Below is my look at the 1932 John Gilbert film, “Downstairs,” which was written by the man himself.
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Downstairs is a 1932 American pre-Code drama film. It stars John Gilbert as a charming but self-serving chauffeur who wreaks havoc on his new employer’s household, romancing and fleecing the women on the staff, and blackmailing the employer’s wife. Gilbert had written the story in 1928 for a proposed silent film that was never made.
His Glorious Night was made in 1929 and was a romantic film directed by Lionel Barrymore which starred Gilbert in his first released talkie. It has gained notoriety as the film that reputedly ended his career by revealing that he had a voice unsuitable for sound. More recent research suggests that an old fashioned script that clung too closely to the conventions of silent film was a more likely culprit. The film is based on the 1928 play Olympia by Ferenc Molnár.
In this film, Downstairs, we see the opposite of the film mentioned above; instead this is a very watchable film.
Gilbert plays the chauffeur, Karl Schneider who arrives to his new job on the estate of Austrian estate of Baron von Burgen (Reginald Owen) during the wedding reception for the butler Albert (Paul Lukas) and maid Anna (Virginia Bruce).
The baron is paying for the wedding in appreciation of their years of loyal service. Karl is noticed by and disturbs the Countess De Marnac (Hedda Hopper), who is a guest and his former employer, with whom he once had an affair She is very displeased with Karl mixing with her elite friends.
That night, as Albert (Paul Lucas) and Anna (Virginia Bruce) are about to start their honeymoon, Albert is summoned by the baron to serve his guests when Françoise, another butler, gets too drunk to work.
While Albert is serving, Anna is visited by Karl, who wins her sympathy by telling her about a sad childhood. One day, the baroness requests Karl to drive her to Vienna and they become lovers. When they return late, she says that they had an accident, and though Karl tells Albert the truth, Albert insists that Karl maintain respect for the “upstairs” people no matter what they do. They soon become friends and Karl impresses Anna, whom he says he regards “like a sister,” but who slaps him when he tries to kiss her.
Later, Karl insults the cook Sophie (Bodil Rosing), with whom he had been intimate the night before, then tells her fabricated stories about being the illegitimate son of royalty to extort money from her. Sometime later, he offers Anna a jewel of the baroness’ that he found and did not return, but she refuses, then chides him for his treatment of Sophie. He pins the jewel on her crucifix necklace anyway, and when the baroness recognizes the clip, she accuses Anna of stealing. Just then, Karl comes in, and says that he gave the clip to Anna and alludes to the baroness’ indiscretions.
The baroness apologizes to Anna, who thinks that Karl is wonderful for standing up for her. In retaliation, the baroness, knowing that Albert can hear her in the next room, tells the baron that Karl gave Anna jewelry and that they are involved in a scandal. She then tells Albert to make some changes on the staff while they are away on a fishing trip, and use his discretion. At the last moment, the baron insists on taking Albert with him and Albert warns Karl to stay away from Anna. Telling her that Albert asked him to take her out to dinner and have a good time, Karl then takes Anna to an inn and gets her drunk.
Meanwhile, the fishing party turns back because the baron has slightly injured himself. At home, Karl tells Anna he loves her and plans to leave, but after he kisses her goodbye, they become lovers. The next morning, when Albert comes home, he fires Karl, even though he doesn’t know for certain what has happened. Anna confesses to Albert when he coldly calls her “a servant,” then leaves. Karl, meanwhile, goes to the baroness and blackmails her into reinstating him, which she does, in front of all the servants. When Albert goes to the baroness to resign, she tearfully admits her affair and begs him to stay, and also to forgive and understand Anna, who is too young not to be taken in by Karl. That night Sophie tearfully goes to Karl and gives him all her savings so that they can buy a coffee shop together in Vienna.
The next morning, he packs to leave and asks Anna to go with him, but she begs him to leave her alone because she loves Albert. In a struggle in the wine cellar, they knock over a rack of bottles, creating a disturbance that brings Albert. He then fights with Karl, but is stopped by the baron, who thinks that it is over the spoiled wine. Albert apologizes to Karl and they have a drink together in the cellar, but when Albert orders Karl out, they begin to fight. Anna, seeing the violence of their fight, again summons the baron, in front of whom she makes Karl give Sophie’s money back.
The baron then congratulates Albert, and he and Anna make up. Some time later, Karl introduces himself to another rich woman as “madame’s new chauffeur.”
source of information: Wikipedia.com
Downstairs demonstrates a great example of Gilbert‘s acting in sound films and how he got such a “raw deal” in Hollywood. He was such a good actor and had he not been “his own worst enemy” by drinking and not taking care of himself, unfortunately, he was doomed once sound came in. As you can tell by watching this film and other talkies he made, his voice was fine and no one can convince me otherwise. The film was advertised as his “comeback,” but sadly it wasn’t. He plays the despicable chauffeur to the hilt here and looks great alongside his then wife, Virginia Bruce.
The story depicted in the film was written by John Gilbert and his portrayal of Karl Schneider, the chauffeur who never stays at one place too long, was spot on.
Of his few sound films, this one is my second favorite. Of course, the best sound film he was in was Queen Christina opposite his love, Greta Garbo. While the film was made long after their love affair was over, you can still feel the electricity between the two. Downstairs, Fast Workers and Queen Christina are three Gilbert sound films I highly recommend anyone viewing to see for yourself that his voice was just fine.
He was a great actor who died too young and every time I think of Gilbert, I weep at how things might have been different for him.
Some photos courtesy of “DoctorMacro”