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Wow, did anyone see "Downstairs" (1932)?


LornaHansonForbes
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I was writing this out in the I JUST WATCHED thread, when it occurred to me that this film was unique and revelatory enough that I figured I'd just start a thread just for it.

 

dde7a97623f087d6516140d4473bba8d.jpg

 

Featured as part of Virginia Bruce's SUMMER UNDER THE STARS day, it wasn't really a noteable performance on her part (don't get me wrong, she's fine- but there's not a lot to her character, who is more of a driving force for conflict between the two leads played by Paul Lukas and John Gilbert that the film centers on.)

 

A proto-DOWNTON ABBEY (and i have to admit my appreciation of the plot had much to do with the episodes I'd seen of that show as they serve as a reminder for us who live in the modern era of the complicated caste system that used to exist in grand households between the upstairs owners and downstairs servants)- the film deals with the Hungarian head Butler (Paul Lukas) to a wealthy Baron, whose wife Olga Baklanova (the first film I've seen her in that wasn't FREAKS! and she's terrific) is having an affair with the shiftless chauffer played by John Gilbert-who is also "giving it to" the old, overweight cook in a shockingly frank and salacious B-story. .

 

Gilbert ends up setting his sights on a pretty lady's maid played by Bruce (his real life wife at the time) who has just married Paul Lukas's head butler.

 

Blackmail, violence and a power struggle ensue in one of the Pre-Codiest Pre-Codes I've ever seen.

 

The two revelations of the film were, without a doubt, Gilbert and Lukas- neither or whom have I ever thought of as good actors. Gilbert's performance is nothing short of extraordinary- so confident and relaxed and dedicated is he to playing an utterly repugnant s***heel- the kind of role that would make Warren William step back and go "whoa, I dunno, THIS guy is too much of a jerk for even me to play"- the high-pitched whine to Gilbert's voice was GONE- it was a strong, steady tone- he doesn't falter once, and it's interesting to watch such a MAJOR star give a challenging performance when I am sure his back was against the wall career-wise. Rarely do I agree with Maltin, but I have to say that he is right when he says that Gilbert's performance dispels the myth that he was a bad actor with a high, squeaky voice.

 

The other revelation- although less so- was Paul Lukas, who I was just recently railing against for his weak, yet Oscar-winning performance in WATCH ON THE RHINE- he's better in this film than any other I've seen him in- but it takes a while for him to get "warmed up"- and there were quite a few scenes early on where I could not understand him and even more where he visibly struggles with the dialogue- nonetheless, the "foreigness" of his character adds to the sense the audience has of his frustration at losing control of his wife and his household to the manipulative Gilbert.

 

Allegedly, this film was a flop (which I can understand), and it seems to've been a slightly rushed affair (both Lukas and Gilbert flub lines that are left in the picture)- but after a kind of routine start, this thing reeled me in and I was on the edge of my seat for the conclusion.

 

Did anyone else see it?

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I did and agree with your assessment of this film. It was VERY pre code, probably one of the films that helped spur on the movement to "clean up" the movies. I was very interested in watching Virginia Bruce and was impressed  with her performance, as you say her character development was somewhat limited though. I was also impressed with the filming, camera movement and such. There were a lot of limitations in filming with the early talkies but the technology was getting better and better with time. Compare this film with something done just a short time earlier to see what I mean.

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I was writing this out in the I JUST WATCHED thread, when it occurred to me that this film was unique and revelatory enough that I figured I'd just start a thread just for it.

 

dde7a97623f087d6516140d4473bba8d.jpg

 

Featured as part of Virginia Bruce's SUMMER UNDER THE STARS day, it wasn't really a noteable performance on her part (don't get me wrong, she's fine- but there's not a lot to her character, who is more of a driving force for conflict between the two leads played by Paul Lukas and John Gilbert that the film centers on.)

 

A proto-DOWNTON ABBEY (and i have to admit my appreciation of the plot had much to do with the episodes I'd seen of that show as they serve as a reminder for us who live in the modern era of the complicated caste system that used to exist in grand households between the upstairs owners and downstairs servants)- the film deals with the Hungarian head Butler (Paul Lukas) to a wealthy Baron, whose wife Olga Baklanova (the first film I've seen her in that wasn't FREAKS! and she's terrific) is having an affair with the shiftless chauffer played by John Gilbert-who is also "giving it to" the old, overweight cook in a shockingly frank and salacious B-story. .

 

Gilbert ends up setting his sights on a pretty lady's maid played by Bruce (his real life wife at the time) who has just married Paul Lukas's head butler.

 

Blackmail, violence and a power struggle ensue in one of the Pre-Codiest Pre-Codes I've ever seen.

 

The two revelations of the film were, without a doubt, Gilbert and Lukas- neither or whom have I ever thought of as good actors. Gilbert's performance is nothing short of extraordinary- so confident and relaxed and dedicated is he to playing an utterly repugnant s***heel- the kind of role that would make Warren William step back and go "whoa, I dunno, THIS guy is too much of a jerk for even me to play"- the high-pitched whine to Gilbert's voice was GONE- it was a strong, steady tone- he doesn't falter once, and it's interesting to watch such a MAJOR star give a challenging performance when I am sure his back was against the wall career-wise. Rarely do I agree with Maltin, but I have to say that he is right when he says that Gilbert's performance dispels the myth that he was a bad actor with a high, squeaky voice.

