one star (Leatrice Joy) and had famously taken movie newcomer Greta Garbo as his lover—“Jack” Gilbert (as he was known to friends and enemies alike) would go on to marry...

  4. Part 1. The Climb

    • Chapter One
      (pp. 7-16)

      John Gilbert was—perhaps literally—born in a trunk. He was born John Cecil Pringle in Logan, Utah—about eighty miles north of Salt Lake City—on July 10, 1897, the son of a small-time stock-company manager and his young actress bride. Jack’s father, John George Priegel, had been born in Missouri in 1865; by the 1890s he was known as “Johnnie Pringle” and was barnstorming around the country, managing (and acting in) his own stock company. Jack’s mother, Ida Adair Apperly, had been born in 1877 in Colorado. She was living in Utah when Johnnie Pringle blew into town...

    • Chapter Two
      (pp. 17-36)

      Walter Gilbert obligingly sent a letter to a former coworker, Walter Edwards, a longtime director who was currently working for producer Thomas Ince at the newly opened Triangle Film Corporation in Culver City, California. Edwards had entered films in 1912, but there is no telling how far he would have gone, as he died in 1920, still working steadily at the time. His career shows that there were other successful silent directors besides D. W. Griffith, Erich von Stroheim, and Cecil B. DeMille. He directed more than one hundred movies, yet he and every one of his titles have fallen...

    • Chapter Three
      (pp. 37-65)

      Freelancing as a film actor was perilous in the late 1910s, but not as unusual as it would become later, when stars and bit players alike so often enjoyed being in the safe rut of a long-term studio contract. From 1918 through 1921, Jack had films produced and/or released through companies big and small, some still in business today, others long forgotten: the large, France-based Pathé, the once-mighty but now ailing Vitagraph, Paramount, Haworth Pictures Corporation, Universal, Tyrad Pictures, Jesse D. Hampton Productions, First National, and Metro—which would play a huge role in his future. Nearly all of his...

    • Chapter Four
      (pp. 66-72)

      Just as Jack was getting a foothold in the early 1920s, the movie industry was struck with an unprecedented series of deaths and scandals that brought not only worldwide press coverage but the wrath of religious, political, and censorship groups. The movies had been subject to the usual sad events in the early years: deaths in the Great War and from the 1918 flu epidemic, car crashes and illnesses. The experience of going to the movies to see a favorite star who was now dead was a new form of schadenfreude. But the early years of the 1920s brought headline...

  5. Part 2. The Peak

    • Chapter Five
      (pp. 75-87)

      When Jack reported to work at the new Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studios, he was actually stepping back into his own past: the production headquarters, at 10202 West Washington Boulevard, in Culver City, was the colonnaded old Triangle Studio building. Fellow freshmen starting out at MGM in 1924 and ’25 included leading ladies Aileen Pringle, Blanche Sweet, Anita Stewart, Mae Murray, Norma Shearer, Eleanor Boardman, and Joan Crawford. His competing leading men were Ramon Novarro, William Haines, Lloyd Hughes, and Conrad Nagel—as well as character star Lon Chaney, comic Buster Keaton, and child wonder Jackie Coogan. MGM also had a stable of...

    • Chapter Six
      (pp. 88-116)

      While Jack may have been a prickly perfectionist, he was also social and likable, able to draw many friends into his circle. He was an enthusiastic partygoer and host, and he spent much time with directors: King Vidor, Clarence Brown, Jack Conway, Victor Fleming, Edmund Goulding. Jack’s daughter Leatrice Fountain felt that he and King Vidor were what would today be termed “frenemies.” Jack treated women like “queens and ladies,” she said (though his four ex-wives may have disagreed, and divorce charges include some very ungentlemanly conduct). Vidor, said Fountain, “used them, was ruthless and went on to the next....

    • Chapter Seven
      (pp. 117-128)

      In late June 1926 it was announced that Clarence Brown would delay filmingThe Trail of ’98so he could doFlesh and the Devilfirst. One little line at the very end of the article mentioned in passing that “Greta Garbo will play the leading role opposite the star.”

      The Greta Garbo whom Jack met in the summer of 1926 was lonely, scared, and pretty sure she had made a terrible mistake leaving Europe. The twenty-year-old had been a rising starlet thanks to her mentor, director Mauritz Stiller. Louis B. Mayer had snapped up both of them on a...

    • Chapter Eight
      (pp. 129-138)

      As early as December 1925, Herbert Howe of theLos Angeles Timeswas looking over the upcoming class of performers and wondering who the next big stars would be. “Valentino won’t have his clothes torn off his back anymore, thanks to Mr. John Gilbert, whose broadcloth now maddens the flapper to clawing frenzy,” wrote Howe. “John Gilbert is the current sensation. Quick money and heavy will be his. How long will he last? As long as any one of the other great lovers. It doesn’t make any difference how great an actor he is, he’ll have to play hot lovers....

