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pandorainmay

John Gilbert's Later Career on TCM

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welcome.... it's from the Betty Lee bio of Dressler....

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*Dark Star also discounts his late image as a complete drunk, fueled by tabloid accounts repeated in Anger's Hollywood Babylon which describes a "drink to the death contest" between Gilbert and a lesser known actress.*

 

Anyone looking for the truth should read *Hollywood Babylon* with a very large dose of skepticism.

Most of the stories in Anger's book were falsehoods that had been bandied about for years. By putting them into his book, he gave them more credence than they ever deserved because people believed the stories to be true.

 

Clara Bow's reputation was put through the mud (along with others) and it wasn't until author David Stenn came along and thoroughly researched her life and wrote the book, *Running Wild* that some of those myths were finally put to rest.

 

The bad news is that Anger's book probably sold more copies than Stenn's so people still believe the trash about Bow.

 

Even more bad news, Bow wasn't the only victim of the crap that passes for truth in *Hollywood Babylon*

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What a sad story...your account makes me wonder if Mayer was just driven by greed in his mean spirited double crosses of stars. To promise 100K to a dying woman and then, cheat her like that, is despicable. I love Dinner at Eight, one of my all time favorites. I have not seen the other two, but would like to. What type of cancer did she have? I read about the Tugboat movies in one of my movie books. I can see her playing that part. She was a hoot.

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Yes, I agree, both the Babylon books are nasty. It was not until I read a lot about film and talked to others, that I discovered what total trash they were. Anger seems to have an ax to grind with certain stars, such as Gloria Swanson and Joan Crawford, calling them "witches" and publishing unflattering, compromising photos without any explanation.

 

I do not know where he got his material from and the second book is a waste of time. The Gilbert item includes a newspaper clipping, but it is impossible to know if it is a legit publication. I think it is wrong to print anything without hard facts to back it up especially when people's reputations are on the line. I say this as a former journalist who was _very careful_ about fact checking. I buried a piece once. I was worried it may upset the family members of the person I wrote about, even though it was 100% true. The tabloid trend in journalism is the main reason I stopped and the long hours.

 

I think Clara Bow is remembered fondly today, and was certainly underrated as a talent. Her sad story reminds me of Marilyn Monroe who was so much more than a "sex pot".

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The Marie Dressler bonus check incident is a sad story. I'm inclined to think it is true.

 

However, Ms. Lee's book also showed Marie Dressler in an unflattering light - basically calling Ms. Dressler a liar, or at the very least an embroiderer of the truth. The main source of most of the information in the book was Claire Dubrey.

 

Ms. Dubrey was an intimate friend of Dressler's for years, but was disgruntled when the friendship ended on a bad note, and she was dismissed by Dressler. It was portrayed as unfair and willful mean-spiritedess on Ms. Dressler's part, though perhaps the rift was caused by Dressler's illness and pain. Dubrey was a fairly innocent party according to the Lee biography, but the biography depended almost entirely on information from Ms. Dubrey. At the time of the bonus check incident, Ms. Dubrey was not living with Dressler anymore, and I believe had gleaned the information from Mamie Cox, a maid and helper to Ms. Dressler at this time. Now, Claire Dubrey may have had fond feelings for Marie Dressler even after their bitter parting, and she may have been a reliable source, but again, I get skeptical when there is only one viewpoint covered in a biography. I would love to read the other biography by Matthew Kennedy, to see if his conclusions were the same as Betty Lee's.

 

Message was edited by: JackFavell

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Yes you're right.... The Lee book showed Dressler "warts and all." A supreme talent but also rather petty, stubborn, and an incredibly bad business person. And yes Dressler apparently made up her own personal history (especially her childhood) to suit herself and her audience.

 

But all that aside, the bonus story is probably quite true. The Lee book was a very difficult read, especially the details of Dressler's prolonged death and her total refusal to accept the reality of her illness.

 

Mayer's actions are unforgivable.

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I agree with you that it was a hard read and very painful at the end of the book....

 

According to some sources, L. B. was quite fond of Dressler. I find his (supposed) actions to have been incredibly detrimental to her health, but I am open-minded enough to realize that one book is not enough to base my opinion on.

