This is a story about the legendary John Gilbert. No, not the venerable announcer of JEOPARDY and one-time emcee of MUSIC BINGO, still going strong today in his late 90s. The one that died more than 80 years ago and never saw his 40th birthday.
When Louis B. Mayer, cofounder of MGM, wanted to break his contract with actor John Gilbert, he planted rumors about the star and reportedly intentionally put him in bad movies. As a result, Gilbert’s career tanked.
As Wikipedia details further:
John Gilbert (born John Cecil Pringle; July 10, 1897 – January 9, 1936) was an American actor, screenwriter and director. He rose to fame during the silent era and became a popular leading man known as “The Great Lover”. His breakthrough came in 1925 with his starring roles in The Merry Widow and The Big Parade. At the height of his career, Gilbert rivaled Rudolph Valentino as a box office draw.
Gilbert’s career declined precipitously when silent pictures gave way to talkies. Though Gilbert was often cited as one of the high-profile examples of an actor who was unsuccessful in making the transition to sound films, his decline as a star had far more to do with studio politics and money than with the sound of his screen voice, which was rich and distinctive.
In 1926, Gilbert made Flesh and the Devil, his first film with Greta Garbo. Gilbert first encountered Garbo on the set during filming of the railway station scene, and the chemistry between the two was evidently instantaneous. Director Clarence Brown remarked approvingly that he “had a love affair going for me that you couldn’t beat, any way you tried.” Garbo and Gilbert soon began a highly publicized romance, much to the delight of their fans and to MGM.
Gilbert was reunited with Garbo in a modern adaptation of Tolstoy‘s 19th-century novel, Anna Karenina. The title was changed to Love (1927) to capitalize on the real life love affair of the stars and advertised by MGM as “Garbo and Gilbert in Love.”
Film critic John Baxter described Gilbert as having “a light speaking voice”, a minor defect that both MGM and the star “magnified into an obsession.” Despite any conflicting opinions or myths surrounding the actor’s voice, Mayer’s lingering resentment and hostility toward Gilbert remained apparent, especially after MGM’s star signed a new contract for six pictures at $250,000 each. Those ill feelings fueled additional speculation that Mayer deliberately assigned Gilbert bad scripts and ineffective directors in an effort to void the contract..
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer cast Gilbert in a film adaptation of The Living Corpse by Tolstoy re-titled as Redemption (1929). The bleak atmosphere and maudlin dialogue presaged the disaster looming in the star’s personal life and career. Gilbert’s confident screen presence had vanished, while his use of the exaggerated stage diction that elicited laughs from the audience persisted. In one scene Gilbert declares ominously “I’m going to kill myself to let the whole world know what it has lost.”
MGM put him in a more rugged film, Way for a Sailor (1930) with Wallace Beery. He followed it with Gentleman’s Fate (1931). Gilbert became increasingly depressed by progressively inferior films and idle stretches between productions. Despite efforts by studio executives at MGM to cancel his contract, Gilbert resolved to thwart Louis B. Mayer and see the six-picture ordeal through to the end.
By 1934, alcoholism had severely damaged Gilbert’s health. He suffered a serious heart attack in December 1935, which left him an even worse condition. A second heart attack on January 9, 1936, at his Bel Air home, was fatal.
If you look hard enough, you can still find traces of this John Gilbert in today’s world:
For his contribution to the motion picture industry, Gilbert has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 1755 Vine Street. In 1994, he was honored with his image on a United States postage stamp designed by caricaturist Al Hirschfeld.
Who knows? He may turn up as a clue on the show still announced by his namesake.
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