John Gilbert, the silent era’s talk of the town

John Gilbert was the golden boy at MGM during the final years of the silent era. He was the young studio’s biggest male star, working with such top directors as King Vidor (“The Big Parade,” 1925), Erich von Stroheim (“The Merry Widow,” 1925) and Tod Browning (“The Show,” 1927).

Gilbert was breathtakingly handsome with curly black hair and dancing eyes, and women swooned over his passionate love scenes and followed his well-publicized love affair with “Flesh and the Devil” leading lady Greta Garbo in the movie magazines.

But as noted in a new biography, “John Gilbert: The Last of the Silent Film Stars,” there was also a darker side to the actor. He was an alcoholic with pronounced mood swings. A perfectionist, he could be difficult on the set and had a contentious relationship with MGM studio head Louis B. Mayer, which, according to Hollywood lore, led to a fistfight.

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Hollywood is a fickle place and Gilbert became one of the casualties in the transition from silent to sound films. Forced to spout inane, florid dialogue and still getting his sea legs with the new sound format, Gilbert’s first talkie, the overblown 1929 melodrama “His Glorious Night,” was poorly received. Some critics said his voice was high-pitched and even squeaky. (Years later, MGM parodied the film in the 1952 classic “Singin’ in the Rain.”)

Though later he did some fine work in talkies, including 1932’s “Downstairs,” Gilbert’s career never recovered from “His Glorious Night.” He died of a heart attack at age 38 in 1936.

The new biography written by Eve Golden (“The Brief, Madcap Life of Kay Kendall”) is the first major work on the actor since his daughter, Leatrice Gilbert Fountain, wrote “Dark Star: The Untold Story of the Meteoric Rise and Fall of Silent Screen Star John Gilbert” in 1985. Golden discussed the book and the complex actor over the phone from New York.

Gilbert’s performances haven’t dated over the decades. He still is such an exciting, vital presence. What made him such a great star?


He was the right person at the right place at the right time. He was so talented. He had a sense of humor. I’m sorry they didn’t give him more comedy to do. What I love about him is that he was on to himself. He didn’t cut himself a break and he knew of all of his faults and he admitted them.

I was surprised to learn in the book that Gilbert had such dark mood swings.

He was either up or down. He admitted it himself. He was either on top of the world or completely down in the dumps.

There have been rumors for years that Mayer sabotaged Gilbert’s career because of their hostile relationship.

They did hate each other. I don’t believe the fistfight story. But John Gilbert loved nothing more than poking Mayer with a stick. He would walk by and give Mayer a grin and say something he knew would irritate him because he was one of those guys who loved to stir up trouble just for the fun of it.

You watch his sound films today and it’s hard to believe that anybody could fault Gilbert’s voice.

John Gilbert was perfectly willing to jump into talkies. He had as good a voice as Clark Gable. There was such a divide between the silent and talkies. There was no logic to who survived and who didn’t.

The press really played up his love affair with Garbo, but actually their relationship was over almost before it began. Do you think she really loved him?


He bowled her over. She was a 20-year-old girl who didn’t speak very much English. I don’t think she was ever in love with him. I think she was just swept away by him. When she got back on her feet again, she distanced herself from him, which only took a couple of months. The big romance of the century lasted only a few months.

But she did get Mayer to hire him as her love interest in the 1933 classic “Queen Christina.”

That was nice of her. But it was not doing him any favors. First of all, it was a bad role. The production was a horror, and sending him back to MGM was the worst thing that could have happened. He did apparently go into Mayer’s office and apologized and say let’s try to get along, but it was too late by then. Mayer wasn’t having any of it.

Gilbert looked like he was turning around his life when he began dating Marlene Dietrich before his death. He was all set to appear with her in the 1936 Paramount comedy “Desire” when he had his first heart attack.

I think that’s what’s so sad. At Paramount, he might have had a whole other career.

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