Sunday, November 30, 2008

John Gilbert's Later Films on TCM


One of the rarely seen talkies of John Gilbert's career is Gentleman's Fate (1931). While it would be a few years before the great silent star's career finally collapsed along with his health, I am curious about this movie, since it is directed by a young Mervyn LeRoy, some of whose early talkies, such as Five Star Final, High Pressure, and Heat Lightning have a raw energy and underlying realism that make them occasionally electrifying and--at moments--vastly entertaining and instructive. You may enjoy reading an article I wrote for the Turner Classics Movie website on this film.

I would not classify Gentleman's Fate as a particularly good movie since a check of contemporary reviews when the film was released and when it has been seen in recent years indicates that it has received, at best, mixed reviews. More sympathetic reporters characterized his work tepidly as a "pleasing performance," while more enthusiastic mentions in the press included one piece that referred to his performance as belonging to "a star reborn," though I suspect that Gilbert may have wished they would not keep harping on the "comeback...for our beloved Jack." The movie also features a great character actor, Louis Wolheim's next to last performance on film before his relatively early death (at 51) from cancer, playing--believe it or not--Gilbert's brother. Both actors can be seen below. Other notable actors in the cast trying to make the transition into talkies include Leila Hyams, Marie Prevost and Anita Page.

John Gilbert also appeared in the fine early talkie about the servant class in Weimar Germany, Downstairs (1932), which the actor wrote as well as starred in during his last years at MGM. Downstairs is a wonderfully observant story, capturing the the way that human beings live with class tensions, the identification of servants with their master's values, and the pesky way that sexuality can trip up anyone at one time or another. Gilbert, for once in the sound era, seems to be having a grand time as a bounder who is the kind of servant that Dirk Bogarde would bring to life in another breakthrough performance in the '60s in The Servant. In that time, for a generation primed to accept the corruption of a character while relishing it, Bogarde won acting kudos galore, but in Gilbert's day his bravura performance does not appear to have helped check his decline, alas. To be honest, looking back, Downstairs seems to be the more adult of the two once scandalous films, (and more entertaining, as chauffeur Gilbert sidles up to anyone in a skirt or any male in a position to help him). Housemaid Virginia Bruce gives an excellent performance as an innocent bride who learns a great deal about her starchy husband (Paul Lukas) and her own needs and wants through her acquaintance with Gilbert.
Above: Gilbert with Virginia Bruce and Olga Baclanova in "Downstairs".

I'd also seen the knockabout working class comic drama Fast Workers (1931) with Gilbert on TCM in the past and hope that it will be broadcast again. In this film, he plays the kind of role Jimmy Cagney might have been cast in at Warners in the same period. Gilbert appears opposite Robert Armstrong, though in the Cagney film, the character would undoubtedly have been played by Frank McHugh. Gilbert and Armstrong play iron workers with Gilbert as the cynical manipulator of women and Armstrong as a naive fool who is constantly being taken advantage of during their extra-cirricular adventures. Mae Clarke gives a good performance as a woman who treads lightly on the borderline between con artist and good time gal in this film. I'm sure that L. B. Mayer loathed these movies as much as he did their star, but they are prime examples of a cheerful cynicism that kept audience spirits afloat in the early '30s.

Both of these films confirmed for me that the man was a much better actor than he appeared to be in Queen Christina (1933), a film that rightfully belongs to Garbo, but that also shows Gilbert at his most awkward and old-fashioned by contrast.

If you've seen this movie or would like to voice an opinion about John Gilbert's later career, it would be a pleasure to read them. Thanks.

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