 

However, much of the reason he is seen as such a demon in so many Hollywood stories is that he was management, not a friend of the worker. His bottom line was money...and getting the product out. He did have a couple higher-ups that he had to deal with as well. He was a businessman, and if that means he was awful to his employees, well, I think we have all seen a lot of that in our lives too.....

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ya but this was the guy who always called Judy Garland "the little hunchback." I think he was a ****.

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I heard Greta Garbo's family member,Scott Reisfield, state that in a letter written by Stiller after he returned to Sweden that Stiller wrote "they could only be together again if they married." So who really knows.

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I'm not disputing that L.B. was a jerk, I'm just saying that I haven't read enough about him to make a judgement...... yet. :)

 

I am getting more and more interested in reading about him as we go through this discussion. What would make him so disagreeable? I am very curious as to his background and life story. I do know that in some of the books I have read, he seemed to be the kind of person people despised on sight- and that he was going to be pushed out of MGM at one point right before (or maybe right after) the Gilbert/Mayer fight. He somehow managed to hang on to his position at MGM, consolidating even more power at that point.

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> {quote:title=Scottman wrote:}{quote}

> I don't believe that MGM actively tried to sabotage Gilbert's career. Since they were saddled with Gilbert's enormous salary, I would expect that being reasonably good business men Mayer and Thalberg would not purposely try to throw money away making bad pictures. The fact that MGM hired Mervyn LeRoy to direct GENTLEMAN'S FATE shows that they were willing to borrow a "hot" director (LITTLE CAESAR and FIVE STAR FINAL) to try and make the film a success.

> I feel that on some level, MGM did not know what to do with John Gilbert after his "great lover" films tanked in 1929. They tried one more "romantic" lead with WEST OF BROADWAY (1931), and failed, then they tried to make him a kind of tough guy in GENTLEMAN'S FATE and failed. When they let him write a screenplay for what would be DOWNSTAIRS (1932), it was too late. The film was a modest success, but his fan base was mostly gone. While FAST WORKERS (1933) is a good film, Gilbert's character is a far cry from the great lover type of roles he played before. Gilbert's best romantic talkie is (not surprisingly) with Garbo in QUEEN CHRISTINA.

.

 

 

Scottman, I couldn't agree with you more. The more research I've done on John Gilbert's career, the less I believe that Louis B. Mayer scuttled it (or just about anybody else, for that matter). Mayer was a good businessman, and constantly undermining one's employees in their work does not make for a good business model. I'm sure that the budgets for Gilbert's films must have been huge -- salaries and pre-production costs often ran up to $500,000 before a single camera turned. And except for HIS GLORIOUS NIGHT, none of Gilbert's talkies made a profit. So how much money could you sink into a picture if you knew you wouldn't see it again?

 

 

There are many other factors to consider in Gilbert's decline and fall. Public tastes were changing, and as you said, the "great lover' types that Gilbert played in the silents were no longer in vogue. But if he could no longer be the "great lover," what then could he be? It wasn't exactly clear -- and Gilbert's dilemma was no different that that of a lot of popular favorites whose "types" were no longer fashionable.

 

In Gilbert's case, the studio seemed to go back to other formulas that had worked well before. Two of Gilbert's most successful pictures, LOVE and THE COSSACKS, were based on stories by Leo Tolstoy, so it might have made sense to base Gilbert's first talkie, REDEMPTION, on another Tolstoy story. HIS GLORIOUS NIGHT hearkens back to Gilbert's earlier costume pictures like BARDELYS THE MAGNIFICENT. Gilbert's foray into sea stories, TWELVE MILES OUT, was successful, so WAY FOR A SAILOR made sense, too. GENTLEMAN'S FATE was a gangster picture, as was a previous Gilbert silent picture, FOUR WALLS. Other paralells could be drawn, but I think it's obvious that the studio was casting about for a successful formula for Gilbert in the talkies, but nobody really knew what would take.

 

But in all of this, Mayer seemed to be out of the loop. Leatrice Gilbert Fountain stated in Brownlow and Gill's Hollywood that her father had a clause inserted into his second contract with MGM specifically stating that he (Gilbert) was under contract to Nicholas Schenk (then the head of the board of directors at Loew's, Inc., MGM's parent company) and that his pictures would be supervised by Irving Thalberg.