 

The other revelation- although less so- was Paul Lukas, who I was just recently railing against for his weak, yet Oscar-winning performance in WATCH ON THE RHINE- he's better in this film than any other I've seen him in- but it takes a while for him to get "warmed up"- and there were quite a few scenes early on where I could not understand him and even more where he visibly struggles with the dialogue- nonetheless, the "foreigness" of his character adds to the sense the audience has of his frustration at losing control of his wife and his household to the manipulative Gilbert.

 

Allegedly, this film was a flop (which I can understand), and it seems to've been a slightly rushed affair (both Lukas and Gilbert flub lines that are left in the picture)- but after a kind of routine start, this thing reeled me in and I was on the edge of my seat for the conclusion.

 

Did anyone else see it?

I watched a few minutes--it didn't grab me, so I moved on. I guess I should have stayed with it.

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I missed it this time, but had seen it before, and recorded it. I too enjoyed this frank precode, and agree that John Gilbert's career could have survived the transition to sound, had the moguls not had it in for him, based on his voice and performance here.

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I saw it when it was on during the salute to pre-codes and was a bit disappointed because I was expecting it to be more salacious based on the way it was described. 

 

It's still on the DVR so I think I will re-watch it.

 

How long ago was that? Just wondering how long it'll be before the next showing.........:(

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I watched a few minutes--it didn't grab me, so I moved on. I guess I should have stayed with it.

 

Yes, the film starts out slow, but it gradually begins to speed up, then by about half-way through it, it had me on the edge of my seat, and it turned into a very exciting film by the time of the big confrontation/fight scene. I really like this film.

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I saw it when it was on during the salute to pre-codes and was a bit disappointed because I was expecting it to be more salacious based on the way it was described. 

 

It's still on the DVR so I think I will re-watch it.

 

I mean, "salacious" for a pre-code film is a different standard for "salacious" today...the three things that struck me as really notably salacious in DOWNSTAIRS were:

 

*Oh, I guess technically these are spoilers:

 

1. John Gilbert- major romantic screen figure- has what is clearly a sexual affair with the 50-something, overweight cook, then proceeds to belittle and abuse her (calling her "grandma" and pushing her by the face into a wall!) after stealing her money. This was kind of a mind-blower on numerous levels, and an example of how Gilbert was really risking what he had left of a dashing, romantic image with this movie.

 

2. There is a scene where- in a very tight shot- he caresses the ankles of the Lady of the House Olga Baklanova (sp?), and while I am reminded of the ABSOLUTELY FABULOUS joke: "oh darling, I can just imagine the kind of scandals they had in your day: "Strumpet Shows Ankle to Chimney Sweep!", it was surprisingly erotic and intense.

 

3. But finally, when Paul Lukas's butler confronts his wife over the affair she has had with Gilbert, she pretty much tells him it was because he (Lukas) was bad in bed, treating her as yet another household duty to be performed, like laundry or serving dinner. She mentions that Gilbert has driven her wild with passion. This kind of frankness- and the fact that the wife was not punished for this admission and (okay, this is a real spoiler here:) and that they manage to salvage their relationship is what made this film so ahead of its day.

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I watched Downstairs five years ago during Gilbert's SUTS day, and my summary judgment at the time was "Thin plot, but Gilbert's the perfect cad / bounder / blackguard / etc. [7/10]"  Five years later, all I remember is that this was the first time I'd ever seen a John Gilbert sound movie other than Gentleman's Fate that I'd consider watching again, and I'm glad to be reminded  of it for future reference.

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The fatal flaw in DOWNSTAIRS is that deadly slow first fifteen minutes.

(Well, actually maybe it's the first twenty. I missed the first five minutes of it to be completely honest.)

 

my advice to any and all on this film is: try to make it through the start, it's worth staying for.

You should have told me that 3 days ago.

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I also meant to add that in reviewing the imdb trivia entries for SINGIN' IN THE RAIN, I came across one that referenced a rumor that MGM sound technicians sped-up his voice because they were under orders from "someone with an agenda."

 

I have no idea if this is true or not, but an interesting fact is that Norma Shearer's brother was (I think) a major (if not the head) of sound at MGM.

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I also meant to add that in reviewing the imdb trivia entries for SINGIN' IN THE RAIN, I came across one that referenced a rumor that MGM sound technicians sped-up his voice because they were under orders from "someone with an agenda."

 

I have no idea if this is true or not, but an interesting fact is that Norma Shearer's brother was (I think) a major (if not the head) of sound at MGM.

Yes. Douglas Shearer. His name appeared in the credits of every MGM film for many years.

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Yes. Douglas Shearer. His name appeared in the credits of every MGM film for many years.

 

Yes, yes. Him.

 

...but even if John Gilbert's voice was all right, and he was a more solid actor than I heretofore realized, I have to say, I'm with a lot of others who just don't find him sexy in his prime and there's no denying either way that he was losing his looks, although there are male actors who moved past the matinee idol stage of their initial careers (Frederic March comes to mind.)

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The fatal flaw in DOWNSTAIRS is that deadly slow first fifteen minutes.

(Well, actually maybe it's the first twenty. I missed the first five minutes of it to be completely honest.)

 

my advice to any and all on this film is: try to make it through the start, it's worth staying for.

 

I agree. The first 15 or so minutes make this film seem like it is going to be dull, but it really gets going after a while. And the xxx stuff in this film is fairly shocking, even by today's standards. I loved it when Lukas finally got really mad near the end.

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