SUtS: John Gilbert

Carrie’s choice: The Phantom of Paris (1931)

Airing at 5:00PM EST

I haven’t seen this movie, but it has a lot of appeal. It’s probably a matter of all the twists and complications of plot that make a good mystery/drama/suspense. Not so much scary as complicated, this one really took a lot of focus in writing, directing, and properly setting–common in the early movies. Consider, with silent films you don’t have much dialogue, so you have to keep that action rolling. That said, the acting really selling this movie is extra important. This tradition of big acting and complex plot continued for years as show business made a shift from stage to film. And lets face it–we still like this sort of thing. It’s gripping. It’s exciting.

Plot-wise, this resembles the work of Alexandre Dumas (Count of Monte Cristo, The Three Musketeers) and Victor Hugo (Les Miserables, The Hunchback of Notre Dame). The betrayal, the subterfuge, and how personal the offenses are all worked into a twisting plot set this movie up to be what it is–a classic.

John Gilbert plays the lead Cheri-Bibi, and who better? He has the look, the expression, and the body language to really carry off this kind of character. They needed the whole package–and John Gilbert delivers.

Because the plot is complicated and I haven’t seen the film myself, I’m using this synopsis off of IMDB:

Bibi is a world class escape artist, but he cannot escape the false murder charge that is placed on him. Max has killed Bourrelier before he was removed from the will so that he will be rich when he marries Cecile. Together with Vera, they put the blame on Bibi, who is a romantic rival to Max, and he is sentenced to death. But Bibi escapes before his execution and hides in Herman’s secret cellar. When he learns that Max is dying, Bibi goes to his house for his confession, but Max dies before it is told to anyone else. So Bibi, has just one chance, and he goes to Dr. Gorin who will make him look like Max so that he can clear his name and put the blame where it belongs – on Max, even in death.

A note from Brandie: The novel that this movie is based on was written by Gaston Leroux, who also wrote the novel The Phantom of the Opera. This film has some of the same dark twisty-ness that makes Phantom a guilty pleasure in both its musical and non-musical forms, so make sure you catch it!

Brandie’s choice: Flesh and the Devil (1926)

Airing at 12:00AM EST

Doesn’t this movie have the best title ever? It’s probably the ship that launched a thousand salaciously-named porno flicks (and one pretty terrible 1998 Rose McGowan vehicle conversely named Devil in the Flesh), but still, for 1926, that’s a pretty daring title for a movie.

Flesh and the Devil stars Greta Garbo as Felicitas, a devious, beautiful young woman who entices a young military man, Leo von Harden (Gilbert), into an affair. Her enraged husband challenges Leo to a duel, and when the husband is killed, Leo is sent away to Africa on a military mission. He asks his best friend, Ulrich (Lars Hanson), to watch after Felicitas while he is gone, but he returns to find the two of them married. Leo, not wanting to hurt his dearest friend, tries to avoid getting entangled in Felicitas’ charms once more, but the allure is much too strong, and the cycle continues …

This movie marks the first pairing of Gilbert and Garbo, whose off-screen passion reportedly mirrored the fireworks between them on-screen. At one point, the two were even engaged, but Garbo stood Gilbert up at the altar (she never did marry, preferring to live alone, per her famous adage). Gilbert was initially the more successful of the two, having been making silent pictures since 1915, while Garbo had only recently gotten “off the boat” from her native Sweden (this was only her third American film). But as Hollywood moved away from silent pictures in the wake of new sound technology, Gilbert’s star began to wane drastically while Garbo (who had, by then, begun to cultivate the “Garbo mystique” that made her so fascinating to audiences) became one of the biggest stars of the 1930s.

As to why Gilbert’s career stalled as he moved out of silent pictures, there are conflicting theories. Some film historians say it’s because he could not adjust his acting style from the overly theatrical gesticulations necessary to get the point across in many silent films. Many others claim that Gilbert was the target of a relentless and damaging campaign by Louis B. Mayer, head of MGM studios, who resented the fact that Gilbert was able to demand a high salary because of his immense popularity. In fact, some sources say that Mayer outright hated Gilbert and took any opportunity to undermine his own studio’s biggest star. Reportedly, for Gilbert’s first sound picture, 1929’s His Glorious Night, the actor’s voice was deliberately recorded (per Mayer’s orders) at a higher-than-normal speed, which caused his normally pleasing voice to emerge sounding as though he had been sucking helium out of balloons.

But some critics dispute that the recording issues were deliberate and state that the trouble really came from poor direction by Lionel Barrymore and an even poorer script. And in later years, His Glorious Night would become a legend, of sorts, as the inspiration for the classic Dueling Cavalier scenes in Singin’ in the Rain. The part in which Gene Kelly murmurs, “I love you, I love you, I love you” over and over again to Jean Hagen is a direct reference to a similar scene between Gilbert and Catherine Dale Owen in the earlier film. And, as in Singin’ in the Rain, the real-life audience howled with laughter during the love scene.

Regardless, Gilbert’s career stalled, even though he had champions on his side–MGM producer Irving G. Thalberg tried to revive Gilbert’s status in Hollywood, but was hampered by his own ill health and Gilbert’s emerging alcoholism. And Garbo herself stepped in at one point, insisting that Gilbert costar with her in 1933’s Queen Christina. Gilbert received excellent reviews for his work in that film, but his comeback was sadly cut short three years later, when he died of a heart attack at the age of 40.

TheLadyEve over at the Classic Film and TV Cafe has posted a wonderful interview with John Gilbert’s daughter, Leatrice Gilbert Fountain, who has dedicated her life to restoring and celebrating the memory of her father. Please make sure you read it–it’s simply marvelous.

And make sure you watch this film tonight. If you’ve never seen it, you’re in for a treat. Garbo is luminescent on screen, Gilbert is appropriately dashing, and you can practically see the sexual heat waves emanating from these two. Who says old movies can’t be sexy?

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