If you work for Baron Nicky von Burgen (Reginald Owen) and Baroness Eloise von Burgen (Olga Baclanova) long enough, you will be treated like family. So when their longtime butler Albert (Paul Lukas) marries Anna (Virginia Bruce), their maid, the Baron throws them a lavish wedding. During the reception, the family’s new chauffeur Karl (John Gilbert) shows up and we know right away he’s up to no good when he runs into Countess De Marmac (Hedda Hopper), his former employer with whom he had an affair. Little do we know just how evil he really is. That night, Albert is called into work on his wedding night after another butler gets drunk on the job. When Anna is alone, Karl makes his first move on her by telling her a made-up story about how she reminds him of his dead mother. But Anna isn’t the only woman in the house he tries to start something with. He also sleeps with Sophie, the cook, and the Baroness. He’s not terribly interested in Sophie, though, he only uses her for money. He makes friends with Albert, but continues to pursue Anna. One day, Karl gives Anna a piece of the Baroness’s jewelery. When the Baroness confronts her about wearing her jewelery, Karl steps in and says he gave it to her as a gift and subtly reminds her that he’s got dirt on her. The Baroness drops the subject and Karl endeared himself closer to Anna with that move.
The Baroness is now keen to get rid of Karl. So when she knows Albert is listening, she mentions to the Baron that she thinks Anna and Karl are having an affair. Later, just before the Baron and Baroness are set to leave on a boating trip, she tells Albert to go ahead and get rid of some of the staff while they’re gone. But before they leave, the Baron changes his mind and decides he wants Albert to come on the trip with him, leaving Anna and Karl alone for the duration of the trip. Karl takes Anna out for dinner, gets her drunk, and finally gets her to give into his advances. When Albert comes home, he fires Karl and Anna admits to what happened. But before he leaves, Karl goes to the Baroness and threatens to reveal their affair unless she keeps him on board and she relents. Humiliated, Albert goes to the Baroness to resign, but she tells him what Karl has done and begs him to stay. Karl plans to leave the next day, but not before he gets more of Sophie’s money. He tries to convince Anna to leave with him, but she refuses. Karl and Albert end up getting into a huge fight and when the Baron is in the room, Anna forces Karl to give Sophie her money back. Karl finally leaves, but he only moves onto another victim.
Wow! I have to say, there are a lot of extremely unlikable characters in pre-code movies, but John Gilbert as Karl is one of the most impressively deplorable characters I’ve ever seen. He is just so incredibly shameless and ruthless! And John Gilbert plays him extraordinarily well! And he should, considering he wrote the story himself. If you only really know John Gilbert as a silent film actor, then you should definitely check out Downstairs. His performance here dispels the widely spread story that John Gilbert had a terrible voice and acting style for talkies. Clearly his lack of success in talkies had more to do with him daring to cross Louis B. Mayer because, as can be seen here, there is nothing wrong with his voice or his acting. Considering he had to resort to writing a story and selling it to MGM for $1 just to get a good talkie role speaks volumes of just how much Mayer had it out for him.
Virginia Bruce was also great, gotta love the very pre-code scene where she confesses to cheating on her husband and blames him for it. I also liked seeing Olga Baclanova playing a fairly honest and likable character since the only other movie I’ve seen her in is Freaks, where she was anything but honest and likable. All in all, a darn good movie. Not only one of John Gilbert’s best talkies, but a real highlight in his whole career.