 

If that's true, it really explains the generally high caliber of the behind-the-scenes talent working on Gilbert's talkies. Fred Niblo, John S. Robertson, Mervyn LeRoy, Harry Beaumont, Monta Bell, and Tod Browning all directed at least one of Gilbert's talkies, and several of them had also directed his silent pictures. Lenore Coffee, who worked on several screenplays for Gilbert, was a personal friend not only to him, but his second wife Leatrice Joy. Laurence Stallings, who wrote THE BIG PARADE, Gilbert's biggest silent film, also wrote the stories for WAY FOR A SAILOR and FAST WORKERS. And, as it's often said, the list goes on.

 

In short, Gilbert was working with a lot of people who wanted him to succeed -- and in the writing, Gilbert helped them -- but for reasons unknown, nothing gelled. Why? Could anything have saved Gilbert's career? Or had his time truly passed?

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It's too bad Gilbert was unable to reinvent himself in Hollywood either as a writer-director, or even take a silent such as TWELVE MILES OUT and remake it as a talkie, not unlike what was done for Lon Chaney with THE UNHOLY THREE. Part of the problem with MGM was that once they found a "formula" for an actor/actress, they beat it to death. Lon Chaney, William Haines and Joan Crawford all have their own formula for each film that they made. Crawford was able to escape the "shop girl makes good" formula by the mid 30's. Haines was stuck with the wiseguy wins girl, then loses girl, learns lessons of humility, then gets girl" formula through all of his pictures. Chaney escaped his formula only because he died. Although one could argue that had he lived to make DRACULA, that may have been the formula escape that would help keep his career fresh in the 1930's. Ramon Novarro seems to have been another one that MGM was not sure what to do with. While his talkies were pretty successful, there does not seem to be a "Ramon Novarro" formula at MGM. His ligh opera films such as DEVIL MAY CARE (1929), IN GAY MADRID (1930),CALL OF THE FLESH (1930),THE BARBARIAN (1933) and THE CAT IN THE FIDDLE (1934), perhaps could be his "formula".

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I wonder if Gilbert had lived, would he have been able to re-invent himself? I think maybe he might have.... he had a great personality and was liked by most Hollywood insiders. He had other talents besides acting to fall back on, and he seems to me to have been a resilient person- having dealt with all the problems of his childhood. However, he had a few nasty habits - the drinking for instance. It's too bad his career was cut short at a low point. Maybe things would have changed a bit for him as movies became more sophisticated again. I like to think he would have come out of the doldrums he was in, making a comeback as a solid character actor like John Halliday, or as a writer or director......

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Since he id such a good job working on the screenplay for DOWNSTAIRS, it is tempting to think about John Gilbert, the writer/director.

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*I wonder if Gilbert had lived, would he have been able to re-invent himself?*

 

Jackie,

 

I'm reading Jeanine Basinger's The Star Machine right now and while I agree it would have been great if Gilbert had been able to do that, I don't know that given the time and place he was at that it was even a possibility.

 

According to Basinger, the thing about the Star Machine is that it could make you a star but you were all too often typecast as "the great lover", "the glamour girl", whatever the type was that you personified so that made it even harder to make a change.

 

Granted Gilbert got his start before the Star Machine really took hold but his type "the great lover" probably held him back from breaking the mold as much as all the other problems in his life.

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It's sad that John Gilbert wasn't able to re-invent himself as other stars had done. I can imagine him in sophisticated comedy such as "The Thin Man" series which went to William Powell. Powell himself started off in villainous roles while at Paramount. He was let go from Paramount and went to Warner Bros where he played in heavy handed drama such as "One Way Passage" with Kay Francis. Warners also let him go and he went to MGM who at first did not know what to do with him. By the time he arrived at MGM in 1934 he was already 42 years old (7 years older than Gilbert). By coincidence or luck or whatever he suddenly became "hot" again in the genre of sophisticated comedy. Had Gilbert still been under contract with MGM at that time maybe he might have landed the role as Nick Charles and gone on into a new phase of his career. Sadly, this was not to be.

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I agree that Gilbert had enormous potential. He hated the "great lover" label and loved playing all kinds of characters as his filmography shows. In his final final, a cheapie for Columbia, he amply shows the kind of roles (very William Powell) he could have played into middle age.

