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I’ve always been fascinated by John Gilbert. He seemed to be such a dynamic actor with so much to offer that I couldn’t understand how the onset of the sound era ruined his career. I had seen him star with Greta Garbo in Queen Christina and couldn’t understand why it was thought that his voice was inappropriate for sound. After hearing him speak, he certainly didn’t sound bad to me. Unlike other silent stars like those who had been viewed as upper class and turned out to have heavy lower class accents, or the stars from other countries who could barely speak English, Gilbert had, in my opinion, a romantic voice and was well spoken.
After reading his daughter’s biography, Dark Star, the Untold Story of the Meteoric Rise and Fall of the Legendary John Gilbert, I now know that his demise was attributed to many things, but in my opinion, mostly to Louis B. Mayer’s single handed hatred of him and vow to ruin his career. Garbo had a thick accent, but the studio waited as long as they could to put her in a sound film, and when they did, they chose one that was best suited to her character as well as her heritage. None of this was done for Gilbert. He was thrown into bad film after bad film, then couldn’t get parts. Thus, he was used and abused until he was broken.
This quotation from Classic Images by Jimmy Bangley describes how the hatred began and Mayer’s vow to ruin Gilbert:
“Louis B. Mayer, the badger-faced mogul of Metro Goldwyn Mayer, effectively destroyed the film career of John Gilbert. Leatrice Gilbert Fountain was told the following story by actress Eleanor Boardman who was supposed to be joined with her director husband King Vidor in a double ceremony with John Gilbert and Garbo. When Garbo didn’t show up on time for the wedding John was naturally upset. Nervous, he began drinking. Louis B. Mayer told him, “What’s the matter with you, Gilbert? What do you have to marry her for? Why don’t you just f— her and forget about it?” A fight began with Gilbert punching Mayer in the face and banging his head into the wall. Mayer’s glasses flew into the air. Eddie Mannix, ex-bouncer and Mayer lackey, pulled the two apart. Mayer screamed, “You’re finished Gilbert. I’ll destroy you if it costs me a million dollars.”
Eleanor Boardman observed all of these events and swore to Leatrice Gilbert Fountain this was the gospel truth. Mayer was true to his word. He gleefully sabotaged Gilbert’s voice in talking films, making it sound high pitched and also cast him in films of inferior quality. It was a heartbreaking finale to one of the truly great matinee idols of film.”
Who knows what kind of career he could have had if MGM had cared to help him through the transition to sound. His story is truly a tragic one that should be told over and over again. Most of what I know about Gilbert is from Leatrice Gilbert Fountain‘s book, Dark Star, and I wish to pay tribute to it here. It is probably the only book where you can really find out all there is to know about Gilbert. It’s a sad story, but also an epic one. This site wishes to pay tribute to Ms Gilbert Fountain and her book, wishes to thank her for providing such a rich biography and in no way wishes to take any credit for her work.
Lynn Powell Dougherty
Owner and Webmaster
John Gilbert’s film “The Big Parade” was featured at the 2013 Turner Classic Movies Film Festival in April 2013, using a restored print from Warner Bros. in partnership with Photoplay Productions. Author Kevin Brownlow introduced the 1925 film at the screening.
The film is now out on Blu-Ray and DVD at Amazon. Check it out, the print is gorgeous and you won’t be disappointed.