One of the virtues of Eve Golden’s smart, funny biography of John Gilbert is that she doesn’t make him seem too pathetic. The received wisdom on Gilbert — Rudolph Valentino’s successor as Hollywood’s Great Lover — is that his career was cut short by three things: booze, a thin voice that blurred his image when sound came in, and the enmity of movie mogul Louis B. Mayer. Golden adds nuance to every element of that triad without dwelling too long on any of them. She makes sure readers know that, for all his weaknesses and the sad finish of his life, Gilbert had a bully time while his heyday lasted.
He was born John Pringle near Salt Lake City in 1897, to actors in a touring company; the boy’s surname became Gilbert after his mother married a second time. In a departure from fairy-tale conventions, his stepfather was far kinder to the boy than his mother, who was given to locking him in a closet while she entertained one of her many lovers. “Jack grew up to become an easily hurt, thin-skinned young man who needed badly to be loved and accepted,” Golden writes. She also diagnoses likely bipolar disorder.
Gilbert broke into movies as a teenage extra and bit player. His first film to have survived (partially) had the smarmy title “Golden Rule Kate,” but Gilbert’s character was there to break rules. Another character says of him, “He’s a good kid when he’s not drinking.” As Golden notes, it was a remark that “Jack himself was to hear repeatedly over the years.”
By 1918, he was getting leading roles; he teamed up with French-born director Maurice Tourneur, a cultured perfectionist, for the first of six films they were to make together. Gilbert tried screenwriting and directing, but his forte was acting. His second marriage (the first one had ended in divorce) was to Hollywood royalty, the silent star Leatrice Joy. He had four wives in all; his marital behavior, Golden writes, “followed a pattern that cut a depressingly steady rut through his life: fall madly in love, marry impetuously, and within three months become impossible to live with.”
Gilbert became handsome after growing a moustache that assembled his features into a striking whole. At his peak he made a whopping — for the time — sum of $250,000 per picture. He signed a long-term contract with MGM, which made him a buoyant star but eventually helped sink him. While there he worked with top-notch directors — Erich von Stroheim in “The Merry Widow,” King Vidor in “The Big Parade” — and co-starred with Norma Shearer, Lillian Gish and his lover Greta Garbo (four times).
It’s not easy to understand why Mayer — as head of MGM studio operations, the boss of both Gilbert and Garbo — should have picked on one of his own meal tickets. Mayer may not have actively sabotaged Gilbert by foisting lousy roles on him in the early ’30s, but the roles were lousy, and there is ample evidence that Mayer rejoiced over Gilbert’s decline. Gilbert himself analyzed the problem as follows (and this is where the thinness of his skin comes in): “I told [Mayer] that it would make it easier for me if he could manage to feel just a little bit glad to have me there; it would make it easier for me if he could have, and show, just a little faith in me. I needed faith.”
Golden’s take on Gilbert’s vocal shortcomings is that what audiences objected to was not so much the timbre as the disparity between what they wanted from a Great Lover and what they actually heard. Evidence that she’s right can be found in “Queen Christina” (1933), the last pairing of Gilbert and Garbo. His voice isn’t shrill or squeaky, but it’s not commanding either. A more damning problem, however, may have been the caliber of lines he’d been given in his much-anticipated first talkie, the ironically named “His Glorious Night” (1929). Although there’s plenty of competition, the corniest thing he had to say was probably this: “It was your jewels that attracted me — oh, I don’t mean the pearls in your necklace, but the diamonds in your eyes!”
As for the drinking, a vignette supplied by Golden says it all: Gilbert holding court in his own living room, in front of the fireplace, with a Scotch and soda posted at one end of the mantel and a second one at the other end so that he can pace, talk, take a sip from Drink A, pace and talk some more, then pick up Drink B. The toll mounted until he was suffering from bleeding ulcers and in and out of the hospital with a damaged heart. He died in 1936, at age 38, two years after the release of his last movie.
Note: Turner Classics Movies will be showing several Gilbert movies on July 10.
The Last of the Silent Film Stars
by Eve Golden
Univ. Press of Kentucky. 366 pages. $39.95
Drabelle is a contributing editor of Book World.