 

As I said before, even his MGM talkies show his range (despite their B status) and ability to inhabit almost any character. Of course if audiences only wanted him as a "great lover" he was doomed even if Mayer hadn't set out to destroy his career.

 

Yet in WAY FOR A SAILOR, DOWNSTAIRS, THE PHANTOM OF PARIS etc. Gilbert is as good as any of the new talkie stars like Fredric March or Spencer Tracy. Gilbert was certainly a better actor than Warner Baxter or Richard Dix, who both went on forever.

 

Gilbert's case was just the bad luck of unsupportive bosses and an image from silent films no one could have lived up to.

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I, too, think Gilbert had potential but I think one of his biggest problems was that he couldn't adapt fast enough to the changing styles in the transition to sound.

 

He is wonderful in the intimate scenes with Garbo in *Queen Christina* but he also has some cringe-inducing moments when his facial expressions (perfectly acceptable for silents) that come across as over-the-top in a sound picture.

 

Also, being saddled with two costume dramas (and perhaps not the best director in Lionel Barrymore) with lots of flowery spoken dialog did him no favors with the audience either.

 

Times were changing and I think one of the big problems facing Gilbert was that he couldn't break out of the mold of "the great lover" fast enough to keep with the changing tastes of his audience.

 

I checked with my Scott Eyman books and he won't give complete credence to Eleanor Boardman's story of the double wedding and the subsequent fight. In another chapter he says that there was little love lost between Boardman and Mayer. In fact, Boardman carried a lifelong loathing of Mayer and referred to him as a "real SOB* . She also claimed later in life that Chaplin offered her $100,000 for her first son.

 

Irene Mayer called the Gilbert/Mayer wedding and fisticuffs story "whole cloth" while Joe Cohn strongly doubted it for the simple reason that "If Gilbert would have hit Mayer, Mayer would have killed him. Mayer was a brutally strong man."

 

The wedding took place a month after shooting had begun on *Flesh and the Devil* making their rapid courtship and marriage proposal a matter of days - which is out of character for the pathologically shy and cautious personality of Garbo.

 

The Lion of Hollywood by Scott Eyman

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Great info thanks...I would like to suggest Bassinger's fine book Silent Stars which devotes an

entire chapter to Gilbert. Bassinger does not get into double wedding myth, but does careful analysis of his career from the teens. She discounts the "destroyed by sound" myth and false repeated gossip about his "weak voice". Since these lies are better stories than the truth, which is far more complicated, it was repeated as the truth.

 

Bassinger feels Garbo was his greatest obsession, but not necessarily his greatest love, who was most likely, Leatrice Joy. Gilbert did have a passionate fling with Dietrich, Garbo's cinematic rival, but it was late in his life, the vitality was gone and the poor man was beaten down by disappointment, loneliness and failing health.

 

I like to think if things had been different for Gilbert he could have been another Ronald Coleman, successful, debonair, all his talent intact and aging gracefully in mature character roles.

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The Star Machine is a good read. I was thinking about what you said about the formula approach to star making. It could be argued that the star machine destroyed Errol Flynn and Tyrone Power, as the book details. Both men had the same charisma, good looks and likability of John Gilbert. And both Power and Flynn, were more talented than the narrow roles they were given as Gilbert was. Gilbert had the makings of a fine character actor or even a heavy given the chance. Robert Taylor was able to transition into darker roles such as Johnny Eager and some of his war films.

 

I mentioned this book to Jack before, the best star auto bio I have read is My Wicked, Wicked Ways by Flynn. An incredible life story, an adventure story, and like Gilbert, Flynn had a contentious relationship with his cold Mother and many marriages. Flynn was bankrupted by his first mercenary first wife, a lesser known French actress and Mother of his only son who died in Vietnam years after his death.

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Thank you, Lynn, for your research into the "double wedding". I like so much that you took the trouble of checking the Scott Eyman books.

 

Of course, the double wedding story is much more dramatic. It is easier to believe that the fault was due to one evil man than due to circumstances beyond human control. " When the legend becomes fact, print the legend."

 

Many stars lost their potential to earn money, making it hard for a studio to support a high salary. Mayer may have relegated Gilbert to B pictures, and done so with relish, but if the audience still wanted to see Gilbert, they would have put up with some crappy movies.

