The birth of “talkies” with The Jazz Singer in 1929 meant the death for many silent film actors careers in the struggle for those actors to transition their voice and acting talents to a very different art. A fog of mystery still surrounds the decline of the multi-talented John Gilbert. Was it this transition which did not work for Gilbert or were other forces involved in the destruction of a Hollywood screen idol?
John Gilbert’s humble beginnings in the film industry were as an extra, gradually working his way up the ladder writing for Paralta Studio and working as production assistant to director Maruice Tourneur. He then became a leading silent film actor, costarring with such greats as Mary Pickford in Heart O’ the Hills (1919) and Lon Chaney in He Who Gets Slapped (1924). From the success of his role in The Merry Widow (1925), Gilbert was paid as much as $10,000 a week and competed with Valentino over the number one spot at the box office. Gilbert also made three films with his real-life lover Greta Garbo - Flesh and the Devil (1926), Love (1927) and A Woman of Affairs (1928). Even Garbo attributed the success of their films to his acting skills stating, “He is so fine an artist that he lifts me up and carries me on with him. It was not just scenes, I was doing, I am living.”
Then the “talkies” arrived on the scene. Gilbert, like other stars, struggled with voice lessons and acting in the difficult transition of silent movie star to a talking film actor. His first speaking role was as Romeo opposite Norma Shearer as Juliet in Hollywood Revue (1929). Despite his light-sounding voice that did not seem to match his masculine image, reviews were favorable toward Gilbert’s transition to the “talking” pictures.
Gilbert discovered now that he wanted to be more than just an actor, and he had loved directing film, when he did so in 1921 with Love’s Penalty. However, there was always a conflict of interest between Louis B. Mayer and Gilbert’s wanting to direct. That conflict erupted one night at a cocktail party when Mayer insulted Garbo in Gilbert’s presence. Gilbert took a swing at the motion picture mogul, and Mayer vowed to ruin Gilbert’s career. From then on, the studios put Gilbert in every poorly-written film imaginable. Gilbert worked diligently with what he was given. Then in His Glorious Night (1929), Gilbert found himself in a terrible love scene reciting awkward lines and repeating in one kissing scene “I love you” over and over and over. Audiences and critics found him laughable. He tried to resurrect his career in the film Downstairs (1932), a film that he not only wrote but in which he acted, and to re-establish himself as a romantic screen idol in Garbo’s Queen Christina (1933), but to no avail. A depressed John Gilbert, ruined by politics of the movie studio and by Mayer’s hand, turned to alcohol. He was dead at age 41.