John Gilbert: Ladies Man

I almost just gave you the best typo ever: John GIRL-bert (being intentional, it’s not a typo anymore, but a witticism). The Hollywood star, born John Pringle (1897-1936) is easily discussed in relation to the many women in his life: wives, lovers, co-stars…and audiences.

A second generation trouper from Utah, Gilbert started out with stock companies in the Pacific Northwest as a teenager. He was only 18 when he began working as an extra and bit player in Hollywood, gradually working his way up the ladder as a juvenile for such studios as those of Thomas Ince, Kay-Bee, Triangle, and Maurice Tourneur. His time as a major star began as a contract player at Fox (1921-24) and MGM (beginning 1921). His most famous relationship, onscreen and off, was with Greta Garbo, with whom he had a famous chemistry. The pair co-starred in Flesh and the Devil (1926), Love (1927, an adaptation of Anna Karenina), A Woman of Affairs (1928), and Queen Christina (1933). With Norma Shearer, he was in The Wolf Man (1923), He Who Gets Slapped (1924), The Snob (1924) and Hollywood Revue of 1929, in which the pair did the balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet. He appeared opposite Renée Adorée in King Vidor’s The Big Parade (1925) and La Bohème (1926), Tod Browning’s The Show (1927), The Cossacks (1928), and Redemption (1930). With Joan Crawford: Twelve Miles Out (1927), and Four Walls (1928),

In 1921 Gilbert divorced his first wife Olivia Burwell and married Leatrice Joy with whom he had appeared in Ladies Must Live. The pair were together until mid-1925, the grounds for divorce being a series of infidelities with the likes of Laurette Taylor, Barbara La Marr, Lila Lee, and Bebe Daniels. He married his third wife Ina Claire in 1929, the same year he began doing talkies, though they were soon divorced. Leila Hyams was Gilbert’s most frequent leading lady in the sound era, appearing with him in Way for a Sailor (1930), Gentleman’s Fate (1931), and The Phantom of Paris (1931). In 1932 he starred in Downstairs (adapted from his own scenario) opposite Virginia Bruce. She became his fourth wife. It lasted about a year.

Classic movie dilettantes tend to dwell on Gilbert’s precipitous decline in the sound era, perpetuating a myth that it was a due to a high-pitched, squeaky voice. Now that classic movies are much more readily available, the canard is slowly dispelling, and more folks have seen his great silents, allowing for a more positive legacy. That said, there was something that turned audiences off when Gilbert began to speak, and there was contemporary backlash. Audiences and critics ridiculed his exaggerated diction, which made him seem prissy. It’s an interesting development, given the number of silent male stars, Gilbert among them, whose gender ambiguity had been perceived as an asset when you couldn’t hear them. Some stars, like, say, Garbo or Laurel and Hardy turned out to have the voices you expected. Others, like Buster Keaton, or Gilbert, did not.

As it happens, Gilbert’s misery and that of his audiences was to be shortlived. His final film, The Captain Hates the Sea, for Columbia, was in 1934. It is an interesting movie, clearly an attempt to mimic the success of MGM’s Grand Hotel, and Paramount’s many all-star revue films. No longer carrying a picture by himself or with a female co-star, Gilbert is cast in an ensemble that includes Alison Skipworth, Victor McLaglen, Leon Errol, Walter Catlett, and The Three Stooges. It’s a far cry from being a sex symbol who made all the girls swoon.

By this time, Gilbert’s drinking problem was roaring like a forest fire, and much like many another dashing matinee idol with a pencil-thin moustache (John Barrymore, Errol Flynn), he not only dashed his career, but shortened his life. A pair of heart attacks killed him in early 1936. At the time, he was dating Marlene Dietrich, and slated to appear in her film Desire.

For more on early screen history check out Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube.