John Gilbert

A Woman of Affairs (1928)

A Woman of Affairs Garbo Gilbert

Diana Merrick (Greta Garbo) and Neville Holderness (John Gilbert) have been friends since childhood and ever since they were very young, Diana has been madly in love with Neville. They want to get married, but Neville’s father doesn’t approve and sends him to work in Egypt for a few years, where he will be able to make a lot of money. Diana wants to wait for him, but after a couple of years, she marries David Furness (John Mack Brown), someone Diana’s brother Jeffry (Douglas Fairbanks Jr.) adores. It isn’t that Diana doesn’t like David, it’s that her heart will always belong to Neville. On their wedding night, David and Diana are visited by the police and David suddenly commits suicide.

Diana knows why he killed himself, but won’t say, and Jeffry believes David did it because of her. David’s death drives a huge wedge between Jeffry and Diana. Jeffry, already a heavy drinker, keeps drinking his way down a path of self-destruction while Diana becomes a woman notorious for having lots of affairs. The years go by and Neville comes home, but he’s engaged to marry Constance (Dorothy Sebastian). Just before their wedding, Diana calls for a doctor friend of theirs, who happens to be having dinner with Neville and Constance that night, to get help for Jeffry. Jeffry is extremely ill and won’t let Diana help. After she leaves, Neville follows her out and they end up spending the night together.

Several months later, after Neville and Constance are married, Neville gets a message saying that Diana is sick and she keeps asking for him. She’s been recovering from a miscarriage and is in a delirious state. When he goes to see her, she doesn’t even recognize him. But when she comes to her senses a little bit, she declares her love for him, not realizing he’s brought Constance with him. Neville’s never stopped loving her, but now that he has a chance to be with his true love, does he leave Constance behind?

A Lady of Affairs is pure melodrama, but it’s really great melodrama. Few actresses were made to work in silent film the way Greta Garbo was. The simple movement of her eyebrows spoke volumes and she is positively radiant in this movie. She gives a fantastic performance and although I wouldn’t say this is the best pairing of Garbo and John Gilbert (it’s awfully hard to top the cinematic explosion that is Flesh and the Devil), but Gilbert is very good in it, too, and it’s easy to see why they were such a hit with movie audiences. Great stars, beautiful cinematography, an interesting story (a bit scandalous for its time, but still toned down from the book it was based on), it all adds up to one entertaining movie.

John Gilbert: The Last of the Silent Film Stars

John Gilbert: The Last of the Silent Film StarsJohn Gilbert was undoubtedly one of the greatest stars of the silent film era.  He worked his way up from bit player to being one of Hollywood’s most popular leading men.  At the height of his career, he starred in classic films such as The Big Parade, The Merry Widow, and Flesh and the Devil.  Some of his co-stars included Greta Garbo, Lillian Gish, Norma Shearer, and Lon Chaney.  But John Gilbert found out all too well that what goes up must come down. With the advent of talkies, his once flourishing career came to a screeching halt.  With his career in decline, John Gilbert was driven into a spiral of self-destructive behavior that led to his death at the age of 38.

In “John Gilbert: The Last of the Silent Film Stars,” Eve Golden offers a clear, concise look at an often misunderstood star.  It has a lot of good information without being overwhelming.  If you’re just getting acquainted with John Gilbert’s films, this book is an excellent way to get to know more about him as a person.

Golden also does a nice job of examining the myths surrounding Gilbert’s life and career. However, there are some aspects of his life that aren’t given the amount of attention they deserve.  Most notably, surprisingly little attention is given to one of the most legendary parts of his life — his relationship with Greta Garbo.  After having read biographies on Garbo that discuss her relationship with Gilbert quite extensively, I was disappointed by how little Golden discusses the same subject.  Admittedly, Gilbert and Garbo’s relationship is surrounded by enough mystery and rumor that it could easily serve as the basis of a book by itself. But it would have been nice to see something between an in-depth analysis and a brief overview included in this book.

Disclosure: I received a free review copy of this book from the publisher.

Dynamic Duos: Greta Garbo and John Gilbert

Greta Garbo and John Gilbert in Flesh and the DevilIn 1926, Greta Garbo was just a Hollywood newcomer.  She had signed with MGM and made two movies for them, audiences were liking her, but the studio didn’t quite know what to do with her.  They just couldn’t pin-point her type. She wasn’t a “sweetheart” type like Mary Pickford, she wasn’t a flapper like Colleen Moore or Clara Bow, so MGM tried to turn her into a vamp.  But Garbo was already getting bored with the vamp roles so she was less than thrilled at being cast as Felicitas in Flesh and the Devil, another vamp role.  Not only did the role not interest her, she was tired after having completed The Temptress and desperately wanted to go home to Sweden after her sister’s death and MGM refused to let her.