    • Chapter Nine
      (pp. 139-180)

      At the end of 1926 Jack was awardedPhotoplay’s annual best-acting medal, one of the highest honors in those pre-Oscars years, forThe Big Parade. Riding high on his success, he traveled to New York, where he was reported to be in talks with Famous Players–Lasky, which “is more than keen to annex Gilbert at the expiration of his Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer contract, but that of course might be said with equal truth of all the producing companies,” as theLos Angeles Timeswrote. “The role of Clyde Griffiths inAn American Tragedyhas been promised Gilbert if he will but...

  6. Part 3. The Decline

    • Chapter Ten
      (pp. 183-191)

      Everyone knows, of course, that talkies did not begin withThe Jazz Singerin 1927—in fact,The Jazz Singerwas not really a “talkie,” it was a silent with recorded musical score and a handful of brief talking sequences thrown in (it was also a really terrible movie, which was noted in nearly every review at the time).

      Sound had been experimented with back to the dawn of the movies, in the 1890s: the usual process was to simultaneously film a movie and make a record, then play them back in synchronization. In theory it was brilliant; in practice...

    • Chapter Eleven
      (pp. 192-214)

      At the beginning of 1929, the Russian dramaRedemptionand the costume romanceOlympiawere set as John Gilbert’s first talkies, to be shot in that order. The choice of a depressing Russian play as his talkie debut is easy to second-guess in hindsight—but in their panic, studios scrambled to present their stars in any sound vehicle that looked viable in 1929 and ’30. Jack was not the only one at MGM to be thrown into the deep end.

      Lon Chaney fared best, with a remake of his silent crime dramaThe Unholy Three(released in July 1930, one...

    • Chapter Twelve
      (pp. 215-231)

      MGM’s other silent-era male leads were not doing much better. Chipper, brash William Haines was still in his late twenties when talkies hit, but he was already becoming slightly pudgy, and his hair was thinning. What really killed his career was the type of parts he played: the wise-ass frat boy who charms and wheedles his way into a girl’s heart. In silent films this could indeed be cute and charming—in talkies it was obnoxious. In such light romantic comedies asThe Girl Said No, Way Out West,andJust a Gigolo,he harasses and stalks and prods his...

    • Chapter Thirteen
      (pp. 232-250)

      In early 1932 Jack met the woman—still a girl, really—who would become the fourth and final Mrs. John Gilbert. Virginia Bruce was twenty-one when they met, a delicate-looking Dresden-doll blonde. But her looks were deceiving: Bruce was smart, tough, and strong minded enough to assure that this marriage was doomed from the start.

      A talented singer and pianist, Bruce was expelled from her North Dakota high school for mouthing off to her teachers; she moved to Los Angeles in 1928 not to break into the movies but to attend UCLA as a piano student. But her blonde good...

    • Chapter Fourteen
      (pp. 251-271)

      In January 1933 production on Jack’s last assignment under his MGM contract,Rivets(eventually retitledFast Workers), was announced. It was produced and directed by Tod Browning—late ofThe Show—and had dialogue by Lawrence Stallings, all of which should have been a great sign.

      But Browning was perhaps the only man at MGM farther in the doghouse than Jack. After his success at Universal withDracula(1931), Browning had been hired by Thalberg to come up with another box-office horror hit for MGM. Instead Browning came up withFreaks. Now considered a classic of the horror genre, it...

    • Chapter Fifteen
      (pp. 272-283)

      Virginia Bruce was making some tentative overtures of friendship by early 1935, trying to get Jack to come over and see their daughter more often. “I think we failed to make a go of it because Jack was so unhappy in his work,” she said. “He is more encouraged now, so maybe …” She trailed off. She added, “I would rather have had Jack for the father of my baby than any other man in the world.”

      Jack made the news in April 1935, but not because of a new film role or a new romance—a housebreaker cut his...

  7. Afterword
    (pp. 284-288)

    In 1984 glamour photographer Horst and interviewer James Watters put out a fascinating “Where are they now?” coffee-table book titledReturn Engagement. Seventy-four actresses were profiled, from early silent stars to 1940s and ’50s glamour queens. Coincidentally, three of the featured stars were John Gilbert’s ex-wives: Leatrice Joy, Ina Claire, and Virginia Bruce (Olivia Burwell was still alive when these interviews were being conducted in the early 1980s—contrasting with his own early death, Jack’s wives were tenacious). Leatrice Joy was ninety-one whenReturn Engagementhit the bookstores: robust and cheerful, she posed on her front porch, laughing and white-haired,...

  8. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 289-290)
  9. Filmography
    (pp. 291-322)
  10. Notes
    (pp. 323-346)
  11. Bibliography
    (pp. 347-350)
  12. Index
    (pp. 351-366)
  13. Back Matter
    (pp. 367-368)