 

The twenties was a mercurial time of fads and trends. The trend was for elegance in men and flirtatiousness in women. The sexes were sort of reversed, due to a more open-minded society (brought on by war and travel). Women became more manly, and men became more effeminate. The highest one could hope to achieve in the twenties was to become a rich society flapper or a dapper dan. Everyone was living a life beyond their means (sound familiar?) It was still appropriate to dream of a life in high society, where one didn't work or even break a sweat. There was an upper class, and it was OK to live like them, or even BE them.

 

The Depression made actors like Rod LaRocque and Conrad Nagel seem almost horrifying. The rich country club youth became a slap in the face to a depression era audience member. Our Dancing Daughters had to go to work. Any vestige of twenties grandeur would have been a reminder to thirties audiences of how far the economy had fallen, how tough life had become. The "types" of the twenties suddenly seemed ridiculous and dated in the black pit of the Depression. They were not only dated, they were hated by the millions of Americans out of work. I imagine that many common people were glad to see the mighty fallen.

 

The actors who made it in the thirties were more earthy and rugged, like Spencer Tracy, Richard Dix, Clark Gable, and Gary Cooper. They had to be. Our dreams had changed. We no longer wanted to be or marry the dapper dan. He was an anachronism. He wasn't tough enough to live anymore. William Powell was the exception. However, there was still something gritty about his portrayals that many of the twenties stars lacked. Powell seems equally at home whether playing a con man or playing a rich playboy. But his rich playboy has been around.... he knows the score. And he is played for laughs.

 

I am thinking that *Mr. Deeds Goes to Town* is a shining example of how things had changed. The country bumpkin becomes a rich playboy. These are both twenties "types". He is completely unsuited to live a life in the "real world" of the Depression - hunger, poverty, and scam artists. It's a tough life, and he's got to change in order to stay alive. So what does he do? He gets tough, socks some people, and then realizes his rich life is no good - he gives up the persona of the rich playboy to become a man of the people.

 

So what I'm slowly getting around to is that John Gilbert would have had to change his persona. Maybe even if one movie had been written to help him do that, he could have made it. I am looking forward to seeing *Downstairs* next week because I have a suspicion that this is what he was grasping for. Comedy might have been the way for him to go, but I don't know that he was a strong comedian. To many victims of the Depression, he was simply a reminder of how life had gone all wrong......

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As I've said, Gilbert hated the "great lover" label and tried to get away from playing lovers and princes and such. He finally succeeded in WAY FOR A SAILOR (1930) but the film was treated as a B film by MGM and was botched by director Sam Wood etc. Still Gilbert's performance is solid as it is his next film, GENTLEMAN'S FATE. Again, MGM made the film badly but Gilbert succeeds in further distancing himself from his silent image. But the audiences had already left him.

 

What's off about these films is that MGM assigned Gilbert properties that did not boast strong leading lady roles (although Leila Hyams and Anita Page were certainly likable) and basically paired Gilbert in "buddy films" with nonglamorous Wallace Beery and Louis Wolheim. Maybe these mismatches were supposed to downplay Gilbert's lover image or contrast his sleek good looks against their rough exteriors. But it didn't work.

 

Gilbert disliked every talkie MGM assigned him because he knew they were bad matches for what he wanted to do. DOWNSTAIRS, which Gilbert wrote, finally allowed him total control and he's quite splendid. But their was no audience. And as has been noted in this thread, even when he finally got an A project at MGM (QUEEN CHRISTINA), he wasn't even mentioned in the advertising.

 

Despite Gilbert's contractual restrictions, MGM made little or no attempt to place him in interesting roles or in A-list projects. There was no effort to salvage his career by placing him opposite major stars (until it was far too late) or even in all-star films like GRAND HOTEL or DINNER AT EIGHT.

 

It's interesting that Gilbert had pleased with Mayer to let him make DESERT NIGHTS (a solid little crime/adventure film) as his first talkie. Instead he was assigned REDEMPTION and HIS GLORIOUS NIGHT.

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I agree that it certainly looks like Mayer (or the studio) did his best to undercut Gilbert - again, I think that salary was the primary reason for Mayer doing any dirt to Gilbert. All the stories I've heard about Mayer (and I am purposely using the word "stories" here, for I've researched none of them) have to do with money, and his being tight with it, as was his job.

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