Little did Garbo know she was about to meet her perfect leading man in Flesh and the Devil.

While Garbo was still a new name to movie audiences in 1926, John Gilbert most certainly was not.  John Gilbert had been working in films for over a decade by then and his starring roles in prestige pictures like The Big ParadeThe Merry Widow, and He Who Gets Slapped made him one of the biggest stars in Hollywood.  Like Garbo, he wasn’t particularly wild about his part in Flesh and the Devil, but the idea of working with this new star intrigued him.

Greta Garbo and John Gilbert in Flesh and the DevilThe first scene of Flesh and the Devil Greta Garbo and John Gilbert filmed together was the scene at the train station where their characters meet.  The immense chemistry between the two of them was obvious to everybody on set.  There was no denying there was a very real connection with them and as their scenes got more passionate, they had no problem keeping their performances up.  Clarence Brown, the movie’s director, said of them:

“It was the damnedest thing you ever saw. It was the sort of thing Elinor Glyn used to write about. When they got into that first love scene…nobody else was even there. Those two were alone in a world of their own. It seemed like an intrusion to yell “Cut!” I used to just motion the crew over to another part of the set and let them finish what they were doing. It was embarrassing.”

Before the release of Flesh and the Devil, the Garbo-Gilbert love affair had been getting buzz in the fan magazines, but nothing could have prepared movie goers for the unbridled passion they would actually see when the movie hit theaters in January of 1927.  It was a sensation, completely unlike anything audiences had ever seen at the time.  The New York Herald-Tribune said of it:

“Never before has John Gilbert been so intense in his portrayal of a man in love.  Never before has a woman so alluring, with a seductive grace that is far more potent than mere beauty, appeared on the screen. Greta Garbo is the epitome of pulchritude, the personification of passion. Frankly, we have never in our career seen a seduction scene so perfectly done.”

Suddenly, MGM had a big hit on their hands and they finally knew exactly what to do with Garbo — put her in more movies with John Gilbert.  Her next project was to be an adaptation of Anna Karenina with Ricardo Cortez as her co-star, but Irving Thalberg decided to replace Cortez with Gilbert and change the title to Love, so the theater marquees could read, “Greta Garbo and John Gilbert in Love.”  The couple also starred in A Woman of Affairs in 1928.

The romance between Garbo and Gilbert was just as potent off-screen as it was on-screen.  Shortly after finishing filming on Flesh and the Devil, Garbo moved into Gilbert’s house and he spent thousands of dollars on renovations to make it more to her liking.  He even built a small cabin for her, surrounded by Swedish pine trees and an artificial waterfall, on his property to remind her of home.

Not only was there a romantic connection between Garbo and Gilbert, he was able to offer valuable career advice.  He helped her become a better actress, taught her how to be more sociable off-set, taught her how to get what she wanted at MGM and she even started working with his agent.  Garbo later told journalist Åke Sundborg:

“I don’t know how I should have managed if I had not been cast opposite John Gilbert…Through him I seemed to establish my first real contact with the strange American world.  If he had not come into my life at this time, I should probably have come home to Sweden at once, my American career over.”

However, their relationship was not meant to last.  Gilbert kept pushing marriage and Garbo simply wasn’t interested.  After making several proposals, the idea of Garbo and Gilbert getting married at the same time as director King Vidor and actress Eleanor Boardman came up and Garbo said yes to it.  But on the day of the wedding, Garbo left Gilbert standing at the altar.  Gilbert was understandably angry, but the relationship managed to carry on for a bit longer.

By 1929,  Gilbert was still longing to get married and Garbo still wasn’t interested. That was the final straw for Gilbert, who impulsively got engaged to actress Ina Claire instead and married her on May 9, 1929.  The day before the wedding, Garbo made a tear-filled phone call to Harry Edington, who was to be Gilbert’s best man, begging him to put a stop to the wedding.  He told her that she was the only one who could stop it, but not wanting to cause a scandal, she chose not to.

Greta Garbo and John Gilbert in Queen ChristinaThe couple reunited on screen one last time in 1933’s Queen Christina.  By then, the tables had turned.  Garbo was still one of MGM’s most bankable stars, but Gilbert had fallen on very hard times.  His career had gone downhill, he was depressed, and had become a very heavy drinker, but Garbo insisted that he be cast opposite her in Queen Christina. The chemistry between them was as good as it ever was and the movie was a hit, but it wasn’t enough to revive Gilbert’s career.

Queen Christina was the last hit movie for John Gilbert and he made only one more movie after it, 1934’s The Captain Hates the Sea, before dying at the age of 38 in 1936.  Garbo continued to act until 1941, but never had another co-star who even came close to matching the chemistry she had with John Gilbert.

Dynamic Duos Blogathon

John Gilbert and Greta Garbo are just one of many unforgettable duos being highlighted this weekend in the Dynamic Duos blogathon hosted by Once Upon a Screen and Classic Film Hub.

What’s on TCM: July 2013

Paul Henreid CasablancaHappy July, everyone!  It looks like July is going to be a somewhat quiet month on TCM, but that’s okay with me since I know Summer Under the Stars is already right around the corner.  This month, we have Paul Henreid as the TCM Star of the Month and you’ll be able to catch his movies every Tuesday night in July.

I’m pretty excited for July’s round of Friday Night Spotlight, which will be focused on the films of French director Francois Truffaut.  If you’ve never seen a Truffaut film or haven’t seen very many of them, this is a perfect opportunity to see more of his work.

This month will also feature Carson on TCM, a series of classic Tonight Show interviews by Johnny Carson, which I’m sure is going to be very fun.

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The Artist (2011)

In 1927, George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) is world famous as one of the biggest movie stars around.  After the premiere of his latest film, he steps outside to greet the crowd of adoring fans and ends up having a run-in with fan Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo).  Their encounter is photographed by the press and winds up being featured on the front page of Variety.  Peppy is more than a fan, she’s an aspiring actress who winds up getting hired as an extra at Kinograph, the studio where George works.  When George sees that Peppy is a talented dancer, he gets her a bit part in his new movie.  The two of them hit it off and Peppy quickly finds herself getting bigger and bigger parts.  But with the advent of sound films, George finds himself pressured to make talkies, a transition he does not want to make.  He leaves the studio to produce his own silent films, but finds that he can’t compete with the new talkie stars like Peppy Miller.  He loses everything, but with help from a friend, he finds the potential to reinvent himself to a new audience.

The Artist is easily my favorite movie of 2011.  Not that I saw many new releases this year, but anyway.  I loved everything about it — the acting, the cinematography, the story, the direction were all top notch.  I most often hear the plot of The Artist described as being like Singin’ in the Rain meets A Star is Born, and although that is a pretty good way to describe it, don’t think that it’s just a rehash.  It does have elements of both, but it stands well on its own and I had no problem judging it independently from those. It also isn’t just an endless parade of homages to other silent films, either.  Director Michel Hazanavicius clearly did his silent film homework, but very much made it his own.  In this article, Hazanavicius names six movies that inspired him to make The Artist, and I never would have guessed Josef von Sternberg’s Underworld or Lon Chaney’s The Unknown were among his influences for it.

Fans of silent films are bound to recognize characters and events in the movie as being inspired by real people and events.  The character of George Valentin was essentially John Gilbert but with Douglas Fairbanks’ on-screen image.  Although Gilbert didn’t hesitate to make the transition to sound the way Valentin does, his career did fall into a rapid decline after fighting with Louis B. Mayer and something similar happens to Valentin.  When Valentin wants to continue making silent films, he produces and finances one on his own, reminiscent of how Gilbert wrote 1932’s Downstairs for himself when he was tired of being given lousy movies.  Peppy Miller was definitely meant to be a Clara Bow, Colleen Moore type, but with a few moments of Greta Garbo thrown in.  Yes, at one point, Peppy even says, “I want to be alone.”  And when she wants to help George get work again, she demands that he be cast as her leading man, just like how Garbo got John Gilbert cast in Queen Christina.

Right now, it’s looking like The Artist is shaping up to be the top contender to win Best Picture at the Oscars.  But when a movie gets as much acclaim as The Artist currently is, sooner or later, there will be a backlash against it and I can tell you right now what some of its detractors will say.  If it does indeed win, there will be some who will say that it won just because being a silent film was such a novelty, it won for being a novelty.  And even if it doesn’t win, they’ll just say all the hype was because it was a novelty.  I can feel that argument is coming, so I’m just going to go ahead and comment on how absurd and condescending that idea is right now.

Speaking as somebody who routinely watches silent films, the idea of watching a movie without spoken dialogue isn’t a novelty to me, even if it is a modern movie.  I would have been just as eager to see this one even if it did have dialogue.  The concept of a modern silent film might be more of a selling point to others, but I highly doubt they’re going to like it purely because it’s a silent.  At no point in time have I ever liked a silent film just because it was silent and neither have any of the other silent film fans I know.  We’re not that easily amused, and that attitude reminds me of how NBC tried to capitalize on the success of Mad Men by green lighting The Playboy Club, thinking audiences would tune in just because it was set in the 1960’s, too.

I watch silent movies because I appreciate that method of storytelling, but there has to be a good story being told.  The Artist is much more than just a silent film; it also has a wonderful story, an excellent cast, strong direction, and beautiful cinematography and those are perfectly valid reasons for it to be getting the acclaim it is.  If the story isn’t your cup of tea, or even if you’re just not into silent movies, that’s just dandy, but to write it off as a novelty or a gimmick is completely ridiculous.

The Hollywood Revue of 1929

Before I saw The Hollywood Revue of 1929, I think the words I’d heard most often used to describe it were “historical curiosity.”  I’d also heard those words used to describe movies like The Broadway Melody, but they didn’t deter me from watching it and actually kind of liking it.  But after actually seeing The Hollywood Revue of 1929, I can safely say that it is, indeed, a historical curiosity.  All it is is a series of musical numbers and skits put on by MGM to show off their stable of stars and their shiny, new talkie technology.  For me, it was worth checking out just because I did have an interest in seeing things like Joan Crawford’s dance number and Norma Shearer and John Gilbert doing Romeo and Juliet.  There’s a certain charm to a lot of early talkies that’s kind of endearing to me and I got a kick out of some of the skits, but it’s really not anything spectacular.  It’s very dated, there’s no plot, and because it is a very early talkie, the sound quality is rather shaky.  Unless you’ve got a serious interest in film history or at least in one of the stars in this movie, I imagine it’d be pretty torturous to sit through.  But if you’d like to at least get a taste of it, there are plenty of clips on YouTube:

Queen Christina (1933)

Queen Christina 1933 Greta Garbo

Who better to play a Swedish queen than the Swedish queen of cinema herself, Greta Garbo?  Christina is crowned Queen of Sweden at the ripe old age of five after her father is killed in battle.  As she grows up, she loves her country so much that she turns down romantic relationships so she can dedicate herself to being the best ruler she can be.  But sometimes, the pressures of being a ruler get to be too much for Christina and she likes to get away.  She dresses in men’s clothing and sneaks out-of-town.  While she’s out, she meets the Spanish envoy, Antonio (John Gilbert), who has gotten stuck in a snowdrift.  She helps him out and she runs into him again that night when they check into the same inn.  But since the inn is so crowded because of the snow, Antonio has to room with Christina.  He doesn’t realize that she’s really a woman until that night.  But when he finds out, he’s very attracted to her.

Christina and Antonio spend a few blissful days at the inn snowed in, but Antonio still doesn’t know that she’s the Queen.  He remains clueless until he arrives at the palace to present his embassy to the Queen.  When one of the Queen’s suitors realizes that Christina prefers Antonio to him, he tells the public that the Queen is in love with a Spaniard.  Everyone gets all riled up about it and Christina decides that she wants to be a regular person.  She wants to live life on her own terms and be free to love whomever she pleases.  She abdicates the throne and decides to go to Spain with Antonio.  Unfortunately, just before he was to leave for Spain, Antonio is fatally wounded in a duel and dies in Christina’s arms.

Queen Christina is one of the most unconventional women in the pre-code era.  First of all, there’s the fact that the real Queen Christina liked both men and women, that wasn’t something made up for the sake of having a more scandalous movie.  Even though she ultimately falls in love with John Gilbert’s character in the movie, we also see her kiss her lady in waiting.  Queen Christina was also famous for behaving in a very masculine way.  She preferred wearing pants and had no desire to get married or have children.  The real Queen Christina abdicated the throne to be able to be an openly practicing Catholic, though, not for love like in the movie.

Christina isn’t the only remarkably pre-code woman in the movie.  Christina’s lady in waiting, Ebba, also likes men and women and is having an affair with Christina as well as a man.  When Christina and Antonio are at the inn for the first night, Elsa helps them settle in and openly flirts with Christina.  When Antonio asks her if she’s a good girl, she replies, “Only when I don’t like someone.”  Such a true pre-code line!  Queen Christina is also one of the few movies I’ve ever seen where the idea of a woman having lots of lovers is actually celebrated.  When Christina and Antonio are at the inn, they witness a couple of guys get into a fight over whether the Queen has had six or nine lovers.  The guy who insisted it was nine thought it was insulting to suggest the Queen had a mere six lovers in one year.  When Christina declares that they’re both wrong, the correct answer is twelve, the whole bar erupts in cheers!

Queen Christina is one of my favorite Garbo talkies.  What made Garbo such a perfect actress for silent films is that she could say so much using only her face, words were completely unnecessary.  The great thing about Queen Christina is that she gets two exquisite, very famous scenes where all she does is emote.  We also get one last chance to see her work with her greatest co-star, John Gilbert.  Again, we see here that his voice and his acting were not the disaster that popular legend might lead you to expect.  Queen Christina took the best elements of Garbo’s silent films and reinvented them for sound.  Garbo and Gilbert still made a great team and Garbo never lost her ability to use her face to tell stories once she started making talkies.  None of the magic had been lost.